Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things.

Which brings us to the second phase: it’s all about the students. You don’t really matter, because if ‘they’ don’t want to learn then you can’t make them [this phase is often very much about the negatives]. You start to notice that some students thrive whatever you do in class, just as others always struggle. You’ve done your training, so you’re fine: it must be them.

Students thus become the focus; everything is about them. Your practice becomes about doing whatever is needed to keep them happy and satisfied: if only you do that, then everything else will follow. The cynic might argue that some national evaluations of ‘teaching quality’ take this approach, but that can be a different post.

Again, this is an understandable conceptualisation. Teaching is one thing, but learning is another, so you have to make sure there is fertile ground on which the sprouts of knowledge can germinate. And if we’re not doing for the kids, then are we really so narcissistic as to imagine that we matter?

But this second phase is as bad as the first. Denying our importance is as problematic as denying students’ importance. If we think about it a bit more, then both sides matter in this: teacher and pupil, learner and facilitator.

And thus we arrive at the third phase: it’s not about us or them, but about the specific learning situation.

The simplest way to think about this is to reflect on a session that you’ve taught many times before, but which – one day, and for unclear reasons – doesn’t work. The thing that usually happens – that has always happened, in fact – doesn’t happen.

When this occurs – and if it’s not occurred to you yet, then it will – then it’s not because you’re rubbish, or because the students are rubbish, but because the session hasn’t been scoped out fully, by you or the students.

Ironically, in an active-learning environment that tends to be less of an issue, because the default mode is that unexpected things can (will) happen, so one’s guard is always up, ready to catch or deflect the dropped ball.** By contrast, when you give a lecture, then that’s not how you come into the session: instead, there’s a thing you’re going to do, and that will be how it is.

The point is – as Amanda notes – that you need to adapt your environment, use it to forestall potential problems and behaviours, and incentivise students towards certain behaviours. In my case, I always try to make the easiest, less hassle-y option the one that speaks to my learning objectives.. That means benefits and costs more visible, but also making any hurdles (i.e. work) clearly relevant to the matter in hand. In short, my students are doing things because it’s the best way to get through things, as well as being enjoyable (I hope).

As a diagnostic, being in this third phase simply invites you to ask what’s wrong with the situation. Again, it’s not a critique of you or them, but of your specific interaction. It means being flexible and adaptable, but in your planning and your running of sessions. It also has the benefit of you feeling you have to beat yourself up if something doesn’t work: remember, if there was a pedagogy that always worked, we’d all be using it. The key question is always “what’s the right thing to do for right now?”

If you can move through to this third phase, then you’ll find that you will feel more confident about your teaching, and that students will find classes more engaging to their needs. Ultimately, it’ll help you get the most out of your teaching.

In Amanda’s case, that also comes with recognition. She’s too modest to write her own puff piece, so consider this my contribution to it. At ISA last week, Amanda won the Deborah Gerner Innovative Teaching Award, in part because her willingness to try some different things in the classroom. The point is not that these always work (as her posts here at ALPSblog often discuss), but that she has tried to reflect on why they do(n’t) work. It’s just one of the reasons that this blog has been as successful as it has: we’re all just trying things out and we’re exploring options together. Amanda’s award is just reward for that.


  • I’d love to cite you a source for this, but I can’t find my notes and vague Google sources aren’t helping, so suffice to say that it’s not my idea and any misrepresentation is entirely my fault.

** I think I might be mixing up my sporting metaphors here, but you get the idea.

One Reply to “Thinking about classroom problems in general”

  1. Great post, Simon, as usual. I really like the way you took what I wrote about specific options and gave it a framework that makes sense, contextualizing it as student, teacher, and mixed-situational responses. I think there are a lot of other areas of teaching that can be framed this way–for example, one reason I ban mobile phones in my classes is because it makes me doubt the efficacy of my instruction. If they are looking at their phones, then I must be doing something wrong. That’s not necessarily true–in fact, its much more likely to be situational–but it still dominates my thinking in that particular area. Banning mobiles, except when needed for an activity, is an easy way to deal with the problem, but its stunted my own thinking about why this particular behavior occurs. So this framework is, I think, very useful in thinking through all kinds of behaviors, not just why students don’t read.

    And thanks for the kind words 🙂

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