Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Classroom Management and Student Discipline

I recently updated my book, Teach and Leorn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching, from which this is a chapter, and made it available on Kindle and as an inexpensive book. To enjoy a read, please click here.

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

I recently encountered two of my former students in a Chiang Mai restaurant, and asked them how they were doing in the job market. They had completed their training in December, and both quickly began to teach. But their working situations are as different as chalk and cheese. One teaches six classes of young Thai teenagers in a public school, and each of her classes has perhaps 50 students enrolled. The other works as a one-to-one English tutor, and teaches only 18 hours per week. His students are mostly Thai adults, but they also include two Korean teenagers.

As far as classroom management is concerned, this study in contrasts illustrates the extremes that English language teachers are likely to experience.

Think about it: The teacher with hundreds of students is dealing with individuals she will never know by name. The situation militates against her being able to give personal attention to anyone. Her students are there because the law requires them to study English. Their previous English teaching has been from teachers with mixed (generally poor) language instruction skills. The distractions of the classroom are legion for both teacher and student. Many of her students have raging hormones and little motivation to learn English.

In the tutor-teacher’s case, the situation is upside down – or, some would say, right side up. The students only get personal care. The teacher gets to know them quite well. They are studying English because they want to learn the language, and are therefore highly motivated. Their previous language instruction is irrelevant, because their tutor rough tunes to their level, and heals the areas important to them. And besides having motivation, his students are more mature. They do not let their hormones disrupt the operation of the classroom.

Without a doubt these classes illustrate two extremes in classroom management. But has one of these teachers been dealt a bad hand in the gin rummy of teaching, while the other got a royal flush? I suggest not. When I asked the two teachers how their first month had gone, both said “I love it!” Different strokes for different folks.

Classroom Management: And this brings us around to the issue of good classroom management. Teachers have to manage their classrooms well so their teaching can be effective. Good management creates an environment that helps students learn. Good classroom management reveals and influences your attitude, talents, perceived role, voice and body language. It strongly affects teacher-student interactions, including the challenges associated with teaching to large groups.

Okay, enough of the abstractions. What exactly is classroom management? It is what you do to make your teaching area a good place to learn in. For example, the physical environment of the classroom can contribute to student learning; while all classroom seating arrangements have strengths and weaknesses, you have to decide which one works best for you. There are ways to arrange classroom seating to encourage student interaction. Should you set your students’ chairs in a horseshoe? A circle? How about the old standby, rows of student desks? Each works best in different situations. As a classroom manager, your job is to think through seating plans and other physical arrangements (like making sure the classroom isn’t too hot) that will work best for your students.

What else can you do to optimize the learning process? Perhaps nothing is more important in a classroom than letting your students feel safe – the process Stephen Krashen calls lowering the affective filter. A huge part of your role as a teacher is to build a positive climate, letting your students know there are rewards for taking risks in your classroom. Classroom management involves looking after such details as having a place to post student essays, for example.

One way to make students feel safe is to clarify classroom procedures and rules. Part of helping students feel secure is to establish clear rules and class routines. And it involves discipline. Let’s talk about that.

The Learner’s Age: One place to start is to consider that each class you teach is likely to include students of about the same age. Thus, your students will probably be children, adolescents or adults, not all three. So let’s look at those three groups in age rank.

1. When you teach children, it is important to differentiate between two life stages – young children who are 5-8 years old, and mature children who are 8-11. In terms of how their minds work, the mature children are cognitively close to adolescents and adults. Young children, by contrast, are cognitively closer to Martians. According to one popular text on teaching English to children,
The adult world and the child's world are not the same. Children do not always understand what adults are talking about. Adults do not always understand what children are talking about. The difference is that adults usually find out by asking questions, but children don't always ask. They either pretend to understand, or they understand in their own terms and do what they think you want them to do.
In both cases, young learners have special requirements. They have short attention spans, and require lots of physical play and teacher patience. They sometimes have trouble differentiating between fact and fiction. They have little life experience, but buckets of honesty. And while they may have respect for authority, they have a great deal of imagination. A teacher may feel that on some levels communication is impossible.

2. When you teach adolescents, you are dealing with a different crowd. They often have attitude. They respond to peer-pressure. They are often insecure, their hormones may be running wild, and they are developing life experience. As they go through the rapid transition between childhood and adulthood, they are often seeking knowledge and self-identity. Many challenge authority, and in the language classroom that means you.

3. Adults are another story. They have life experience and, because they are unlikely to be taking English because they have to, they are likely to be well motivated. They are also likely to be more tolerant and self-aware, but they may be status conscious. This latter issue can be an issue in a number of ways. For one, in terms of age they are peers of the teacher. If they are wealthy, older or high-status professionals, they may consider themselves to outrank you. Therein lay minefields. Don’t ever believe that adult students won’t ever give you discipline problems. Most won’t, but some do.

An article by US educator Budd Churchward suggests a way to apply the thought of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg to the problem of classroom discipline for children and adolescents. His ideas put the lie to the urban myth that a class full of young adolescents is a class out of control. Purveyors of this notion, which is common in the United States, for example, support it with such unexamined statistics as the one that the dropout rate for America’s urban teachers is 40-50 percent. Does this mean the students were out of control, the teachers got offers for better jobs, or the teachers were ready for a change?

Kohlberg developed theories about the stages of moral and ethical reasoning among people. Through his work, which included in-depth studies of youngsters from many parts of the world, he developed a scheme of moral development consisting of three levels (each made up of two separate stages). He suggested that almost everyone, regardless of culture, race, or sex, experiences at least the first four stages.

The Encyclopedia of Psychology
explains the four stages thus:
Each stage involves increasingly complex thought patterns, and as children arrive at a given stage they tend to consider the bases for previous judgments as invalid. Children from the ages of seven through ten act on the pre-conventional level, at which they defer to adults and obey rules based on the immediate consequences of their actions. The behaviour of children at this level is essentially pre-moral. At Stage 1, they obey rules in order to avoid punishment, while at Stage 2 their behaviour is mostly motivated by the desire to obtain rewards. Starting at around age ten, children enter the conventional level, where their behaviour is guided by the opinions of other people and the desire to conform. At Stage 3, the emphasis is on being a "good boy" or "good girl" in order to win approval and avoid disapproval, while at Stage 4 the concept of doing one's duty and upholding the social order becomes predominant. At this stage, respecting and obeying authority (of parents, teachers, God) is an end in itself, without reference to higher principles. By the age of 13, most moral questions are resolved on the conventional level.
For purposes of classroom discipline, Churchward says that only these four of Kohlberg’s stages are important.

The Learner’s Stage: At the risk of over-simplifying his ideas, here is a brief review of the approach to discipline that Churchward develops. It strongly reflects Kohlberg’s stages.

1. Stage 1 discipline problems, he argues, involve recalcitrant behaviour. This is the power stage, in which might makes right. The students refuse to follow directions. They are defiant and require a great deal of attention. “Fortunately, says Churchward, “few of the students we see in our classrooms function at this stage. Those who do, follow rules as long as the imbalance of power tilts against them. Assertive teachers with a constant eye on these students can keep them in line. Turn your back on them, and they are out of control.”

2. Self-serving behaviour is the ruling characteristic of Stage 2; Churchward calls it the reward and punishment stage, in which the student’s key question is, “What’s in it for me?” In class, these students behave either because they will receive candy, free time or some other reward, or because they do not like what will happen to them if they do not behave. “Most children are moving beyond this stage by the time they are eight or nine years old”, Churchward explains. “Older students who still function at this stage do best in classrooms with assertive teachers.” Assertive teachers – the ones who insist on class control – are the ones who fare best with stage 1 and 2 students.

3. Churchward characterizes Stage 3 as one of interpersonal discipline, in which the student is out to make the teacher’s day. In this stage the student’s main question is “How can I please you?” He adds, “Students functioning at Stage 3 make up most of the youngsters in our middle and junior high schools. These kids have started to develop a sense of discipline. They behave because you ask them. This is the mutual interpersonal stage. They care what others think about them, and they want you to like them.” These children need little discipline. Ask them to settle down and they will. They rarely need a heavy-handed approach to classroom discipline.

4. The last stage of classroom discipline involves self-discipline. This is the social order stage, characterized by the student belief that “I must behave because it is the right thing to do.”

“Students functioning at Stage 4 rarely get into any trouble at all,” Churchward says. “They have a sense of right and wrong. Although many middle school and junior high school students will occasionally function at this level, only a few consistently do. These are the youngsters we enjoy working with so much….You can leave these kids alone with a project and come back 20 or 30 minutes later and find them still on task.” Many adolescent students do not operate at this stage, but they are near enough to it that they understand how it works. “Cooperative learning activities encourage students to function at this level,” he adds. “The teacher who sets up several groups within the classroom gives students a chance to practice working at this level.” You should wait close by, though, ready to step in when needed.

Churchward’s ideas are useful and relevant, and he does a good job of developing a practical application for Kohlberg's theoretical concepts. Put in the context of managing the classroom, his thinking offers a helpful understanding of the psychology of our younger learners, and contributes to the larger issue of class management.

On Churchward's website – which also promotes a computer system for managing classroom discipline (free trial available) – is a description of 11 techniques for better classroom discipline. I recommend you take a look at it.
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