When Should You Abandon Your Lesson Plan?
The art of improvisation: when and why language teachers should go rogue.
The most magical learning moments are often unplanned.
I’m sure all teachers have experienced this. The lesson takes on a life of own, goes off-plan, but the students have an amazing learning experience.
Of course, the opposite happens too - a plan goes off the rails and is a complete disaster.
Why do these occurrences happen? How can we encourage more of the positive and less of the negative experiences?
Today we’ll look at what we can learn about abandoning our lesson plans, when we should do it, and when we shouldn’t. Plus, when we do, how do we ensure it’s a positive experience and not a flop.
Why should we be flexible with our plans?
Every experienced language teacher knows that teaching isn't an exact science; it's more of an art form.
I remember I watched a talk from educator Adrian Underhill many years ago, who discussed the difference between being prepared and preparedness, and the importance of improvisation in the classroom.
No two classrooms, lessons, or students are exactly alike. So while we can prepare and plan as best we can, we can’t factor in all the variables that we’ll encounter in the lessons.
Maybe there’s been some celebrity news everyone’s talking about, or the students are particularly tired after sports day, or some other factor that affects your students.
Indeed, the ability to adapt is what separates a good teacher from a great one. It's about knowing when to hold fast to your plan, and when to set it aside in favor of a teachable moment that just walked through the door.
So what are the reasons we should improvise?
1. Respond to the pace and understanding of students
Learning is not a one-size-fits-all process; it's a journey where each student paces differently. Sometimes, the rhythm of this journey differs from the tempo we've set in our lesson plan. For example, a class may grasp language concepts more quickly or slowly than anticipated. As educators, we should be attentive to these different beats and adjust our lesson plans accordingly.
When students struggle to comprehend a certain topic, a rigid adherence to a lesson plan could lead to further confusion and disengagement. In these instances, it's essential to be flexible, to take a step back, and reinforce the basics before moving forward. Conversely, if students are accelerating beyond our expectations, sticking strictly to the lesson plan might result in missed opportunities to challenge them and deepen their understanding.
2. Respond to unexpected events and student engagement
A classroom isn't an isolated bubble - it's a dynamic environment influenced by myriad factors. An unexpected event like a fire drill, a sudden change in school schedule, or a student's personal situation can disrupt a lesson. In these scenarios, a teacher's flexibility is put to the test. Rather than viewing these events as disturbances, we can perceive them as opportunities to cultivate resilience and adaptability among our students - key traits in language learning.
Similarly, if our class is particularly engaged or interested in a topic that isn't strictly in our lesson plan, why not seize the moment? Learning flourishes when students are interested, and these detours can lead to meaningful discussions that enhance cultural understanding, deepen language immersion, and create memorable learning experiences.
3. Use real-world events and teachable moments
We should remember we are not just teaching words and grammar rules. We are introducing our students to a new culture and way of perceiving the world. Integrating these occurrences into our teaching can create a powerful connection between the language and its cultural context when significant events unfold in the regions where the language is spoken. This can spark student interest, foster critical thinking, and make learning more relevant and engaging.
Also, these spontaneous questions or discussions from students may lead to unanticipated, yet valuable, teachable moments. In these moments, we may discover our best teaching tools weren't in our original lesson plan. Embracing these surprises, rather than resisting them, allows us to model real-world communication and critical thinking.
4. Adapt based on feedback and assessment Results
Teaching isn't a one-way street - it's a dialogue. Just as we provide feedback to our students, we should also be open to feedback from them and our peers. Feedback is a mirror that shows us what works and what doesn't in our teaching. If we find that a particular teaching method or element in our lesson plan isn't resonating, it's time to revise and refine it.
In the same vein, assessments are essential for both students and teachers. They allow us to gauge where our students are thriving and where they might struggle. If assessment results indicate that certain areas need more attention, we must revise our lesson plan to ensure that students grasp these concepts before proceeding further. Similarly, if students perform exceptionally well in certain areas, it's an opportunity to delve deeper or accelerate.
5. Embrace change and foster a positive learning environment
Change is an integral part of the learning process for our students and ourselves. Recognizing when to change course and adapt our lesson plans is not a sign of poor planning. Instead, it's a testament to our dedication to our students' learning experiences and our commitment to fostering an environment where curiosity, questions, and exploration are welcome.
Sometimes, the most impactful lessons are those that were never in the lesson plan. A casual conversation about a cultural tradition could lead to a rich, in-depth discussion about cultural diversity. A spontaneous question about a peculiar vocabulary could open up an unexpected, yet fruitful lesson about language idiosyncrasies. When we open our classroom to these possibilities, we create a more engaging, responsive, and effective learning environment.
Conclusion: there’s power in flexibility
In language teaching, flexibility is an asset. While lesson plans provide structure and direction, our ability to adapt these plans to our students' evolving needs and interests, unexpected events, and real-world happenings empowers us to provide a more effective, engaging, and meaningful learning experience.
Teaching a language is a balance between planning and improvisation. While lesson plans are indispensable guides, the ability to adapt and evolve these plans in response to our students' needs is what truly brings a language to life in the classroom.
As we teach let's remember that sometimes the most rewarding path is the one we didn't plan to travel.
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