Simmering, not boiling

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I’m teaching Y12 all about synaptic transmission. Although it feels a little abstract for them right now, it’s absolutely crucial knowledge. I’ve set the scene: later in the course they’ll learn about disorders like depression and schizophrenia, and the drugs used to treat them; they simply can’t do that without sound knowledge of how neurotransmitters work. 

We’ve just been through the process of synaptic transmission, me live drawing a sequence of diagrams on the board while I explain, them following along and regularly pausing to verbally rehearse in pairs. A few different checks for understanding yield promising results – clear and accurate descriptions and correct use of key terms. I know they haven’t *learned* it yet, but I’m happy they’re where I need them right now so I can move on. Despite lots of psychology teachers reporting that this is a dry or difficult topic for students (and I’ve had plenty in the past who felt that way), there’s a healthy sense of purpose and engagement. They’re simmering nicely (and I didn’t need to use play-doh!). Time to turn up the heat. Let’s talk about drugs.

My class are excited, eyes light and ears prick. Why does heroin make you high? Why are cigarettes addictive? There’s some tricky, technical material coming but they’re up for the challenge. We start talking about different categories of drugs (agonists & antagonists) and what we mean by a drug. A hand shoots up. “What’s the difference between class A, B and C?” Great question, not really relevant to the lesson but some off-the-cuff PSHE probably no bad thing. A quick digression and a look at a few different drugs. Lots of questions from students. One starts to talk about Breaking Bad; I’m about to stop him when I see where he’s going and it’s an interesting question. Another one asks if I’ve seen the research on spiders making webs after taking LSD or ecstasy (if you haven’t, you should definitely check it out here); another asks how those drugs work. I briefly mention how researchers are now investigating the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (the active compound in some hallucinogenic drugs) – could taking magic mushrooms be a cure for depression? More questions follow, and I’m being pushed to the limits of my subject knowledge. 

I’m also being pushed to the limit of how much I want this to carry on. The lesson was simmering nicely, but I’m worried that we’ve boiled over. There are separate conversations starting to break out – enthusiastic and on-topic – but tangential and distracting all the same. I need to get them back on track. There’s some core knowledge I need them to learn and we’re never going to get there if we carry on like this. Of course, we could come back to it next lesson but we only have so much time and a full specification to deliver.

Imagine you’re an observer watching this, what feedback would you give?

The engagement with the subject is clear to see – the kind of spontaneous questioning and discussion that makes it feel like a government advert for getting into teaching. The sort of scene we naively imagined teaching would be like after watching Dead Poets Society. I’m bloody well inspiring them aren’t I?!

But, at the same time, I’ve kind of lost control of the room. They’re all firing off in different directions and the coherence of the lesson has gone. Students are talking over each other, calling out. One student who speaks English as an Additional Language (EAL) is starting to drift. She was ok with the previous bits because I was managing the pace but the quickfire discussion is leaving her behind. What will remain when they leave the room? My carefully crafted explanation of synaptic transmission or the mental image of a spider on acid?

An over-enthusiastic class is one which many people wouldn’t necessarily see as a significant problem. But as Adam Boxer explains in much more detail here, Sins of Enthusiasm can cause lots of problems. It can reduce ratio as a minority of voices dominate and the rest begin to switch off. It sends strong signals about what is or isn’t acceptable in your classroom (like calling out or talking over each other), and it can increase extraneous load by diverting attention away from what you actually want them to be thinking about. At the same time, you don’t want to kill the buzz in the room. You want to stop them from boiling over, but keep them simmering.

What needs to happen next depends on the root of the problem. Is this normal? Does this typically happen in most lessons or is this a one off? Any feedback on this lesson hinges on knowing this – context is everything here.

If it’s normal then something’s up with the culture of the classroom (of course, some might argue that absolutely nothing is wrong with this kind of classroom culture). What are your expectations? Do the students know them? What happens when they don’t meet them? What you permit you promote; do students think this is just ok? Maybe other teachers are happy with it, no-one’s ever told them that this isn’t actually ok, that it’s detracting from their learning. Ideally this is something you set at the start of the year when you first meet your class. Establishing a new set of expectations and routines half-way through a term or year is tricky, and will take a bit of time. But if you’re going to be losing time every lesson then it’s probably worth it.

Alternatively, you might already have set those expectations, established those routines, it’s just you’ve let it slide. You just need to get control of the room back, quick, but in the right way. Acknowledge, and praise, the enthusiasm but steer them back to where you want them. An quick independent task might be useful here. A question to answer on mini-whiteboards on their own. Give them all a minute to think and write in silence, turn the heat down a few notches.

That’s certainly what happened here for me. My class know my expectations and are great with routines. But they got over-excited in the heat of the lesson. It’s my fault; I needed to keep them simmering, not boiling.

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