Classroom management

Rules are in. So is independent thinking.

When she was at the University of Texas at Austin 20 years ago, Carolyn Evertson directed a research program that was the first to study how elementary and secondary classroom teachers started the school year and how they established their initial rapport with students and got their classrooms off to a smooth start.

"There were a lot of opinions about what teachers should do, but no one had ever studied what teachers actually did in their classrooms," said Evertson, chair of Peabody's Department of Teaching and Learning and a professor of education.

"From those initial observations and 10 subsequent studies, we learned a great deal about how effective teachers manage the learning environment. For example, they begin early to teach rules and procedures; they monitor students' academic work and behavior carefully; they are proactive in stopping misbehavior before it happens; they establish ways to provide students frequent feedback; and they work at making their instruction clear."

Knowing how teachers succeed in traditional classrooms, Evertson decided last year to learn how teachers succeed in more challenging and complex classroom settings. "We had learned how teachers operated effectively in more traditional settings where the teacher is the center of the instructional activities and the main source of information besides the textbook," she said. "We wanted to understand how effective teachers managed classrooms in which many activities were going on at once and where students were working together and where students learned to take responsibility for their own learning."

For a year, Evertson and graduate students Kristen Weeks and Susan Talwalkar spent several hours a week observing in Schools for Thought and other classrooms in three Nashville schools. The research revealed two things, Evertson said.

"First, we found that these teachers did many of the same things that teachers in traditional classrooms do, such as making expectations clear, teaching rules and procedures, providing feedback, and monitoring students' work. Second, they also went beyond to teaching students how to work together in groups, how to take on different roles, including the teacher role, and how to plan their own timelines.

"What the research helped us to understand was how a good teacher in a Schools for Thought classroom incorporates what any good teacher in a traditional classroom does, but also moves beyond that," she said.

Developed at Peabody, Schools for Thought is a challenging curriculum that includes teaching students critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students in Schools for Thought classrooms might spend weeks working in groups on such projects as planning a detailed mission to Mars or saving a species from extinction. To solve these problems, students integrate mathematics, principles of science, writing, reading and other skills.

The ways these topics are treated in more complex classrooms like Schools for Thought means students gain a deeper understanding of important concepts and can apply those in problem solving situations. The advantage is that students get below surface level knowledge that can be assessed with one or two word answers to learning to elaborate and explain their answers. However, students in the inner-city classes that Evertson studied also scored well on traditional achievement tests administered by the school system. The Schools for Thought program did not prevent them from doing well on traditional tests. They did particularly well in writing and excelled in math and other areas also.

Managing a classroom of students working on different projects or working in groups at different levels and on different topics is far more complex than managing a classroom where all of the students are supposed to be working on the same thing, Evertson said.

"One student may be writing; one may be looking up a definition. Several may be consulting with one another or reading their work to each other. The teacher's role becomes more one of facilitator and guide."

Knowing how teachers successfully manage such classrooms is critical because of the wide variety of children with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and the numbers of children with special needs entering the public schools, Evertson said. "Because we attempt to teach all children, it becomes more and more challenging for teachers to be adaptable, creative, and to find ways for students to acquire skills at self-management. That means that creative teachers have to work hard at making school a place that students perceive as enjoyable, where learning is fun.

"Because the first order of business for teachers is to gain student cooperation, we need to have interesting, engaging, and worthwhile activities for students to cooperate in."

Societal changes also mean that we have to rethink our definitions of what classrooms are like, Evertson said. "Too often our images of classrooms are those rooted in the 1940s, where the image of the teacher is to do the talking and the students to do the listening. Students take tests and earn grades. This is a pretty narrow view of the educational possibilities. These possibilities today with the advent of computers will be endless. We will soon find that more than one computer to a classroom is a necessity. We may have to sell the public on the necessity of providing funds for this. So I think we have to broaden our view of what schools can foster."

She said while there are other major issues in the area of classroom management, the first step toward resolving the overall problem for our diverse classrooms is to recreate our images. The classroom of yesterday is etched in the minds of many who make policy decisions for our schools. The solution, she said, is not to return to the ways of the past, because the composition of today's student population is so different from what it was in the past, but to set about imagining what an exciting classroom can be like.

The research paper Evertson and her team wrote on their observations of complex classrooms was one of 10 nationally commissioned last year by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Education, Research and Improvement's Blue Ribbon Schools Program.

The findings from 20 years of research have been incorporated in a nationally disseminated program, the Classroom Organization and Management Program (COMP), which was funded until last year by the U.S. Department of Education's National Diffusion Network.

The database for the program is one of the most extensive in the nation on what teachers do to manage and organize their classrooms effectively. The program, coordinated by Alene Harris, research assistant professor of education, has reached more than 10,000 teachers across the country.
The next step in her research, Evertson said, is to learn how teachers accommodate technology into their teaching. "I'm really very interested in looking at how teachers manage to incorporate technology in their classrooms. Technology is another multiplier of complexity."

Fred Sedahl

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Document updated June 3, 1997