Freelance teacher trainer and materials writer, Martyn Clarke, explores the difficulties in finding a neat solution to classroom dynamics, given the changing nature of classrooms and the world as a whole.
If you’re looking for a series of articles listing ‘How To Achieve Better Classroom Dynamics’, then stop reading. I have no idea what the perfect classroom looks like. In fact, my opinion on what makes a good class changes frequently. My views on classroom dynamics are, themselves, dynamic.
This is because it’s a complex world. What works in one context, might not work in another. What is successful at one time, may well fail the next. I imagine we’ve all come across this in our careers.
The key question in looking at classroom dynamics is how do we respond to this?
It seems to me there are three basic approaches we could adopt:
1. Methodology is king
We could decide that theories of language learning are universally applicable to all classrooms. There are good and bad classroom dynamics. We can observe behaviour, judge it according to one set of criteria, and ‘improve’ it accordingly. When things don’t work, it’s because students don’t understanding or lack the ability to engage with the approach. I’m the first to admit that this is highly seductive. The certainty of belief provides a sense of security in this uncertain world.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. Every classroom is made up of unique individuals, each bringing their own expectations, values, and attitudes, to create a one-off community. This community is also influenced by the culture of the society it belongs to, and the institution of which it is a part. It is itself constantly evolving, as do its individual members. It really is quite a messy place when you come to think about it, so one-size-fits-all answers won’t, in fact, fit.
Should we, therefore, leave theory outside the classroom door?
2. The Context is all that matters
If every classroom is unique, then we should adopt methods that are unique to each classroom. We should create a perfectly-tailored support. This requires us to suspend all personal judgement on teaching and learning, research the context carefully, and then select activities which can be proven according to their success in that classroom alone. This seems to make sense.
However, I have a number of doubts about this approach. First, on a practical level, we have timetables, examination deadlines, textbooks and syllabi to deal with. Who has the time to develop a new methodology for every new class? Do we have the skills to do this? The contextual variables that influence what goes on in a classroom are incredibly complex. It’s not practical to suggest that a teacher will be able to identify, analyse and apply all these to an appropriate teaching strategy. Most importantly for me, my beliefs in how learning happens are intensely personal, and provide a key motivation. They create my passion for the job. It is part of what defines me as a teacher. To make the role into one purely dictated by external context would remove one of the most intensely satisfying aspects of the job.
So what is the answer?
3. Real world dynamics
Context is hugely important. But my beliefs are part of that context. To acknowledge both these realities we need to first articulate our principles of good teaching practice, but then test them against the realities of what actually happens in our classrooms.
Let me give you an example:
I believe that we learn a language most effectively by communicating meaningfully in that language.
So I try to get my students to do gap fill activities in pairs and groups.
My students often don’t engage in these activities.
I could say that the students are lazy, or just don’t ‘get it’. But this is too simplistic. My students wouldn’t agree. Are they wrong? Perhaps their views would be constructive. Perhaps all our understandings are partial or flawed, and there is another factor creating the dynamic.
If we can explore these possibilities, we might have a better chance of aligning our teaching principles with the realities of the classroom. And perhaps our principles may develop in doing so.
This begs two questions. What areas of classroom dynamics might we explore? And how might we usefully explore them? These areas will be the focus of my next article.