The challenge of adaptive teaching

blood moon


I was lucky enough today to have the opportunity to teach Stage 3 Science again. It was the other stage 3 class so I got to teach the phases of the moon lesson again. My colleague, Jodi, who is the class teacher rated my lesson using the newly modified teacher adaptive practice scale (below)

# Descriptor    (1-low) (5-high) 1 2 3 4 5
1 Teacher modifies learning goals in response to formative assessment          
2 The teacher modifies their instructions during the lesson to increase learning opportunities          
3 The teacher uses formative assessment to differentiate their responses to individual students          
4 The teacher negotiates learning activities with students, ensuring these are aligned with learning goals          
5 The teacher prompted students to discover key concepts through responsive open-ended questions.          
6 The teacher prompted students to express their thinking and used this as a springboard for learning activities          
7 The teacher prompted students to demonstrate open-mindedness and tolerance of uncertainty.          

Jodi gave me some very kind, specific and constructive feedback but what set me thinking was her comments on the use of questions in the lessons in relation to items 3-7 on the scale.

Students at this PBL school are no strangers to the use of questions in pedagogy so I felt emboldened to use them in this lesson. I was trying to convey the scientific method as being driven just as much by rationalism as it is empiricism. The topic of the Phases of the Moon is ideally suited to this as it is steeped in stories and myths and is not amenable to conventional modes of scientific experimentation.

I started the lesson by displaying an image I had taken of the most recent full moon and posed a question about the source of the light. The students discussed their answers with their shoulder buddies. At this point I was ‘checking in’ with the students’ current understandings of the topic (items 1-4 on the TAP scale above). The ‘change’ I made in my teaching in response to what I heard was to ask the students to draw the relative positions of the sun, earth and full moon. As a result I now had a clear view of which students held existing conceptions that were different from the current scientific explanation.

The mini-whiteboards are a real blessing as they allow the teacher to scan the whole class to get a handle on their current thinking. Doing something about the diverse understandings of the topic is the challenge of adaptive teaching. It was time for me to experience the challenge that I had witnessed so many teachers go through over the last three years of me being the observer!

At this stage I needed a question that might trouble students’ existing conceptions so I asked them to depict the position of the new moon in their diagram. As I posed questions to students it was patently obvious I needed more than 2-D photos to use as evidence to challenge their conceptions. I failed here because I did not bring the basketball, lamp and tennis ball required to do the 3D demonstration required at that moment. So I displayed the diagram of the phases of the moon instead (below)

Phases of the Moon

Image from

This 2D diagram was not as powerful as a 3D demonstration but it is all I had so I used it. I asked the students to compare and contrast their own diagrams with the one on the screen. At this point there were many students who were puzzled by the accepted version and these students needed the 3D demonstration.

I also asked the students to generate further questions that they had about the moon. These questions were rich and could be easily used as starting points for further exploration:

  1. What is the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse?
  2. What causes a blood moon? (hence the image at the beginning)
  3. What keeps the moon in orbit around the earth?
  4. What is the difference between a waxing and waning gibbous?

So I failed with my lack of teaching repertoire in the lesson but succeeded in portraying science as being as much philosophy as evidence.  In terms of my adaptability as a teacher I am developing my skills at ‘checking in’ through the use of questions but need to be able to change up my repertoire both at the individual and whole class level as required. I need to do a little more research on each topic to develop a wide enough repertoire to be able to be more adaptive.

Today I taught

Yes, Dr Loughland, the former self-proclaimed Dark Prince of Pedagogy, darkened the doorstep of a primary classroom. This is the raw account of my uncensored feelings and thoughts of my first foray into classroom teaching for five years. 

I taught because I was goaded by my teacher colleagues and gently encouraged by my lovely partner. I taught because I read David Didau’s great blog post on modelling and observation. I taught because in my conscience I thought I needed to. I taught because I was desk bound and sick of writer’s block. I taught because I have a wonderful colleague who is a principal of a nearby primary school (thanks Michelle!).

I taught a lesson. 45 minutes of stage 3 science on phases of the moon. A guest gig that is ridiculously easy compared to the everyday relentless teaching/learning  cycle heroically enacted by real teachers everywhere.

I need to let you know that I research adaptive teaching. I have been observing wonderful adaptive teachers for 3 years. Today I taught. I was not adaptive. I was so nervous I felt sick. I stuck to my time-honoured repertoire. I engaged. I entertained. I interacted with the students who were keen and avoided the students who had no idea. A leopard doesn’t change its spots.

So what did I learn from my brief foray into real classroom teaching? It is still enormously rewarding to think through challenging topics with  enquiring young minds.  It is humbling to sit with students as they wrestle intellectually with tough questions. It is great to think on your feet and make teaching decisions on the hop.  It really is fun without all of the extra-curricular responsibilities that sometimes make teaching onerous. 

I get to teach the same lesson to the other stage 3 class in a fortnight. I am lucky. I taught. I teach. I am alive again.