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.