This is an expanded version of an article originally published in UKEdMag
We should all teach more like computers. Hands up if you’ve stopped reading.
And fair enough, though I’ve got to admit to having learned quite a lot from computers recently. A few years ago, Khan Academy re-ignited my interest in maths, and may be partly responsible for it now being my second subject professionally. More recently, Duolingo was enormously helpful in gaining proficiency in a new language when working abroad. Memrise has always served me well for wrote-learning (which is important too, by the way) and I recommend it to a lot of students now. I could go on…
There are some great things about these websites and apps that we can’t emulate in the classroom. The flexibility to learn for any length of time and at any convenient moment is more than handy. The detailed records of achievement that are used to motivate by constantly setting just-about-achievable targets are more detailed and accurate than any we humans will ever hold in our memories. But the single biggest factor in the efficiency of digital learning, in my view, is one which we most certainly can learn from and implement in every lesson we teach: computers are immediately responsive to the learner. They analyse your input (an answer to a question, most often), compute this new data alongside data already held about you, then decide what you should do next.
Organic teachers can do that in the classroom, too. In fact, we can do it better than any computer. We know our students and we can listen to and watch what’s going on round us. We can infer, probe, spy; we can be masters of instantaneous useful-data-collection. Alas, there remains one major obstacle to super-responsive teaching: The Plan. That ridiculous list of tasks, thought out several hours, days, maybe weeks ago, of what we think might be a good idea to do long before we have collected any of this highly relevant data.
We might not have written down detailed notes and timings since our training year, but most of us like to start the day with at least some kind of plan for our lessons. So something of a dilemma exists: how do we prepare our lessons without predetermining their course? For me, an effective solution has been to stop thinking about planning in terms of a list of tasks. Instead, my ‘plans’ are flow-charts. Rather like a computer program, they require input from students and my assessment of the moment before each teacher intervention. What it basically boils down to is the common sense notion of considering how things are going before intervening or pressing ahead with a new task.
“Well, that’s just AfL (assessment for learning), isn’t it?”
Yes, but it’s also a lot more. Flow-chart thinking is useful in making sure your students understand ‘A’ before learning ‘B’, but it also encourages teaching to respond to other variables in the room: what mood the class is in; how much time is left; how engaged students are; what mood the teacher is in; whether behaviour needs guiding…
I’m not suggesting that anyone draws out a diagram of how they plan to respond to all the potential situations that could occur in any given lesson. I don’t do that. That would be ridiculous. What I am suggesting is that we think about lesson preparation in terms of a versatile set of potential responses to potential scenarios, and make informed decisions in the moment, not guesses in advance, about which response is best.
Most of us already accept that good teaching is adaptive, responsive and personal, so why plan away all the joy of a spontaneous, engaging environment? Flow-chart planning may make us teach more like computers but, more importantly, it makes us teach a lot less like robots.