Article by: Daniel Whittaker – teacher, writer and classroom climate expert

A successful learning environment is about what you know rather than what you do.

Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are having their annual classroom display photo competition. I’ve seen sublime book corners, realistic reading trees, a ‘get to know you board’ – and they all have two things in common: they aim to foster a positive class learning culture and they’re all deeply ineffective (not to mention they distract pupils’ attention too).

Below are five pieces of good practice advice to help you develop your expectations, pupils and classroom to ensure there is a positive learning culture.

1. Know your academic expectations

At the centre of a positive learning culture are clearly defined academic expectations. As the cliché goes, you’re guiding pupils on a learning journey, so if you don’t know where you’re going, your pupils don’t stand a chance. What’s more, you’re not just guiding them, you’ve got to sell them tickets first.

So, you need a destination and a route.

The destination is already chosen for you, but it’s essential to unpick the curriculum expectations to find the waypoints on the map. Writing down exactly what you expect pupils to do for each curriculum statement is invaluable. The real difficulty comes when making the journey – some pupils will be further from the end than others, which makes the voyage a daunting prospect.

To trust you, pupils need to know what they are aiming for, the hard work they’ll need to put in and how you’ll take them from A to B. They need to hear this often. Simple phrases like “By the end of the lesson we will have solved this problem on the board”, or “By the end of this week, you’ll understand this concept because we’ll be doing x, y and z”, help to remove fear and create a culture of determination and growth.

2. Know your pupils

You need to know your pupils – after all, they’ll be doing the hard work for you. Many experienced teachers bemoan the occasional ‘difficult class’ where the peer customs and power structures are hard to break into. Social status and acting out social roles are so important to some pupils that they’d rather go against the teacher than their peers. When existing peer culture is strong, you have two options: override the culture with your own or understand the social dynamics in your classroom.

Powerful pupils hide behind the loyalty of others, but friendship maps will help you to identify your class’ social structures. Try:

  • Asking pupils to write down their three best friends;
  • Asking them to write one or two people they don’t get on with; and
  • Drawing a friendship map (like the one pictured above). 

Friendship maps throw light on powerful pupils and isolated individuals, making it easier to tackle challenging peer cultures. Channelling powerful pupils’ influence by making them positive role models will reinforce your own learning culture. Where this isn't possible, keeping cliques apart will minimise destructive powers.

3. Know your physical environment

Understanding how pupils experience their environment will help you to understand pupil behaviour. So, try sitting in every seat in your class for a minute or two. You’ll quickly know which seats are too hot, cold, or noisy, and where pupils can hide and influence others.

Knowing the best place to monitor your learning environment will also help you to manage behaviour and learning at the same time. Often, the corner of your room has the best viewing angle – just make sure you can see every pupil.

Learning climates are dictated by the class layouts you choose. For focussed behaviour, rows beat groups, hands down – many studies have shown that forward-facing pupils are far less likely to engage in off-task behaviour. The major limitation is that rows reduce peer interactions.

If collaboration is the goal, groups are best; albeit with certain caveats. Grouped layouts – by their nature – encourage interactions, but as we all know, not all interactions are positive and productive. Add in social loafing, where pupils sit back and let others do the work, and you’ve potentially found the reason for Britain’s well-documented, low-level disruption issue. To combat this, consider:

  • Deciding whether collaboration is appropriate for what you’re teaching.
  • Planning and communicating a goal to each group.
  • Allocating roles for individual accountability.

4. Know your behavioural expectations and routines

Poorly planned routines undermine high academic expectations. After all, if pupils can’t enter a room or distribute resources quickly and calmly, they’re unlikely to be ready to learn. Effective routines are nearly always cited in studies of schools with excellent learning cultures.

The devil is in the detail. Listing routines and detailing exactly what you’re looking for is the starting point for communicating them to pupils and holding them accountable. For example, the following might be the features of successfully coming into the classroom:

  • Coats and bags away
  • Speak at no more than a whisper level
  • Start working on the ‘do now’ task
  • Putting coats away and getting on should take no more than 60 seconds 

Wall-mounted photos of expected outcomes are even quicker – it’s very easy to compare the actual tidiness of a desk to a photo and spot the differences.

When pupils know your routines in detail, disruption decreases and focus increases, but you’ve got to know them first.

5. Know what to say and how to act

Your words and actions are by far the biggest influences on your class’ learning climate. The frightening reality is that we’re not always aware of what we do or the effects. For example, male pupils are more likely to be associated with negative behaviours, and teachers talk about disruptive pupils with increased negative emotional tones. 

Many teachers use ‘consistency scripts’ – ready-made, memorised prompts – to limit the impact of these unconscious messages and to stay calm. For example, “You’ve just shouted out which isn’t fair to children waiting patiently”, concisely labels and explains the effects of the behaviour. Good consistency scripts always:

  • Identify and label negative behaviour.
  • Explain the effect of the behaviour on learning.
  • Are short enough so lessons can flow.

 Adjusting your body language helps too. People in authority tend to use open body language (i.e. open arms and legs and facing the person you’re interacting with), and maintain eye contact. Slipping into habits of frowning and crossed arms will undermine your learning culture.

Putting the pieces together

Some teachers are very lucky – they know this stuff subconsciously. They’ll undoubtedly be excellent teachers because their learning culture will be spot on. The rest of us need to work hard to gather this information. It’s not as instantly gratifying as arranging reading corners, but it will mean you’re less likely to use the proverbial naughty corner.

Use the rest of August and September to gather information on your expectations, pupils and classroom so a positive learning culture isn’t delegated to laminated motivational quotes.

Daniel Whittaker is a teacher, writer and classroom climate expert – he has a clear focus on improving educational outcomes for the pupils under his care. Daniels’ blog, ‘Classroom Climatology’ focusses on the learning environment design and pupil-teacher relationships.

 

Bibliography

Bennett, T. (2017) ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’

DfE (2017) ‘Teacher Workload Survey 2016’

Gillies, R. M. (2016) ‘Cooperative learning: Review of research and practice’

Glock, S., & Kleen, H. (2017) ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’

Hall, J. A., Coats, E. J., & LeBeau, L. S. (2005) ‘Nonverbal behavior and the vertical dimension of social relations: a meta-analysis’

McGrath, K. F., & Van Bergen, P. (2017) ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’

Nuthall, G. (2007) ‘The hidden lives of learners’

Ofsted, (2014) ‘Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms’

Slavin, R. E. (1988) ‘Cooperative learning and student achievement’

Wheldall, K., & Lam, Y. Y. (1987) ‘Rows versus Tables. II. The Effects of Two Classroom Seating Arrangements on Classroom Disruption Rate, On‐task Behaviour and Teacher Behaviour in Three Special School Classes’

Wheldall, K., Morris, M., Vaughan, P., & Ng, Y. Y. (1981) ‘Rows Versus Tables: an example of the use of behavioural ecology in two classes of eleven‐year‐old children’


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