Spontaneity: the elephant in the room by Adrian Underhill

8th February 2020


This IATEFL Webinar on Spontaneity took place 4th Jan 2020. 350 people attended, and contributed 6000 words of comment and response. (The talk and slides are available for IATEFL members only: after you’ve logged in go to “My Resources” and choose “Recorded Webinars” from a drop-down menu.)

This post is a collage of participant voices and views, illustrating teachers’ experience of spontaneity and its importance in creative teaching and learning. It does not summarise the content.

A core proposal was that spontaneity is integral to everyday human experience, and of course to classroom teaching, and though current ELT methodology relies on spontaneity to make preparation and classroom interaction work, yet it affords spontaneity no real professional discourse, making it harder to see, discuss, critique, develop, or get better at. I emphasised that preparation and spontaneity need each other, yet we stress one while the other becomes the living breathing elephant in the room.

Each of these participant comments offers an entry point for discussion covering a wide range of views, experiences and concerns about spontaneity. Perhaps the comments here may help initiate such a discourse.

I have not tried to unpack the comments, but grouped them according to the topic at that point of the webinar. For the full context, and to engage in further debate, I invite you to check out the webinar.

What we attend to affects the kind of classroom that comes into being

I proposed that Spontaneity depends in part on what we choose to pay attention to. Quoting Iain McGilchrist I suggested that we make our world by what we attend to, because what we attend to affects what kind of thing comes into being for us, and in that way creates our world.

So I asked a broad and not easy question: What do you pay attention to in your class, and what kind of class does that bring into being? Here are some collated replies:

  • I attend to … my students’ feelings, responses, attitudes, behaviour, attention, achievements.
  • I attend to what my students need, and recently they need to pass the exam.
  • I look at students who are bending over their phones.

What teachers think gets in the way of spontaneity:

Lack of confidence, error correction, students' questions, time limit, textbooks, lesson planning, the curriculum and administrators, being observed.

You don't have to depart from the plan to be spontaneous, the plan is only the skeleton.

The plan is the stepping stone, the launching pad for spontaneous interaction. Planning is important but be ready to change the plan depending on students’ needs. But then it may be seen as a sign of unpreparedness.

Why do teacher trainers rarely ask us to improvise?

The offer

I proposed that a core rule in drama, comedy and relationship generally, is to “accept the offer”. In the ELT class the offer could be a look, a reply, a mistake, a question, a silence, an action, a confusion, a laughter, and so on…. A lot depends on how we use, misuse, reject, offers. "It's not the offer, but what you do with it.” (Keith Johnson). Here is a selection of participant reflections:

  • Saying "yes" is the basis for improvisation techniques in drama. By interacting with the students you find they are different from what you first thought.
  • Curiosity encourages unexpected outcomes in the classroom.
  • Some teachers feel nervous when accepting the offer. The more experience you have as a teacher, the more comfortable and open you are to accept the offer.
  • I think accepting offers is essential - they offer a way to start real conversation, which is often funny, and I can make a story out of it.
  • But how do we reconcile "offers" of spontaneity with "getting on" with a demanding syllabus?
  • I try to accept offers but sometimes it's hard because it may lead to extended digression.

The Mantra: “Notice More, Do less, Use Everything”

By way of a portable mantra to create a hospitable place for spontaneity in the classroom I suggested this from Robert Poynton: Notice More, Do less, Use Everything. See the webinar for more on this.

  • You need to be confident, and not shy of letting yourself be seen as a real person.
  • Curiosity encourages unexpected things to happen in the classroom.
  • Yes, noticing more brings more chances.
  • Start at the other end, notice yourself and your baggage, then work outwards to people, then surroundings, then the wider world.
  • This is what makes working with a class so interesting and rewarding.
  • For most, spontaneity may mean something is out of control.
  • Can spontaneity be taught?
  • I think we need to look for spontaneity when we accept people to take training courses too, though. Teacher training colleges seem to be willing to kill spontaneity (at least mine did).
  • If you approach your lesson like a conversation that you are sharing, you automatically are predisposed to spontaneity.
  • You need a plan, but you also need to be ready to go out of it if necessary.
  • There are many classroom activities which generate spontaneous interaction. No need to depart from the plan for spontaneity to occur!


Supervisors could support teachers to suggest ways of seeing and developing spontaneity. Students are much more engaged in the material when they are engaged in conversations that they are part of, like engaging in a lovely secret! I was in improv long before I was a teacher, and it has helped in all my careers/endeavors, being able to accept offers and let go of ego, fear and rigidity.

If not too much time is devoted to spontaneity, there will be few complaints.

I think that depends upon the cultural environment. Where I am, asking students to go outside a regular framework doesn't work well.

But then how can you be sure your diversion is beneficial to the students? Of course you could ask the same question about the planned part…

To readers of this blog – if the above has interested you, please have a look at the webinar, and bring your own experience into the debate.

IATEFL members can view the original webinar on this topic by Adrian Underhill here.

About Adrian Underhill

My interests have been in teaching and training, consultancy and publishing, leadership and storytelling, and playing jazz in clubs and bars. But my current preoccupation is with the free play of purposeful spontaneity in the classroom. I think that all of us are already spontaneous in interaction, but since we don't talk about it it's hard to get better at it. Yet spontaneity seems to offer fresh opportunities to connect with ourselves, with each other, with what we are saying, with what matters, and with significant learning. It seems to access the flow of energy in the moment, to make the moment attractive. And perhaps if we can combine this with the preparation we have done beforehand then every lesson might become a naturally significant event. But I think the first thing is to start talking about it...