In the pedagogy departments I have experiences with in Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Pfalz, there is a striking similarity in how student teachers are taught to plan for lessons. It is, sadly, inflexible, linear-minded and predictable. This process is rigorously examined during school visits by professors during the Referendariat years. It is typical that student teachers are expected to produce a detailed lesson-plan and analysis for examination to the visiting examiner. It is not uncommon for this document to be 5-7 pages long and excruciatingly detailed. Now, detail is good and so is rigorous examination of the process to ensure quality, especially when making sure that aims and objectives are clear, that the teacher provides opportunity for differentiation and clearly demonstrates what methods and resources they will use; but it goes far beyond that.
It is usually the case that student teachers must provide a minute by minute (literally) breakdown of the class. They must outline what questions they will ask students at every point in the lesson but – and stereotype alert – they must also be able to predict their students’ answers. They are also expected to provide the examiner with an exact run-down of what will be written on the board at the end of class and what notes the students will have in their notebooks. They are examined on this three times during their Referendariat and these grades are the single largest component in determining if a student is licensed to teach or not. Essentially the system trains teachers to be inflexible, linear-thinking and predictable. It further trains them to be risk-averse and shun creativity and spontaneity. On a practical level, this system of planning is not realistic on a daily basis and from my contact with early-career teachers it is clear that this process is simply theatre. Once licensed, these teachers will never again plan in this fashion but the problem is they are left with no practicable alternative and with a fear of experimentation.
One small shift could make this Referendariat experience so much more valuable. What if, instead of rewarding teachers with good grades for predicting student responses, we rewarded calculated spontaneity?
Spontaneity, or deviating from the plan, in the classroom usually takes two forms: a short detour which lasts part of or a full lesson and is usually a deeper analysis of a student response or enquiry, or what I would term calculated spontaneity, which begins with a spontaneous detour in a class, but then evolves, requiring multiple classes and a significant rewriting of your teaching plan. Spontaneity for German teachers is difficult because even though it may take only part of a class, their training has left them with a nagging pressure that they are not “covering” the curriculum. Calculated spontaneity, taking multiple lessons to follow up on a detour, is simply unthinkable. However, done well, it is worth it every time.
As an example, when I taught Humanities at the International School of Augsburg I had a solid, two-week plan on how to teach the Water Cycle. On the first day I would bring students to the classroom window where we had a stunning panorama of the city of Augsburg and even the Alps in the background on a very clear day. We literally had the birthplace of the river on our doorstep in these Alpine glaciers and its maturity in the Rivers Lech and Wertach which confluence in the city of Augsburg. I would explain the steps involved in the Water Cycle, explaining evaporation, cloud formation and precipitation in context rather than from a textbook. And students were naturally inquisitive. In my first year, one of my 6th Graders asked ‘Is it possible for students to make clouds?’ What an opportunity for spontaneity! The plan was immediately torn up and for the rest of that unit we conducted an Inquiry into this very question. We very soon thereafter decamped to the Science Lab and students, having broken down the thermal dynamics involved in cloud formation, were able to conduct their own experiments with blocks of ice placed on beakers of gently boiled water. Several groups managed to generate gently-rolling clouds along the underside of their blocks of ice and quickly shared with the others.
By the end of our spontaneous adventure students were engaged, excited to come to class and felt as though they were capable of directing new adventures in learning. And not only did we cover the curricular expectations, we were able to make authentic cross-curricular connections. Students wrote up their processes and reported their findings according to the expectations of their Science teacher. They practised critical thinking, collaboration and Inquiry. In short, they learned much more than would have been possible with my original plan. But it was not simply spontaneity; it was calculated spontaneity.
Calculated spontaneity is not abandoning the class and your plan to the winds of chance. It is analysing if a detour is worth it and then rebuilding your class plan to ensure success in this new direction. It is knowing what your essential learning goals are for the Unit. If students can, as a minimum, achieve these goals while taking a detour, then it is worth taking. It is as simple as that and the chances are that you will be able to add more goals once they have taken ownership of the topic and are highly motivated as a result.
So when is it worth being spontaneous? When it is calculated. To find out if it is, ask yourself these questions:
- Will you still meet your basic objectives?
- Does this detour increase student morale?
- Can it deepen, differentiate or individualise learning?
- Can it promote critical thinking?
- Does it strengthen cross-curricular skills and knowledge?
The more of these you can answer in the affirmative the more likely it is that the detour is worth it. It is the teachers who take these calculated risks that I would like to see rewarded by examiners in the Referendariat system.