Teaching in the Moment

Have you noticed that your class’s interaction can be great fodder for a discussion of empathy, perspective, and the strategies for critical thinking?

I mentioned this in passing a week or so back, but now want to delve into it a bit.

When I observe my class’s behavior, I often see an opportunity to teach “in the moment”. As my students work through the inquiry cycle I spend as much time asking them to observe, reflect upon, and form questions around their own behavior as I do asking about their wicked problem. They become the case study.

I might say, “Pause for a moment and observe what is happening right now between those at the white board and those still in their groups.” If you had to form a question that was open ended and didn’t presume the answer, what would you ask?”

I’m usually looking at the majority not at the white board when I ask this, but find as often the students who dominate and are frustrated by “always carrying the load” are the very reason for the problem. Many in the back are still forming their thoughts and preparing to speak when the “leaders” abandon them by plowing into a new topic.

As the class observes and forms questions, I am often able to toss in a few of my own:

“What if we didn’t fear silence?””What if our zeal to make things happen kept us from hearing the key insight?”

Note that I’m not dumping the problem on them with an exasperated plea, “how do I get you to talk?!” We’re doing the same thing we might do with an issue map – dispassionately looking at our wicked problem so we can better understand it.

It’s like an AAR, only during the action, not after.

Another opportunity to teach in the moment is when the world around us is far more interesting than our academic problem. This week we had two such case study opportunities: the unrest in Charlotte, and the insensitive photo. When I sense the energy in the room warrants it, I will abandon my plan in favor of what’s happening right in front of me.

One could say that discussing events such as these would take time away from the course, but I disagree. I think they enliven the course. That is as long as you tangibly associate student actions with the concepts and theories of inquiry…that you don’t just allow indisciplined thinking and unchallenged or unexplored assumptions.

Take a moment and construct in your mind an issue map of the events in Charlotte. As you visualize the interplay between the variables you will quickly see that it’s a wicked problem. It’s quite complex with innumerable perspectives, and it’s evolving quickly. No one variable created the problem, and no one variable contains a solution (if there’s a solution to be found).

Perception governs our test of what’s effective, and every option comes with consequences. Lastly, you could say – despite all of this – we have no right to get it wrong.

The critical thinker will recognize the need for clarity around the ‘facts’, or the incomplete picture that too few assembled facts portray.  Pundits and politicians from all different frames of reference are tossing in red herrings, using straw men to further their own agenda, and characterizing the other not merely as in opposition, but as in error, the enemy, and morally wrong.

In our investigation we need to be asking questions, not presuming facts in evidence. We need to seek objectivity, to frame our understanding and argument in such a way that any reader (from any perspective) would believe that we’re seeing their point of view.

This is particularly hard when our frame of reference is personal. Personal connections change our point of view, but they also cloud our ability to clarify our concerns.  Our frame of reference shapes our opinion, so the key is to maintain as objective and wide a view as we can.

Each of the four lenses are there for us to discuss as well. While we’ve seen particularly strong commentary from the social sciences and humanities, I’ve seen artists at work (poets and photographers) as well.

Further, and as noted above perhaps even more powerful, is the class dynamic as they discuss such difficult topics. The educated person possessing of an inquiry mindset rejects easy answers, preferring instead to ask unbiased questions that seek understanding.

As they publish their ideas do they remain respectful and open to the diversity of thought and argument?

Even if they do not change their position, are they more mindful of their reasoning because they’ve listened attentively to another’s?

These are not rhetorical…I design questions to get the class to form intuitive issue maps (like the one we constructed for Charlotte). I want them habitually observe every aspect of their environment – including how their own behaviors and decisions contribute to the complex environment – with an eye toward reflection and revision.

This is a key point that I want to repeat. In FYS we make constructing issue maps an explicit activity so we can examine and improve our understanding. But we want students to see, to see this process as a habit of mind, not an assignment they do for class.

Real world events allow us grand opportunities to show that inquiry and critical thinking are not academic exercises to be abandoned once class is over. Why not take advantage?

A particularly strong principle for effective teaching and learning is to connect what students are learning to what they know or can experience. Every opportunity you have to allow them to hold a mirror up to their own actions as they navigate a wicked problem as critical thinkers and scholars is an opportunity to make inquiry more than just a class called FYS.



  1. You write “A particularly strong principle for effective teaching and learning is to connect what students are learning to what they know or can experience.” And, to what is happening in the world around them not only at school or in the community but also in the country and world.


  2. Thomas, this is a great post! Introducing FYS, we have an opportunity to teach students to think and analyze instead of indoctrinating them with our own very subjective vision of the world. Also, I like your suggestion to use the current events – it is a logical approach, and this is where students’ interests are, at least in theory.


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