One of the key questions which surfaces constantly in discussions among teachers is 'what makes a good lesson?'

One of the key questions which surfaces constantly in discussions among teachers is 'what makes a good lesson?'.  And this inevitably leads on to related questions like, 'What is a good teacher?' 'What do good teachers do?' etc.

Once we start to consider what good teachers need to do, we come up with enormously long lists, and come to realise just how complex the job of teaching is.  They need to plan, to control, to present, to monitor, to react to feedback, to offer a model, to motivate, and so on.  And these labels are also over-simplifications.  For example, the teacher needs to simultaneously control what happens while empowering learners,  leaving space for them to learn.  Teachers need to provide input yet also to promote learner discovery.  They need to motivate in the short term ('keeping them awake') while keeping them interested in the long term ('keeping them alive').  They need to plan but not to become the slaves of their plans but to remain receptive to what is happening 'in the moment'.  In this their work is very like that of the clown (in the Lecocq tradition) where the clown is totally receptive to whatever happens and reacts spontaneously to it.  (I have written an article about this and other metaphors for teachers in the forthcoming January issue of hltmag.

Above all, perhaps, they need to offer engaging, varied, non-trivial input in the form of content and activities.  This implies finding things that learners will find both interesting and relevant. It also entails being able to create an atmosphere where 'flow' can take place.  (Csikszentmihaly's description of flow situations - where we lose ourselves in the activity we are engaged in - is helpful but doesn't get us off the hook of actually achieving flow!)

But what teachers do is contingent on how learners respond to it.  There are some obvious but nonetheless important differences between teaching and learning.  Whereas teaching is a public, observable act, learning is private and largely unobservable.  Teaching is intentional - the teacher has in mind what she wants to teach.  but learning is largely unconscious. Teaching is an intermittent activity (so many minutes per lesson, so many lessons per week, etc.) but learning is a process which goes on outside these time frames.  The teacher has to assume that there is a degree of predictability in the teaching whereas unpredictability is the only certainty.

This reminds me of Norman Whitney's wise observation: that any classroom event is unpredictable, unrepeatable, unobservable (in every detail) and has unforeseen, long-term consequences. 

So teaching is very much a process of seeing 'through a glass darkly'.  Perhaps the best teachers are those who, while well-informed and well-trained, are also those best able to live with the unexpected?  What do you think?


Alan's now finished blogging on the site - check the Guest Writers page to see contributions from other guests.



Dear Allan and other teachers,
I have read your posts and uhh.. quite a complicated profession I got myself into! *but I looove it for that!*
I think that communication might be a word that could summarise what you have all said.. communication is the process that connects us all - we as teachers, with our students, with our friends, colleagues, parents, etc. etc. etc. And if I am not able to connect with my students, then I think there is nothing else to do.
They have to be able to get the message I am trying to convey; in the same manner, I - as the teacher - need to be able to comprehend what they are trying to tell me (sometimes even without words!).
It is complicated indeed, but it is the basis of it all, I suppose..
Regarding this issue, I am just thinking back on my frist class of my teaching practice, earlier this year. I remember how eager I was to be in front and start "connecting" with the students. (I had had a few weeks of "observation phase" before starting my "teaching phase"). I did not know much about them, just what I had observed, but it is different when one is in the front. Every second, every event, every word was a fulfilling fact that gave me hints about their personalities, likings, characteristics, etc. .. full of emotions! ..
Now I look back and think that that very same process, actually never ended. Until the last day I was there, I was able to find things out about them - and they were able to find things out about myself too, of course.
Finally, I think that it's indeed that aspect what makes teaching a complicated but wonderful experience, you never know what to expect!
KATHYan almost-qualified-EFL teacher to be

"Teaching is the highest form of understanding"-AristotleI strongly believe,every act of teaching is certainly a process of learning to discover how one can make the other enjoy and experience the galaxies of concepts,functions and more importantly the matrix of the language in distinct forms of discourse.The plethora of learning styles mould the innovative urge of the teacher to inspire and exert confidence over and again.This reflective attitude of a teacher is a philocrisy of teaching techniques and strategies.It is evident that every teacher will have certainly improved and improvised his/her indigenous learning-teaching activities from the learners every now and then.The role of a teacher is linked with the role of a learner  only on the basis of how effective his/her learning helps the other to learn. Hence,every learner contributes in the process of collaborating with the teacher in a Second Language Classroom. 

Dear Mangalaprathaban,Thanks for your observations.Certainly, learning should be mutual.  Teachers learn from their students as wellas imparting knowledge and skills to them.  There is also a senbse in which students learn not only the subject they are studying but also learn their teachers by absorbing from them a whole matrix of values and practices which are not consciously being taught.  That's why, in an earlier posting I mentioned Norman Whitney's point that any learning situation has long-term, unprecictable comnsequences. Best wishes  Alan    

I am about to start teaching ESL in China. Previous part-time and supply teaching experience has been intimidating -- I found myself trying much too hard to avoid being a boring lecturer that I got drained after each lesson. Your blog is certainly inspirational, Alan. I suppose a teacher needs to be reflexive as well as reflective. And to be less anxious!

Dear Newnhamite, In wish you well in your teaching in China.  It will be nothing if not interesting!You are right that students very quickly pick up on teacher anxiety.  A bit like a horse, which immediately senses a rider's insecurity.  So take it easy, stay calm and take every momnet as it comes.  Don't let the class throw you off! best wishes Alan

Dear Kathy, Thanks again for your contribution.  It is indeed complicated if you try to analyze it into its component parts.  But if you are tuned to the wavelength of your students, reading their individual and the group state, things will usually go quite well.  But don't forget that they are reading you, just as you are reading them, and they very quickly pick up on anything inauthentic about you.  from what you have written, I don't think that is something you will need to worry about! Best wishes Alan

Dear Dr Mangay,I agree with you that good teachers share many characteristics of good learners.  Most particularly, that they (the teachers) continue to demonstrate that they themselves are still learning.  One of the biggest threats to Teacher Development is reaching a stage where you think you know.  That spells the death of new learning. Best wishes Alan

Dear Alan
I share most of your deas about teaching and learning and fully agree with that 'one of the teacher's key tasks is to create a functioning learning community, in which he or she is a an active participant'.  But it is not so easy as it may seem, isn't it? 
I think it may become possible when a teacher posesses some specific qualities and have some (?) knowledge and skills how to do this.  What do YOU think? 
As it is usual with me :) one more question:
How to keep/find the balance in functioning of this community, where teacher is a teacher and a learner at the same time and students are learners? 
Great thanks in advance!
Irina Z.