Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 7: Classroom Management and the Learning Environment

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An excerpt from a professional journal kept by me (KelvinLeeSeifert) when I was teaching kindergarten:
November 14th: Today my student Carol sat in the circle, watching others while we all played Duck, Duck, Goose (in this game, one student is outside the circle, tags another student who then chases the first person around the circle). Carol’s turn had already passed. Apparently she was bored now, because she flopped on her back, smiling broadly, rolling around luxuriously on the floor in the path of the other runners. Several classmates noticed her, smiled or giggled, began flopping down as well. One chaser tripped over a “flopper.”
Sit up, Carol,” said I, the ever-vigilant teacher. “You’re in the way.” But no result. I repeated twice more, firmly; then moved to pick her up.
Instantly Carol ran to the far side of the gym, still smiling broadly. Then her best friend ran off with her. Now a whole new game was launched, or really two games: “Run-from-the-teacher” and “Enjoy-being-watched-by-everybody.” A lot more exciting, unfortunately, than Duck, Duck, Goose!
An excerpt from Kelvin’s same journal several years later, when he was teaching math in high school:
March 4th: The same four students sat in the back again today, as usual. They seem to look in every direction except at me, even when I’m explaining material that they need to know. The way they smile and whisper to each other, it seems almost like they are "in love" with each other, though I can’t be sure who loves whom the most. Others—students not part of the foursome—seem to react variously. Some seem annoyed, turn the other way, avoid talking with the group, and so on. But others seem almost envious—as if they want to be part of the "in" group, too, and were impressed with the foursome’s ability to get away with being inattentive and almost rude. Either way, I think a lot of other students are being distracted.
Twice during the period today, I happened to notice members of the group passing a note, and then giggling and looking at me. By the end, I had had enough of this sort of thing, so I kept them in briefly after class and asked one of them to read the note. They looked a bit embarrassed and hesitant, but eventually one of them opened the note and read it out loud. “Choose one,” it said. “Mr. Seifert looks 1) old ____, 2) stupid____, or 3)clueless____.”

Kelvin's experiences in managing these very different classrooms taught him what every teacher knows or else quickly learns: management matters a lot. But his experiences also taught that management is about more than correcting the misbehaviors of individuals, more than just "discipline." Classroom management is also about "orchestrating" or coordinating entire sets or sequences of learning activities so that everyone, misbehaving or not, learns as easily and productively as possible. Educators sometimes therefore describe good classroom management as the creation of a positive learning environment, because a term calls attention to the totality of activities and people in a classroom, as well as to their goals and expectations about learning (Jones & Jones, 2007)[1]. When Kelvin was teaching, he used both terms almost interchangeably, though in speaking of management he more often was referring to individual students’ behavior and learning, and in using the term learning environment he more often meant the overall “feel” of the class as a whole.

Why classroom management matters[edit]

Managing the learning environment is both a major responsibility and an on-going concern for every teacher, even those with years of experience (Good & Brophy, 2002)[2]. There are several reasons. In the first place, a lot goes on in classrooms simultaneously, even when students seem to be doing only “one” task together. Twenty-five students may all be working on a sheet of math problems. But look more closely: several may be stuck on a particular problem, but each for different reasons. A few others have worked only the first problem or two and are now chatting quietly with each other instead of continuing. Still others have finished and are wondering what to do next. At any one moment each student needs something different—different information, different hints, different kinds of encouragement. The diversity increases even more if the teacher deliberately assigns multiple activities to different groups or individuals (for example, if some are doing a reading assignment while others do the math problems).

Another reason that managing the environment is challenging is because a teacher can never predict everything that will happen in a class. A well-planned lesson may fall flat on its face, or take less time than you expect, and you find yourself improvising to fill class time. On the other hand an unplanned moment may become a wonderful, sustained exchange among students; so you have to drop previous plans and “go with the flow” of their discussion. Interruptions happen continually: a fire drill, a quick drop-in visit from another teacher or from the principal, a call on the intercom from the office. An activity may turn out well, but also end up rather differently than you intended; you therefore have to decide how, if at all, to adjust the next day to allow for this surprise.

A third reason for the importance of management is that students form opinions and perceptions about your teaching that may coincide neither with your own nor with other students’. What seems to you like encouragement of a shy student may seem to the student herself like “forced participation.” A more eager, outgoing classmate watching your special effort to encourage the shy student, however, may not see you as either encouraging or coercing, but as overlooking or ignoring other students who are already more willing to participate. The variety of perceptions can lead to surprises in students’ responses to you—most often small ones, but occasionally more major.

At the broadest, society-wide level, management challenges teachers because public schooling is not voluntary, and students’ presence in a classroom is therefore not a sign, in and of itself, that they wish to learn. Students’ presence is instead just a sign that an opportunity exists for teachers to motivate students to learn. Many students, of course, do enjoy learning and being in school—but not all. Others do enjoy school, but primarily because teachers have worked hard to make classroom life pleasant and interesting. They become motivated because you have successfully created a positive learning environment and have sustained it through skillful management.

Fortunately it is possible to earn this sort of commitment from students, and this chapter describes some ways of doing so. We begin with some ways of preventing management problems in the first place by increasing students’ focus on learning. The methods include the arrangement of classroom space, the establishment of procedures, routines, and rules, and communicating the importance of learning both to students and to parents. After these prevention oriented discussions, we look at ways of refocusing students when and if their minds or actions do stray from the tasks at hand. As you probably know from your own experience as a student, bringing students back on task can happen in many ways, ways that vary widely in the energy and persistence required of the teacher. We try to indicate some of this diversity, but because of space limitations and because of the richness of classroom life, we cannot describe them all.

Preventing management problems by focusing students on learning[edit]

The easiest management problems to solve are ones that do not happen in the first place! You can help to prevent problems even before the first day of school by... (read more...)

Pacing and structuring lessons and activities[edit]

One of the best ways to prevent management problems is by pacing and structuring lessons or activities as smoothly and continuously as possible. Reaching this goal depends on... (read more...)

Responding to student misbehavior[edit]

So far we have focused on preventing behaviors that are off-task, or inappropriate, or annoying. Our advice has all been pro-active or forward-looking: plan the classroom space thoughtfully, create reasonable procedures and rules, pace lessons and activities appropriately, and communicate the importance of learning clearly. Although we consider these ideas to be important, it would be naïve to imply they are enough to prevent all behavior problems...(read more...)

Keeping management issues in perspective[edit]

There are two messages from this chapter. One is that management issues are important, complex, and deserve any teacher’s serious attention. The other is that management strategies exist and can reduce, if not eliminate, management problems when and if they occur. We have explained what some of those strategies are—including some intended to prevent problems from happening and others intended to remedy problems if they do occur.

But there is a third message that this chapter cannot convey by itself: that good classroom management is not an end in itself, but a means for creating a climate where learning happens as fully as possible. During the stress of handling problem behaviors, there is sometimes a risk of losing sight of this idea. Quiet listening is never a goal in itself, for example; it is desirable only because (or when) it allows students to hear the teacher’s instructions or classmates’ spoken comments, or because it allows students to concentrate on their work or assignments better. There may therefore actually be moments when quiet listening is not important to achieve, such as during a “free choice” time in an elementary classroom or during a period of group work in a middle school classroom. As teachers, we need to keep this perspective firmly in mind. Classroom management should serve students’ learning, and not the other way around. The next chapter helps to remind us of that priority, because it discusses ways not just to set the stage for learning, as this chapter has done, but to help students more directly to learn.

References[edit]

  1. Jones, V. & Jones, L. (2006). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems, 6th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Good, T. & Brophy, J. (2002). Looking in classrooms, 9th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.