Flexibility is often extolled as a virtue in teaching. It is also one of the 5 ‘F’s for managing children positively: friendly, firm, fair, flexible and fun.
My memories of times I’ve been flexible in my teaching are also memories of some of what I like to think of as my most successful lessons. Two examples are about snowmen and silkworms!
In the case of snowmen, I had arrived at school one freezing winter morning and started the opening lesson routine with my 5-year-olds as usual. About ten minutes later, it started to snow (not very usual in Madrid) – huge, white snowflakes slowly and magically falling before our eyes outside the classroom window. The children were excited and enchanted – for many it was the first time they had ever seen snow – so I abandoned my original plan (there was nothing else possible) and we spent the rest of the lesson talking about snow, learning a snowman song, drawing a snowman, making it into a pencil puppet and doing a very simple snowman role play. The children loved the activities and participated with huge enthusiasm, largely I think due to the immediate ‘here and now’ relevance of everything we did.
In the case of silkworms, my class of 8-year-olds were coming to the end of a class project on bugs*, a topic which I find usually fascinates this age group. One child turned up to class proudly clutching a shoe box with holes in the lid. When the lid was taken off, the box was full of tiny silkworms, wriggling away under a bed of mulberry leaves. The class was thrilled and delighted, and everyone crowded round closely to look. Again I decided the only thing to do was to ‘go with the flow’ and abandon my original plan. So we spent the lesson talking about silkworms, learning what they eat, observing and counting the silkworms in the shoebox, drawing and labelling a picture of the silkworms and mulberry leaves, and writing a short description which we built up together on the board. The children’s enthusiastic response was again testimony to the value of flexibility.
But these kinds of events – snowmen and silkworms – don’t happen every day, at least not in my experience. So what are some of the ways we can build in flexibility during the normal course of our teaching? Here are some suggestions. We can be flexible in the way we:
- choose topics e.g. by finding out about children’s interests and incorporating these.
- organise children e.g. according to friendship, ability, gender, random.
- set up activities e.g. depending on whether we want the children to stand up and move around, or to remain seated.
- repeat activities e.g. if children enjoy a particular game or song and want to do it again.
- time activities e.g. if children find activities easier or more difficult than we anticipate.
- ask and answer questions e.g. the kinds of questions we use e.g. open or closed, and who asks and answers the questions (i.e. not always us).
- check answers e.g. in pairs, orally with the whole class, circulating an answer sheet.
- give feedback e.g. oral, written, to the whole class or individuals, by us or by peers.
- offer choices e.g. in what children do, in the order they do it, in how they do it (e.g.by hand or on computer), in homework tasks.
- use L1 e.g. to avoid misunderstanding, to explain a new concept, to resolve conflict.
- use reward systems (if we do at all) e.g. stars, points, raffle tickets, stickers.
It would be great to hear your experiences of flexibility in your teaching and any other ideas you have to add to the list. Please do share!
* See p. 237 in 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom for details of the kinds of things we did as part of the project.
Photo credits: Snowmen by James Matthews; Silkworms by Mary Mactavish.