My Education Superpower

Lego Wonder Woman grimaces while holding golden rope.

In an interview last week, I was asked what my education superpower was. As I sent off my answer, I realized I’ve never formally written about my education superpower. This is surprising because my education superpower forms the basis of what I believe about education. I wield my education superpower like Thor’s mighty hammer when I teach. My education superpower can be felt in most of my writing, but only shows up by name in five posts on this site. Within those five posts where I speak its name, I’ve never defined my education superpower or talked about how and why I use it. I think it is time to right this injustice and share my education superpower: my education superpower is tangential learning.

Tangential learning is when you watch the movie 300 and are so into it that you later go research the real battle of Thermopylae and the Spartans role in it. Tangential learning is when you start off by playing Rock Band and later become inspired to learn to play a real instrument. Tangential learning is when you teach The Starving Time at Jamestown to students through the Hunters episodes of the Walking Dead. Tangential learning is learning about volume and exponential growth while building a worm farm. Tangential learning is teaching fractions and ratios through cooking or making bath bombs. Tangential learning is teaching writing, math, and getting kids active in gym using Fortnite. Tangential learning is the process by which people self-educate around a topic if it is exposed to them through something they already enjoy. In other words, people will be motivated to learn faster and deeper about a topic if they already care about how you’re delivering it to them. Tangential learning is the point of high interest or excitement people gravitate towards. This video on tangential learning by Extra Credits was key in helping me grow my tangential learning superpower especially and inspired a lot of the theory around my gamification guide.

Tangential learning is not only my education superpower, but it is also forms one of my core beliefs about education: we should be teaching students through what they love. Both when I taught high school and now that I run Fair Haven Innovates, I make an effort to teach students the lessons they need to know and the skills they’ll need to be successful by using the things that they already love. In FH Innovates, students run real businesses that turn a real profit. The whole idea of teaching through entrepreneurship was inspired by students I had four years ago. Four years ago, I started a makerspace at Fair Haven. Students soon noticed that we had all these products lying around in the makerspace, so they suggested we started to sell them. A couple years later, my entire program has grown into an innovative program that still centers on entrepreneurship. Through entrepreneurship students learn design thinking, computer science, engineering, finance, marketing, financial literacy, sales, and a host of skills like team work and communication. Students who would be reluctant coders, for instance, are much more willing to code if they need to build a website to sell their art or make an app to solve a problem they care about. Math is a lot more fun for students when they’re counting their hard-earned money.

Further, Tangential learning is a great way to build relationships with students. To know what your kids love, you have to get to know them. We know, as Rita Pearson said, kids won’t learn from teachers they don’t like. The only way to get to know what students care about is to get to know them! To let them know you love what they love! Just the fact that you are taking time to get to know students and then using what they love to try and teach them things is enough to get students to engage deeper with their learning because they know you care.

Tangential learning is also the best tool for helping students become lifelong learners. Showing students that a lesson or skill we expect them to learn can already be found in the things they love will help students see learning everywhere they look. Making learning real and relevant through tangential learning can change how students view their world and themselves. For example, a few years ago I started a school store with two 3rd graders. The store was open Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. After a couple weeks, the store was so popular we needed to hire more workers. Instead of asking for the best math students in 3rd grade, I went to the principal and asked for the four students who hated math the most. My theory was that these students may not like math out of a textbook or worksheet, but I bet they would love to do the math needed to run a business. It turns out, I was right. My third graders were adding up revenue, subtracting costs, keeping track of credits and debits on a spreadsheet, figuring out profit, and (with a little help) learning percentages as we figured out profit margins. The fun and pride that came with running the store along with wanting the store to be successful had my reluctant learners eager to do math.

Tangential learning is a great way to bring project-based learning into your classroom. Often students don’t know what they are passionate about or it is hard for you to turn a lesson into a learning experience that features something everyone in your class likes. Why not ask them? Using project-based learning you can empower students to construct their own tangential learning experience. You can also build up to PBL by asking students to show you what they’ve learned in a way that they care about. Ask students to use the skills you’ve taught them in a way that means something to them. Can they teach fractions using Minecraft? Can they blog instead of write an essay? Can they create a video, comic strip, song, or board game instead of take a test?

Even if tangential learning isn’t your superpower, I’m sure we can agree that it deserves a place in your teacher toolbox. Dive in. Find out what your kids care about and teach them the stuff they have to learn to in ways they want learn. How many more students can you get to fall deeper in love or back in love with learning just by using what students love to teach them what they need to know?

Until Next Time,


cross-posted at Teched Up Teacher

Chris Aviles presents on education topics including gamification, technology integration, BYOD, blended learning, and the flipped classroom. Read more at Teched Up Teacher.

Chris Aviles is a STEM teacher, edtech specialist, and president of Garden State Esports. He is also a regular contributor to Tech & Learning.