David Petrie: Space for spontaneity

PPP, TTT, TBL, Dogme - do we really follow these structures, methodologies or approaches or do our lessons grow organically from a loose plan. How do we ensure that our teaching includes space for spontaneity?

It was the Polish academic Alfred Korzybski who famously said “The map is not the territory”, in the context of the developing field of general semantics. His phrase has since been widely used, even to promote holidays and to sell cars, but at its core it represents the fundamental difference between our perception of a thing and the reality of the thing itself.

The education version of Korzybski’s dictum might be: “The plan is not the lesson”.

I don’t think I have ever encountered a teacher who has said that their lesson went exactly according to plan – there are always variations in timings, understandings and activities that preclude everything happening the way you expect them to and generally? That’s ok.

What I notice in my own context, which is private language school teaching, is that more experienced teachers tend to have less of a plan and more of an expectation. My first ever peer observation was with an experienced teacher who showed me a bit of scrap paper with a six item numbered list on it – this was at a point in my career when I was still typing out four page lesson plans complete with timings down to the minute. I thought she was awfully daring… and it was a great lesson!

The difference then is that more experienced teachers tend to set out a series of goals for the lesson and they aren’t so worried about how they get there. The methodology, be it PPP, TBL, TTT or Dogme exists as a tool to be used as necessary, rather than as a prescription for how things must be. Knowledge of these methods is what gives us the flexibility to change what is going on in the classroom as we need to – either when something is not going according to plan or when the students take an idea and run off with it in a different direction to that you had envisaged.

Let’s take a PPP lesson outline; with a warmer, presentation stage, controlled practice (from the book), freer practice & production stage and a final feedback slot.

And now let’s say that we get into the warmer and the students have picked up the topic and are really interested in discussing it further. Perhaps we’re thinking about conditionals today and the warmer was talking about the possible consequences of either side winning a presidential election. The five minutes I allocated for the warmer is just about to end – what do I do? My personal instinct is to let the conversation run. Sit there, make copious notes about what the students are saying, what errors they are making and what upgrades and reformulations could be slotted in. In other words, to change the lesson shape from a PPP lesson to an Output-Feedback model.

Doing this gives you the chance to look at what they are really saying, what features of language they have really incorporated into their lexicon and which they still have problems with. It gives you the chance to feed in vocabulary and lexis they otherwise might not encounter (and if the topic is a presidential election, would almost certainly never encounter in a coursebook), and it gives you a chance to connect with them as individuals.

I think the worry is often that you won’t be able to sustain the initial conversation for long enough and that you will eventually run out of lesson, leaving you and the students with a 25 minute gap at the end of the class that you don’t know how to fill. Do you go back to the plan, do you play a random vocabulary game (and hope it lasts), do you sit in silence, do you ask them to write up an article on their discussion?

Well – any and all of these things! Apart from sitting in silence perhaps!

If we have already been talking about the consequences of a presidential election, and have done a feedback slot on the students’ discussion, and still have 25 minutes to go, then where is the harm in asking the learners to write up a summary of their discussion in article form? It would be a good opportunity to develop summary skills, organising ideas, providing balance and possibly a good opportunity to try and use some of the reformulated phrases provided in feedback. Equally, a vocabulary game (backs to the board / hotseat) with some of the language from feedback could be useful! Or you could extend the discussion by asking learners to come up with the essential and desirable qualities in a president and to turn this discussion into a pyramid debate.

Spontaneity in teaching is not about complete abandonment of principle and practice, it is about being accepting of the fact that there are many paths to a single goal. Your lesson plan is one path, but when things don’t go according to plan? It’s time for a new plan.

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