Classroom Management, Adults vs. Students, Structure vs. Order

This may not be what you think it is based on its title.

I watched the video below with participants in the Mentor Leadership Workshop yesterday. And I could not turn it off fast enough for the participants, who were rolling their eyes, covering their faces, and otherwise responding with, um, disapproval (you know, sticking-their-fingers-down-their-throats and that kind of thing). In fairness, I knew that was going to be the reaction.

Have a look at the first few minutes. If you can watch more than that, you're a more patient person than I am.

This video was taped on the first day of Kindergarten. It shows a wonderful teacher establishing routines and extinguishing unwanted behaviors.

I do not intend my intense criticisms of this video personally — Ms. Silver seems like a very nice person and I have no doubt she cares deeply about children. But when you post something that claims to be the work of a great master "extinguishing" unwanted behaviors, criticism is a natural byproduct. (Also, is the poster really so tone-deaf to use a word like "extinguish" here?! I digress.)

To my mind this is one of the worst brands of teacher-centered instruction. In every pre-secondary grade, the objective for socializing behavior should be to transfer control to the students (at an age-appropriate level, of course — I’m not suggesting that kindergartners should wander the parking lots alone). It should not be to dictate that the children "fall in line," or to correct children constantly so that they do exactly what adults want.

"No talking in the halls"?! Whose ends does that serve? (Pro tip: The adults'.) "If you do what I say, we get to have some (shhh...) fun!" — immediately implying that learning, the real business of school, is not fun. But if you follow the rules, Zoe, then you're a good girl, and you can have some fun (even if that nasty little Miles over there won't get to because he hasn't mastered the self-control of an adult yet)!

It is so easy to be attracted to "structure" — we're adults, and we like things to be neat and tidy. But this video does not demonstrate structure — it demonstrates order, which is not how real learning occurs.

If you doubt that, think back to something you learned really, really well, and enjoyed. Did you learn it in a straight line? (No.) Did you avoid mistakes because when you learn something your goal is to be perfect? (No.) Did you do it primarily to please others? (Surprise... No. No. And no.)

With respect to Ms. Silver, I don't know if I've ever seen a better demonstration of the difference between what learning and understanding are, and what school is. Learning is what we engage in voluntarily, joyfully, and with little regard for “rules” beyond the most basic guidelines for civilized interaction. Understanding is the result of that kind of learning — a deep grasp of a topic that results from serious thinking and contemplation and doing — not from demands to take in information. Knowing something is not the same as learning something.

Knowing is easy — we can know something merely by being told. But learning and understanding take real work — more than just telling other people, even kindergartners, to behave, as if five-year-olds are actually miniature adults.

Any adult who spends a lot of time with children can get them to “behave,” as Ms. Silver does here. It takes more than that to engage children in learning.

And because of that, alas, in most cases school is what we do to children, rather than what they participate in.

This is not just my “personal opinion” — if you truly care about students' learning, rather than mere compliance, this is the overwhelming conclusion of the research on the topic. If you'd like to learn more about what research tells us about how people understand things, and the ways classrooms can help kids to get there, I'd suggest starting with Making Thinking Visible (from Harvard's Project Zero) and The Responsive Classroom (by the terrific Ruth Charney), both available wherever people are interested in education.

Let's focus children on the structure of learning, and not just the cheap order that adults often prefer.

Peter BravermanComment