After a referendum-induced hiatus, I’m back. Sort of. Let’s just say that my plans for a ‘quiet’ second half of 2016 are not the ones I originally envisaged.
In a very graphic way, last Thursday’s decision that the UK should leave the EU is a demonstration of the importance of having a fall-back plan. I might have one, but I appear to be about the only one in the country who does.
Let’s work on the basis that your classes don’t involve instances where actions result in the complete upheaval of a country’s and a continent’s political, economic and social order. If then do, then welcome and please could you write an endorsement for our website.
Instead, our lives tend to be more mundane, as do our problems. But contingencies still matter, particularly when we use active learning.
In essence, the problems are two-fold.
Firstly, and most commonly, things don’t pan out as expected. This might be down to misunderstandings by students, diversions down side-tracks, or mis-alignment of objectives and activities. In all these cases, it comes back to you to try to minimise these happening by engaging in clear design and articulation of your class plan.
Secondly, and very rarely, there is a concentrated effort by students to overturn the class. Why they might do this is a toss up between a well-intentioned desire to go something better and a more malevolent wrecking mentality. Here there’s little to be done in the way of preparatory prevention, unless it’s something you know about, in which case you need to be meeting with students to discuss matters ASAP.
Whatever the causes, how do you deal with things going belly-up?
The first thing is to stay calm. Bearing in mind the opening example, it’s not the end of the world: often with a bit of nudge, matters can be put back on track. You can just students to pause and reflect on their activity, offer some comments on how to redirect, then get them moving on again. The basic rule of thumb here is that it’s only a drama if you make it into one.
Alternatively, you might let things carry on, to see how they play out. That might be a dead end – in which case youv’e got a great learning moment – or it might produce something that adds extra value to what you planned. On several occasions on the over the years, I’ve learnt something of genuine value from this second option, because students have proved more capable that I’d anticipated.
If matters are less benign, then you need to be both calm and firm. Stop the activity, explain why things need to change or stop and then make a decision about whether and how to continue. Again, if you’ve prepped yourself and the students well, then this situation shouldn’t arise, but it doesn’t erradicate the problem.
Typically, you’re more likely to find that students struggle to engage with your activity than to fight against it. Here you need to talk with them about why they feel like this and solicit their views on how to reconcile your positions. Often, it’s simply an anxiety about doing something new, and you just need to reassure them that it’s going to be alright.
Of course, this means you need to feel that it’s going to be alright. That’s not the same as a dogged belief it will work, but rather that even if it doesn’t work, it can be saved and a way forward found.
Probably a life lesson in there, somewhere, but I’m sure I don’t know what that might be.