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Great Lessons, Teaching and Learning

Great Lessons 7: Agility

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I spent a while thinking of one word that could capture the spirit of this post. AGILITY. It does the job. It’s all about the ability to adapt, to change course, to respond, to deal with multiple simultaneous demands, to keep up with all the individual students’ journeys, to be spontaneous and flexible and to think on your feet. ‘Thinking on your feet’ is a hugely important teacher skill and in any Great Lesson, you are likely to see this in action.

I think it is safe to say that most of my lessons don’t go according to plan. Why? Because, in truth, the plan is usually highly skeletal.. just a rough outline of where we’ll start and where we are heading in general…but the details depend on what happens next. In an environment where I am challenging my students at a high level and trying hard to tease out their individual weak spots,I’m never exactly sure how students will respond or what questions they might ask… But as an agile teacher, I’m ready for anything. Sometimes, agility is needed to rescue a bad situation…like a goalkeeper pouncing…but mostly, agility is about seeking out the most engaging, most challenging path to keep the flow going…like an off-piste skier. This is the part of being a teacher that I love the most.

These examples illustrate the idea of being agile in various different contexts:

1. Contingent Planning

Letting it ride: Y13 English
One of the all-time most jaw-droppingly fabulous lessons I’ve ever seen was accompanied by the metaphorical shredding of a well-intentioned lesson plan. A Y13 English class had been given two weeks to read Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and their homework task had been to prepare short graphical presentations of the play’s key themes. Some had Good-Evil vs Time axes on a graph; others had complex mind maps, another was a Dramatic Tension timeline. The outpouring of ideas led to discussion and debate that showed students had progressed far further than expected. They were learning so much from each other, the teacher input wasn’t needed; she let it ride. The starter/ intros became the lesson.

Holding it back: Y12 Maths
Here, in a well planned lesson with a clever sequence of incrementally more challenging operations with polynomials it became clear that a significant number of students were not entirely secure at the early stages. I’d been given a lesson plan but only half of it actually came off the page as the teacher opted to pause for consolidation…all except two pairs who were urged to plough on as they were doing well. It was an Outstanding lesson..largely because of the teacher’s agile responsiveness.

Differentiation ‘on the fly’
Despite the best laid plans some students shoot through. “Wow! You’ve nailed this already so….” You need something seriously challenging to throw at them. Or, in a way that takes you by surprise, one or more students are all at sea….you need to throw them a lifeline. Both things happened to me at the same time recently with a lesson on electrical circuits. Some were just stuck..could not make a circuit to match the diagram; meanwhile at the other end, I set others off to devise their own circuits to see what happened as they could work through the standard set at astonishing speed…who knew? I did also enlist their help to sort out the stuck people.

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Since my lessons rarely go according to plan, it also means I don’t plan too far ahead. I never follow a scheme of work as such…I see them as a set of possible ideas for possible lessons, but the flow of learning is shaped by what happens and this is often unpredictable. I used to work in a school where you could order a tray of equipment for Unit 3, Lesson 7a. I’m sorry, but after I’d finished, those trays were a bit of a jumble! An important lesson from this is that we need to think less about writing schemes of work and more about planning contingencies. I’ve seen a lot of finely timed lesson plans but really these are security blankets; stabilisers; an agile teacher doesn’t need them. Anything you write down can only ever be one of many possible paths; the confidence to abandon the plan is as important as the planning itself.

2. Responding to responses

At a basic level, a routine probing Q&A session is a great test of agility. This is pedagogical sparring. Great teachers love it, taking students’ statements and questions and then returning more probing responses. With whole-class response methods, this is scaled up.

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Now the juggling really starts. When we invested in mini whiteboards for every classroom a few years ago, one colleague remarked that she found it incredibly difficult to cope with all the responses. What if there are lots of errors? This is precisely why they are such great tools: they reveal what ALL your students are thinking, like it or not. Here you need to be agile in selecting and sampling responses quickly; the ones that help take the learning forward without getting bogged down, avoiding turning a buzzy exchange into a thing of drudgery. The key is to focus on key learning points with repeat questions rather than tackle each and every variation.

Something similar happens after doing any in-class peer or self assessment. What have been the common answers and common difficulties? Are there any especially interesting alternatives? You need to flush this all out, making sure you tackle misconceptions, pick out a range of model answers and move everyone forward without double checking every single response. In an RE class of 30, there are 30 different ways to answer ‘Was it morally acceptable to kill Osama Bin Laden’. Agility sees you through….

3. Reacting to circumstances

Lights out:
My Y6 son came home from school buzzing recently. “We had the BEST lesson EVER”. They’d had a class discussion about ghosts, told some stories, explored the possibilities of UFOs and life on other planets….lots of engaging deep thinking on big existential questions. Why was it so special? Because they were sitting in the dark for over an hour after a power cut! So, no writing or reading….just talking and listening. The teacher had capitalised brilliantly, letting their imaginations fire off in all directions. If you have not yet read “Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally” by Hywel Roberts, then you should. He tackles this area brilliantly. Of course, this agile teacher had made the most of a real situation….but why wait when these fabulous ‘accidents’ could easily be made to happen!

Behaviour Management:
The reality for a lot of teachers is that managing behaviour is a dominant issue, but it is a universal ever-present feature of all lessons. An agile teacher, teaching a Great Lesson, may well have all manner of behaviour issues to address but they do two things: Firstly, they address the issues…they don’t gloss over or ignore them. Secondly, (in classic Bill Rogers style) they use the least intrusive strategy possible in order to keep learning on track. In great lessons the teacher does not hope for quiet, they insist; however, neither does the teacher stop everyone learning for a full blown show-down… Unless this is absolutely necessary.

Current affairs
Finally, in Great Lessons an agile teacher will take any opportunity to make connections to current developments, scrapping the planned lesson if necessary. Venus is transiting the sun, Higgs’ boson has been discovered, it is the anniversary of a publication by Darwin or Shakespeare, the biggest prime number ever has been identified, Richard III has been found and verified with carbon dating, there has been a tsunami, a new work by Van Gogh has been discovered…or vandalised….. All these things are a reason to go right off at a tangent and bring learning into the real world. In fact, when these things happen, it is unforgivable not to.

4. Choices

Sometimes the need for agility is more predictable, in situations where students are given choices. An example is where the mode of response is made very open: essay, video, blog, powerpoint, cartoon…. We adopt this approach for our Y7 British Museum project with fabulous results, but the teachers need to be flexible and open-minded.

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In some subjects, students have real choices to make as part of their assessment. In our A Level Physics course, students devise their own investigation; in our History and Pre-U ?Global Perspectives courses they choose their own area of study for the coursework; in Art or DT at GCSE and A level there is a high degree of student autonomy. The teacher’s agility and confidence often determines how far they are prepared to let the students go – which is either an enabling effect or a limiting one.

5. Going off piste

A couple of years ago some Y9 students from a partner school spent a day at KEGS and produced a report of their observations. Some of the things they liked about our lessons were:
The lessons tend to start straight away without lots of lining up and register taking
Students do not have to copy objectives from the board every lesson
The teachers often deviate from the lesson plan to tell stories or share their personal interests. ‘Our teachers never do this’ they said.

We hadn’t anticipated the last point but it is certainly a feature of lessons at my school. The students and teachers find great joy in the kind of spontaneity that allows anyone in the room to express their puzzlement, their curiosity or their sheer love of the subject. Recent diversions in my lessons have led us to consider the James May ‘milk first’ tea-making theory based on temperature gradient and specific heat capacity; how a bullet-proof vest works (following the input of a materials enthusiast in my class) and what might happen in terms of g-force if we could fly through the sun. Is it on the syllabus? Not exactly….but who cares?

Of course the very best reason to go off piste is when a student blows your mind with their work. Sometimes you just have to down tools, get in a huddle and marvel at what someone has done. More of this to follow in Great Lesson 8: Awe.

Discussion

21 thoughts on “Great Lessons 7: Agility

  1. Wahooooo! I laughed out loud whilst reading this! I have felt guilty for years for having this approach; but its awesome and without sounding like a brag, many of my Belief & Ethics lesson are also awesome and remembered and reflected on by the kids for a long time. Instinct and creativity, strong subject knowledge and a holistic love of your vocation makes all the heart racing moments happen….its an extreme sport!! I love it, thanks, I feel free again!!

    Posted by Anna | February 21, 2013, 2:15 pm
  2. Well written, as always.

    This links with the new teaching standards 5 and 6, which if interpreted as thinking on your feet and adapting to circumstances, makes more sense. It’s the message running through recent inclusionmark.co.uk posts. it’s probably the essential part of good or better practice. Plans followed slavishly, especially if planned by someone else, will probably remain satisfactory.

    Adapt and stimulate, students and teachers.

    Posted by Chris Chivers | February 21, 2013, 4:58 pm
  3. Definitely one of the best parts of lessons at KEGS was the ability to go ‘off piste’ as you describe it…. especially when you reach A level it enables you to take a broader approach and develop a wider understanding of your subject area by instigating interest into related topics which aren’t specifically in the curriculum. And, its still something I enjoy now at University in many of my seminars as it can often act to provide context whether through someone telling a story of an experience or it being a discussion of a hypothetical…
    Pretty sure your blog should be compulsory reading for all teachers!

    Posted by EKS @Chrindu | February 22, 2013, 6:41 pm
  4. I really liked this. What a great word:agility! Good teachers are like mountain goats …sure footed, but on the edge! Excellent post.

    Posted by Beth Budden | February 23, 2013, 5:58 pm
  5. Such a great reflection. Having observed many lessons, the problem that so many people have when they are ‘blinkered by being observed’ is that they become completely determined to teach the ‘outstanding’ lesson that they have planned so carefully. The nerves mean they forget the individual students they have in front of them and carry on regardless. As an observer you want to scream ‘rip up the plan and teach the students you have in front of you, like you normally would!’

    Posted by teachertweaks | May 27, 2013, 5:18 pm

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