Saturday, 26 March 2011 21:50

What Holds Our Class Together

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In my first few blog posts I described the influences that shaped my educational philosophy and impacted my approach to teaching in the early stages of my career.  In future posts I will continue describing my journey, but I’d like to take a break from this endeavor and jump ahead 15 or so years to something that happened in my classroom this past Thursday.

Last Thursday was one of those days that all teachers experience.  Almost from the opening bell, things just seemed to be a bit off with my students.  Everything seemed to be a struggle.  Every time we went out for recess or lunch, kids were returning in tears, arguing, and even getting involved in physical altercations.  Inside the class the high level of focus that I am fortunate enough to witness on a consistent basis simply wasn’t there.  More students were off task than usual, many lessons and activities didn’t proceed according to plan, and gaining and maintaining my students’ attention was difficult.

It is during these times when we, as teachers, have to dig deep, find our patience, and remember what it is that we are trying to promote in our classrooms.  When things appear to be falling apart around us, we have to decide how we are going to keep everything together.

One choice is to take the traditional route to classroom management.  I have long been frustrated with and critical of traditional classroom management approaches that employ behaviorist principles, rest on negative assumptions about human nature, and rely heavily, if not exclusively, on extrinsic motivation (i.e., rewards and punishments).

With this first choice we can use rewards and punishments to control student behavior and focus.  On the surface this seems to be a perfectly acceptable choice because when expertly employed, rewards and punishments will cause students to exhibit the focus and behavior we need to get things done in the classroom.  In addition, as I have mentioned previously, this choice seems fine because this type of management approach is typically all that we are ever taught in our teacher training programs, in our student teaching placements, and in our textbooks.  In finding fault with this approach, I am certainly not criticizing any educator who employs it.

The problem with this choice is that the main thing extrinsic motivators do is produce temporary obedience and compliance.  If our goal is to build problem-solving and decision-making capacity, nurture intrinsic motivation, and promote the development and internalization of lifelong habits, extrinsic motivation is the last thing we would employ because such an approach is not only ineffective in promoting the development of these desirable outcomes, but also it is destructive.  

In future posts I will cite the work of Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards clearly lays out the case against using extrinsic motivators in a classroom setting, but for now I will simply mention that using extrinsic motivators comes with a high price tag.  My Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8 also goes into much greater depth about this topic.   

The other choice we, as teachers, have is to take the completely opposite approach, eschew extrinsic motivators entirely, and, instead, select an approach that nurtures intrinsic motivation.  This latter approach is far less common, most likely because it is much more difficult to use.

Under this approach, rather than administer rewards and punishments to control student behavior, I need to bring my kids together, much as a basketball coach does during a time-out.  I need to call attention to what I see happening, explain why I believe that behavior to be problematic or counterproductive, and refer my students to our Class Mission Statement, a set of ideas that the kids themselves wrote at the beginning of the year detailing who we are, what we want to become, and the principles and goals that distinguish us as a unique group of people with a unique set of priorities.  

This way, ideas guide us and hold us together, not carrots and sticks.  So, last Thursday, when things began to break down, I called my kids up to the rug in the front of the room and opened a discussion.  I talked about respect, kindness, teamwork, discipline, and other key ideas that we talk about all the time.  We discuss these ideas every Friday morning when we review our mission statement, we talk about them Tuesday and Thursday mornings during our Quote of the Day activity, and we talk about them throughout the week as the need and opportunity arises.  

When our difficulties continued throughout the day, I continued to call everyone together and refer to these larger ideas.  Our day still wasn’t one of our best, but things did improve, and I was pleased with my response to the things that were happening.  

When difficult moments occur, I’ve learned that I can use them as learning opportunities, not as occasions to lose my temper and escalate the use of controlling carrots and sticks.  Stephen Covey, author of some wonderful books including The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, also mentions the bonding power that mission statements offer.

As I mentioned earlier, my approach is absolutely more difficult to employ than traditional management approaches because it takes more time, more effort, more patience, and more problem solving. The results, however, are far more effective, far more lasting, far more empowering, and far more satisfying.
  Children want to be part of the solution to any problem that may be occurring.  We just need to open the door and invite them to participate in the problem-solving process.

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