Classroom Culture · Teaching & Learning · Techniques & Methodology

On Establishing Classroom Dynamics

Classroom Culture, Pt. II

At the recent TeacherTalkTime event, an important point was raised that spanned several of the topics discussed. It’s important because it is apparently a fairly universal problem and one that can seem insurmountable to many teachers. The solution, I am confident, falls under the banner of classroom culture, which I first wrote about here.

Getting off the Ground

At TeacherTalkTime, we discussed a number of ways to increase learner autonomy and promote more active and interactive lessons. However, many teachers feel that they face the barrier that their students’ lack of motivation and low levels of participation preclude them even trying to implement such approaches and practices.

We discussed the importance of getting students to work together and to take charge of their own study and the value of giving students choice in their learning experiences. However, some teachers spoke of how they had tried such things only to be met with silence in group activities or a complete lack of enthusiasm to choose materials and topics. For some teachers, getting their students to stand up and move around feels next to impossible.

In these cases, it is easy to feel defeated, and many teachers often respond by doing instead what they think their students seem to prefer: low participation, teacher driven transference. However, this is a dangerous and slippery slope and should be avoided. Even if the students don’t at first seem enthusiastic about the new methods you are introducing, it is important to remember that they are not excited about sitting silently and staring at the whiteboard either, it is simply easier.

Start As You Mean to Go On

One thing that I always assert in my training programmes and workshops is that it is much harder to change the dynamic of a class once the lesson is underway than it is to establish a dynamic at the beginning. A big mistake that many teachers make, and one that can lead to a feeling of complete helplessness, is not to take charge of the lesson from the start. If you allow your students to come into the classroom and establish their own dynamic, it is tough to alter it later. If the lesson begins with textbooks and board presentations and silence, it is tough to raise the energy later.

If you have tried playing games or conducting activities that involve getting students up out of their chairs and moving around the room only to be met with uninterested stares and a group that simply refuses to be roused, try arresting the dynamic at the beginning of the class instead.

As the students come into the room, tell them to move their chairs away and stand by their tables. When the whole class (or the majority, at least) is present, stand in one corner of the room and ask them to come and join you there. You can either have something hanging on the wall for them to look at and discuss, or you could assign a value or category to that corner before all moving to another corner to look at another material or represent another category. Then have the students move freely between these spaces in response to questions you ask them. In the case of having materials, you could ask them to stand next to the material that most interests them, for example, or the one that best represents a certain viewpoint. In the case of categories, you can ask them to stand where their favourite things are, or name objects and have them stand in the space most relevant.

A very basic version of this that I play with elementary students right through to adult business classes and trainee teachers, I call the “Yes/No” game. I assign the left and right sides of the class as Yes and No and simply have students stand to one side or another to answer questions I ask. The questions can be as simple or as complex, as serious or as silly and as related to your subject matter as you like. By beginning your lesson this way, it sets a tone. Students know that this is what to expect from the lesson.

Keep It Up

As I have written before, persistence is the key to making real, meaningful change. But persisting with something ineffective will only exacerbate problems. That’s why it is so defeating to teachers who just keep trying to no avail, lesson after lesson to get students out of their seats. But establishing from the very beginning of the lesson the dynamic you want and then maintaining it is much more effective. And again, maintaining an atmosphere is far easier than trying to generate one from nothing.

For classes that have been particularly difficult to rouse, it might be worth keeping them on their feet for the entirety of the first lesson you try this. Plan a lesson that involves students moving around, sitting on the floor in groups, writing on the whiteboard or on the walls from the beginning to the end. When they come back next lesson, perhaps start the same way but later have the students move back to their chairs for some activities. After a while like this, you should be able to introduce active and interactive activities at any part of the lesson much more easily.

The idea of beginning as you mean to go on applies not only to the structure of the lesson but also of the whole programme. If you’re already part way through your course and have been struggling, then try following these suggestions to initiate a change. I expect it will require some perseverance, but I am confident you’ll see results if you just keep it up. However, the best (by which I mean easiest) way to make this work is to start the course this way on day one.

Steps to Follow

Whether it’s the beginning of your course or some way through, try putting these steps into action to increase motivation and participation in your lessons:

  • Establish from the very beginning of the lesson the dynamic you’re hoping to normalise. Don’t allow your students to come into class and set the tone themselves.
  • Try having students put their chairs away as soon as they walk in. Even better if you can get the tables out of the way too!
  • Start the lesson with an activity that requires the students to both move around and interact with one another.
  • The first few times you try this, plan lessons which consist entirely of activities like this from start to finish—no chairs, no filling in worksheets quietly at the tables, no working individually for long stretches of time.
  • It’s not enough to just enforce this. It is essential that the lessons you plan are engaging and interesting for the students, so monitor carefully to see how students are responding. Use topics and materials that they like and enjoy, and you will see much quicker and longer lasting results.

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