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In control or in charge? February 26, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments.

from Adjunct Assoc. Prof Sue Roffey

Good class control is often seen as the hallmark of a good teacher. No-one likes chaos, least of all the students.  But surprisingly, there has not been much discussion of how this can be balanced with a strong teacher-student relationship: a relationship which has had a raised profile since the publication of John Hattie’s meta-analysis of effective education (Hattie, 2009).

Students of all ages do not like to be in a classroom where the teacher cannot ‘control’ the class.  It makes some individuals anxious and others frustrated and angry.  It does not lead to mutual respect and it certainly doesn’t promote a purposeful, engaged learning environment.  But neither does anyone like to be told what to do all the time and be expected to obey someone else’s rules or get into trouble – especially those students who struggle. Having some autonomy, opportunities to be creative and activity that is seen as meaningful is much more motivating than external pressure or reward (Pink, 2009).

I have worked in a variety of roles in education and written extensively on social / emotional issues in the school context including how to promote pro-social behaviour (eg Roffey, 2011) Much of the discussion on behaviour focuses on management in one guise or another, much less on what models positive interactions and the value of relational approaches to behavioural change – especially for our more vulnerable students who are often the most challenging.  Could we begin a conversation.to explore the difference between exerting control over individuals (or trying to) and being in charge of classroom processes? One does not promote an optimal learning environment and the other does.

In international research on relationships (Roffey 2012) one hallmark of a healthy relationship is equality. Even where one person is in a position of authority over another they can use this to empower and facilitate engagement in shared goals or they can direct,  boss and sometimes intimidate. It is extraordinary that in this day and age we have people in leadership positions who still believe that bullying is an appropriate way to motivate others and get things done.  Fear and authoritarian approaches lead to the establishment of a toxic environment- the opposite of social capital and the generation of emotionally safe learning environments. (Noble et al, 2008). Such approaches also do nothing to promote self-control or model pro-social behaviour.

What does this mean in the classroom and for teachers?  Here are some thoughts on ways of being in charge of a class without being controlling.

  • Establish classroom guidelines with students at the outset rather than impose rules. It takes a little time but saves time later.
  • Give students opportunities to take a lead.
  • Spend time building relationships – get to know a little about students’ lives and show an interest in them, not just how well they are doing in school  – it’s what the research says matters (NSW Commission, 2009, Murray-Harvey, 2010)
  • Use strengths-based language and avoid deficit labelling (Noble et al, 2008). Teachers need to maintain high expectations for their students – not just in academic attainments but in who they are becoming as people – those who are told they are naughty, lazy, hopeless  or ‘conduct-disordered’ think of themselves that way – it promotes low expectations and generates negativity.
  • Promote the positive – say what you value and like about students – if necessary dig deep!
  • Be well planned but also prepared to be flexible – some students need space to reduce negative feelings before they can focus on learning  (Fredrickson, 2009)
  • Make feedback specific (not shallow praise) and ensure that the student is engaged by saying something positive before any negative critique. We often shut off bad news and are more likely to tune into the positive.
  • Ask questions more often than making statements. It is both respectful and encourages thinking. This does not mean interrogation!  Listen to the answers.
  • Ask students to evaluate their own learning and feed back what works for them
  •  Use cooperative learning strategies wherever possible and try to make learning fun and meaningful – to do this you need to seek some hooks and drivers on which to scaffold the curriculum content:  how does this fit with students already know or are interested in?
  • Model making mistakes – there are lots of ways to say I could have done that better!  Hattie says mistakes should be accepted as part of education – if students are not making mistakes their learning is not sufficiently challenging
  • When a student says ‘ you can’t make me’ agree with them and give them back the responsibility – use such go with the flow’ strategies to reduce potential confrontation. It takes the heat out of situations. No-one should need compliance to maintain their self respect.

The evidence says that not only do students respond more positively within such an educational environment but also that teachers have a better time with a stronger sense of professional achievement. (Roffey, 2012a).  There are many wonderful educators doing just this but others don’t seem to get it!  We need to challenge the myth of control and build the conversation to promote healthy and empowering relationships in school – at all levels.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. Oxford: OneWorld Publications.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning, a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Murray-Harvey, R. (2010). Relationship influences on students’ academic achievement, psychological health and wellbeing at school. Educational and Child Psychology, 27(1), 104-115.

NSW Commission for Children & Young People (2009). Ask the Children:
Children speak about being at school.
Available from http://www.kids.nsw.gov.au/kids/resources/publications/askchildren

Noble, T., McGrath, H., Roffey, S., & Rowling, L. (2008). A Scoping Study on Approaches to Student Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR).

Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.  New York Riverhead Books

Roffey. S. (2011) Changing Behaviour in School: Promoting Positive Relationships and Wellbeing  London Sage Publications

Roffey, S. (Ed) (2012) Positive Relationships: Evidence-based practice across the world.

Roffey, S. (2012a) Pupil wellbeing: Teacher wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin.   Educational and Child Psychology 29 (4) 9-17.

Dr Sue Roffey is an Adjunct Associate Professor in in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


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