Rapid Response Teaching


My nine-year-old son was in class when his friends spotted it. They crowded around the window. A strange-looking creature had attached itself to the outside of the pane. The teacher joined in. She had no hope of recapturing the children’s attention because a large, horned beetle, to a nine-year-old, may as well be a unicorn in fancy dress.

image from onebugaday.blogspot.com

The teacher, who I’ll call Miss Julie, got the janitor to bring the beetle inside. Then Miss Julie began to ask the children questions. What were the beetle’s features? How many legs did it have? What colors were prominent?

The children went online and discovered it was a female Eastern Hercules Beetle. Why was it called Hercules? Because it’s North America’s heaviest type of beetle. The children weighed it. They found out about its habitat and why it might be stuck to the window. Then they wrote about it in their science notebooks.

My son told me about this episode in an unusually enthusiastic manner, and I’d bet my last dollar he’ll be able to recognize an Eastern Hercules Beetle for the rest of his life.

Unless Miss Julie had secretly placed the beetle on the window before class, this was a perfect example of rapid-response, abandon-the-lesson-plan teaching.

Of Mice and Men

Rapid response teaching is a reaction to teachable moments. The teacher recognizes opportunities for real-world learning and acts upon them. She either deviates from or abandons altogether the lesson plan … which leads to the questions: Why might we abandon a lesson plan? How responsive are we to teachable moments? Won’t chaos reign if we ditch the plan? And how experienced must you be in order to improvise a lesson?

Let me deal with why first. Here are four reasons to abandon a lesson plan:

*The plan was no good. You badly overestimated or underestimated the students’ abilities or interest in the topic. The result is that the students are now (a) totally confused, or (b) snoozing in the corner.

*The plan was good for some students but not others. Half the class was engaged and the other half was silently sulking. To increase engagement for unresponsive students, you made an on-the-spot decision to add, subtract or modify a stage.

*The plan was fine but in the course of the lesson the class became profitably sidetracked. Someone took a tangent. A conversation escalated. Most of the students were engaged. They were producing lots of language and there were opportunities to learn. Or a large beetle appeared on the window.

*The plan was fine but outside factors scuppered it. You were about to listen to a recording when a road worker outside began operating an extremely loud drill. Only two students out of twelve showed up for class so you abandoned the planned group work. Remember Robbie Burns’s line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft a-gley” [often go wrong]. It’s as true now as it was in 1786, when he wrote it.

Principled abandonment

Many teachers – particularly early in their careers – feel nervous about ditching the lesson plan. It’s the map that gets them from A to B. On the occasions when we do abandon the plan, I think it’s important to maintain a few chaos-prevention principles. Here are five:

*keep underlying goals in mind;

*let students take control of the discussion but be prepared to moderate;

*go on tangents but make sure these are leading somewhere;

*keep track of issues raised and language used so you can “loop back” to where the conversation began;

*afterwards, assess the success of the lesson in terms of goals achieved and student motivation.

Teacher as facilitator

In the role of teacher-facilitator, the teacher brings others into the discussion and keeps the conversation moving. She might clarify certain points and act as a provider of necessary language. She might consider summarizing the arguments, but always with the caveat that a teacher’s summary is inevitably weighted to the opinions she agrees with, and also teachers’ summaries usually put an end to the conversation. She might take notes on errors and interesting expressions used and get students to reflect on these afterwards.

The experienced teacher’s actions and oversight will prevent chaos because she has well-honed classroom management skills and a repertoire of pedagogical activities and strategies. She trusts herself to find a path out of the woods even without a map.

A Whale of a Time

Years ago in a small town, a whale washed up on a beach. When a local teacher heard about it, he took his class to see it. Many years later, one of his pupils recalled this episode:

“We looked at it, we listened to it, we went up to it to touch it (it could not move much), we ran away from it when it opened its massive mouth, we threw water on it, we made faces at it – we did all sorts of things. From that day on we all knew exactly what a whale was.” (Wadsworth, 1978, 54-55)

Whales or beetles? It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting to grips with the real, linking the world of the classroom to the world beyond it.


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