Imagine the scene: an appointment at a marriage counsellor’s practice is beginning.
“Where’s your wife?” asks the marriage counsellor. The husband looks confused, and says that he wants to fix the marriage. What has his wife got to do with him doing that?
Plainly, this situation is ridiculous. While there are things the marriage counsellor could do in this situation, such as getting the husband to think about what might be upsetting or annoying his wife, fundamentally something has gone wrong. You can’t fix a marriage on your own.
It is obvious why this is: a marriage is interpersonal – it exists in the relationship between two people. It is more than the sum of its parts. Marriage only makes sense when thought about in terms of relations.
Which brings me to the subject of planning lessons. Convention suggests that lesson objectives, planned activities and exam board specifications should be imposed on students by their teachers. It is the teacher’s responsibility to devise what the students are going to learn, and how they’re going to do it.
I would argue that, like the husband who goes to marriage counselling alone, we have got this all wrong. We need to let students “plan” lessons with us.
Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, encouraged us to think of learning as interpersonal and relational: learning comes out of interaction within a social context.
He argued that the teacher is the central support in guiding students from the kinds of tasks they can do already and from the kinds of tasks that are so far beyond them that they’re unachievable. For this to happen, the relationship between teachers and students needs to be strong so the next step can be made in the learning. Obviously, where the next step lies might be different for each child: effective learning means that teachers need to respond to each student.
Just as with marriage, in education the magic happens in the relationship between the people involved.
Yet lesson planning is something we do alone. This means that, although we know that excellent lessons are relational and responsive, our lesson planning isn’t.
Of course, there is a good reason why we’re the ones planning the lessons: students don’t know what they are about to learn. And when we plan, there is always theoretical responsiveness; we plan for how we think the students will respond. A teacher who is approaching bearings with a group that she knows struggle with the spatial parts of maths might get students to stand up and point, as a way of making the idea come alive.
‘It’s our lesson’
Yet, as Robert Burns might have written, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ teachers gang aft agley”. Frequently, we are faced with the dilemma of sticking to what we planned or responding to the direction in which the students are taking us.
I believe we should take the latter approach – we should not just allow students to take us off-plan, we should encourage them to do so. The lesson is our lesson, not my lesson. And co-planning in this way ensures that effective learning takes place.
So why don’t we do it?
A PGCE student told me about planning her first starter. It was a card sort that she had taken hours to prepare. With a heavy heart, she said it had “gone a bit wrong” when the students focused on only some of the cards. To her, it felt like the planning had been wasted because the students hadn’t responded in the way she expected.
This doesn’t just happen to new teachers. Frequently, we plan for observed lessons, but then panic when a student leads us down a tangent or when a task doesn’t achieve what we think it should.
I’m sure many of us have had observed lessons – for appraisal, during training, during inspections – in which we were desperate for the students to respond in the way we thought they would, so that the lesson could go according to plan.
Lessons as dialogues
Too frequently (and usually when we’re being watched), we’re in danger of making the learning fit the plan, rather than the plan fit the learning. We become like the husband on his own at marriage counselling, forgetting that his wife is intrinsic to the process.
Really great teaching comes when we think of lessons as dialogues. We wouldn’t enter into a conversation with a plan anticipating exactly what would be said. We need to have the same attitude in our teaching.
When I was at school, the best lessons happened when my chemistry teacher didn’t fob me off when I had questions, and when my English teacher introduced us to philosophy; a pivotal moment in my life.
We need to rejoice when a student asks a good question. We must seize opportunities to relate not to theoretical students but to the young minds we have in front of us.
There are pressures, of course: exam content needs to be covered. But being responsive to your students doesn’t mean being less responsive to the requirements of the syllabus. Our lesson objectives show what should be learned, but why should students be limited to learning only those things?
Real, deep learning is served by us going off-plan and responding to what they don’t understand, rather than to what we planned for them not understanding.
Obviously, there are helpful and unhelpful tangents: we are the subject experts, and being responsive to students means us adjudicating their questions as much as encouraging them. A student’s question could be facetious, but the seemingly facetious question might have at its core something perceptive: something that gives you, as a teacher, valuable insight into where your students actually are, rather than where you thought they were.
Recently, one student said, quite out of the blue, that she was terrified by the idea of existing forever after death. We were studying the concept of the soul, but life after death is not on the syllabus. Yet by my gently pressing her to explain what scared her, students started getting into questions of what we are – body and mind or a biological machine? – with greater subtlety than I could have hoped for. We were able to have a highly analytic, evaluative and open conversation as a result.
Not only did students make huge progress over those 10 minutes but I also came to understand them better, and could plan more effectively for their next lesson.
Of course, one reason why teachers might find this approach daunting is that we need to be really comfortable with the material we’re teaching. When a child pipes up with a good question, we might not know the answer. But, if this happens to me, my view is that it underlines the fact that it is not my lesson, but our lesson. As a teacher, it is better to say, “What an interesting question! I’m not sure about that one – let’s look it up,” than to try to bluff it out behind a veneer of false omniscience.
So, invite students into the process. Start a lesson with a plan of what might happen but be open to the eventuality that something else – something truly educational and inspirational – may occur.
Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, and head of religious studies and philosophy, at Bedales School in Hampshire. She is the author of three course books on philosophy of religion, and writes on philosophy of education.