Planning Spontaneity

Whenever I teach an intensive mode class, as I’ve just finished doing, I have to face the fact that I just don’t have the same level of ‘slack’ time between classes that I’m used to. In a traditional model of 2-3 lectures a week, I usually get a break of up to 5 or so days between each teaching activity to make changes based on student feedback, to rehearse and to plan. When you’re teaching 3 hours on Friday, 6 hours on Saturday and 7 hours on Sunday, and adding a good hour of extra time per session on for student questions, you have no slack.

I like to able to take the class in a wide range of directions, where student questions and comments allow the exploration of the knowledge in a way that recognises how the students appear to be engaging with it. I still get all of the same content across (and it’s in the notes and probably podcasts as well) but we may meander a fair bit on our path through it. I learned, very early on, that being able to be spontaneous like this and still cover everyone was not something that I could achieve without planning.

The New Caledonian Crow can spontaneously solve problems without planning. I’m guessing that this doesn’t include teaching Computer Networks to humans.

If I don’t ask students any questions, or they don’t ask me any, then I can predict how the lecture will roll out. I can also predict that most students will end up asleep and that they will learn very little. Not a good solution. I like to be able to try different things, other activities, focus on issues of direct concern to the students but, given that I have almost no reaction time in a tight teaching mode like this, how can I do it? Here are five things that I’ve found are useful. There are more but these are my top five and I hope that they’re helpful – there’s nothing really earth-shattering here but there’s a tweak here and there.

  1. Get any early indications you can of what students are interested in. Use this to identify areas that might get explored more.

    Have you set an assignment on ‘subject X’? Students will be interested in subject X. Has something been in the news? Is there something on the student’s mind? In the previous post, I used a question board to find out what each student was really curious about. A quick scan of that every now and then gave me an idea of what the students would talk about, ask questions about and care about. It also allowed me to do some quick looking up to confirm areas that weren’t on the traditional course that could add more interest.

  2. Review the course and know what can be dropped. Plan not to but have it as a safety valve.

    Ok, this is Teaching 101, but it’s essential in an intensive course. Once it’s over, you’ve missed the chance to add new content and you only have 2.5 days to get it across. I know which areas I can reduce depth on if we’ve gone deep elsewhere but, sometimes, I’m in a section where nothing can be dropped. Therefore I use that knowledge to say “I can’t drop anything” so I have to use a different strategy like…

  3. Have a really good idea of how long everything will take. Be prepared to hold to time if you have to.

    If you run 10 minutes over in a traditional lecture, the next lecturer will grumble, the students will grumble, but the end of the day resets the problem. Do that in intensive mode and you lose an hour for every six lectures. On the course I just did, you’d lose nearly three lectures (worst case). Yes, yes, we’re all rehearsing our content and re-reading it before we present, but intensive mode students have different demands, and may keep asking you questions because they know this is one of their few chances to talk to you face-to-face, which brings me to…

  4. Understand your students.

    My intensive students have full-time jobs when they’re not in my classroom. They’re so dedicated to their studies that they work 5 days, spend Friday night with me, work Saturday morning, and then spend Saturday and Sunday afternoon with me. What does this mean? It means that I can’t just run over on Friday night because I feel like it. I need to respect the demands on their time. Some of them might be late because of public transport or work running over and things like that – because we’re all jamming stuff in. I don’t condone students not caring about things but I do try to understand my students and respect the amount of effort they’re putting in. What else does this mean? I have to be very interesting and very clear in my explanations on Sunday, preferably with lots of interactive activities of one form or another, because everyone is really, really tired by then.

  5. Understand yourself.

    The whole reason I plan really carefully for these activities is that, by Sunday, I’m pretty tired myself. University courses do not usually run at this pace and this is not my usual approach. I’m rounding out a 10 day week at a pace that’s faster than usual. While I will still be quite happily able to teach, interact and work with my students, there’s no way that I’m going to be very creative. If I want to support interesting activities on Sunday, I need to plan them early and identify their feasibility on Friday and Saturday. However, I plan with the assumption that it will go ahead.

This Sunday I ran a collaborative activity that I had planned earlier, foreshadowed to the students and used as a driver for thinking about certain parts of the course. It ran, and ran well, but there’s no way that I could have carried it out ‘off the cuff’ and everything good that happened on Sunday had been planned at least a few days in advance, with some of it planned weeks before.

I love being spontaneous in the classroom but it has taken me years to realise that the best opportunities for the kind of spontaneity that builds useful knowledge are almost always very carefully planned.


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