Pen & Paper

Think, Say and Do

08 Mar 2013

The article (Ferlazzo, L 2012, “What Skilled Teachers Think, Say and Do”) suggests a classroom management strategy to deal with students who may have disruptive behavior or exhibit resistance to learning. Classroom management is perhaps the most essential teaching skill in a traditional classroom as the more time a teacher has to spend on handling disruptions, the less time he has for teaching. The management techniques mentioned in the article are less relevant in an online learning environment.

The strategy is made up of 8 points, broadly summarizing what a teacher should think, say and do when being challenged by students. The article does not seem to offer anything new, however. The list of items would look particularly familiar to anyone who has had read a book about parenting. It also seems misleading to file the article under the main heading “Students who challenge us” because the article deals only with the general principles of classroom management. These principles are applicable in any classrooms and any learning environment - they do not provide any special insights into the handling students who challenge their teachers.

Let’s examine each of the eight items in turn:

The first point is about being authoritative. True that students will more likely respond to a firm request than to an order. But being firm is not enough. It is important to point out that it has to always go hand in hand with a clear and established disciplinary structure. The effectiveness of an authoritative teacher will greatly diminish if the students do not know of the positive and negative consequences.

Point 2, 3 and 4 are about motivation. The growth mindset was suggested by Carol Dweck as a way to create motivation. It very much expands on Heider’s Attribution theory in social psychology. Giving students choices will encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning. And positive messages are simply positive reinforcement in behavioral management. There is ample evidence in research literature to support the benefits of these motivational practices.

If we use the example given in the article (teacher apologizes for raising his voice), Point 5 is simply a basic aspect of mannerism – it is universally applicable and is not at all specific to “students who challenge us”. However, had the author put this in the context of “Discipline with Dignity”, he would have given this point a far greater significance. The author states that being flexible is “one of the most important things a teacher can do to help students who challenge us”. This seems to imply a different degree of flexibility – one criterion for “students who challenge us” and another for “students who do not challenge us”. Classroom differentiation is often difficult to implement and it always carries a risk of reverse discrimination – the obedient students are paying the price in wasted class time when the disruptive students are getting away with no consequences of their behavior.

A proper learning environment is always important. Research evidence suggests that factors within the school environment have a greater impact on academic and social success than factors outside of school. I’d like to think that a proper learning environment is a basic requirement in education. It will benefit students who want to learn as well as students who resist learning. I fail to see how these so called “life-skill” lessons can be implemented in a typical school setting. Either these lessons form part of the curriculum (which is highly unlikely) or the student must be really lucky to be in a lecture which happens to address his/her problems. I don’t want to sound too negative here but if this last point is read in conjunction with the endnote – it seems to me that it has more to do with marketing than education.

Finally, I believe there are two important points missing in the article. First is reflection. Reflection is especially important in dealing with disruptive students because unless we know the causes of their misbehavior, it is not possible to prescribe a remedy. This, to me, should have been the first thing that a teacher should think. The first thing that a teacher should do is to give an engaging lecture - an obedient student can easily become disruptive in an uninspiring and boring lecture that fails to engage. I believe that 90% of the disruptive students will disappear when a teacher does just this - delivery of an engaging lecture.

I agree with one of the commentators who said that the 8 things are just “common sense” although it could well serve as a useful reminder that a simple act could have a huge impact on the teacher-student relationship. I’m of the opinion that this article provides no particular insights in the handling of students who challenge their teachers. It merely repackages some well- established principles in classroom management under a clever title.