A pleasant diversion

"We've been to Poland again," said the student.

"How nice," I replied. "Did it snow?"

"It's not nice. Not Poland, I mean. But being there, in 1350."

I sighed. "Where should you have been?"

"In London. At the mother of parliaments. In 1832."

The student had approached me during a break in classes to bend my ear on the perceived deficiencies of his history teacher (I am his personal tutor, so such moans tend to land at my door). The teacher in question is a learned and talented educator but with a marked propensity to digress.

"Have you tried the should-we-be-making-notes tactic?" I asked.

"We have. And it stopped him for a bit but then he wandered off again. I mean, it's all interesting stuff, he's not boring or anything, but it's just not on the syllabus."

"I'll have a word with him," I said.

And I did. That is to say, I took the easy way out: the email way. Subject line: Medieval Poland. Message: Don't go there. The natives are restless. Again.

And it did make a difference for a while. Yet it seems that some teachers lose all judgement when it comes to sticking to the subject. They talk about themselves, their kids, their dogs - anything but the curriculum.

But does that mean all digression in the classroom is problematic? I would argue that in some cases straying off subject isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, when judiciously used, deviation can leaven an otherwise tedious topic.

Of course, you won't be surprised to hear that I am talking about my own digressions.

For several years I taught study skills and English to a group of return-to-learn adults. About 70 per cent of them had moved to Britain in the previous 10 years and they consequently had rather vague ideas about some aspects of British life.

To be fair, the other 30 per cent often didn't have much more of a clue. As Londoners, they tended to divide the country into two distinct areas: the capital and everywhere else, with the latter seen as some huge benighted hinterland where the inhabitants "spoke funny" and tended to choose their brothers and sisters as sexual partners.

As a corrective to this - and as a bit of light relief from the two uses of the semicolon - I'd sometimes throw in a bit of UK politics or geography. Thus, if we were working on a topic set in Bristol, I'd draw a quick outline of the country and invite students to identify where they thought Bristol actually was, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style. They tended to go for that jagged bit at the top otherwise known as Scotland. Or where Manchester is conventionally thought to reside. Anywhere but the South West of England.

This kept them entertained and they might even have learned something. Certainly nobody complained. True, we never went as far as Poland - although we could have done, given that up to a third of the students might well have originated there.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at an FE college in London

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