The Importance of Digression

Teaching the whole class is the only effective and just approach, because it allows you to give the maximum attention to the maximum number of pupils. Individualised instruction leads to the neglect of most pupils, most of the time.

The simple arithmetic and logic justify whole class teaching as the most effective way of instructing large numbers of pupils. But it has other benefits too. When the teacher is engaged in discussion with the whole class, it gives him the opportunity to digress.

In conversation, digression happens continually, and we hardly notice it until we ask ourselves, ‘how did we end up talking about this?’ In class, it cannot be allowed to happen in an uncontrolled way. But I often do let it happen when a pupil asks an interesting question that is tangentially related to the topic we are covering.

A pupil asks an interesting question, and I choose to leap upon it, seizing the opportunity to broaden knowledge and give just a little glimpse of all the wonderful things there are to learn.

It’s at moments like these that pupils get a taste of how enthusiastic a teacher is about knowledge, not just in his own subject, but across the range of human endeavour, to the point where he has to discipline himself to keep on topic, because there is so much more to learn! It’s the original and best method of cross curricular linking.

My pupils know there are certain ways of provoking me into a mini lecture on my favourite topics, and I know that they know. They think they are being terribly cunning when they ask a certain question and they see my eyes light up. Sometimes I allow myself the pleasure of digressing, and sometimes I don’t. But I’m glad that my pupils know that there are things which I care about and which I consider to have great significance for deeper understanding of the humanities generally. Also, the very fact that they deliberately ask such questions shows that they themselves are beginning to see how knowledge is interrelated.

I remember the moments when my teachers digressed as some of the brightest spots on my own time at school. And it was always when they were standing at the front, engaging with the whole class. Nevertheless, as they discoursed about their favourite topic, it felt like they were talking directly to me.


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Digression

  1. Nothing wrong with controlled digression. Some of my best (whole class) teaching has come about because I have gone with a question and I couldn’t possibly have planned it to happen. The problem(s) with this are: an observer who doesn’t understand your subject may criticise you for lack of planning/lack of pace; students who do not have the love of a subject (the love that you would expect an A level student to have) may criticise you because it’s not on the syllabus – this in itself is not a problem if management are on your side. Over the last ten years or so we as a profession have been turned into robots. One school I worked at not only believed in a main objective for each lesson but it had to be written as “I can [verb] [something]” and you were not allowed to write ” I can understand…” as this word was considered lazy, like ‘nice’ in English lessons when I was at school, anyway [whoops I’m in danger of digressing]. There was so much fear about being caught not using ‘I can …’ that I even carried the idea forward to my next school. I eventually abandoned it. Furthermore I abandoned all this ‘to be able to’ nonsense. At the start of the lesson my board now contains 2 to 5 bullet points of things I am hoping to cover. Sometimes during the lesson I bracket the last one because I know it will not fit in today, and will be saved for next time. I think that about covers it – I could go on of course!


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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