The Essence of ‘Classroom Culture’: Five Elements

This post is also featured by Twinkl in their ‘Behaviour Management in the Classroom’ blog

This is the second post in a series of three about classroom culture. Check here for the last one, which unpacked the idea, hopefully showing that our traditional ideas of ‘behaviour management’ are insufficient for fully addressing the complexity of the classroom environment. If we want to make sense of the culture of our classrooms, I think there are five elements we ought to consider. They are discipline, management, control, influence and engagement. Before I go any further, I ought to say that I’ve not come up with these; I never come up with any of the good ideas I write about. Doug Lemov beautifully outlines these in his Teach Like a Champion 2.0. Go read that first if you’re interested. All I’ve done here is articulated how this looks as a leader for T&L and in a school context in the U.K. I’ll explain each one in turn.

Before I do, I ought to explain how these five elements have helped me in my role as T&L lead and what they’ve enabled me to do. Firstly, it has helped me ask better questions about what is going on in classrooms. We can’t find good answers unless we ask the right questions. These five elements have helped me ask the right questions, of which I include in the explanation that I give. Secondly, they have helped me see the complex dynamics of the classroom more clearly and therefore support teachers to become more reflective. By dividing out the elements of the classroom culture with my colleagues, I have helped them see that some issues they are having with behaviour, might be to do with engagement, or, they might be to do with discipline. Once we have identified the element, we have then been able to proceed to the relevant strategies (which I’ll consider in my final post on this topic). This depth of understand has paid dividends for both me as a leader and hopefully for my colleagues also. Let’s dive in.

Discipline

The word discipline is often used as a verb and one that is synonymous with punishment, or at the very least, something that is negative. Teachers might often say “I had to discipline that student…or I had to put a ‘lid’ on him quickly…or I had to squash that sort of behaviour early doors”

A better way to think about discipline, however, is probably as a noun. Discipline, when referred to as a process of teaching someone the right way to do something is what promotes stronger classroom cultures. “I taught my students discipline.” This sense of the word is also captured in the meaning of self-discipline and subject discipline. This reminds us that at the core of this definition of discipline is teaching – teaching students the right attitudes, character and behaviours we want to see. 

We expect to teach content but not necessarily habits of being a successful student. We sometimes assume that students know how to do what we are asking them to do. We say things like “pay attention,” for example, but don’t think to teach our students: “When I ask you to pay attention, I am asking you to sit up straight and show you are engaging in my lessons by looking at the person who’s talking.” As Doug McCurry, quoted in Teach Like a Champion, wisely put it, “If students aren’t doing what you asked, the most likely explanation is that you haven’t taught them how.”

How do we teach with discipline in mind?

Teaching with discipline implies a front-end investment in teaching your students how to be students, and that requires a fair amount of planning. How will students sit, line up, enter the classroom, and take notes? How will they discuss? This will also lead to endless amounts of practice to fine tune the discipline you are trying to instil.

Key questions for leaders and teachers to ask about discipline

  1. How are you teaching your students to learn?

2. What is the impact of this?

3. If I were to ask your students how they are to learn in lessons, what ways will they tell me they do this?

Management

In contract to discipline, management is about reinforcing behaviour through the use of consequences and rewards. What we typically call disciplining is often really management: giving consequences. Some teachers see this as all there is to classroom culture, like I discussed in my previous post. 

Because behaviour management systems create clear, visible results (student sitting up straight or no longer shouting out) it might be seen as the main way that you instil the culture you are trying to create. However, without discipline and the other three elements, it cannot sustain itself for very long and will begin to wane. We all know it to be true as teachers: the more you use things such as sanctions and rewards, the less special or novel they become. The more you use something the less effective it will be. For classroom management to succeed, it must work in the framework of the other four elements. I won’t include a what this looks like in practice; far better writers have done this in other places. Tom Bennett would be my first port of call.

Key questions for teachers and leaders to ask about management?

  1. How are you making sure you do not over rely on management?

2. What impact has the management systems you have put in place had on student learning?

3. If I asked your students, what would they say about how you manage your classroom?

Control

Control is your capacity to cause someone to choose to do what you ask, regardless of the consequences. Some teachers may consider this to be a dirty word and see it as wrong to be willing to ‘control’ someone else. If I’m getting my pupils to think for themselves, then I should be seeking to control them, they argue. However, a bit of context should make it clear that all of us exert control over other people’s actions every so often and that we do it because it’s the right thing to do, especially for teachers. This is not aim of what we are doing in our classrooms as teachers.

In a more specific sense, teacher control merely involves asking in a way that makes them more likely to agree to do it. No choices are entirely neutral; their is always a bit of persuasion and nudging involved. Looking someone in the eye and speaking firmly is exerting control, but so is saying please and showing that you appreciate her willingness to do something she may not want to. Ironically, shouting very rarely works in this sense unless there is control from the teacher.

How do we teach with control in mind?

Teachers who have strong control over their classes succeed because they understand the power of language and relationships: they ask firmly and confidently. They express faith in students’ ability to meet expectations. They replace vague commands like “calm down” with specific and useful ones like “please return to your seat and get on with your Do Now, thank you”. These actions promote clarity, purposefulness, resolve and caring. If you are able to do this consistently, you can save consequences for when they are really needed. 

What questions should leaders and teachers ask about control?

  1. What do you do when a student is defiant? Name the steps.
  2. How does control look in your classroom culture, as a teacher?
  3. How would you rate the level of control you have over your students? Does this wax and wane? What might you do about this?

Influence

Ideally, all teachers connect to their students and inspire them to want to do well in their education for themselves. If control gets them to do things, then influence gets them to want the things you suggest and make them their own, to add to their own beliefs, attitudes and actions. As Lemov writes: “If influence is the process of instilling belief maximizing it should be an intentional goal of every teacher’s classroom culture.”

How do we teach with influence in mind?

This year more than ever I have been acutely aware that the content that I teach is not the only thing that my students learn from me. I bring myself, my beliefs, my attitudes, my character to the room and this is picked up by students and must be acknowledged. It’s a balancing act for us as teachers between our professional and personal persona….not to mention making sure we embody the beliefs and values of our school and not undermine them.

What questions should leaders and teachers ask about influence?

  1. Think about students who will always do as you say straight away. Why do they do this? Unpack it.
  2. Think about student who will always test the boundaries with you. Why do they do this? Unpack it.
  3. How influential do you think you are in your classroom? How could you rate this and evidence it beyond student work?

Engagement

The human mind is a powerful thing and when it does not encounter stimuli to challenge and captivate it, it will quickly find other things to focus its attention on. Great teachers always seek to give students plenty to get involved in, plenty to lose themselves in. They get students busily engaged in important, interesting and challenging work.

How do we teach with engagement in mind?

Although engagements is not the only litmus test for the quality of teaching, it can be a good lens. When students haven’t been engaged in a lesson I have taught I have often reflected on how I have delivered the content, was the pitch right, was it too hard, was it too easy and son. I think it can be a good way to ‘check’ the culture in the room. Was this just a one-off lesson that was a bit off or is this the tone I am setting for my classroom?

What questions should leaders and teachers ask about engagement?

  1. Think about the lesson or subject you teach that you struggle to engage your students in. Why is this? Might it be the way in which you deliver the content? If not, why not?
  2. When is engagement high in your classroom? Why is this? Can you replicate it?
  3. What actionable ways can you increase engagement? Name the steps.

Summing up

The five elements of classroom culture, discipline, management, control, influence and engagement, provide a deeper way to look at what’s goes on in classrooms as both leaders and teachers. In my next post, I’ll explain three essential actionable ways teachers can begin to cultivate highly effective learning environments and explain how I have implemented them in my school.

More like this

The Essence of Classroom Culture

The power of warm strict

1 thought on “The Essence of ‘Classroom Culture’: Five Elements”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s