When actors improvise a scene, they usually start with a rough structure.
They have decided what their roles are and what motivates them, they may have decided on the setting and there could be a key message they are trying to get across.
The improvisation then happens around these structures as the actors have to respond to unexpected events within the scene.
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A similar process can happen in some forms of jazz, where a rhythm section keeps a steady tempo that allows the other musicians to improvise around it, always able to return to that beat and to use it to guide them.
Recently, I was reminded of my drama days, and my love of jazz, when rereading a paper by David Berliner called "Learning about and learning from expert teachers" (2001) where he discusses the characteristics of experienced and highly effective teachers.
One characteristic he highlights is that they are much happier to move away from the lesson plan and respond in the lesson as it unfolds.
He cites a study by Westerman (1991) in which an experienced teacher commented ‘‘I think it’s important to be open-ended with kids. I don’t care if the lesson doesn’t go exactly the way I planned as long as I know where we’re heading.’’
The overplanning problem
This need for teaching to be responsive sometimes gets lost. I have spoken to teachers in multi-academy trusts where everyone is expected to follow a common curriculum, broken down into lessons, and where everyone in the trust is expected to be at the same point at the same time.
I have heard teachers say things like: “This unit is 12 lessons long so I should be finished on this date.” Or saying in September: “I have planned out all of my lessons with Year 11 and will be finished three weeks before the mocks.” How is any of this possible?
We can think like this only if we assume the purpose of a lesson is to follow a plan and get to the end of the lesson at the same time that the plan runs out. To move through a sequence of explanations and activities that take the amount of time between two bells.
But that cannot be the purpose of a lesson – the purpose must be learning not doing. And this needs to be much more responsive because learning is messier. We will have to take the opportunity to improvise around the structure.
This could happen because a pupil, or a class, hasn’t understood something as well as you had hoped, or because something you thought was learned in a previous lesson clearly hasn’t been.
Learning is messy because misconceptions can become embedded and need time and patience to tease out and address. If, halfway through a lesson on the location of world ecosystems, it becomes apparent that most of the class think it is hotter on the equator because it is closer to the sun, you’ll need to stop and address this before moving on.
You might need to improvise because part of the way through the lesson, questioning the class starts to link parts of the course together in unexpected ways and you need to create a task to consolidate these ideas.
These examples are just those on top of the endless microdecisions that we as teachers have to make as part of a lesson that could change the time it takes to learn something.
How to deal with a pupil’s disruptive behaviour? What to do about those not working? How to help that pupil who would usually be fine but is struggling today? All of these will need improvised solutions.
And this is why the ability to respond is the characteristic of an expert teacher. Expert teachers have years of examples of things from the past to draw on.
They have a schema of behaviours that tell them: “If X happens, do Y. It worked last time.” It also explains why teaching is such as exhausting job.
We are pulling out up to five hours of improvised theatre a day, five days a week. Thinking on our feet and reacting to endless variations in the actions of our fellow actors (pupils, other teachers, school leaders) is tiring work.
But there are some tricks to the trade.
1. Change the way you approach lesson planning
If you are still planning out learning in little lesson blocks and expecting to plan exactly where your class will be in X weeks, stop. It may be desirable but it is probably impossible. Trying to force it to happen won’t help anyone and will just lead to a lot of frustration.
2. Think about the likely misconceptions that pupils will have
Addressing these in the middle of a lesson without any preparation may be second nature to someone who has been in the classroom for years but is much harder to do as a novice.
3. Try to see assessment as part of the natural flow of the lesson
How will you know if they understand? How will you know if they remember something you thought they understood in the past? Try using hinge questions to really check that they understand.
4. Consider ‘if this, then that’
There is no point in assessing pupils' understanding if you aren’t going to do anything about it. Always consider the next step you could take if they don’t understand what you wanted them to.
This is perhaps the hardest step in a culture of high-stakes accountability but it has been the one that has transformed my teaching the most. Try to go with the flow of the lesson and don’t be dictated to by a lesson plan containing a list of activities to get through. Remember, if the pupils haven’t learned anything, there really wasn’t any point in getting through it.
The more you look at what teachers do in the classroom there more you see something truly remarkable. Our ability to think on our feet and respond in the moment really helps to highlight the art of teaching. It is poetry in motion.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark