A Cure for the Common Lecture: Improvisation and Student-Led Inspiration

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Photo by bobbi vie, CC BY 2.0

I teach science at a school that believes in emergent curriculum. If the class wants to go in a certain direction, I have the freedom to follow their interests. If a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, that is a good thing. This means I can become “one of the students” — a fellow seeker of knowledge in an atmosphere of excitement, uncertainty and adventure.

So what happens when I need to do “direct instruction” and actually teach specific content? Hint: Google images, YouTube and improv.

Although lecturing is a dirty word at my school, we still recognize the need for direct instruction. There are moments when a teacher clearly explaining a complex concept is invaluable. There are certain fundamental principles that students need to understand before they can delve into their own projects, but spending hours before class creating a PowerPoint deck is not my idea of a good time.

So what’s a busy, science-loving, PowerPoint-hating teacher to do? Well, I generally spend a couple minutes generating an outline of the four or five concepts I want to teach that day. When class starts and it’s time to introduce protein synthesis, I simply do a Google image search. I click on the image with the right level of detail, and then have students attempt to explain it to me.

I usually give the class about 10-15 seconds to silently examine the image (so the kids whose hands shoot up don’t take up all the oxygen in the room). I often cold call, celebrating when a student is willing to admit “I don’t get it,” and has to articulate exactly where they’re getting stuck, or what they do get. After one student walks me through that first image, I’ll pull up a couple more images of the same concept, giving different students a chance to engage with the idea, while reinforcing the idea that these are just models that emphasize slightly different parts of the phenomenon. Although I have a general sense of where I want to go next, students will often have questions that send us off on a related tangent.

Student: Wait, what’s the difference between DNA and RNA?
Me: [types in "DNA vs. RNA" in Google image search] Here’s a beautifully illustrated table comparing the two.
Student: Does the mRNA ever fold back on itself?
Me: I don’t know, I’ve never thought about that before. What do you think?
Student: Uh, I guess so. ‘Cuz of base pairing
Me: Let’s search for mRNA folding and see what comes up. . . Look at those loops and stems!

Taking the time to chase down student question in real time makes for a far more invigorating atmosphere than me simply marching through pre-ordained slides. Students feel ownership of their learning process. They know that their curiosity will be rewarded by my excitement at getting to explore a surprising question (rather than the response: We don’t have time for that, we need to get to the next slide).


The next day, after they’ve done a few activities around transcription and translation, I’ll follow up with a YouTube video as a pop quiz. I search YouTube for “transcription animation” (knowing that this one particularly awesome HHMI one will come up). I pause the video about every 15 seconds to ask the class various questions: Why is everything shaking around so much? What type of macromolecule is that? Where is this happening? What will happen next? If they build on my question by asking another question (how fast does this take place in real life?), I’ll either have them put their question on the “question board” for us to circle back to, or open a new tab and do a classwide search right then and there. The excitement of emergent curriculum continues, as I get immediate feedback on how well each student understand the concept.

This strategy works especially well when we’re talking about evolution and ecology. I’ll often describe a straightforward concept like symbiosis, and then ask for examples from students. As the words are coming out of their mouth, I’m literally typing them into Google images, so that our discussion of birds that clean alligator’s teeth, or fish that feed off of sharks or clownfish and sea anemone can become that much more real for the whole class. If there are additional questions about clownfish, I kick it up a notch by searching on YouTube to get video of the interaction.

There is an improvisational spirit to this strategy that both students and I thrive on. While I define the core concepts we’ll be learning, they get to choose the examples, the clarifying questions, and the follow-up questions. If we need to spend a couple minutes off on a tangent related to the structure of tRNA, that’s awesome. Is every single kid along for the intellectual ride? Not always. But by creating a culture where it’s okay to “pull the emergency brake” when you no longer understand what’s going on, and a culture where it is celebrated to declare that you have no idea what we’re talking about, students are empowered to ask basic and advanced questions alike. When one student is feeling confused, I’ll have another student explain it in words that they might better understand.

This spirit of improvisational inquiry also makes it possible to harness the types of “keeps you awake at night” questions that make students actually care about science. My willingness to take a five-minute tangent to explore a student’s question about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (the technology used in the motion picture GATTACA to select offspring with certain traits), gives students an ethical and societal reason to care about the mechanics of protein synthesis. Because, what’s the real relationship between genes and proteins and traits anyway?

I’ve listed a few caveats below, and if you have other questions or raised eyebrows about my strategies, I’d be happy to answer questions in the comments. I’m sure it’s not for everybody, but hopefully the basic principles of following student questions, being willing to improvise and say “I don’t know,” and harnessing the immense power of the Internet to make abstract discussions more vivid, might resonate with your practice.



  • By opening up each image in a new browser tab, I can keep track of the images I’ve used for that class, and send the three or four most important images home to the kids so they have a record of what we discussed to go with their notes.
  • Doing blind Google searches can be a high-risk activity depending on your search terms. On the rare occasion when a scantily clad anime character (or worse) pops up somewhere in the search, I simply “mute” the projector (most projectors have an AV mute button that blacks out the screen temporarily), find what I need, then unmute it. The eighth graders giggle and get over it. This happens in, perhaps, 1 out of 100 searches.
  • This teaching strategy (and emergent curriculum in general) depends on the teacher having a certain level of confidence in the material. With this intellectual security comes the humility to say “I don’t know. That’s such a good question, let’s explore that together.” This models intellectual honesty, curiosity and a love of learning. It also makes teaching insanely fun.