The Element of Surprise

Brilliant teachers understand the importance of energy, openness and focus.

~ Invisible Teaching, Dave Keeling and David Hodgson

This week, I have been reading ‘Invisible Teaching’, a quirky little book that has some useful things to say about creating a positive learning environment. The introduction speaks about the need to develop both focus and openness in pupils and gives a range of practical tasks to try out. What I particularly liked was the fact that the book encourages students to consider how they work and create what Keeling and Hodgson call flow! Flow – the degree to which we are ‘in the zone’ during specific activities but they ask teachers to think about this too. This is their checklist – The Flow Test.


  1. Did you have a feeling of ‘this is the real me’? 
  2. Were you excited
  3. Were you disappointed when you’d finished?
  4. Did you think about ways to develop your skill or experience within the activity?
  5. Did you feel energised rather than exhausted?
  6. Did you lose track of time?

Whilst it might be a scary thought to offer up your lesson for such scrutiny by children (if they didn’t achieve optimum flow surely it’s your fault…?) I think it might be essential to open ourselves up to just that. It might not be that your activity wasn’t good and well planned but that children need to think about how they approach it or why they did approach it in a certain way. This can surely, only lead to better planning and better learning? This said, I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet but promise to report back when I do!

In the meantime, I thought I would apply the checklist to a lesson I recently enjoyed with my A Level students. Enter…Dorcas the sheep!


During Chapel that morning, the Rev had been talking about the parable of the lost sheet. aided by our puppety friend pictured above. On a whim, I decided to steal the puppet for my Year 13 lesson, in which we were revision the pastoral scenes in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ My initial thought was simply that it would make them laugh, nothing more. I imagined some hilarity followed by discarding the sheep to watch from my desk whilst we cracked on with the real business. What transpired however, was quite different…

The very fact of having a sheep puppet on my arm meant that the students were extremely engaged in discussion – the increase in eye contact alone made for a hugely positive atmosphere. However, the sheep lead us to talk about the shepherd in greater detail than I had planned and then the Rev popped his head round the door to see how we were getting on… On telling him that the sheep was now called Dorcas (after one of the Rusitcs in the play) the Rev suddenly lit up. ‘There’s a Dorcas in the Bible’ he cried and scurried away to find the reference. A quick squiz through Acts Chapter 9 allowed for some insightful new comments about the pastoral genre and the problem of a pagan play written in a Christian era. The surprise element of the sheep had lead to greater learning. My frivolous joke paid off in unexpected ways! 

So.. back to my checklist

  1. Did you have a feeling of ‘this is the real me’? – Totally! My imagination is as good as any five year old. The sheep sparked childish enjoyment in all of us.
  2. Were you excited – Very, especially by collaborative learning.
  3. Were you disappointed when you’d finished? – Disappointed might be a bit far but I certainly could have gone on.
  4. Did you think about ways to develop your skill or experience within the activity? Yes. I will tackle those scenes differently in class from now on.
  5. Did you feel energised rather than exhausted? Totally.
  6. Did you lose track of time? It flew by

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that as well as a balance between focus and openness or energy and focus there must also be room for the element of surprise! Never be afraid to take risks in the classroom – they usually pay off! As Keeling and Hodgson say

Being a teacher is a real challenge – it’s exciting , satisfying and scary. Flow happens in environments where our skills are constantly tested and we are in situations where we have to raise out game.

.. perhaps too, in situations where we harness the element of surprise!


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