What makes a lesson GREAT? Part 1 (and a postscript)

The original question on IATEFL's Facebook pageThis was the question posed by Mike Harrison on the IATEFL facebook page  recently. Considering the space constraints of commenting on a platform like that, and given my Faible for whimsical responses to serious questions, I replied thus:

My answer to mike's question

If you are familiar with acrostics, a form of poetry where the first letters in each line (or some other regular pattern) form a message, you will see what I have done here – my response to Mike’s question is hiding in plain sight.

But afterwards, amused and satisfied as I was at my minor achievement in melding pedagogy and poetry, I felt the need to expand on this collection of ideas, as I had contributed them with more than simply the intention of showing off my (questionably) witty way with words.

So lI thought I’d look at each of my criteria for what makes a lesson great in a bit more depth over the next few days. I’ll be taking them in order so let’s begin at the beginning with G for Group Dynamic


Starting from first principles, my dictionary gives the following definitions as primary for defining what a group is:

group |gruːp|
noun [treated as sing. or pl. ]
a number of people or things that are located close together or are considered or classed together : these bodies fall into four distinct groups.
• a number of people who work together or share certain beliefs : I now belong to my local drama group.

What is interesting for me about the first definition is that it applies regardless of whether the individuals in a group actually consider themselves to be constituting one or not. In other words, a group may be a construct defined outside itself.

It’s also interesting that only physical proximity or the practicalities of bundling large numbers of individuals together – possibly to simplify management – are considered defining characteristics of a group.

The second definition is clearly different: it foregrounds cohesion – the bond between the members of the group which defines it as such.

Now, what interests me is that the second definition of a group here is certainly the one I would prefer to apply to groups of students; however, thinking about my schooldays, the first definition – the administratively pragmatic but externally imposed bundling form of grouping – seems to be more descriptively accurate.

Of course, the former type of group can transform into the latter kind given the right conditions – and vice versa! I suspect that getting grouped individuals to sense and invest in a common purpose is a beneficial thing, however, so the question then arises: how can this be achieved?


A word that collocates very strongly in education with the noun group is dynamic. This term gets used a lot by teachers and it commonly seems to mean something like rapport. The classic book Classroom Dynamics is full of activities claiming to establich a positive group dynamic – on inspection, they are mostly predicated on the idea that dynamic is dependent on mutual information and trust – in other words, rapport.

Looking at the dictionary entry for dynamic, we see the following:

dynamic |daɪˈnamɪk|
1 a force that stimulates change or progress within a system or process : evaluation is part of the basic dynamic of the project.

ORIGIN early 19th cent. (as a term in physics): from French dynamique, from Greek dunamikos, from dunamis ‘power.’

What strikes you? What I notice is that dynamic is a catalyst for change. It is a change agent, in other words. Its function is to drive systems, to avoid static or stable states.

How is this any different from the idea of rapport? And why is this important? The root meaning of rapport (so my dictionary tells me) goes back to the 17th century French meaning “giving back”; the root for dynamic goes back to Greeek, via French, to the word for “power”.

So rapport is at heart about giving feedback – it is therefore an action more than a state or characteristic of a group, while dynamic is a quality inherent in systems, rather than being an action taken by elements of the system.

Groups are systems, so dynamic is a characteristic of groups, and is a product of rapport. In this sense, then, rapport building is perhaps a poor collocation – we should perhaps be rapport sending, or rapporting – what we are builiding is not rapport, but dynamic, a head of steam. Dynamic is the end, and rapport is the means.

So far, so good… So what?

I thnk this view of rapport and dynamic raises a few questions to which I have no real answers, but think perhaps you might:

  • if dynamic is an essential part of a developing system (as development requires change, and dynamic is the change agent), how can it best be generated? Can it actually be generated by teachers at all?
  • Can we as teachers really do much to get students rapporting, and thereby building a head of dynamic steam in class?
  • In what ways might our current practices be acting as a baffle or impediment to student attempts to rapport to each other?
  • Can (and should) teachers seek to steer or leverage group dynamic in deliberate ways? What unforeseen (and potentially detrimental) impacts might this have on the system? How well prepared are teachers in various educational settings to work sensitively with dynamic? Indeed, can this be taught and trained at all?


After writing this on the train this morning, I had a conversation with a colleague that seems germane to this post.  She recently took over an in company group of learners with a wide range of ability in the class. Previous teachers had suggested that there was an unproductive or awkward class dynamic.  They mostly thought this had something to do with the wide ability spread (a group in the first sense we looked at, perhaps?)  My colleague took on the group a few weeks back and has been describing the lessons to me.
The last two lessons are striking.  Last week she entered the classroom to be met by her students eagerly setting up a data projector to show her a video that they had found on their company intranet about some topic of interest to them.  They watched it and she helped them with language issues, then for homework they wrote summaries.  None of this was planned by my colleague – the group sprang the lesson on her.  All the students did their homework, and there appeared to be some healthy competition developing between some of the members.  The most recent lesson was also an ambush by the students, who had an email from work that they wanted to understand; after this was achieved with the teachers’ help, they each chose 5 lexical items that they personally wanted to learn for next week.  This was reminiscent of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s work with non-literate children in New Zealand, I thought.
On establishing that my colleague would test them the following lesson, a student insisted that they needed to settle on some bonus words in case of a tie-break situation!
My question is: what had changed here?  The class members were the same, yet their behaviour seems to be a model of self-directed learning, not the awkwardness and lack of productivity that was reported.  It begs the question: Can a teacher really make such an impact on a group of otherwise motivated adults that they either totally switch off or go into overdrive?  If one teacher really can make this difference, how much can whatever it is that my colleague is doing right be taught on initial training courses, and how much time is actually spent on it?  As the discussion over on Scott Thornbury’s blog on rapport recently seems to place high importance on this aspect of classroom work, perhaps class management sessions on teacher training courses need to go a bit more beyond the notion of “pairwork/groupwork” and “Instruction Checking Questions” and provide a bit more time for rapporting?


  1. Pingback: What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #5 « Teacher Training Unplugged
  2. Pingback: What makes a lesson GREAT? | efl-resource.comefl-resource.com
  3. Pingback: What makes a lesson GREAT? pt. 1 | efl-resource.comefl-resource.com

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