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On-the-fly

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley – R. Burns

There are many reasons that a lesson goes awry, and being able to deal with that is key. During teacher training a lot of weight is put on planning, pikes of lesson plans are produced by student teachers and often they are very helpful and certainly aid development and allow us to consider the subject we are teaching, consider the questions we need to ask and what exactly we want our students to take away. But the heavy emphasis on planning can make some teachers too reluctant to deviate from said plans.

I remember during my NQT year being told about hinge questions and how I should include them in every lesson, a deputy head said I could come to his y11 class and see how he used them, but I was left underwhelmed as the result wasn’t any different to how the lesson would have been without it. He just had a “hinge question” in the middle and carried on regardless. Hinge questions are useful, but only if you then have 2 separate paths for the students to take.

Similarly starters that check prior knowledge are good, they’re useful for filling in gaps and they can aid a lesson,  but you need to be ready to change your plans on the fly if needs be.

This week I had a lesson planned on cones and spheres, some of the questions towards the end of the lesson included cylinders and prisms as well as spheres, cones, pyramids and frustums, so I set a couple of cylinder and prisms questions in the starter. I was met with blank faces. Totally blank. I hadn’t taught them this before, but I had assumed they had met them in previous years, but they hadn’t  (or at least if they had they’d lost their memory of it). At this point I jettisoned my plan and started over.

I talked through some examples, explaining how they had got it and then set them off on some tasks I had saved on my hard drive while circulating to check the understanding. It was an enjoyable lesson and the students now have a good grasp of cylinders and prisms, plus I have the added bonus of one less lesson to plan next week now.

It can be terrifying when this becomes necessary. During my NQT year we lost all the power from sockets in the school – the lights were still on but the smart boards were unuseable. When they went off I was 5 minutes in to a year 10 lesson on constructions with a class who had a reputation as the worst in the school. It was my first time being without the presentation I’d planned and my first time teaching construction. I did my best to demo on the boards, then set them doing simple constructions while circulating and teaching the more complex ones. It was a success, but it was a terrifying ordeal.

Being able to adapt on the fly is key, and it’s something we need to prepare new and trainee teachers for. I’ve had thoughts about how to do this, but nothing concrete. One idea is to have them “wing it” occasionally- ie show up to a lesson every so often unprepared. Do you have any ideas on how we can help prepare for the times when we need to act on the fly.

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  1. February 6, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    I totally agree about needing to adapt. Personally, I don’t think I could show up unprepared, though the longer I teach, the less I feel like I need to have any scheduled backup plan in place. (I have been called an “organizational jedi”.) But I also used to be the advisor to the improv club at school, and while the network going down does cause me momentary panic, my mind is rapidly spinning out other options or lesson reorderings to compensate. The idea of “free association” might help here? Cone to ice cream cone to what’s the cone with the greatest volume we can make with this sheet of paper. Well, something along those lines. Line segments, distance formula, it’s always back to Pythagorus. It tends to work for me, at any rate.

    Incidentally, good on you for throwing the cylinders into your starter, and catching the issue early on! I think that’s much better than hitting the wall later in the period. Also a good point about hinge questions needing pathways. (Aside: I feel like “hinge questions” are big in the UK. While I’ve heard of them, they don’t seem as pervasive in Canada, or at least in Ottawa where I am.) All the best with your future plans, and adjustments!

    • February 6, 2016 at 11:08 pm

      Cheers, and thanks for the comment!

  2. February 7, 2016 at 2:21 am

    Agreed! I find it interesting that mathtans commented about being the improv club advisor. An improv comedian turned teacher was in my grad school cohort, and his improv skills helped him keep calm in front of the class and cool under pressure. I wish we had more of that taught in education school…so much more important than content knowledge sometimes.

    • February 7, 2016 at 7:37 am

      Agreed, although in the UK the teaching courses also massively underplay content knowledge. We have such a shortage of maths teachers that anyone who wants to teach the subject can, pretty much, and it leave some without the required knowledge.

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