‘Spontaneity in the Classroom’ webinar: a participant’s perspective by Rozitah Abu Samah

14th February 2020

I had the pleasure of attending one of Adrian Underhill's hour-long session - part of the IATEFL monthly webinar series. The subject was how to address spontaneity in the classroom. It started off with the definition of spontaneity and compared this to the idea of improvisation. Spontaneity usually occurs through natural processes without any external influences. It is more of a personal impulse that happens without prompting or premeditation. According to the Collins English Dictionary, improvisation occurs when a person composes or performs on the spur of the moment, without preparation. Underhill pointed out that these definitions do not necessarily help in distinguishing between the two terms as there is some overlap in their usage. I was amused by some light-hearted attempts at conjuring up the verb form for spontaneous as opposed to the verb improvise. Underhill went on to define spontaneity as "emphasising a moment, a flash, unexpected options", while "improvisation emphasises a sequence, a new story, an unfolding ...". Following this, the discussion then focused on the participants’ experiences of spontaneity.

  • What it means in our teaching
  • Why and how it is important
  • What triggers it and what gets in the way
  • How we would describe spontaneity.

There were some interesting issues that could be drawn out for further discussion but due to time constraints, attention then moved on to how and where spontaneity is utilised, viz. mostly in good conversations (we don't script our conversations) and in performance arts. Underhill used Robert Poynton's (2012) exhortation to "Notice More, Let Go, Use Everything". 

  1. Noticing more relates to being aware of not just ourselves, but other people, our immediate surroundings, as well as the wider world. 
  2. At the same time, we need to release, or let go of, the baggage that stops us from paying attention, such as giving out knee-jerk remarks, or sticking to old habits and attitudes.
  3. When we ‘notice more’ and let go of our baggage, it enables us to use everything around us: mistakes, mishaps or other surprises. This also includes how other people can become constant sources of "offers" of spontaneity.

The discussion continued with how we can use "spontaneity in training and development". Participants were asked whether we agree with the following suggestion: "new teachers tend to follow the lesson plan, but improvisation comes with experience”. Most agreed with this. We are used to being spontaneous in our daily lives, so why not use it in the classroom? If teachers stick to the rigidity of the lesson plan, then they find themselves imprisoned, and possibly slaves to a scripted lesson. This is not to say that the lesson plan has no place in the classroom. Perhaps it is wise to develop the skills of spontaneity as well as being prepared from the beginning. This may be especially useful for newly trained teachers. On the subject of "supervision and feedback", Underhill recommends exploring "off-plan moments" where teachers and/or observers can talk about offers of spontaneity that were made, exploited, or missed. It would also be a good idea to speculate or reflect on "turning points" where things could have gone off differently during the lesson. Lesson feedback is not advised as a criticism of the lesson but more as a means to encourage a discourse of spontaneity. Underhill followed this up with some ideas for games that would incorporate spontaneity in the classroom. The discussion moved on to the general role spontaneity has in the classroom. He proposed eleven opportunities that teachers could make use of:

  1. The teacher should become a "student of offers". What does this mean? Basically, we should be able to catch the moments as they happen.
  2. See things from our point of view BUT see it only as one view.
  3. Scan the room. Notice what is emerging. Teachers should be continuously curious for moments of spontaneity.
  4. Notice our impact on others. Self-awareness for teachers is particularly useful when it comes to seeing how our students react to us and to our behaviour.
  5. Be flexible about our habitual teaching patterns. Develop a sense of humour and see how we can stop being a creature of old habits.
  6. Once we see these habits, break these patterns sometimes; not because it is better but to allow the lesson to invite spontaneity. Who knows, something else may happen.
  7. Work with what's happening, rather than what we wish were happening in the lesson. Remember the adage: “Notice more, Let go, Use everything".
  8. Adopting "playfulness" and a "willingness of whatever" attracts spontaneity.
  9. Worry less about trying to control everything about the lesson; encourage connectivity and engagement with learners instead.
  10. Give up trying to be interesting - just reach out and connect. 
  11. Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there. The suggestion here is that teachers should make plans but not always expect them to work out.

The webinar closed with a summary of these points:

  • We are all spontaneous: It's a natural characteristic of all human behaviour and it should not be regarded too seriously.
  • When we think ahead, we tend to miss most of what's happening right now in life. So, we need a balance of thinking ahead with what's happening now.
  • Preparation gives us direction and keeps us going. It is also a resource from which we can improvise.
  • To make its full contribution, spontaneity needs a discourse.
  • Spontaneity can bring added energy, engagement, play and meaning.

So, what did I take away from this session? That my acts of, and reliance on, spontaneity during my lessons after all these years have been acknowledged as valid, and that it does have a place in the classroom. Though not the same, spontaneity has parallels with Dogme ELT methodology that focuses on conversational communication without the use of published course books. Any lesson has the potential in moving off at various tangents, but the danger is that teachers themselves will have to make sound pedagogic judgements and be mindful of not letting spontaneity outrun its course. There are still lesson outcomes to consider, and the possibility that there may be learners who are uncomfortable with spontaneity in the classroom. Thus, should teacher evaluations factor in spontaneity during lessons or is this best left to the discretion of the teacher to decide? There are many avenues for discussion here, but I applaud Adrian Underhill for addressing the elephant in the classroom. Overall, it was an hour well spent.

Useful links:


Rozitah Abu Samah, a teacher at The Write Connection in Singapore, holds a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics and TESOL from the University of Leicester and a Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA) from Cambridge. She has also studied Theory and Practice in Language Testing at the University of Roehampton in London. She has worked as an IELTS examiner and has also been an online moderator for teacher training courses with the British Council. Rozitah has been a long-term ELT professional, having taught in Bangladesh, Morocco, Russia, Syria, and the UAE, specialising in teacher training, educational technologies and learner linguistic development.

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