Ditch the Plan!

One of the reasons I love my job is that the outcome and the course of each lesson is so unpredictable. I've never been a fan of detailed, minute-to-minute plans. I do outline my lesson roughly, set the objectives, prepare the materials and wait.... wait what happens next. How could anyone possibly predict what's going to happen in the following 45 minutes? One can hardly predict what will happen in the forthcoming seconds. I usually know how to start, what I'm going to do afterwards and how I'd wish to wind up the lesson. I've always been a hit-and-miss type of person; I follow my intuition, my feelings and hunches, and my inner voice. After having worked in ELT for some time, I can honestly confess that the more detailed my plan is, the worse. And also, when I expect the lesson to be fantastic, the topic intriguing, the students motivated and active, my plans usually fall through. The best of my lessons have always been various improvisations deviating from the original plan.

I should stress that I wasn't planning to write this post; I decided just a couple of hours ago. I was teaching my favourite class of 17-year-olds (twelve people in the class, five boys, seven girls, pre-intermediate to intermediate level, regular coursebooks, regular horse-shoe seating arrangement, board and chalk, no technology). In the previous lesson we had listened to and read a text about a colour-blind artist who uses a special device that helps him to 'hear' colours. It was an interesting topic and I liked the text, but I didn't see its potential immediately. After a brief summary of the content I was planning to teach prefixes and concentrate on new vocabulary items. However, an idea suddenly occurred to me; I decided to conduct a little experiment. First, I asked my students to imagine not being able to see in colour. I asked in what situations this could be a huge disadvantage. They came up with interesting ideas, such as when driving a car, being a clothes designer or simply when choosing the right clothes to look beautiful for a date. Then I got them to find some black and white pictures in the coursebook. I asked them to work in pairs and describe the images in detail - but in colour. For example: I think the man is wearing a pink jumper because.... the sky is blue, the iceberg is white and the boy's hair is black. Then I stopped them and elicited answers, which I recorded in my notebook. I encouraged the students to tell me why they think it is the colour. These are some of their answers: The sky in the picture is blue because the sky is always blue when there are no clouds. The boy's hair is black because he comes from Africa. He's wearing an orange T-shirt because these colours were fashionable in those times. The men's shirt is pink - because I feel it - I can always feel colours. The ship is brown because ships are made from wood and wood is brown. The ropes are grey because that's what I saw in movies.

While recording their answers I said : ‘Wow, this is intriguing!’ Being very pleased they asked me why I found it so interesting. I said I wanted them to find out. And there it came – their ‘aha’ moment...and a very important educational ‘aha’ moment for me. Apart from the fact that they practised describing pictures and vocabulary, the students took a step further towards understanding something important about humans:

We are unique. Each of us feels and sees things in a different way.

We base our judgements on our previous knowledge and experience, which can sometimes be helpful but it can also hinder mutual understanding.

I didn't manage to follow my plan and teach prefixes so I'll have to catch up next time. But it was worth it! It's better to ditch a plan than ditch the opportunity to educate your students.