As a teacher it’s very easy to fall into the trap of being a ‘control freak.’ Relishing centre stage at the front of the classroom, poised at the (interactive) whiteboard, 25 (or more, or less) attentive sets of eyes on you. You enjoy the performance that is classroom teaching, the theatre, the power associated with taking the journey towards knowledge with young men and women. And they will go on that journey whether they want to or not.
Such is the mentality that dominates the chalk and talk approach to teaching. Many teachers are moving towards a more student-centred approach to learning, but still maintain the control freak persona.
There is a difference between having control of a classroom and a classroom being under your control.
Relinquishing control means allowing students to make poor decisions, knowing that they will fail, but learn through the process.
For example, I had a student in my year seven advanced class last year who was prone to spending more time improving his social life than his mathematics skills. Through reflective questioning I ensured he was aware of the decisions he was making, and encouraged him to make better decisions, but did not force him to do so. Inevitably his marks suffered, he realised the impact of his decisions on his academic outcomes, and ultimately decided to pull his socks up and do some work. I was there to support him when he was ready to start working. I could have moved him in the classroom (occasionally I did), but I chose not to make the move permanent. I wanted him to learn the consequences of his actions, and to own his behaviour. By allowing him to fail he could appreciate the value of hard work, and the results of goofing off. I thought that year seven was a good time for him to learn that lesson.
I was in control of the situation, but I wasn’t controlling him.
It’s not anarchy.
People value autonomy. We tend to be better motivated when we are afforded a greater degree of control over our own behaviour. Consider the difference between telling someone “don’t touch that,” versus “if you touch that you’ll burn yourself.” One statement immediately makes me want to touch it, the other is more likely to make me consider my actions and make a decision based on consequences.
This is where explicit emphasis on metacognition and self-reflection can be extremely powerful in the classroom. By spending a few minutes each lesson reflecting on the learning that has taken place, students are prompted to consider how their own actions and behaviours are impacting on their academic outcomes. I don’t want to hear ‘she distracts me’ or ‘he keeps talking to me,’ I want the emphasis on what each individual student is doing: ‘I allow myself to be distracted,’ ‘I spend too much time socialising.’ The difference shifts the student from being a reactive ‘victim’ of a situation, to being an empowered, autonomous individual who is actively and consistently making decisions about their learning.
Research has shown that support of student autonomy can increase motivation and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief an individual has of their capacity to complete a task. It is one of the biggest predictors of achievement in mathematics. An individual with high self-efficacy is likely to persist, even when challenged, and they believe they have the skills and knowledge necessary (or can acquire these skills and knowledge) in order to complete a task. An individual with low self-efficacy is more likely to be prone to ‘learned helplessness:’ giving up after a series of failures because they lose faith in their ability to achieve.
Motivation comes from the latin ‘motivus’ meaning ‘to move’ and reflects how much an individual wants to do something, and why they want to do it. Motivation is a pretty complex, multidimensional concept, but can be divided into two predominant categories: intrinsic (such as valuing a task for its own merit, seeking to understand for the joy of learning) an extrinsic (completing a task for some external reward or validation).
Clearly as teachers, we would hope to inspire students to be intrinsically motivated and have a high degree of self-efficacy. Creating classroom environments conducive to such behavioural patterns is imperative. Realistically though, some students are going to tend to this disposition more easily than others: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can, however, help the horse to understand why it might be a good idea to have a drink of water, and the consequences of his decision for not managing his hydration status.