Chaos in the classroom and how to replace it with learning

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Can we replace Classroom Chaos with Learning-Centered Education?

K–12 education can be better. One of the most effective changes that could be made is to reduce the amount of chaos in the classroom and replace it with learning.

I spend several hours a year in various schools giving presentations on Anthropology, Evolution, Brainzz, and other topics. Plus, I know some teachers and have taught seminars specifically for teachers. For these reasons I have a sense of what happens in high school (and to a lesser extent middle school and elementary school) classrooms. What I am about to describe – “classroom chaos” – is found in every school that I know of, and it is appalling.

You might think that classroom chaos is the product of out of control students, or class sizes that are too large, or escaped animals (all of which are problems, of course). But that is not what I’m talking about. The following is a short list of the causes of classroom chaos:

  1. The Principal
  2. The Yearbook
  3. The Congress of the United States of America
  4. State Legislatures
  5. The College Board and other similar entities
  6. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion

The following is a complete list of entities that DO NOT cause classroom chaos:

  1. Teachers
  2. Students
  3. Guest Speakers

What are some examples of events that when they occur cause classroom chaos?

Imagine that a teacher is five minutes away from the end of the third class for the day (i.e., the same “prep” i.e. “AP Chemistry” being taught three times). The intercom system comes on because the principal has decided to make a school wide announcement about something. Everyone sits and listens to the principal and then class ends. The students in that class don’t get the learning that happened in the other classes for that last five minutes, which depending on the class might be very important. Also, the teacher is left to figure out how to adjust for this, which can be difficult because the three classes for this prep are now out of sync.

Imagine that all of the sophomores in the school are scheduled at the same time to take a test offered by a major testing agency. They must take the test as part of their overall high school-to-college tracking. So, sophomores, as part of their effort to demonstrate their learning, don’t get to learn what the other students (who are not sophomores) were learning in their mixed grade class that morning, and the teachers have to figure out a way of adjusting for this, possibly by spinning wheels for a while. But it may be quite difficult to make that adjustment, and it may just be the case that those sophomores have lost a learning opportunity. Ironically, that lack of learning may show up later in other standardized tests that they will, in the future, be pulled out of class to take.

Standards-related state-wide or national tests are scheduled for an arbitrary time of year that has little to do with when students learn the material being tested. This disrupts the entire schedule at a large scale. It is very common, for example, that an AP exam is scheduled nation-wide by the College Board to occur near the middle of the third of three terms in a school year for a particular school district. This means that either the students take the test several weeks after the end of their AP class, or before the class has ended, rendering the final weeks of the term moot in relation to that AP test. This actually costs students and their families money because AP tests are a way to avoid paying for some expensive college classes the students will be required to take later, and the grade one earns on the AP test determines whether or not the student can opt out of the required class. Also, the test itself takes up valuable teaching time. Certainly, taking an AP test is a very worthwhile endeavour, but state-wide standards-related tests are not worth the student’s time. Those tests are not there to challenge or educate the student, and are generally not used to evaluate the student, but rather, to measure and control the quality of the schools the students are in. These tests are the byproduct of a system of education that knows something about the problems it has but tends to find the clumsiest way to solve those problems. More to the point, the cost paid to improve education is unfairly borne by the students and teachers, and the cost is paid as lost learning.

There are a lot of tests that students are required or encouraged to take, including (depending on the state and district) a PLAN test, PSAT test, a state-wide test such as the MCA given in Minnesota, and AP tests), so the total amount of time taken away can be rather large. I’m not arguing against testing. That would be a different topic. But even if we assume that evaluation is important (and this could be the case) evaluation should not be done at the cost of damaging the learning environment.

In many schools, three or four students in every single classroom in every single class all day have to leave to get their ID photos taken, visit a guidance counselor for a mandated meeting, or get their yearbook picture taken. In one school I know of, over a period of several days each term, students are called via the public address system in small numbers based on the alphabetical position of their last name to attend a group guidance meeting, so for the entire day virtually every class is randomly interrupted and at any given moment there are students missing from the classroom. Imagine the equivalent disruption caused by the student. For example, imagine that two or three students put their ear buds in and ignore the teacher for half the class. They would not get away with that. Why does the yearbook or the administration get away with bringing students out of the classroom randomly like this?

In some schools, all the senior are excused from one class so that a senior picture can be taken out on the lawn. Some students leave their classes behind for extended periods for college visits at a career center. In many cases students are allowed to leave their last class early for extracurricular activities, such as debate team or sports. Then, there are the fire drills, tornado drills, and lockdown drills. (Corresponding to that sort of disruption, I could have added “Terrorists, spree killers, and arsonists” to the above list of causal agents!)

Pepfests shorten the schedule so that students can cram into a less than adequately sized auditorium to hear each grade level try to yell louder than the other (which really does nothing but create division between the grades), watch silly games like relays where kids hop in gunney sacks across a slippery floor, all while students increasingly show riotous behavior that quite frankly intimidates many teachers. (Note to parents: you should be able to send a note to the school excusing your offspring from this sort of event. Check it out.)

Less chaotic but still a time sink are shortened schedules or substitutes employed to bring teachers out of the classroom. Some schools have a “late start” day where all the class schedules are shortened so that some regular event like an advisory meeting can happen in the morning. Or, teachers are pulled from classes en masse and replaced with substitutes so they can attend to administrative functions. This category of disruption is actually a better solution to classroom chaos in some cases because all of the students and teachers are affected similarly and simultaneously, but it is still the case that when adding up days of instruction over the year, this should not be ignored.

In most schools, the pledge of allegiance must be recited every day at the beginning of one class, meaning that for this class, one of several in a prep, is always short. That’s like every fourth car in the car wash not getting it’s back end washed, or every fourth customer at the grocery store getting one item lifted from their packages on the way out the door. If it was really a “pledge” the students should be fine taking it once, perhaps on the first day of first grade. (Not to mention the fact that in many classroom many students are not American citizens, so pledging to the US flag may be a felony in their own country, but I digress….)

I’ll leave it to the reader to match the above list of causal agents to their various chaos-causing disruptions.

If we count the disruption for standards based tests, AP tests, and other non-test-taking disruptions, far more learning time is lost to classroom chaos than to snow days in a northern state during a very bad winter. School boards will have meetings at which they’ll belly-ache about snow days, and whether or not to extend a school year because there were too many of them, but the numerous systematic yet chaotic disruptions approved by the the school boards or required by the state are never or rarely discussed as a negative impact on learning. Also, consider this: Most, probably all, states mandate a certain amount of classroom time per year, but the policy makers who put these rules in place seem oblivious to the fact that there is no cap on the amount of classroom disruption. If, indeed, a particular state happens to mandate a minimum number of days of “learning” (instead of just a minimum number of “school days”) then there may be grounds for some sort of lawsuit. A state that mandates 180 days of learning time (explicitly stated as such) but then mandates several days of interruption of that time may be liable for breaking its own rules.

I teach college. Nobody interrupts my class but me. The idea of an administrator showing up in my classroom and making an announcement would be outrageous. I determine when the tests are scheduled and the manner of their administration. Over many years of teaching, I’ve had the police show up to talk to (or in some cases, take away) a student about a half dozen times. Even then, the police officers know to wait patiently until after I’m done with class before they move in. This happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. The police, these days, seem empowered to demand your ID on the street, search your house or car with rather bogus “probable cause,” have by their policies have de facto made dissent and assembly illegal, and have taken to using numerous novel forms of violence such as pepper spary and tasers on ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional rights. But they don’t mess with a teacher in the classroom … in college. But in high school? Anything goes.

Many of the reasons for the disruptions I’ve mentioned above are valid. Perhaps we need tests. Extracurricular activities are good, I assume. Advising is important and, if anything, there should be more of it. College visits are probably a good thing (though the methods colleges use to market themselves to students are highly questionable, but that’s also a topic for another time). But there is a problem with the way all of these things are implemented. It is is indubitably and demonstrably true that learning in the classroom is prioritized last and everything else is prioritized above classroom time. Students are not very subtly being taught a very significant negative lesson, or perhaps several such lessons. Learning is not as important as administration and bureaucracy. Learning does not require or involve continuity or focus. Society claims, and tells the students, that education is very important, yet learning in the classroom, a central part of education, is clearly not a high priority. This teaches the students that a central pillar of society is built on a lie. Educators and administrators would very much like society to respect education more than it does, to hold it in high regard and view it as a funding priority. This may be a difficult argument to make if we demonstrate to our students on a nearly daily basis for over a decade that everything is more important than learning. It should not be a surprise that so many citizen-taxpayers are cynical about education. The system of education was cynical about their learning day after day and year after year.

What is the solution? It is probably not possible to fully address these problems, but I have two specific suggestions that I think would go a long way. These suggestions are general and would need to be implemented thoughtfully and creatively.

First, make the classroom a sacred space, and classroom time sacred time. Those PA systems should only be used for emergencies. Only the teacher should be allowed to decide what happens in that room. Students are required to make the case that they have to pee, and thus get a bathroom pass; everyone else in or near a school needs to make the case for disrupting the classroom, and the expectation should be that they’ll be routinely denied. This may require that schools change the way they arrange their schedules. For example, guidance counselors could routinely have a late day. If classes are run from 7:30 onwards, guidance counselors can start their day at 9:30 and concentrate almost all of their activities that directly involve students during the time after classes are over. This will require creative solution for busing but educators and administrators are creative people. Figure it out. Another pragmatic solution is to routinely include a study period in each student’s schedule. This is the time that the student can carry out many of the various activities for which they are typically called out of class. This will require administrations to change the way they serve those student’s needs. Instead of students being called out of class for their ID photo, they are required to go to the photo ID office during their study period. And so on.

With respect to testing and the disruption this causes, large scale changes will need to be made. If we decide as a society (at the national or state level) that there will be tests given across many school districts, then we need to end our worship of “home rule” whereby every school district determines its own schedule. School boards may be unaware of this, but major calendric events such as Thanksgiving and the various religious holidays such as Christmas actually happen on the same exact schedule in all states, counties, towns, and districts across this great land of ours. Summer is simultaneous, it turns out, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Child labor laws have almost entirely eliminated the requirement to let youngsters out of school to help with the seasonal harvest or work in the mills while the hydro power is strongest with the spring floods. We can have a national (or at least, state-wide) schedule, and in so doing, we can have things like AP tests and other tests administered in a sensible way. In addition, some tests can be given multiple times. It is difficult and costly to create multiple versions of a given test each year, but it is not impossible to have two or three AP tests to accommodate two or three different schedule paradigms among which school districts choose nation-wide.

Sports are a problem. Notice how many disruptions occur to classroom time. Are there similar disruptions that occur to sporting schedules? I don’t think so. It is apparent that sports trumps learning. This, I suspect, is a funding and community relations effect. When was the last time an irate parent beat up a principal because his child did not get to make up a physics lab she missed during an illness? I can’t remember that ever happening. When was the last time a parent assaulted a coach or threatened another parent over a perceived bad call on the playing field? I believe this happens almost daily in this country, now and then in a manner sufficiently spectacular to become a form of newsertainment. This prioritization of sports reaches across high school and college and life in general, with some high schools viewed as sources for top amateur athletes for various colleges, and those colleges viewed as sources for top professional athletes. Students with high athletic potential are each unlikely to become a professional athlete, and if so, are unlikely to do well in that profession, given the severe culling that happens as we breed or gladiators. But those students may be given a pass on their learning anyway, increasing the chance that they do poorly in life so that a very few may take the very important role in making a lot of other people rich and/or happy.

The fact that this appalling system of trafficking and exploitation also takes a higher priority in high schools is unacceptable. But even more unacceptable is the fact that sports takes a higher priority over education in high school than it does in college. In high school, a teacher is at the mercy of the sports teams, with students being excused (not by the teacher but by the administration) from class, and in many cases, being away from all of their classes especially if their team is doing well and enters playoffs. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it represents student success in an area important to them.) I’ve taught at a handful of different colleges including two with major commitments to sports. In the college setting, the athletic schedules are managed in such a way that they don’t interfere with the classroom schedule (though some classes, i.e. those taught late in the afternoon, are not taken by many athletes) and it is possible to not even know that you have an athlete in your class, with two exceptions. First, it is the case in both high school and college that when a particular team does very well and enters playoffs, they may be gone for several days. This is probably not avoidable, but if most of these other problems were fixed, it would be tolerable. Second, as a college teacher, I am actually asked to give permission to the student to continue engagement in athletics! If you don’t do well in class, you can’t play on the field. I’m asked, politely, by the administration or individual students to certify on a form that each athlete in my class is doing well enough academically to participate in sports.

So, the first thing to do to handle this problem is to prioritize education, learning in the classroom, the classroom time itself, the teacher as the effective monarch of the classroom, and then re-examine all the other needs from guidance sessions to photo shoots to sports and, especially, tests to have those needs be met in a way that does not cause classroom chaos. Figure it out.

The second thing to do is simpler but very important: Apologize. Humble the disruptions in relation to the learning. Stop assuming that anything the administration of a school, or a school board, or a state legislature, or any other entity wants to happen can happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, and when such a thing must happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, the entity causing the chaos must do so in a contrite manner and in parallel with a sincere effort to not let it happen as much, or at all, in the future. In other words, change the culture.

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19 thoughts on “Chaos in the classroom and how to replace it with learning

  1. The first change that’s needed in the culture is respect for teachers as professionals. That necessarily means doubling or tripling their rate of pay and their authority vis-a-vis administrators and others.

    Right now, public school teachers are treated like s— in many political jurisdictions, to the point where no sane person would want to teach in those areas’ schools. The root of this is the combination of religious extremists with their interest in promoting aggressive ignorance and obscurantism, and anti-government extremists both ideological and purely selfish.

    BTW, you have more in common with the police than you may recognize. Police and firefighters, as well as teachers, are derisively referred to as “public employees” by the aforementioned groups of extremists, and targeted for pay cuts and staff reductions.

    Education and public safety are both “public goods” of the type that the right wing would sooner do without. (Not to mention public health, see also the anti-vaccine conspiracy nuts.) Solidarity is necessary in order to defeat those whose ideal society is a cross between the lawless frontier and the medieval Dark Ages.

  2. Many years ago I supervised a fair number of our biology secondary education majors doing their student teaching. At that time, I did not notice the disruptions you mention. the worst situation I saw was one of these open classroom schools, where there was disruption all around. Our student figured out (with my help) how to deal with it. Maybe actually the good old days.

    Incidentally, in the army, if a private is teaching a class, and the commanding general wishes to address the class, he has to get the instructor’s permission. At least that is the way it was when I was in.

  3. I think your suggestions are good. I’ll add one more: There should be “prototype schools” dedicated to trying out these ideas (or any ideas) to see how well they work. They should be funded and staffed by independent organizations and people — not those responsible for whatever ideas are being tested.

    If you read the history of American education (as I have, through books by Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch), you’ll see mostly failed reforms. Those that worked were typically staffed by dedicated individuals, and they eventually closed when funding ran out. An example is Marva Collins.

  4. The book Time to Start Thinking by Edward Luce, published last year, devotes some pages to a critique of U.S. education. He lays its faults to funding cuts, the self-esteem movement of the 1960s, and administrators who tend to side with parents rather than teachers.

    Here’s my review. I found the tale of Randy deVelbiss reminiscent of a passage from Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, written in 1969.

  5. I disabled the PA and the phone in my classroom. During school renovations I taught in portable classrooms that were not even attached to the school building. No PA, no phone, no one wanted to visit, it was an island of calm amidst the chaos. I never got to teach in the renovated school, so far behind schedule that I retired from the portables. (I’m not complaining)

  6. I retired from a high school in northern MInnesota, Greg, and you’ve nailed it. For nearly three decades, I waged a futile campaign to eliminate or ameliorate classroom disruptions. I kept idiosyncratic attendance figures the whole time, and calculated that, for our AVERAGE high school student, annual attendance in class amounted to under 84%. Students with “perfect attendance” typically spent less than 90% of a term in the classes they were assigned to. If the classes met after lunch or before 10:00 a.m., attendance could fall to as low as 70% of the term. Add to that the constant squawking noise of the PA system, which often produced indistinguishable and irritating cacophony that echoed aimlessly around the classroom. I also taught college level and found the secondary classroom, left to the mercy of self-indulgent autocrats in the front office, to be far from conducive to learning. That learning does occur is a tribute to the teachers’ and students unrelenting efforts in the face of overwhelming interference that has been institutionalized as “public school culture.”

    The political game, meanwhile, appears often to be under the control of parties who seem dead-set on destroying the public educational system. One of the handicapping decisions, as you mention, is the determination to supersede classroom instruction with more and more testing, testing that often defies logic as anything other than an attempt to sell more testing services to the school. As we say in education, a farmer doesn’t get heavier cows by weighing them more often. Thanks for an insightful analysis of the problems plaguing the average public-school teacher.

  7. I don’t know who the writer was teaching, but I teach in a public school in Washington. The low expectations are growing so much lower owing to the intellectual and cultural shoddiness of our society, itself the product of dumb-down consumerism and capitalist exploitation. The chaos comes from the people themselves. Stop blaming bureaucrats and others. You think it’s them but it’s most likely you and your coddling nature, of yourself and others. In the classrooms, I don’t cry over the malcontent impolite rude clueless lazy “rebel” types but over the quiet pensive kid sitting at the desk thinking “I’m not learning anything.” And the chaos and noise around him define the cause perfectly. I saw kids the other day who had been taught 2, just 2, “parts of speech” a year since the 4th grade. More than that, I was told, was too difficult. My generation learned those in 3rd grade, all of them, and could use them and demonstrate how the knowledge was used. Most classrooms in public schools waste time, 50% or more of their time, dealing with troublesome students.

    1. The writer was teaching juniors and seniors in a high ranked public school in a state with a reputation for good schools. The problems noted here have been noted by many others and some schools have taken action on it. I’ve got a post coming out soon that touches on that.

      There seem to be schools that are in such bad shape that this sort of problem would seem minor.

      As to what is taught now vs the old days, I’m going to bet that educational theory and method are better now than then.

  8. Salvatore Hepatica,

    It is difficult to reconcile the idea that there are “low expectations” at the same time we hear all the complaints about testing and too much homework and so on.

    I think I remember doing all kinds of fancy stuff with parts of language and sentences and so on in grammar school, but my “the good old days” is not a valid criterion for whether it should be emphasized today.

    If you are a teacher, you must be teaching something– what is it?

  9. No, it just teaches them what you need to pass the test.

    If teaching to the test worked, nobody would need more driving after their test.

    But I guess you don’t really apply yourself to anything more than the few repetitive situations, therefore as far as your life is concerned, either it fits the very few cases you know or it isn’t real.

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