This post was written by Ziva Hassenfeld, the first official PhD Candidate from the EdJS.
Ask any teacher after a day of teaching if they can tell a story with the following Bill Cosby prompt: “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Most likely they will have at least one great anecdote. Often, the younger the students, the more creative their contributions to class discussion. In my last blog post I wrote a response to my colleagues’, Matt Williams and Jonah Hassenfeld’s, call for greater student discomfort in the classroom. I responded that perhaps it was teachers who needed to get more comfortable with discomfort. I suggested that creating student-centered classrooms requires allowing students to take the text in surprising and unanticipated directions. This will naturally make teachers a bit uncomfortable, but it was a discomfort worth getting comfortable with.
Yet in that post I didn’t really break down the notion of “surprising and unanticipated directions.” What do I mean by that? Yes, if students start a text-intensive, passionate discussion about the motives of the serpent in the Garden of Eden when the teacher planned a lesson focused on the relationship between Adam and Eve, this is certainly worth indulging despite whatever discomfort it causes the teacher to go off script. But what about when a student makes a comment that is based off of a misunderstanding or misreading of the text and the class discussion pursues this surprising and unanticipated direction? Or what happens when a student says something that simply seems totally unrelated to the text. Must a teacher also get comfortable with “off the wall” (Saunders, Goldenberg, Hamann, 1991) comments?
If you’re reading this and your answer is absolutely not, that makes sense. It simply seems irresponsible not to correct or redirect off the wall comments. When a teacher sees a student mixing up characters, forgetting a part of the plot, or misreading a word, they feel obligated to intervene not get comfortable. A teacher does not want other students to be confused by one student’s misunderstandings.
And yet, the small body of research on off the wall student comments suggests otherwise. In math education, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the possibilities presented in such comments for continued exploration and engagement with mathematical hypothesizing (Ball, 2005; Boaler, 2000; Jackson, 2009). Educational scholar and researcher Deborah Ball wrote a eloquent article in which she reflects on her decision to permit and encourage an off the wall comment in her math classroom (2005). As part of teacher-action research, she taught in a third grade math classroom. In this particular unit she focused on the difference between even and odd numbers. The class had developed only one explicit definition of even numbers: a number was even “if you can split it in half without having to use halves.” Working on patterns with odd and even numbers, a student named Sean announced that the number six could be both odd and even because it was made of “three twos.” He explained that since three was an odd number, and there were three groups (three pairs of two without any halves left over), this showed that six could be both even and odd. Sean had broken from the convention set by the class definition by dividing six into groups of two, rather than into two groups. Ball reflects in her article about her decision process at that moment:
Often I must grapple with whether or not to validate nonstandard ideas. Choosing to legitimize nonstandard content- “Sean numbers”- was more difficult than valuing unconventional methods. I worried: Would children be confused? Would “Sean numbers” interfere with the required “conventional” understanding of even and odd numbers? Or would the experience of inventing a category of number, a category that overlaps with others, prepare the children for their subsequent encounters with primes, multiples, and squares? (p. 116)
Ball decided in that moment to allow Sean’s off the wall comment to persist in her classroom and even gave it a name, “Sean numbers.” The results, she discovered were positive. Ball ends her article by explaining first, that her decision worked out and did not confuse the students, and then second, why her decision to validate Sean’s non-standard content was valuable.
When I gave a quiz on odd and even numbers, a quiz that entailed some of the kinds of mathematical reasoning we had been using, the results were reassuring… [S]ometimes, as in this example, students present ideas that are very different from standard mathematics. The ability to hear what children are saying transcends disposition, aural acuity, and knowledge, although it also depends on all of these. And even when you think you have heard, deciding what to do is often a trek over uncharted and uncertain ground. Although Sean was, in a conventional sense, wrong- that is, six is not both even and odd- his claim was magnificently at the heart of “doing” mathematics. (p. 117)
Ball explains how her decision to allow Sean’s seemingly off the wall content in the end had major benefits. It encouraged Sean in his process, albeit an unusual one, of doing mathematics. Only by creating the space to hear Sean’s off the wall comment was Ball even able to recognize that he was still doing mathematics. Moreover, she found, despite her concerns, that creating this space in the classroom did not confuse other students. For Ball, not correcting the off the wall comment, staying student-centered in the face of it, ended up contributing to her students’ learning process and not detracting from it.
Ultimately, it is only a classroom teacher, intimately bound to her classroom and her students, who will know what to do in the moment- when it is appropriate to get comfortable with discomfort and when it is appropriate to correct or redirect a student. But what the research clearly shows, it that there are times for both. Sometimes the issue of off-the-wall comments is one of management, but other times, like in the example Deborah Ball provides, it is a moment to take advantage of an unanticipated opportunity.