About this time in the Northern hemisphere, as teachers settle into a pattern with new classes and norms have been set, there will be many who are struggling to manage behaviour.
There are three statements that I wish to make about classroom management and that I believe to be true.
1. Classroom management exists as a separate set of skills to the other skills involved in teaching, even if there is considerable overlap.
2. Some people are really good at classroom management and others are poor at it. You can get better at it by working hard on it and some people will make progress more rapidly than others. In other words, learning classroom management is exactly the same as learning any other set of skills.
3. Classroom management exists in a school context. You can’t surf if there are no waves and you can’t manage a classroom without support from the whole school community, particularly the leadership.
Unfortunately, student-centred education is to varying degrees the dominant philosophy in our education systems and it struggles to reconcile itself with any of this. Student-centred educators valorise intrinsic motivation. They see classroom management as extrinsic motivation at best and as a form of coercion at worst.
The problem is that, by definition, you can’t intrinsically motivate students. It has to come from within. Even posing an interesting question for students to investigate is, ultimately, a form of external manipulation. If you give students plenty of choice over what to do and how to do it then those students who are already intrinsically motivated about academic work will pursue it and those who are not will not. And what are you going to do about it? This is a pedagogy of privilege where those who already have a lot will gain more and those who are without will gain little. Think of the child who isn’t taught to read because she’s not considered ready and then imagine how that will play out in the long term.
If student-centred educators accepted this logic then they would need to change their philosophy. So they cling to a myth instead. If only the content can be made interesting enough, relevant enough, authentic enough, then all students will want to engage: we can extrinsically intrinsically motivate children. This is also a convenient cover for managers who don’t want to intervene to help teachers deal with behaviour issues – it’s the teacher’s fault for presenting dull lessons. She should perhaps spend a few extra hours a day designing funky activities.
Although a myth, there are aspects of this approach that are plausible. I have written before that I would back myself to engage most middle school science classes by giving them poster work to do, particularly if I didn’t insist on there being much science content on the posters.
But I haven’t actually changed students’ motivation. I’ve change my own objective of teaching science into something else that students are already motivated about: bubble writing and drawing pictures. Similarly, I can change my maths teaching objective from teaching students algebra to getting them to play with piles of sticks and form patterns. Students might be more motivated by this than actual algebra (or they might perhaps start throwing the sticks around).
It is true, of course, that there are more and less interesting ways of presenting a concept. Given the choice, I would pick the more interesting one, provided that it doesn’t reduce the clarity of what I’m trying to teach or subtly shift my objective. But this is still about externally manipulating the situational interest of students rather than changing what intrinsically motivates them.
Ultimately, classroom management reduces to the manipulation of rewards and sanctions coupled with cues and warnings; extrinsic motivation. These can be as subtle as a look or an encouraging word and the can be as radical as exclusion from school. I believe that exclusion has to be available as an ultimate sanction – some students can be a danger to their peers – but I do wonder whether incidents often escalate to the level of exclusion because a systematic approach is not in place prior to this stage.
This issue could present in the form of a new teacher whose relationship deteriorates with her class, gets little support and ends up saying something that prompts a child to push her against a wall, leading to an exclusion. It could look like the student who is never coerced into engaging in academic work, sees the gap between himself and his peers grow ever wider and becomes angry and resentful. These are two examples of the challenges that breed an environment where students are lost to education and teachers decide to quit the profession.
We can avoid this situation and we know how. We need to abandon the student-centred philosophy with its queasiness about classroom management.