On Control in #Classrooms

Whether we admit it or not, much of teaching requires students to do things they would not otherwise. Some students will read, write, compute, think, and interact for their own motivations or to comply, but in the absence of school and the assignments that accompany class, most students would not choose the work that comprises school.  

If we accept my premise, then one aspect (and a very important aspect) of teaching is finding a way to convince students to do what we ask. Those teachers who adhere to behaviorists views of humans (even if they don’t realize it), adopt certain strategies for getting students to do the work. These strategies tend to use external rewards and punishments to motivate participation. Rules are imposed, grades are offered or threatened, and detentions or exclusion are used to encourage students. Perhaps the most bizarre strategy is “assigning more homework.” 

I’m most puzzled by the homework strategy, especially because is so contradicts behaviorist principles, but the others seem strange to me as well. For these teachers, however, the suggestion they abandon those strategies is, “but how else will I get them to do the work?” 

Another group of educators has accepted the findings of cognitive and learning scientists and found just how to get them to do the work. Of course, these strategies are not completely effective for all students all of the time, but they are (at least in my experience and my observations of others) more effective that the behaviorist strategies. Among the things teachers can do to convince students to participate in class are: 

  • Focusing lessons on questions and problems that students perceive to be relevant and important. Notice the subject of this statement—it is students’ perceptions, not teachers’ proclamations—that define relevance.  
  • Developing positive relationships with students. When students see you as a person who cares about them, not only as learners of the subject, but active and interesting people whose stories matter. Teachers who know and genuinely care about those stories and act accordingly are more successful in motivating students. 
  • Allow students some autonomy. Surely the expertise of a teachers is an important source of advice and guidance for students unfamiliar with the curriculum, but teachers who impose their pathway on students are perceived to be particularly untrustworthy by students. “This teacher doesn’t think I am capable of learning this without them,” is the discouraging conclusion they draw. 

When we look closely at the two groups of educators, we see these two approaches to motivating students is a manifestation of a more fundamental belief about the teacher-student relationship. Control seems to the differentiating belief. Those who adopt behaviorist strategies believe they must be in control of everything that happens in the classroom, whereas the others are comfortable letting go of control. If the last few years teach us anything it is that we cannot control everything, and the more we try, the greater is our failure.