Why make a good class better?

“We got an assignment to take a good class and make it better. That’s stupid. Why not take a bad class and make it better?”

I’ve been thinking about this statement a lot since I heard it. I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason the assignment wasn’t “take a bad class and make it better” is that whoever was giving the assignment assumed the teachers already do that. In this post I want to respond to the first part: why make a good class better?

Digging right in, then…
What is a ‘good class’?

I have to say, I don’t really know what a good class is.
Maybe it’s one where the time flies,  I’m engaged in the material and I leave feeling excited to use the things I’ve learned right away (I know: I’m the teacher and that’s sort of a selfish definition).
Maybe a good class is one in which the students are actively participating, I’m “in the zone”, the students leave tired from all the challenging but useful practice and they say thank you (don’t laugh – it could happen).
Maybe it’s one where the students are concentrating and interested and willing and I’m able to complete the lesson plan for once (an unfulfilled dream).
When I was a kindergarten teacher, sometimes a good class was one where the kids left the classroom speaking English to each other (not even necessarily things we’d learned that day) or singing or repeating a phrase that had captured them, but other times a good class was simply one in which no one cried.
My point is that whatever a “good class” is, it’s a personal evaluation based on feelings and observations.

Reflection

Suppose, at any rate, that I have something I evaluate as a good class. This is where reflection comes in (and why it might be useful to either record your class or be observed by another teacher). Why was it good? What specific things happened that caused me to evaluate the class as good? I might come up with a variety of responses. Then I have to ask a new question: why did those things happen? One goal of these questions is to arrive at the things that are within my control.

Take, for example, my kindergarten class in which no one cried. The things that I could control were the activities (songs, stories, movements, repetition, review) and to some extent the atmosphere (smiles, laughs, energy, calm). Suppose I learned from the reflection that no one cried because the material was not new and unfamiliar and I was in a good mood that day. I might decide that next time I will notice the way I balance new and familiar material and pay more attention to how my own mood affects the atmosphere of the class.

An Answer

Reflection, I think, is not about improvement so much as awareness. Knowing why a class is good in the first place can lead to greater awareness of myself as a teacher and my students’ learning. This awareness can affect the way I plan my lessons and interact with my students. It may even reduce the number of “bad classes” and the need to make them better.

So far I’ve answered “Why reflect on a good class?” but what about the original question: “Why make a good class better?” I’m afraid I can only answer for myself:

Because I can.

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Comments

  • Rose Bard  On February 5, 2013 at 11:29 am

    This is the question I have been asking myself over and over again. How do we know a good class is a good class in the first place. I mean based on what?

    This complements nicely what Vicky and I were reflecting about yesterday. and…
    I love the way you put it Anne.

  • thesecretdos  On February 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    This is touching on something that I am becoming more and more intrigued by, so thank you! I think that for me at the moment, the value of making a good class better comes from this kind of introspection. You seem not wholly satisfied with the concept of a good class – “it’s a personal evaluation based on feelings and observations.”

    But I don’t think it needs to be this way. In fact, I think that it really shouldn’t be this way. We need relatively objective ways of defining what constitutes a good class and it is the search for these criteria that stands to offer us a lot in the way of professional development.

    As individuals with a vested interest, we should be the last people to decide if a class is good or not. The learners are an obvious source of criteria, but there are issues in relying too heavily upon their judgements. External reference points such as British Council teaching competencies are useful. Similarly, peer evaluations are of great potential in helping us determine how “good” our teaching is.

    Personally, I think you are on to something here: the very act of determining the criteria used to evaluate the class improves the class. However, I think we should train ourselves to disregard our own evaluations of a lesson or of our work. We tend to favour ourselves (even when we are down on ourselves we are really saying, “And I know I can do it much better.” REALLY???). Look for relatively objective criteria to evaluate your teaching and assume that all critical findings have a basis in reality. Ask yourselves questions like, “If this evaluation says that XYZ, how does this sit alongside my view that I teach in a ZYX style? What am I telling myself that I do that apparently I don’t?”

    In a class where everything seems to go well, even by objective standards, the potential for improvement could theoretically be null. If it is as good as it can be, then how can it be better? Only, I think, by searching for disconfirming evidence: was it really as good as it could be? Might there not be some other explanation for why it appeared so good? By trying to tear down our theories and our evaluations, it would appear that we can potentially make them stronger than they were initially.

  • mikecorea  On February 24, 2014 at 12:41 am

    Great post, Anne!

    As I believe you are aware, I am trying to catch up on some comments I wish I’d left in 2013 and this posts was one of the posts I had in mind. The trouble with waiting more than a year to comment is that I seem to have forgotten all the wonderful insights and epiphanies I had. Or maybe I am just remembering them as great and they were nothing special. Anyway it is great to revisit this post and see the excellent comments that are already here.

    Digging right in then…You wrote, “Reflection, I think, is not about improvement so much as awareness” and I think this is a great point. It seems people often want to fix problems rather than understand things.

    Re-re-reading this I was struck with this line, “Suppose, at any rate, that I have something I evaluate as a good class.” I think this is part of the process of becoming aware of our beliefs about what “good” teaching is. I think that by becoming more aware of our inner criteria then we can take steps towards examining and evaluating our criteria as well as our classes.

    I think at some points something like, “Ss were active” can be considered a good class and maybe there is nothing wrong with that. But maybe at some point as teachers we want to get beyond this and want to think about what we mean by a good class. I am thinking that maybe such an assignment would help people bring their hidden criteria out to be seen and I think this is valuable.

    Finally, the most simple of thoughts regarding this “improve a good class” assignment question is that would likely be a harder task than improving a bad class. In a bad class there is a lot of room for improvement.

    Thanks for writing..and now reading.

    ps-thanks again for the post and sorry if I didn’t add as much as I would have liked. You should have seen the comments that got away. They were awesome and huge.

Trackbacks

  • […] that stuck on in my mind and I finally decided to comment on this this one from Feb 2013 on “making a good class better and why we should do so and think about doing so.” If I were to be as silly as to offer an excuse for not commenting on this excellent blog […]

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