Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 7: Classroom Management and the Learning Environment/Preventing Management Programs
Preventing Management Problems by Focusing Students on Learning
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 arranging classroom furniture and materials in ways that make learning as easy to focus on as possible. Later, during the first few days, you can establish procedures and rules that support a focus on learning even more.
Arranging Classroom Space
Viewed broadly, it may be tempting to think that classrooms are arranged in similar ways, but there are actually important alternative arrangements to consider. Variations happen because of grade level, the subjects taught, the teacher’s philosophy of education, and of course the size of the room and the furniture available. Whatever the arrangement that you choose, it should help students to focus on learning tasks as much as possible and minimize the chances of distractions. Beyond these basic principles, however, the “best” arrangement depends on what your students need and on the kind of teaching that you prefer and feel able to provide (Bothmer, 2003; Nations & Boyett, 2002). Here are some ideas to help choose among your options. In considering them (and before moving too much furniture around your room!), you might want to try experimenting with spatial arrangements “virtually” by using one of the computer programs available on the Internet (see, for example, http://teacher.scholastic.com/tools/class_setup/).
Displays and Wall Space
All classrooms have walls, of course, and how you fill or use them can affect the mood or feeling of a classroom. More displays make the room more interesting and can be used to reinforce curriculum goals and display (and hence recognize) students’ work. But too many displays can also make a room seem “busy” or distracting as well as physically smaller; and they can also be more work to maintain. If you are starting a new school year, then, there is usually a need to decorate some of the wall or bulletin board space, but no urgent need to fill it all. Leaving some open space can give flexibility to respond to curriculum or learning needs that emerge after the year is underway. The same advice applies for displays that are especially high maintenance, such as aquariums, pets, and plants. These can serve wonderfully as learning aids, but do not have to be in place on the first day of school. Not only the students, but also you yourself, may already have enough distractions to cope with at that time.
Computers in the Classroom
If you are like the majority of teachers, you will have only one computer in your room, or at most just a few, and their placement may be pre-determined by location of power and cable outlets. If so, you need to think about computer placement early in the process of setting up a room. Once the location of computers is set, locations for desks, high-usage shelves, and other moveable items can be chosen more sensibly—in general so as to minimize distractions to students and to avoid unnecessary traffic congestion.
Visibility of and Interactions with Students
Learning is facilitated if the furniture and space allow you to see all students and to interact with them from a comfortable distance. Usually this means that the main, central part of the room—where desks and tables are usually located—needs to be as open and as spacious as possible. While this idea may seem obvious, enacting it can sometimes be challenging in practice if the room itself is small or unusually shaped. In classrooms with young students (kindergarten), furthermore, open spaces tend to allow, if not invite, movement of children that is longer and faster—a feature that you may consider either constructive or annoying, depending on your educational goals and the actual level of activity that occurs.
Spatial Arrangements Unique To Grade Levels or Subjects
Some room arrangements depend significantly on the grade level or subject area of the class. If you teach in elementary school, for example, you may need to think about where students can keep their daily belongings, such as coats and lunches. In some schools, these can be kept outside the classroom—but not in all schools. Some subjects and grade levels, furthermore, lend themselves especially well to small group interaction, in which case you might prefer not to seat students in rows, but around several small-group tables or work areas. The latter arrangement is sometimes preferred by elementary teachers, but is also useful in high schools wherever students need lots of counter space, as in some shops courses, or wherever they need to interact, as in English as a Second Language courses (McCafferty, Jacobs, & Iddings, 2006). The key issue in deciding between tables and rows, however, is not grade level or subject as such, but the amount of small group interaction you want to encourage, compared to the amount of whole-group instruction. As a rule, tables make talking with peers easier, and rows make listening to the teacher more likely and group work slightly more awkward to arrange.
Ironically, some teachers experience challenges about room arrangement without even having a room of their own, because they must “float” or move among other teachers’ rooms. “Floating” is especially likely among specialized teachers (e.g. music teachers in elementary schools, who move from class to class) and in schools that are short on classrooms overall. Floating can sometimes by annoying to the teacher, though it actually also has advantages, such as not having to take responsibility for how other teachers’ rooms are arranged). If you find yourself floating, it helps to consider a few key strategies, such as:
- consider using a permanent cart to move crucial supplies from room to room;
- make sure that every one of your rooms has an overhead projector (do not count on using chalkboards in other teachers’ rooms);
- talk to the other teachers about having at least one shelf or corner in each room designated for your exclusive use.
Establishing Daily Procedures and Routines
Procedures or routines are specific ways of doing common, repeated classroom tasks or activities. Examples include checking daily attendance, dealing with students who arrive late, or allowing students to use the bathroom during class or go to their lockers to get materials which they forgot to bring. Procedures also include ways of turning in or retrieving daily homework (e.g. putting it on a designated shelf at a particular time), or of gaining the teacher’s attention during quiet seat work (e.g. raising your hand and waiting), or of choosing and starting a “free choice” activity after completing a classroom assignment.
Procedures serve the largely practical purpose of making activities and tasks flow smoothly and efficiently—a valuable and necessary purpose in classrooms, where the actions of many people have to be coordinated within limited amounts of time. As such procedures are more like social conventions than like moral expectations. They are not primarily about what is ethically right or ethically desirable to do (Turiel, 2006). Most procedures or routines can be accomplished in more than one way, with only minor differences in success at the outcomes. There is more than one way, for example, for the procedure of taking attendance: the teacher could call the role, delegate a student to call the role, or simply note students’ presence on a seating chart. Each variation accomplishes essentially the same task, and the choice among them may therefore be less important than the fact that the class coordinates its actions somehow, by committing to some sort of choice.
For teachers, of course, an initial task is to establish procedures and routines in the first place. Because of the conventional quality of procedures, some teachers find that it works well simply to announce and explain key procedures without inviting much discussion from students (“Here is how we will choose partners for the group work”). Other teachers, however, prefer to invite input from students when creating procedures (asking “What do you feel is the best way for students to get my attention during a quiet reading time?”). Both approaches have advantages as well as disadvantages. Simply announcing key procedures saves time and insures consistency in case you are teaching more than one class (as you would in high school). But it creates a bigger responsibility to choose procedures that are truly reasonable and practical. On the other hand, inviting students’ input can help students to become aware of and committed to procedures, but at the cost of taking more time to establish them, and at the risk of creating confusion if you teach multiple classes, each of which adopts different procedures. Whatever approach you choose, you and the students of course have to take into account the procedures or rules imposed by the school or school district as a whole. A school may have a uniform policy or expectation about how to record daily attendance, for example, and that policy may determine, either partly or completely, how you take attendance with your particular students.
Establishing Classroom Rules
Unlike procedures or routines, rules express standards of behavior for which individual students need to take responsibility. Although they may help in insuring the practical efficiency of classroom tasks, they are really about encouraging students to be personally responsible for learning, as well as for behaving decently and respectfully with each other. Table 7-X lists a typical set of classroom rules.
Note three things about the rules in Table 7-X. One is that they are not numerous; the table lists only five. Most educational experts recommend keeping the number of rules to a minimum in order to make them easier to remember (Thorson, 2003; Brophy, 2003). Another feature is that they are stated in positive terms (“Do X…”) rather than negative terms (“Do not do Y…”), a strategy that emphasizes and clarifies what students should do rather than what they should avoid. A third feature is that each rule actually covers a collection of more specific behaviors. The rule “Bring all materials to class,” for example, potentially covers bringing pencils, paper, textbooks, homework papers, and permission slips—depending on the situation. As a result of being stated somewhat generally, rules contain a degree of ambiguity that sometimes requires interpretation. Infractions may occur, that is, that are marginal or “in a grey area,” rather than clearcut. A student may bring a pen, for example, but the pen may not work properly, and you may therefore wonder whether this incident is really a failure to follow the rule, or just an unfortunate (and in this case minor) fault of the pen manufacturer.
As with classroom procedures, rules can be planned either by the teacher alone, or by the teacher with advice from students. The arguments for each approach are similar to the arguments for procedures: rules “laid on” by the teacher may be more efficient and consistent, and in this sense more fair, but rules influenced by the students may be supported more fully by the students. Because rules focus strongly on personal responsibility, however, there is a stronger case for involving students in making classroom rules than in making classroom procedures (Brookfield, 2006; Kohn, 2006). In any case the question of who plans classroom rules is not necessarily an either/or choice. It is possible in principle to impose certain rules on students (for example, “Always be polite to each other”) but let the students determine the consequences for violations of certain rules (for example, “If a student is discourteous to a classmate, he/she must apologize to the student in writing”). Some mixture of influences is probably inevitable, in fact, if only because of your own moral commitments as a teacher and because the school itself is likely to have rules of its own (like “No smoking in the school” or “Always walk in the hallways”). A classroom set of rules therefore might need to refer to and honor this broader source of rules somehow, if only by including a classroom rule stating something like “Obey all school rules.”
- Bothmer, S. (2003). Creating the peaceable classroom. Tuscon, AZ: Zephyr Press.
- Nations, S. & Boyett, S. (2002). So much stuff, so little space: Creating and managing the learner-centered classroom. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House
- McCafferty, S., Jacobs, G., & Iddings, S. (Eds.). (2006). Cooperative learning and second language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press
- Turiel, E. (2006). The development of morality. In W. Damon, R. Lerner, & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, vol. 3, pp. 789-857. New York: Wiley.
- Thorson, S. (2003). Listening to students: Reflections on secondary classroom management. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Brookfield, S. (2006). The skilful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
- Kohn, A. (2006). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Reston, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.