Creating the Right Climate for Learning

creating the right climate for learning

Creating the Right Climate for Learning

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

Sometimes it does not matter what you have planned, you just know it is going to go badly because of the actions of a noisy minority in the room. Every teacher faces – or has faced this – in their time, but some with more success than others. And it is particularly daunting for those new to the profession.

So what is the secret? How do some teachers manage the behaviour of challenging students with an effortless air, while others flounder just getting them to pick up a pen? In this article, I propose that it is all about creating the right climate for learning.

The right climate for learning means having a culture within the classroom, where the students are less tempted to behave badly and where they value positive behaviour. This can be done via carrot, or stick.

I prefer using a balance of both, but with one simple addition: responsibility.

Students with a sense of responsibility for their actions do not need carrots or sticks. They see the value in behaving well for the long-term. They see the positive influence they can exert on others and they value it for its own sake, not just for a reward, or out of fear of punishment.

This all sounds perfect, right? But how do we get there? Well, the answer is not always straightforward.

Proactive strategies

It is vital to put the work into establishing a positive environment, or ‘climate for learning’. Setting out high expectations, with the reasons behind those expectations being properly explained pays dividends. If the students know, from the off, that good behaviour benefits them personally, they are much less likely to deviate from it.

Play the long game

Remember: Rome was not built in a day. Students often think short-term. They look for quick wins. Teachers should not. They are in it for the long-haul and should be looking to develop positive relationships over time. You cannot expect to be able to fix all behavioural issues on the spot.

Apart from anything else, students often do not want to engage in-the-moment and so any attempt to fix the problem there and then is futile.

The cost in time of this approach for teachers can be expensive in the short-term. However, it usually pays off handsomely, especially when the students begin to see that you are not willing to give up on developing positive relationships. After all, some of them are disruptive because of this lack of positive relationships outside of school in their home lives.

Routines, routines, routines

One of the most important things you can control (and remember, you cannot control everything) is classroom routines. I find that it is really useful to structure lessons in this order, every lesson:

  • Present information.
  • Question the students.
  • Students create something in response to demonstrate understanding.
  • Check students’ understanding.
  • Give feedback.
  • Students respond to feedback,
  • Check responses to feedback.

This structure can be adapted to suit the needs of the class or the nature of the topic, but frequently using such a structure, where students know, each lesson, what is coming next, can help them. Many students crave structure in their daily lives or find it hard to operate outside of one. Nobody loses out with this strategy.

Clarity and consistency and fairness

When implementing your behaviour policy, be it whole school, departmental or your personal code of conduct, be consistent. If students know that when they do A, then B will certainly follow, they will often pause for thought. This can be enough to deter most disruption in most classrooms and maintains a positive climate for learning.

The key, though, is ensuring that the steps used to resolve disruption are seen as fair. This may require an explanation from you when you first begin to teach the group, followed by regular referrals back to these steps.

But, it will keep the students on “your side” if you have to address one of them calling you out as “unfair” when all you have done is maintain the rules that you promised to maintain in everyone’s best interests.

‘Don’t smile until Christmas’

I remember someone telling me this when I first trained back in 2005. I am sure they meant well and it might even work for some teachers, but it was not for me. I still hear it from some teachers today, but I think (hopefully) it is said with a little more nuance.

The point, I think, is to maintain a “professional” exterior. This might involve keeping a straight face more often than you normally would, hence the imperative “don’t smile”.

But this is no mean feat. After all, did we not get into teaching, partly because of the unpredictable nature of the children themselves? It is worth asking more experienced staff for their funniest anecdotes, where they somehow kept a straight face despite the hilarious situation they found themselves in (or even the times when they did not manage it).

Reactive strategies

Sometimes, no matter what conditions you lay down in your classroom, students will break rules, have a bad day, or succumb to the stresses of life. At this point, there are timeless and practical tactics you can employ. Use them repeatedly for maximum impact.

Take the heat out of the situation

Disruptive behaviour has a myriad of origins. Sometimes students come in with an axe to grind and are looking for a confrontation. At other times, they might feel unfairly treated and are not particularly resilient because of other influences beyond their control.

Or, they may want to chat at the back and do not care if it annoys the teacher, as in reality, they are just showing off to their peers.

Any attempt to “confront” these students could end up in a stand-off, that you as a teacher might lose. We all know of teachers who have lost such a stand-off. It can do terrible harm to reputations, destroy the climate for learning and it makes future behaviour issues even more difficult to address, as the authority is lost.

One method to get around the stand-off is to politely and with a smile, invite them for a quick chat in the corridor. This takes them away from the gallery they are playing to. Once you have their full attention you can spend time getting to the root of the issue without them losing face. Be patient and seek to understand them – they will appreciate you for it (eventually).

Contact parents (do it before you think you need to)

Parents do not want to receive a surprise call about their son or daughter’s behaviour. Not only does it give them little chance to respond to the issue thoughtfully, but they will often go on the defensive. This is not useful for the parent, the teacher, or the child, as it just kicks the problem further down the lane, to be dealt with later on (possibly too late). If you see that a particular student might be prone to disruptive behaviour, then a quick five-minute telephone call to a parent/carer might be enough to put the brakes on.

Students invariably behave better when they know parents and teachers are working in tandem and are in frequent contact with each other. “Praise calls” to parents can also be an excellent way to develop that rapport that you may need to call upon later on, when the telephone call might not be so positive.

Identify the key players

In any classroom, there are some individual students who can change the general atmosphere. Identify them and pay particular attention to the way they enter the room at the beginning of the lesson.

This might seem as though I am advocating pandering to certain students, but I am not. Sometimes, it is easier to deal with whole-class behaviour when one or two influential peers are already playing by your rules.

As they enter, quietly ask them about their day, or give them a simple physical task that they cannot help but succeed in, e.g. giving out the books.

If they know you care, they might not see you as part of their “problem” that day. Sometimes, giving them a quick psychological win can act as a catalyst for further positive behaviour, which in turn influences others too.

Over time, this simple act can build positive relationships, that require less and less effort on your part to maintain.

Observe other teachers

It seems obvious when looking for good behaviour managers that you would seek out experienced teachers first. This is indeed useful, as it can give you a glimpse of your future self. However, part of the reason why students can misbehave for NQTs is precisely because you are an NQT. Teachers new to the school do not have that reputation, those relationships, or (sometimes) that sense of gravitas, that years in the classroom brings. As such, you would be much better off watching a fellow NQT manage disruption. After all, they are truly in your shoes. If they can do it, then so can you! And if they struggle, can you work together to develop strategies and support one another?

Conclusion

You should view behaviour management as a career-long professional skill that you will continue to develop as you gain experience. Be fair, consistent and maintain high standards. Over time, this builds positive reputations and ultimately relationships, creating the right climate for learning. It is hard-won, but well worth the battle.

Ideas for Stretch and Challenge in KS3

Ideas for Stretch and Challenge in KS3

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

In my best lessons, all of my students are pushed to their limits. This can be academically, socially or even physically. To aim for anything else is to entirely miss the point of education.

The trouble is though, “teaching to the top” can be difficult to do, both from a planning viewpoint – how can I really challenge my most able students? – and from a workload viewpoint – how can I find the time to consistently plan a range of activities for all abilities, let alone teach them and then give meaningful feedback?

Add into the mix that at key stage 3 particularly, students are more often taught in mixed attainment classes; this alone can make differentiation seem like an impossible task. Even more so if you were to succumb to the all-too-common pressure that teachers place on themselves to do their absolute best for every child, regardless of the cost to their own wellbeing.

Then there is the total lack of imagination shown by many resource-creators in the education sector, who have tied their activities purely to exam board criteria. This is pointless. I do not just want my students to be good at exams. It leaves them with an impoverished curriculum and often just an arbitrary set of facts. Instead, I want them to flourish in my subject and become experts who answer with deep knowledge, flair and creativity, irrespective of which exam they eventually sit.

However, because there are hundreds of fantastic ways to differentiate, simply figuring out what is “best” can leave me with analysis-paralysis for hours, days or even weeks!

Well, no more. Having tried and tested many techniques myself, I have (for now) settled on a few that strike the balance between pushing students to their limits as well as being sustainable in the sense of the workload they create. They combine rigour, depth and that controversial and emotionally loaded word “engagement”, allowing students to push boundaries in a positive way.

There is no “best” way overall, but there are ways that consistently work well. So, below is my curated list of excellent ways to stretch and challenge at key stage 3.

Activity 1: Scenario questions

Everyone loves a story. So when your task involves the students as decision-makers in a scenario, they immerse themselves in much more creative answers than they might otherwise come up with.

They are able to see alternative points of view a little more clearly and this helps them to add weight to analysis and evaluation in their arguments. More importantly than that, the students begin to see the world from beyond their own perspective, something that we as adults forget to do now and again.

Scenario tasks work best when students have already learnt something about the topic. In religious studies, this could be an ethical theory on how to behave. In Geography, it could be the effects of movement in tectonic plates. In Physics it could be how different forces act on a given object. In Art, it could be the rules of a given style, such as Cubism. In Maths, it could be diameter, area and volume.

Once students have learnt the basics, they are then given a scenario which requires them to make decisions – where not only do they apply their knowledge, but they also have to justify why they chose a certain option over a different one.

Combining this application with evaluation can really test the abilities of students. They need to not only show their understanding, but to become more confident decision-makers and advocates for a certain argument or approach in the process.

Possible scenarios might include:

  • Create a bird’s-eye-view layout of a theme park, using pre-selected 2D shapes of a given size, placed inside a strict perimeter.
  • Design and build a bridge out of straws strong enough to carry the weight of an egg.
  • After reading profiles of 10 characters, each with positive and negative attributes, decide who to throw out of the lifeboat to prevent it sinking!
  • Write a one-minute piece of music to inspire a seven-year-old child to dance.
  • Write an emergency news bulletin in response to a natural disaster, giving important practical advice on what local people should do.

Students then have to present their designs and decisions, justifying not only why they chose them, but also why they did not choose the alternatives. They should then be encouraged to critique their own and each other’s decisions, which will add further depth to their understanding of the judgements made.

Activity 2: The ultimate question – what difference does it make?

When I am coming towards the end of a topic, I usually pose the following question to my students: “What difference does it make?”

An alternative version is “why should you care?” (although this can come across a little sarcastic!). I ask this question to give students the opportunity to see where this topic sits in the broader context.

For example, in Religious Studies, you might be teaching the topic of “pilgrimage”. Students would learn how people of different faiths go on pilgrimage and what the similarities and differences are between their experiences. The question “what difference does it make?” prompts the students to go beyond describing and explaining pilgrimages, to evaluating their purpose.

The question gets them to explore not why people go on pilgrimage, but how it can change them. It can also provoke other questions like “Why might pilgrimages be seen as pointless in the 21st century?” or “Can you be a proper Christian/Jew/Muslim if you have never been on a pilgrimage?”

All in all, this one question can be an excellent way to get your students to evaluate the topic and to go beyond what they have studied so far.

Activity 3: Essay rebuilding

Many of my higher attaining students find writing essays no trouble at all, once they have been given the information they need.

However, they often create formulaic answers, which do not really show the depth of their knowledge or show the versatility of their arguing skills that are often evident in verbal questioning during the lesson.

I have a solution to this. It demonstrates on paper just how nimble students’ arguments are and how well they really know their stuff.

  1. Take a pre-written, non-perfect answer (pinch one from last year’s students or write one yourself if you must).
  2. Cut it into strips. The more strips there are, the greater the challenge.
  3. Hand over the randomly sorted strips to a team of students, who then have to re-assemble the essay in the correct order.
  4. Students stick the essay pieces in order, onto a larger sheet of paper (A3 is good, but the bigger, the better).
  5. Finally, they annotate around the edges of the essay, evaluating and judging the quality of the individual pieces (e.g. “strong argument because…”, or “this needs evidence to prove xxx here”, etc).
  6. Once they have finished, invite another student or a team of students to critique the newly rebuilt essay. They can then add their own evaluative judgements on the order of the pieces and on any feedback that the first team missed.
  7. To add further challenge, teams of students can be pitted against each other to re-assemble the same essay. The quality of debate held by the students – who do not want to lose the race or get it wrong – is phenomenal.
  8. Finally, students present their decisions to the class, explaining their rationales and suggesting how the essay should really have been written.

Now over to you…

In the end, stretch and challenge is about showing students that there is more that they can do. Even the simple act of showing them that more is possible is often enough for students to permit themselves to try and go that little bit further.

So why not try one of these simple strategies today? Go on, stretch and challenge yourself. You know you can.

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