Could you respond to chaos in the classroom?

Inspired by a recent research project on behaviour management, SET member Sandra Rennie reflects on past incidents of classroom disorder from her own teaching career to see if they were really chaotic, complex, complicated, or just simple and obvious. 

Have you ever come out of a classroom and said, 'that was chaotic'. Later when you discussed what happened with a colleague perhaps you realised it wasn’t so bad; it was a temporary disorder, a disruption to the planned session, but certainly not chaos. Chaos is when there is no obvious relationship between cause and effect, there is constant change and no discernible pattern of behaviour and any rules that do exist are applied randomly and inconsistently.

In the schools sector the issue of teachers facing disruptions in classes from pupils has led to the government appointment of the so-called 'Behaviour Tsar', Tom Bennett, in June 2015. He has provided 10 top tips for dealing with behaviour management.


Could you respond to chaos in the classroom?

This kind of 10 top tips approach may be helpful if you are faced with a simple example of disorder in the classroom, but is less useful in more complex or complicated cases or where a teacher feels faced with full-blown chaos. Not only are these tips not relevant for teaching most adults (for example don’t try 'contacting the parents' of one of your adult students), but also they fail to address complexity.

The Further Education (FE) and Training sector is complex and you will find mandated and reluctant learners, learners disillusioned and disaffected following a poor school experience or from families leading pressured and precarious lives, as well as groups of happy, contented leisure class students, and many other variations and combinations of all ages, ability and experience.

I’ve been inspired by a recent research project on behaviour management to reflect on past incidents of classroom disorder from my own teaching career to see if they were really chaotic, complex, complicated or just simple and obvious. I based these reflections below on the domains in Snowden’s decision–making framework, The Cynefin Framework (Snowden 2007).

A class became out of control for a few minutes because one racial group in the room was angrily in conflict with another – that seemed 'complicated’ to me and I needed the advice of some experts before the next session was held.

A group of employees had been sent by their manager to my class for 'staff development'. They asked intentionally silly questions in order to disrupt the class – this was 'complex'. It was a situation caused by the continuing changes in policy, funding and management and at the time no clear solutions presented themselves to me.

A sighted student complained vociferously about 'time wasting' when I read aloud what I had written on the whiteboard as there was a blind student present in the class – this was 'simple' and fairly easy to know how to deal with. The sighted student was contravening the spirit of our inclusion policy by attempting to put their own requirements above the needs of the blind student. We just needed to re-visit the ground rules agreed at the beginning of the course.

Our research project (Rennie and Lebor 2016) aimed to ascertain whether the theory and skills learned on initial teacher education courses are relevant and applicable today.

There are some theories from the 1950s and 1960s still taught to trainee teachers, for example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Skinner’s Behaviourism, but there are also many more modern theorists covered on teacher training courses nowadays. One common comment from teachers (both young and old) was that they felt they could not be seen as authoritative because of their age. But authority is not simply an aspect of age; it comes as a result of knowledge, public recognition of skills and our ability to learn from experiences. Teachers who have been able to reflect regularly on their teaching practice with a mentor may find it easier to develop this authoritative persona.

Some of the new teachers we met spoke of their feelings of isolation in their first teaching posts and the relief of discussing behaviour issues in confidence with others. Self-reflection in isolation is not enough in the face of complexity and instead we need to engage with social and professional networks and discussion groups to find new and emerging responses to difficult classroom relationships.

We also need to develop the practical skills of improvisation and creative problem-solving in a group setting. Next time we are faced with an unplanned crisis – perhaps the internet has crashed or a student is being aggressive – then, having rehearsed our strategies, we can respond quickly, sensitively and with an awareness of the other students and our surroundings.

The value of analysing what has happened and discussing responses with others is that you don’t just blame yourself, or the learner or the management, when things go awry. There is also the joy of constantly discovering that there is not just one correct way of doing things but many ways and where more people are involved and committed to making things work in the classroom then more solutions emerge.

Sandra Rennie is a teacher educator and researcher and a member of SET. She works for SEQUALS, a Yorkshire based independent training provider. She recently worked in partnership with Merv Lebor from Leeds City College on a research project ‘On behaviour management’. This research was funded by the Consortium for Education and Training and will soon be available via its website.