December 3, 2008

Classroom as Community

Managing students is less about keeping order and more about building a sense of belonging, says a new book

By Marjorie Howard

“Different approaches can work for different people, and some kids can do fine with little control, and some need just the opposite,” says George Scarlett. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The high school physics teacher was frustrated. For years he had taught at a school where students were highly motivated, completed all their assignments and scored well on tests. But since taking a new job teaching a very different group of students, he found himself spending more time keeping his class in line than he did teaching physics. Students whispered and giggled while he gave lectures. Some passed notes during class, and many didn’t bother to do their homework.

Educational theorists have come up with ideas about how to deal with unruly classrooms, and educators will often cite one or another theorist’s approach when discussing the problem.

Now George Scarlett, deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, and several colleagues have taken on the challenge of explaining the foundation for good behavior and classroom management in a new book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage Publications). Iris Chin Ponte, G03, G08, a postdoctoral associate at Eliot-Pearson, and Jay P. Singh, A08, a graduate student at Oxford University, co-wrote the book, aided by current doctoral students Laura Beals and Yibing Li.

While not a how-to book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management lays out the underlying concepts of running a classroom, making the point that teachers need to be flexible and fluid, be able to use different methods and approaches and know how to adapt them to particular children. The bottom line, says Scarlett, is that teachers need to show they care about their students.

Managing a classroom is not just about keeping children quiet and orderly. “More and more,” Scarlett says, “people are realizing that the issues around behavior and classroom management are moral issues, helping kids develop themselves as people.”

In the early 19th century, Scarlett says, discussions of classroom behavior used theological language. “A lot of educators were into strict obedience, but it had a particular meaning of obedience to God, so the teacher was trying to instill the rightness of being obedient.”

How Do You Measure Empathy?

Now, he says, educators talk about classroom behavior in scientific terms. “There is a lot of talk about empirical evidence, implying there is a best practice that can be shown to be best through empirical research. What people don’t talk about are the limitations when you restrict yourself to that which can be measured.”

It’s impossible, for example, to measure a teacher’s judgment about subtle matters such as students’ motives or how much a teacher shows he cares about a student, Scarlett says.

“One of the themes of the book is that showing caring is essential, and the development of classrooms into communities is essential, but both are difficult to measure. Furthermore, it is very difficult to measure when there is the right match between teacher and student. My early experience of this truth is that one size does not fit all,” he notes. “Different approaches can work for different people, and some kids can do fine with little control, and some need just the opposite.”

There are five key concepts underlying good behavior and classroom management, according to the book:

  • building good relationships
  • focusing on learning, which includes learning how to behave and also learning how education is relevant
  • supporting a child’s long-term development (different from teaching for learning)
  • being organized by focusing on time, space, schedules and the built environment
  • accommodating diversity by adapting to children from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of abilities and disabilities

“The book advocates attending to all five of these concepts,” says Scarlett. “It sounds simple, but if you go back and look at the literature, there isn’t that common language. What we did was take these five concepts and say [that] these are the building blocks for talking about behavior and classroom management.”

A central message is that the cookie-cutter approach is not helpful. What might work with middle-class American children, for example, might not work the same way for children brought up in poverty or in different cultures. Teachers need to learn to vary their approach, depending on the children and circumstances.

What does this mean for the physics teacher with the wayward class? The impulse, says Scarlett, is to simply be tough with students who misbehave and to set strict rules. Instead, he says, the physics teacher would likely do better if he adopted a learning approach and first taught his students how physics is relevant to their lives.

“Probably most of them are interested in popular music; there’s physics involved when you pluck the string of a bass guitar,” Scarlett says. “Also, despite appearances, they’re anxious about the future, so connecting a physics class to their future can help.”

From there, says Scarlett, the teacher could begin to incorporate the other concepts into his teaching, such as building relationships with the students, using organization as a tool, adapting to his students’ diverse backgrounds and supporting long-term development by supporting critical thinking and ways to inquire.

It can be a tall order. In general, says Scarlett, “everything has to be modified depending on the children and their culture, context and personalities, but showing care is the common thread.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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