(of circles and squares)
Last Thursday I taught two lessons, back-to-back, with two classes from the same school, with students from the same year, following the same syllabus and studying for the same exam. Not surprisingly, I guess, I used the same basic lesson plan for both groups. But (and again probably not very surprisingly) the two lessons turned out to be quite different.
The first class had thirteen students on paper, eleven in the flesh. There’s a shortage of classrooms at that time, so we were seated around a big table in a small room. When I say we were seated, I should say the students were seated. There was only just room for eleven seats around the table, which meant I kind of hovered around the edges.
I had planned some physical, up on our feet activities to kick off. The logistics weren’t ideal. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to get the students mingling and arranging themselves in alphabetical order according to their mother’s surnames as I had planned. So I had a quick rethink, and asked everyone to shuffle back a few inches, enough not to bang their knees as they got to their feet, and set them the task of working on the order for a “Mexican wave” with each student standing up in alphabetical turn, announcing their first name and sitting down again.
It worked very smoothly, with only a few knocks to knees on table legs. It got a few laughs and focused the attention on the group, on the circular table as the centre and the shape of the class. The rest of the lesson went smoothly too, with some discussion of family names passed down the generations, of those who liked their names and why, of those who didn’t and why not. Of names they’d give their children and whether they’d ever change their own. The students wrote about the discussion and we read a text about a father who named two of his many sons Winner and Loser and the consequences of the naming (a supposedly true story taken from Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner).
The table, and the fact that all the students faced each other, and none of them faced me; the fact that we had no board, but pieces of A4 paper that I wrote on and placed in the centre of the table when necessary (not very often); the fact that I stood at the edges, never at the centre, all added up to create a special atmosphere. Throughout the lesson, the communication flowed around and across the circle, kind of like a dodgems ride, nudged on at times by me from the edges with a long pole.
The second lesson was far more conventional. There were nine students in a classroom designed for thirty or more. The chairs and desks were fixed and arranged in rows. The blackboard was enormous and I had an abundance of chalk. We kicked off with the students up on their feet, mingling and arranging themselves alphabetically as planned. There was plenty of room to move, but somehow there was much less energy. Maybe it wasn’t the room, maybe it was because we were one hour closer to lunch time, or just one room away from the cooking smells of the canteen, but somehow the group dynamic just didn’t work as well.
Maybe it was because they chose to stand in a row in that first activity, rather than being forced into a circle? Or maybe they needed the dynamic of the wave? Standing up turned out to be, ironically, more static than sitting down. When we got back to our seats, the class all sat in the front two rows, looking ahead, paying attention, listening, focused, but there was an aisle that cut the class in two, and the whole lesson was much quieter. The conversation seemed to need to bounce back and forth off the front wall, off the blackboard, off me, not in a circle around the class, from student to student in a constant, flowing wave.
We followed the same plan, discussed the same topics, wrote similar texts, read about Winner and Loser, just the same as the first time round, but it was a completely different lesson. There was more quiet, individual work, hard work, good work, but less spontaneous, independent conversation. It was far more teacher-led and far less student-generated.
Was it really a question of rooms? And our reactions to those rooms? Or was it simply two different dynamics in two different groups? Whatever the answer, I’m looking forward to the round table again this week and to the challenge of softening the straight lines of the fixed rows.