“Elicit” and Our Role as Illusionists

A Question and a Confession

Question:  If someone asks you what “elicit” means, could you nail the definition?  Try it. How’d you do?

Confession: I was an English Literature major in college. I tutored college-level math and fell in love with teaching because of math. But back then, words and expression and theater were my jam. And in many ways they still are.

I was co-writing an article the other month about instructional routines that elicit student discourse in the math classroom. And at one point, the word-nerd in me paused to ponder, “What the does ‘elicit’ really mean? Is it an invitation? Is it a pulling or a pushing? What other words have the same root as elicit? Illicit? Were they opposites? Did they have related etymologies?”

I figured it was worth exploring and down the rabbit-hole I went. Once again.

What I Learned

Elicit means to “call forth or draw out.” You probably already know this. What you probably didn’t know is that it is derived from the Latin word “lacere” which means “to entice or deceive.” With the prefix “e-,” elicit originally meant to “draw out through deception or trickery.”

Huh. I don’t know about you, but for me, that knowledge adds an interesting layer of craftsmanship to the act of eliciting student thinking. Other common English words that stem from lacere: delectable, delicacy, delicate, delicatessen, delicious, and delight.

If you happen to care, illicit simply means “not permitted, unlawful.” It is derived from the root “licere” which means “to be allowed.” It’s original meaning aligns with it’s current use. Another common English word that stems from licere: license. Illicit and elicit, while coming from similar sounding Latin roots, are not etymologically related at all.

Why “Elicit” Matters: Establishing Focus

Illusionists are effective because they are able to focus our mind and then surprise us with their deceptions. Our brains are held to attention by these surprises, indeed they are a source of pleasure and delight.  There’s even a business that sells surprises. Surprises, by definition, elicit a focusing response from our brains, included the seemingly disinterested brains in our math classrooms. Make a loud, unexpected noise or action in your classroom and all of your students will turn and look at you (assuming they don’t have hearing issues). In that moment, you have their undivided attention, for at least 1/25th of second anyway. (Note: Shock and psychological trauma can also be reactions to catastrophic or tragic surprises. For the sake of this article, I’m assuming that we’re talking about the types of surprises that lead to wonder, curiosity, and focus in a positive and productive sense.)

If we want to elicit responses from students, we must perfect our craft as illusionists in the classroom. We must return to the root meaning of “elicit” and use deception if we are going to draw out responses from our students. Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens describe a perfect example in The Classroom Chef of a teacher who role-plays being a magician who can blindly make assumptions about the sum of angles in any triangle. Dan Meyer wrote about the pedagogic value of surprise on his blog, not once, but twice and this recent Desmos activity is a good example of what I’m talking about.

Why “Elicit” Matters: Rethinking Lesson Objectives

The biggest impact this knowledge has on our teaching is how we communicate lesson objectives to our students. I’ve written quite a bit about the objective of objectives on my blog. Lesson objectives should do three things: they should invite (not mandate) students into thinking, create a headache first (instead of being the aspirin), and lead to joyful discovery for our students (instead of ruining any chance of discovery they can make for themselves). All of these qualities are at the root of the definition and etymology of “elicit” and the work of an illusionist.

A good lesson that elicits students to talk about their thinking is designed so that students inevitably tell you what the objective is without us having to tell them.  A good lesson traps students into a discovery.

For example, if we want students to understand that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees, we can make that explicit in the lesson objective upfront. The lesson will be a mandate to take notes (not an invitation to think and wonder), it will give them a mathematical theorem that is a solution to a problem they aren’t even aware of yet, and it ruins all opportunity for discovery.

However, if we embrace the role as an illusionist (much like the teacher in The Classroom Chef), stand on a student desk, and perform a “magic trick” to generate student curiosity about the sum of angles in a triangle, we are more likely to elicit the type of student discourse, thinking, and engagement that we are after. In a short period of time, we can:

  • generate curiosity and intrigue,
  • have students be actively involved,
  • set a tone of focus and fun,
  • and have students internalize the lesson objective.

Most importantly, the teacher is able to do all of this without ever having to explicitly tell students to do any of these things.  The invitation is made and the students are on board and ready to go.  Inspiration is high; brains are alive. And students are telling us the objective. “Wait, how did the teacher know that the angles will be 180 degrees? Is this true for all triangles? Really? Wait, let’s do another example with different triangles.”

Reading aloud a lesson objective is like reading the menu. It might represent flavor, but no one’s tasting anything. It doesn’t evoke our students in ways that will elicit the thinking we want from them.

An Invitation to You

I have more to say on this, but I want to hear your thoughts. In what ways have you been an illusionist in your classroom? How do you embed surprises into your lessons to elicit student thinking?

Let’s get better together.

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