Teaching & Learning

Defining and Developing Classroom Culture

One of my favourite things to talk about with teachers is Classroom Culture. The reason I find it so interesting is that it is the answer to so many questions that teachers ask, solves so many of the problems they face, and it underlies so many of the topics I have written about before.

First of all, it is important that when I speak of changing classroom culture, it has very little, if anything at all to do with the students’ actual culture within their countries, communities, etc. Classroom culture is about behaviour and relationships within the classroom alone. Nevertheless, I am very confident that the strengths of a good classroom culture will spill over into broader society.

The Importance of Good Classroom Culture

Classroom Culture effectively dictates everything that happens in the classroom. Good classroom culture provides a solid foundation for effective and positive lessons, while bad classroom culture threatens to derail even the best of lesson plans. It is this, I believe, that is at the bottom of many teacher’s claims when they say, for example, that a particular technique or approach “sounds good but would not work with their students”.

For new teachers or for teachers meeting with new classes / groups of students, developing a positive classroom culture should be a major priority, but I feel it is often overlooked completely. Indeed, it is a term that I started using to describe an idea I had developed long before I ever saw/heard it used by anybody else, and it seems to be a concept that many teachers have simply not encountered before.

Of course, teachers might have a vague sense of the fact that their students behave in certain ways and that this behaviour a) has an impact on the success or failure of a lesson and b) can be changed over time. But they might not think of it the way I do in terms of a micro culture, which I find a particularly valuable way to describe it.

In short, the classroom culture is an interplay between the students in a class. As such, the students are all individuals and have their own separate identities and motivations, etc. but also, the class as a whole has an identity. You will know what I am talking about if you have anything like a favourite and a least favourite class, or just any sense at all that one class is not the same as the next. It is entirely possible that one of your favourite students  (no point pretending you don’t have favourites) is in one of your least favourite classes. If so, this should give you some idea of how the classroom culture is not simply the sum of the individual students’ identities.

Thinking about this concept in terms of culture gives us some insight into how they operate and how we can interact with them. One important thing to realise is that culture is an organic and emergent property of a group or community, and as such it can not be interacted with directly, only by influencing and manipulating the contributing factors.

Good and Bad Classroom Culture

Many of the problems that teachers face when teaching are, I believe, the result of bad classroom culture.

A good classroom culture is one in which the students have a positive attitude towards the goals of the lesson, i.e. the learning objectives, and are supportive of each others’ learning. Students help each other when they see a classmate struggling; they ask questions but also think for themselves; they contribute meaningfully to the lesson, and seek opportunities to further their learning outside of the classroom.

If, on the other hand, you have students who groan when you ask them to open their textbooks; if your students laugh at one another when somebody makes a mistake; if your students speak when you or another student is addressing the class; if your students do not cooperate when asked to work in groups; if there is a lack of participation; if there is a lack of peer support; if homework goes undone… these are all signs of bad classroom culture.

Many teachers see these things as insurmountable problems, either giving up entirely or letting their frustration get the better of them in front of the class. Either of these responses is likely to just make matters worse. Left to itself, classroom culture is a rolling snowball: bad classroom culture gets progressively worse, drawing the better students down with it over time as more and more members of the group gravitate towards the norm. However, good classroom culture has just the same effect, and when it is promoted and nurtured properly, even the most troublesome students can be lifted with the rising tide, to mix a metaphor.

Changing Classroom Culture

Of course, if it’s just one student presenting problems, that’s a very different situation and calls for a very different solution. But when these behaviours seem to typify the class on the whole, then it’s a sign that you need to work on changing the classroom culture. The answer to solving the problem of bad classroom culture begins with perspective. To successfully effect any kind of substantial change, the teacher needs to be able to see the students both as individuals and as a collective at the same time and to understand the interplay between these two entities.

The key is first knowing what kind of dynamic you want in the your classroom and then promoting all behaviour that aligns with that vision and discouraging anything that does not. Again, this is far more achievable if you think of the class as a culture and try to identify the things that change people’s behaviour both as individuals and as groups, and how both changing individuals affects the group and changing the group affects the individuals.

There are two main principles at the heart of these mechanisms. Classroom culture can be changed by employing empathy and pressure. The former works by bringing an individual to understand how other individuals or the group as a whole might feel and using that understanding to effect change within the individual; the latter works by engineering a dynamic whereby the group somehow persuades the individual to change.

Empathy and Pressure

The notion of using peer pressure as a tool might cause some readers to balk, so I’ll come to that after first discussing empathy.

Empathy as a method of changing classroom culture consists of two factors, the first being the sense that a change in behaviour would be good for the individual as evidenced by the success of his peers, and the second being that a change in behaviour would benefit the group in some way. Preferably, both of these factors would be leveraged simultaneously for best effect.

When teachers tell a student that her behaviour “is ruining it for the rest of the class”, that is an attempt to appeal to empathy, but put in such terms, it rarely has any effect. To really work, it is necessary that the student actually feels that he should change, not just be told to. Instead, try asking misbehaving students what effect they think they’re having on the rest of the group. In many cases, these students think only of how they feel and perhaps about the effect that they are having on the teacher, if they are particularly mischievous. By asking them to think about their behaviour from a different perspective, we can maybe encourage them to realise and regret the damage they are doing to the group.

You can also simply present the misbehaving student with evidence that improving his behaviour would benefit him. This can be done by praising the other students in the group who are behaving more desirably, by bestowing implicit rewards on students whose behaviour aligns with what you want your classroom culture to be. Note, I say implicit here because I do not generally endorse the handing out of direct awards and prizes for good behaviour. Instead, you could plan lessons or include materials based on your students preferences or assign them interesting roles in lessons.

It can also be done a little more explicitly by praising good behaviour as you recognise it, holding up the work of a student who has made particular effort as an example for the rest of the class. These students will respond well to this, proudly and happily, and the students around them will wish for a taste of the same. It is very important though, if this is to work, that you take the soonest opportunity you can possibly identify to praise the misbehaving student when he does something even remotely good, so that he can know firsthand what that praise feels like and can attempt to attract more.

Use of empathy in these ways is invariably a slow process. It will take a long time to change the classroom culture, and by that I really do mean a long time. This is not a matter of weeks but of semesters. In fact, much of what a teacher hopes to achieve in her classes should be measured on this kind of a timeline. Far too often I see teachers giving up because they haven’t seen results after a few lessons of meeting their students or of trying a new technique. These are unrealistic expectations. In some cases, all we can hope for is that things are better at the end of the year than they were at the start. What is most important is perseverance. Change is slow and gradual, and this can sometimes be demotivating, but it will not come at all if you give up before it has a chance.

Whereas empathy is a way of working with an individual to help him see a better way of behaving, pressure, is a way of working with the group to have them encourage change in the individual. It might feel uncomfortable to speak of pressure in this context, but the truth is that it comes naturally with the methods already mentioned above. The students are aware when one of their number is holding them back in some way, and they tend to act quite firmly in order to put a stop to it.

When I want to play a video or audio track in my lesson, I will wait for quiet before doing so. This can take varying lengths of time, depending on how long I have been with a particular group of students, but often in the end it comes down to one or two students causing a disturbance. Rather than berate them, I simply wait, making it clear that I am not going to start the video until everyone is ready. However, this show of waiting is not for the benefit of the misbehaving student. It is for the rest of the group, the ones that want to get on with the lesson. Eventually, they will start shushing the individual and telling him to be quiet, sit down, etc. so that I don’t have to.

You can also make this more explicit if necessary. When one student is distracting another, I prefer not to tell off that student directly but instead to ask the other student why she is having trouble. Instead of me pointing a finger at the misbehaving student, I allow a peer to do it. This shows that it is not just me who is unhappy, something that the student may well not care too much about, but one of his peers. This is more likely to have an impact on how the student feels about his behaviour, and if it happens frequently, he might begin to see himself as a negative force in the group, working at odds with the rest of the class, alone in the face of their common goals.

My role in this cases then becomes one of maintaining balance. I first raise awareness of the problem by having the group shine a light on it, and then I offer to support the individual by ensuring him that things will be much better if he joins the common cause. I even offer to help him get there by giving extra guidance and attention once he has shown that he is worthy of it. I show him that actually, I am on his side, as long as he working for positive goals, and that I am only against him when he is working towards his own failure. Once the desire for change appears, it is my job to nurture it, to encourage it and to support it.

A Common Cause

The true foundation of a solid classroom culture is a common cause. Each of the individuals has his or her own interests, preferences and also personal goals, but together, they also share a vision or direction of some kind.

When classroom culture is bad, that vision or direction might be something to the tune of derailing lessons or causing the teacher anxiety—these can be very entertaining prospects for students. But when classroom culture is good, they share an interest in learning, in developing, in improving further as a group. When classroom culture is good, they work together to do this, they help each other. They strive to make lessons more interesting, to make progress more effective.

Changing bad classroom culture to good is no mean feat, and it can take a lot of time. But the great thing about the process is that the more students you get on side, the quicker the process becomes as they go about recruiting wayward students to their cause, and when they have all been successfully converted, then much of your work is over. When you have a good classroom culture, the students will do all of the heavy lifting. They can be trusted to take control of their learning more and more; you can negotiate with them with regard to objectives, activities, materials and even assessments; they can be relied upon to do certain elements of groundwork, such as pre-reading or research, outside of the classroom so that you can focus on practice and application in the classroom.

It is not at all easy to change classroom culture, just the same as it is not easy to change culture in other settings, but once you know how, it is undeniably worth the effort. And if you’re really lucky, the changes you make in the classroom might even be continued by your students outside, whether in other classes or even out in broader society, with students learning for example to be more cooperative and to recognise positive goals over negative ones in the rest of their lives as well.

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