August 31st, 2010

Five Minutes and Five Techniques


I was traveling again last week and dining by myself in a local restaurant. I had forgotten to bring something to read, but the restaurant, named the The Library, had stacks of old books decorating the short walls between different sections of the dining room. In the stack near my table I found Teacher Education in Transition, published in 1969. The book smelled as old as it looked.

As I skimmed the pages, I found this objective for student teachers: “Given a class which is not interested in the lesson, the preservice teacher will interest and involve the students in a concept lesson of at least five minutes. If necessary, the teacher will use at least five techniques to get and keep attention.”

So the advice (I think) is to extract a concept from the lesson and use it to engage students. The idea of taking something from the lesson with the express purpose of using it to get students interested in the larger lesson doesn’t seem like bad advice. Often we just start wherever the content starts or where we left off last class without making any special attempt to engage students with the day’s content. Starting with a part of the content, say an especially interesting part, could better set up students for what’s to come.

But the idea of doing this for five minutes and using at least five techniques—I have to admit, that made me smile. To think that every time students are uninterested, five minutes worth of engagement techniques will solve the problem is to imagine classroom dynamics as way more fixed and formulaic than I’ve ever experienced them. What if five minutes isn’t enough? What if the selected techniques don’t work? I keep trying to imagine a beginning teacher or any teacher trying to accomplish this objective. I am hard pressed to think of five techniques you could fit into five minutes. You could ask a question and entertain an answer. You could survey students asking for a show of hands based on their opinions. What else?

Granted, the objective is old and perhaps no longer representative, but it does illustrate what happens when you overspecify what teachers need to be doing. Plans this prescriptive make it more difficult to respond to what’s happening in the moment. There’s a fluidity about good teaching. It is carefully planned and any effective teacher has a repertoire of strategies, but as the class unfolds teachers need to be able to take advantage of what is happening and deal with what is not. As a wise teacher once told me, “There a plan for the class, and then there’s what happens in class.”