Sunday, July 10, 2011

Left-brain strategies for improving student behavior

There's been a lot of news lately about the steps to which schools are going to reduce bullying and improve student behavior. Typically these programs involve some sort of specific anti-bullying programs, or social-emotional curricula, that either take students away from academics and/or having them spend more time working in groups.

I've already argued that having students work in groups, far from reducing bullying, creates further opportunities for it. Beyond this, it seems to me that a more promising way to reduce bullying and improve behavior isn't to further dilute academics with non-academic activities, but to drastically reduce the time that children are academically disengaged.

In my book I argue that, when people look for causes of misbehavior, they too often search for social and emotional causes, overlooking one other major contributor: boredom. But consider the arenas in which children are most likely to misbehave: long lines; long car trips; waiting rooms; long-winded discussions. In the classroom, when are children most likely to fidget, space out, bother each other, or otherwise act up? During the science experiment, or while waiting for the experiment to begin? While taking a timed multiplication test, or while waiting for their slower group mates to understand the group assignment? While reading about the Barbarian invasions, or during a circle time discussion about how we all need to be nice to each other? 

In their book The Learning Gap one of the greatest contrasts between American classrooms and their East Asian counterparts that authors Stevenson and Stigler discover is in how much time we Americans waste--whether in transitions between classes, in transitions between activities, or in transitions from subtask to subtask. As every parent knows, transitions can bring out the absolute worst in children. 

To instead bring out the best, let's focus on making school relentlessly interesting. For Constructivists and sociability-obsessed right-brainers, this means one thing. But for the rest of us, most children included, it means cognitively challenging material for each student at his or her level, the best sorts of creativity and relevance, and a drastic reduction in time students spend disengaged and/or waiting--whether in line, in unsupervised group activities, during long-winded discussions, or throughout all those inefficient hands-on activities that so dominate the Constructivist paradigm.


Ray said...

It is simply not true that high achieving Asian schools do not use group work. Our school had a teacher from Japan who came to observe the American system, and she commented on how seldom American students worked together in math. She indicated that group work is a common practice in Japan. From what I have read, students in Singapore also do group work in math.

Katharine Beals said...

The authors of "The Learning Gap" discuss the common practice, in East Asian classes, of having the *entire class* work as a teacher-led group. This is quite different from having students work in child-directed groups of 4-5 for much of the school day, which is common practice in model schools in the U.S., if not in your particular school.

Barry Garelick said...

Alan Siegal of Courant Institute of Math at NYU wrote a paper on how the videotapes of Japanese instruction have been misinterpreted. As Katharine says, the whole class is led by the teacher. Furthermore, the class has been given the key theorem behind the problem beforehand; they do not "discover" it during discussion.

Anonymous said...

Back to behavior improvement: there is certainly a herd effect in the realm of student behavior. In the 50's and 60's, when I was in school, classes were quite large (always over 35). There were drawbackks to this, but one advantage was that there was a really strong reason to focus on good behavior (imagine bad behavior by even 15% of the class -- that would be at least 5 kids making a ruckus). Under such conditions, classes would melt down. So, teachers (and parents) did what it took to communicate insistence on acceptable behavior. While I agree that academic engagement can cut down on acting out, even bored kids will behave if the systems are in place to support and enforce good behavior.