When I was a classroom teacher in a traditional high school, a student and I were chatting about current events. This led to a conversation about economics. I began explaining how the Federal Reserve controls interest rates, and how the government needs to ensure that there is at least some percentage of unemployed people, because full employment would lead to inflation.
The bell rang to start class, but by this time four or five students had gathered around and were peppering me with questions. They were really interested. The discussion got more involved and, soon, the entire class was engaged in the topic.
This was a journalism class, so the discussion had absolutely nothing to do with the unit of study we were involved in. And I think that’s one reason why students were so intrigued.
If I was teaching an economics or sociology class, and had prepared this lecture in a lesson plan, I don’t think the students would have been nearly as interested.
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Years ago, I read an awesome book on pedagogy called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, by Donald Finkel. The author explains how teachers can focus their energy on building a classroom environment in which his/her voice is not necessary, that the students do most of the talking. It’s a great, great book.
I decided to try this out while reading George Orwell’s novel 1984 with students.
I set up the tables into small discussion circles, and gave the groups a set of questions. I prepared them with expectations on how to conduct their conversations, emphasizing that they didn’t need to take notes and they wouldn’t be graded. My expectation was that they were to use this time to explore various themes in the text. That was it.
It was brilliant. I bopped around and listened in on each group for a few minutes, then offered encouragement and praise before moving on to the next one. Students were dialed in. The conversations were rich and vibrant. I sat at my desk and pretended to shuffle papers around while I eavesdropped. The discussions were a huge hit. Near the end of class, it was really hard to get them to stop talking about the book so I could make a few closing remarks before the bell rang.
I tried it again the next semester, but this time the results were not as good. Some of the conversations fell flat. I overheard a few groups veering off topic. There was a smattering of complaining about the assignment.
I don’t blame the students for this one bit. It wasn’t their fault. It was mine.
The difference was simple. The first time I did this lesson, I had no idea if it was going to work. That gave my classroom an edge, an undeniable energy that students pick up on and that helps them focus. The second time, I was merely rolling out a lesson plan that I knew would work. All the students had to do was follow directions.
But I had lost the edge. The energy in the room was different.
* * *
My friend Neil was telling me a story about when he was a part of an improv comedy troupe in college. Sometimes he would think of a funny joke in advance and would secretly plan to use it when the right moment came during one of their improv performances.
Invariably, he said, the joke would fall flat.
I was explaining this to PSCS founder Andy Smallman, and I said, “That’s because improv is about . . . ”
I paused, searching for the right words to finish that sentence.
“It’s about the moment,” he said. “So is teaching. So is learning.”
* * *
So here’s a question: how would classrooms be different if teachers came to class not with a lesson plan, but with a concept? The class could take that concept in new and unpredictable directions based on the dynamic interaction between teacher and students. Doesn’t that sound like fun?