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Classroom dynamics in a changing world

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Students and teacher at the boardFreelance 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.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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9 thoughts on “Classroom dynamics in a changing world

  1. The teacher’s respons to students , and how it differs for various students is so important in creating classroom dynamics. If a teacher favors one student, all the students feel it, and react to it, and this can prove problematic. And, if a teacher disfavors one, difficult dynamics will arise!
    http://figment.com/

  2. I think one of the first questions to be asked is precisely what you mean by “classroom dynamics”! I’ve seen and heard so many definitions that to understand your thinking on the matter I’d like to know how you define what “classroom dynamics” are!

  3. Three main points to be developed in Italy, Listening, speaking, grammar use and tense names. All of which are not regularly developed in Italian schools

  4. Just try out everything and choose what suits your class!

  5. I´ve been working for more than 20 years with EFL and I have worked for three of the most famous and prestigious schools in my area and all of them follow this and that approach and methodology. I´ve also taught on my own in companies, i´ve had big, medium and small groups and lots of on-to-one classes.

    My feeling is that concepts, approaches, methodologies and techniques are important for the teacher because the more the teacher knows the better are the chances of having different ideas, flexibility and self confidence. However, in class, when we are teaching people how to speak a foreign language, what really matters is the moment, the context, to what extent the student is committed to the process as well as the teacher is. Let´s be honest and face it: teaching is teaching and learning is learning, they can meet at beautiful corners but they usually follow different paths.

  6. I entirely agree that teachers must have knowledge about the subject ,the methodology and the different theories.But a real teacher should identify the kind of students, their style of learning and choose the appropriate way to teach them respecting their differences.
    I also agree the teaching is dynamic, so that we don’t have a formula for it, we are always changing according to the student’s mood, nationality, background, learning style.
    Teaching is learning and learning is teaching, we as educator are constantly learning with our students, teaching is a two-way road.

  7. I enjoyed this discussion. Every student is unique an we have to respect him. If we do so, we have an immediate positive feedback and good class dynamics.

  8. I’m really concerned in this topic, I always try to make our classrooms look better and cozy I also let the students sit where they want even on the floor. I know that this stuff is not enough, but it is a good starting point…don’t you think so?

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