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What is your idea of a well-managed classroom? Do students:

  • Sit quietly in their seats?
  • Raise their hands to speak?
  • Use their inside voices?

For years, this kind of order and structure were the hallmarks of a well-run classroom. In fact, many schools and districts still reward this vision of a well-behaved classroom by including criteria like these on teacher evaluations or student report cards.

And while we can all agree that an out-of-control classroom has negative effects on learning, that doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

A well-behaved classroom does not guarantee that learning will take place.

As teachers, we all know how exhausting classroom management can be. According to the 2019 article Why Teachers Quit, classroom management issues are among the top causes of teacher burnout and turnover—why between 19 and 30 percent of teachers will leave the profession within the first five years and why almost half of current teachers are considering a new job. No one ever became a teacher because they wanted to spend all their time managing student behavior.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Changing Our Approach

School in session - Sunset School, Marey, West Virginia. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, October 7, 1921.

© Shutterstock/Everett Historical

In the traditional approach to classroom management, the focus tends to be on teachers—their rules, their management, their ability to get students to stay them quietly in their seats.

If we want our students to take ownership of their learning—which includes taking control of their own behavior as students—we need to flip the traditional approach on its head.

Instead of the teacher’s rules and actions being the focus, we need to focus on the actions of the students—their role in the class, their scholarly behaviors that support their learning, their willingness and ability to support others and their learning. When we’re doing it right, it’s the students who go home more tired than the teacher. (Imagine that!)

True student ownership begins when the teacher looks at classroom climate from the point of view of the student.

A Positive Classroom Climate

When we talk about classroom climate, we’re not talking about the temperature on the thermostat. Instead, we mean a student-centered environment that accelerates academic learning. This goes far beyond a well-behaved class (although well-behaved students are a common result).

smart little girl smiling in front of a blackboard

© Shutterstock/dreamerve

This requires students to understand that, first and foremost, their role is to actively pursue their own learning while respectfully, cooperatively, and collaboratively helping others actively pursue their learning.

To build the kind of academic climate that supports student ownership, teachers must also help students:

  • Understand that the group of students as a whole is smarter than any one individual student,
  • Know the value of learning in a classroom that recognizes and promotes all students,
  • Honor risk taking and understand that struggling is a crucial part of the learning process—for them and for their classmates,
  • Support each other in the learning endeavor, and
  • Value cooperative and collaborative group work as a support of their own learning.

Developing Student Ownership in Climate

Learning Framework: Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, Climate

© Elevated Achievement Group, Inc.

What does this mean? This means in the area of climate, students need specific support in order to understand and articulate:

  • What they are learning and how they will demonstrate they have learned it,
  • Their role in the class,
  • Their role in recognizing and promoting others,
  • The scholarly behaviors that support their learning,
  • How they support others in their learning,
  • How they take academic risks,
  • The value of taking academic risks,
  • How they work with other students,
  • The value of working with other students,
  • How teamwork supports all students in achieving mastery of the learning, and
  • Why articulating these aspects of climate helps them own their learning.

What Does Student Ownership Look Like and Sound Like?

Students who own their learning in the area of climate can do much more than simply follow a set of established rules. They are clear that their role is to actively pursue their own learning while respectively, cooperatively, and collaboratively helping others to do the same. They consistently utilize strong metacognitive skills to reflect on their learning and are able to articulate how scholarly behaviors support their own learning, and how they can transfer these skills and behaviors into future situations.

So, when asked, “What is your role in the class?” what does an answer that demonstrates ownership sound like, at the highest level?

From a second grader during Social Studies:

“I have to make and share my poster, but before I do, I get to practice with my team. This helps me make sure I am ready, and my work is good. I also get ideas from them when they share. It is kind of scary to share with the whole class, but it is easier when I practice first and know my team is there for me. We know that we all get a little scared, but watching my friends do the same things makes it less scary.”

From a third grader during Science:

“We are learning about weather. We gathered data on each season. Once we had the data we shared it and looked for patterns. My team helped me make sure my data was right. They saw some patterns I didn’t even see. I helped them, too. What we learn from one season will help us with the others. We will work together and give each other ideas to help make our data better.”

From a sixth grader during Math:

“We are learning to identify equivalent expressions. It can be confusing, so we work in groups to help each other out. We get to ask each other questions and talk about our mistakes. We have to decide as a team which expressions are equivalent and which ones are not. We have to tell why we know we are right. Our teacher makes us talk it through. This helps us practice and learn. I wish all of my classrooms let us work together.”

From an eleventh grader during English Language Arts:

“We are giving speeches on the Constitution. We need to present an organized speech that the audience can easily follow. I don’t like presenting in front of the class. But I know that the more familiar I am with my speech and the more I practice it, the better I will be. I will present to my partner to see if she can easily follow the speech. If she can’t, the presentation is not strong enough. The more we help each other, the more confident we are.”

The Strategic Learning Practices for Climate

For students to take ownership of their learning, they need consistent teacher support across all four areas of the learning framework. In the area of climate, teachers play an especially vital role.

Most of our students will need a great deal of support and guidance before they are able to answer questions such as: “What is my role in the class?” “How will I help others in their learning?” and “How will I take risks in my learning?” (Not to mention that other critical question, “Why should I?”) For students to be successful, we as teachers need to provide them with specific, strategic support.

Male High School Tutor Teaching Students In Biology Class

© Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Out of the hundreds of things good teachers do every day, we have found three practices in particular that can greatly help students own their learning in the area of academic climate. We call these strategic learning practices. These are the practices that, when implemented on a daily basis, have the effect of increasing student ownership and elevating student achievement.

The most effective strategic learning practices in the area of climate are the following:

  1. Each and every student is supported by a respectful academic environment that recognizes and promotes scholarly behaviors.
  2. Each and every student is supported by a cooperative academic environment that encourages risk taking.
  3. Each and every student is supported by a collaborative academic environment that enhances student productivity.

Here is what one teacher observed after implementing these three strategic learning practices into his seventh grade Spanish class:

“We start each year defining what cooperation is and what it will look and sound like in our class. My students understand that learning a new language can only happen if you use it as much as possible. This means we have to talk and listen to one another.

“If they only talked and listened to me, that would give them very little practice. They have to rely on one another. And not just as sounding board, but as fellow learners. This means encouraging and supporting one another. It means understanding that we are all learners.

“I make sure we not only congratulate one another for our efforts but that we also tell one another how those efforts made us individually and collectively smarter. My students are getting really good at this type of feedback. They really have one another’s backs. I’m proud of them.

Yet another teacher summed it up by saying:

“I used to feel like I was the only one supporting 120 sixth graders. There are now 121 of us…supporting one another along the way.

As you have read, the decisions we make about classroom management have the power to help students develop the skills they need to become respectful, cooperative, and collaborative students who learn and achieve to their full potential.

By switching our focus from the teacher’s rules to the students’ roles, we have the opportunity to create an academic climate in every classroom that gives students the support they need to take control of their own learning—and in so doing, create classrooms where students effectively manage their learning.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • We as teachers need to change the traditional approach to classroom management to one that focuses less on the teacher’s rules and more on student’s role in the class.
  • It is critical for students to understand that, first and foremost, their role is to actively pursue their own learning while respectfully, cooperatively, and collaboratively helping others actively pursue theirs.
  • Three strategic learning practices can greatly help students achieve ownership of the academic climate and thereby elevate their academic achievement.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?
We can.

Let us show you how

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