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 Alan
I liked the way you're describing teaching and learning very much. It's fantastic!  Fully agree with the ideas of yours including those published earlier.  (You maybe surprised, but we have used some of them for EAP teacher training course design and the course delivered here in Ukraine).
You have raised a very important question I am asked very often by young teachers: How do we learn from our learners?  Is it really possible? Aren't we teachers who teach them?  You managed to do it in a very simple way :-).  Thanks for this!
I would be grateful to you if you give an answer to the other question:
What is necessary for a teacher (a specific quality or anything else) to be able to learn from students/learners while teaching?
Thank you in advance.
Warmest wishes from Ukraine.

Dear zira, Thank you so much for your warm and encouraging message.To answer your question, I do not think there is a magic formula for this.  However, the kind of things which will make learning from your students possible would include:- learning to stop yourself from making immediate judgements on their performance.- learning how to listen.  All too often, we tend to be in a hurry and do not give our students the kind of listening attention they deserve.- learning to open yourself up to the unexpected rather than foreclosing the options because they do not fit ointo your pre-conceived plan for the class.- learning how to respond to opportunities which arise when you do the other 3 things above.Of course, it is easier to say these things than to actually do them but I hope they offer some kind of response to what you are asking me. Very best wishes, Alan

I almost agree with what you say, and would like to add some more. Teaching is also intuitive. When we start establishing a good rapport with students, we get very intuitive. Isn’t it true that an English teacher is very expressive with his feelings and imaginations, and he is not so factual.
We also get very unconscious and go into the realms of fantasy, when we teach literature. I feel that sometimes teaching is also unconscious, unpredictable. And then the teacher is also a continuous learner.
Warm regards

The child is the creator of knowledge.   Thanks a lot mr Alan Maley. I am going to write two more poems as blogs today. I hope you will send your suggestions and comments to my e-mail.        I believe in krashen and constructivism. I think that the child is the creator of knowledge. The class is neither child centered or teacher fronted but it should be learning centered. The synergy of class is always greater than the teacher. The teacher is no longer the giver of knowledge and the student the receiver of it. The teacher is just the facilitator of knowledge only. It is time the teachers digested the fact across the globe, especially in India With kind regards, Yours sincerely, Jvl narasimha rao

Dear Alan,I agree with  you that a 'teacher' needs to be able to handle the unexpected! As a well-trained and a well-informed teacher one may plan a class in a particular manner but what one manages to achieve at the end of the day depends on one's ability to think on one's feet!And like the clown a good performer too! Best wishes,Shefali 

Dear Mr Narasima Rao, Thank you again for your perceptive comments. Of course, one of the teacher's key tasks is to create a functioning learning community, in which he or she is a an active participant.  All too often, the teacher acts as if the students were simply a herd of sheep to be rounded up and driven in a predetermined direction. Sincerely, Alan

Dear Suresh, Thanks for your comments.  I agree with you that most learning is both unconscious and unpredictable.  As to the role of literature, perhaps it affords the teacher more opportunities for the exercise of his or her intuitive faculties.  But ecen without literature, the teacher can develop a 'receptive' stance - being open to what is happeneing in the here and now. Sincerely, Alan

Dear Prof. Alan, thank you for sharing with us your insight. I do agree with you that learning is unobservable. In many cases I took it granted that my sutdents should have mastered some rules, but actually they failed to do so. Fortunately, there are also many cases for my students to take me by surprise due to their good performance in learning. Therefore, teaching is really challenging. Teachers who treat teaching as a career can feel teaching is a challenging and dynamic process.
Good teaching may not result in students' good learning, but good learning can motivate good. teachers and lead to better teaching.

dear alan,                     a hair splitting question for us indeed! i have tried to comment as followingI think a Good teacher is three-dimensional  to her learners 1   friend-facilitates,motivates and allows equal participation of her students 2.  philosopher -  teaches technically and efficiently (attracting students concentration)                          3.  guide-counselling and leading them in their endeavours a good learner has also the same dimensions  1. effectively listens or watches (audio or video)  2. comprehends correctly  3. learns by analyzing and synthesising                                         Hence I conclude good teaching equals good learning.collars up!i have tried to become a maths teacher too.  regards dr.mangay

Dear Meng Tian,Thank you for your comments.  I particularly like your last sentence.  Maybe you should frame it and hang it on the staffroom wall!  It is so true.  We take strength from our students.Just one comment on your observation that thinking that they have learned the 'rule' or whatever else that you have taught.  Maybe one problem with this is thinking that they learn something all in one go, whereas it is often a 'two steps forward, one step backwards' kind of process.  They rarely learn something completely,; it is a slow and gradual process of accretion - a bit like the way a pearl grows inside an oyster.  So there is no reason to feel discouraged if they don't learn all in one go.Best wishes,Alan