Saturday 27 February 2016

Freestyle Teaching

In my younger days I used to rap a lot. Late Saturday night customers to KFC were often treated to having their order taken by a freestyling team member. Journeys in my best mate's Vauxhall Corsa were sure to be accompanied by some 'off the top' lyrics. And house parties would often be, erm, enhanced by my improv raps. Fo' real.

Research shows that when a rapper freestyles certain parts of the brain are shut down and others are activated. The active parts are the premotor areas and language areas. "Premotor areas are the parts of the brain that prepare and coordinate your movements. The language areas that are active during artistic creativity are responsible for both understanding and producing language." The parts that shut down ensure inhibitions are lower, stopping a rapper from being too controlling and self-critical. They allow a rapper to lose themselves in the moment and to be spontaneously creative.

I'm the sort of teacher who plans a loose lesson structure but trusts themselves to fill in the gaps - winging it as they go along. Since teaching is very language and communication-orientated I think it can legitimately be compared to freestyle rapping. Rappers who can freestyle well can do so because of the hours of practise they've put in - the techniques and skills they need come naturally as their brains draw on the experience. As one becomes a more experienced teacher it is easier to rely on skills and strategies that you know you've used successfully before. The more you freestyle, the more you become confident in your ability to do so.

The most succesful lessons I teach are also the ones where time flies - these are the lessons where I've been freestyling the most. It's called flow state; "Once you have honed a hard-to-master skill (teaching in our case), you may perform best when you begin to feel the flow, i.e., when the parts of your brain that critique and criticise are muted." This is very possibly the reason why observed lessons sometimes don't feel as good as our normal ones - we don't allow ourselves into our comfort zone as we are constantly second-guessing the observer's possible criticisms. On the other hand, it could be because teachers accustomed to winging it spend uncharacteristically long amounts of time planning for an observed lesson, meaning that they are not drawing on their well-practised skills.

I wonder how many teachers really allow themselves into the teaching zone where they draw on past experience in the heat of the moment, instead of sticking to formulaic and over-thought lesson plans. Anything can happen in the course of a lesson and following closely a plan which hasn't anticipated change can often be detrimental to learning.

Would you trust yourself to be a freestyle teacher?

Thanks to Malinda McPherson, Charles Limb, The Guardian and all the freestyle rappers out there for the inspiration for this piece.

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