So what does creating a pro-social classroom look like?

Of course in many ways the term “pro-social classroom management” can seem a bit of a misnomer. No teacher ever set out to create an “anti-social learning environment” surely? But this draws back to our own values and beliefs regarding what is pro-social and anti-social, and if this necessarily coincides with our notions of good and bad behaviour.

I remember teaching two sessions where a new member of staff with no teaching experience was shadowing me. The first session was a group of twenty five level two construction students aged around seventeen. Many of these students conformed to the popular norm of “lad” complete with “bantz” and mildly inappropriate language use. I had never taught in the room before, I knew none of the students and their tutor disappeared to “get a coffee” two minutes into the session, never to return.

Not knowing the room, I discovered it had no smartboard or projector. Seriously? And it was tiny. There were PCs on desk around the outside of the room and a seminar table in the centre. I could barely squeeze between the two sets of chairs to physically get to all the students. I had needed a projector or smartboard because this was a resources session where I needed to demo databases and the library search function.

Thinking on my feet, I had to conduct the session entirely by talking the students through each database as they clicked and scrolled and inputted search terms themselves. Let’s call it “guided discovery” to borrow from Geoff Petty (Petty 2014). The acoustics were dreadful. This part of the college (about ten years old) had originally been designed as open plan learning spaces. These had lasted about a year before management recognised classrooms had walls for a reason. So these rooms were now partitioned using glass walls. The noise was horrendous.

Because the session lacked a central focus, the students were naturally chatty and there were so many of them in such a small room, the noise was always much greater than I am used to in my sessions. Regular rounds of dampening the sound levels through shushing (I’m a librarian after all) kept it from becoming a riot. It was hard work. But what I discovered as I went round and joined in with each group, was that there was some excellent learning going on. They were talking about the session outcomes, they were discussing the databases and the resources. They were talking about studying. They were helping each other learn and correcting their mistakes.

To me, this was success. This was a room of noisy productive learning. To anyone walking past, it probably sounded like a really poor piece of classroom management. I know the new colleague shadowing me, certainly didn’t think the session had been a success. But as everyone to new to classrooms (as the adult) does, she assumed success equalled students sitting silently and uprightly in rows, their eyes trained on the trainer absorbing the wisdom being delivered.

Moving to the second session, we took a brief break and found the next classroom. This one was much bigger and had more space, but the space was awkward to use. The students sat at PC tables in rows, random pillars (a legacy of the open plan learning space) blocked sightlines and a massive chasm opened up between the smartboard and the students.

The students sat very quietly staring straight ahead at me. They didn’t ask questions and they didn’t engage with me. If I suggested they try something they didn’t move. If I told them to do something they did it in the most robotic fashion imaginable. To the person walking past in the corridor, they looked like model students in a model lesson. By the end of the session I was dismayed to discover they really hadn’t grasped the basics.

My new colleague again didn’t pick up on this. The challenges of teaching she imagined (what kept her awake at night) was not being able to control the class. This session was therefore perfect to her. What kept me awake at night was why the students hadn’t engaged, why they hadn’t learnt. The first session had been perfect to me. For me, the students in the second session had not taken responsibility for their learning; the students in the first session had (bell hooks 1994).

My perception of good and bad behaviour has changed; probably to the point where I care less about good and bad behaviour and more about learning. In fact, whether a class behaves or not has become slightly irrelevant to me. The important thing is that learning has taken place. Disruptive behaviour is bad because it stops learning from taking place. Now I tackle it differently.

Creating a pro-social environment is about being pro-active; it is not a reaction to bad behaviour. Key for me is creating a community in the classroom. This is difficult with one shot sessions. Every time you enter a room the students are new and the community is new. Textbook platitudes like creating ground rules together isn’t really feasible. So there are little things I now realise I do instead.

I always welcome every student with a smile and say hello. I ask them how they are. I make it clear once the session starts that no one should be talking over anyone else. If I have the opportunity I sit students around a horseshoe or boardroom table so everyone can see everyone else. This induces a sense of accountability. I sit at the table with them, rather than stand imperiously at the front. This moves the student from being the child in the relationship to being the peer. If we are in a PC room I ask (and wait for) PC screens to be switched off until activity time and for students to physically turn to face me. I force engagement. Engagement is in itself social.

It is amazing how quickly engagement turns into trust and rapport. By being good natured and open about indiscretions, I have been able to check certain elements of behaviour that have gone against the learning community, such as bad language or becoming chatty about non-work related stuff. This way, the students come alongside you, and often check their own and each other’s behaviour. My most efficient weapon in combatting the odd behavioural issue I encounter, now seems to be a pair of raised eyebrows!

I discuss where I need to go next with this in my next post.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education of the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching Today 5th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press



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