Teachers as Improvisers

Every job has its share of surprises. A key piece of equipment breaks down. A traffic accident forces a change in delivery routes. A client calls to say you’ve won the contract–but they need the order filled three months earlier than planned. No matter where you work, you need to be able to improvise to meet your objectives, or at least cut your losses.

“The Presidency was no different,” former tenant in the White House Barack Obama said in describing his job.

He describes his Party’s fight for the Affordable Care Act in 2009-2010 in his first term. Improvising political decisions with both Democrats and Republicans while juggling scores of other issues that beset any President captures what he and his partners had to do repeatedly. Obama knew well those compromises, dotted with sudden and unexpected twists and turns, had to be dealt with. Improvisation was the order of the day when it came to health care.

Re-read the epigraph. It also applies perfectly to teachers teaching and their unplanned decision-making that they manage in trying to meet their lesson objectives.

Non-teachers would be amazed at the many decisions teachers make during a 45-minute lesson, the frequency of on-the-fly, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. Decisions tumble out one after another in questioning students, starting and stopping activities, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads.

I know of no MRIs that neuroscientists have used with teachers in experiments on classroom decisions. Nonetheless, the number and frequency of decisions teachers make during a lesson have been examined sporadically (mostly in the 1970s and 1980s) through simulations and video analysis but seldom since then. (Readers who know of recent studies, please let me know).

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, improvise. They must decide on the spot in dealing with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

Barack Obama doesn’t mention teachers in the above epigraph but he easily could have.

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