What are classroom dynamics?
I suspect that for the great majority of teachers around the world the most important characteristic of a ‘good’ class is not how hard the students work, but how well they work together. If a teacher is handing over a class to another, in my experience one of the first things they say is something like “they are a really nice group”, or “there’s a really friendly atmosphere in there”. Of course, it’s not always good news, and comments such as “it’s like teaching a wall” or “they’re just really difficult” are also common. The truth is the atmosphere in each class is hugely important to our job satisfaction.
This is classroom dynamics. It’s about the ways the people within a class interact with each other. It’s how they talk and how they act; it’s how they show their feelings and opinions; it’s how they behave as a group.
Why are classroom dynamics important?
Managing classroom dynamics is also something that takes up significant lesson time. We all do things in class that are not directly related to learning English, but rather are focused on the social aspects of the group, such as managing behaviours, reacting to tensions, and generating interest, for example. But so much of what we do is instinctive and happens ‘in the moment’. It might be useful however to take a moment and look at the issues in a more structured way.
In other words, in addition to our competencies of content knowledge (grammar, lexis, etc.), and teaching skills, what skills, attitudes and strategies exist that can help us to ‘generate a psychological climate conducive to high-quality learning’ (Underhill 1999: 130)?
There are good reasons for focusing on this:
- The cooperative skills and attitudes that we encourage in our students are among those most frequently demanded by today’s employers.
- A supportive, warm atmosphere helps people take the risks they need to in order to learn.
- Working with and in a more comfortable setting is simply more enjoyable for everyone. Life is a little better.
What can we do about classroom dynamics?
There is no one size that fits all. To a large extent, a classroom dynamic is a product of its own context as defined both internally with the uniqueness of its members, and externally in the cultural settings of the institution, and the society in which it is located.
Nevertheless, we can identify certain features and characterise useful classroom dynamics across most, if not all contexts – even if these are represented by different behaviours according to the setting. For example, the visible behaviours of cooperation in a Brazilian high-school classroom might be different to those in a Dutch university or private evening class in Thailand, but cooperation remains key. Here are some aspects of classroom dynamics that a teacher may work to influence the chemistry of the group, and make it more ‘bonded’ (Senior 1997).
- a) The cohesiveness of the class.
Groups of people are very much brought together when they are aware of what they have in common. Shared experiences, values, and objectives lie at the heart of successful communities. As teachers, we can foster this awareness with activities that identify such commonalities, and then use them to enhance learning. In the webinar, we will look at practical language learning activities and teaching techniques that can develop a sense of community within a class.
- b) The variety of interaction within a class.
A class that has a flexible approach to how its members talk to each other is likely to have a more inclusive, and therefore participative climate. In the seminar, we will identify different modes of classroom talk, what each brings to learning, and how we can create variety.
- c) The amount of empathy class members have for each other.
Successful group activities involve members compromising in order to support each other. In the webinar we will look at activities and practices that encourage peer support and greater sharing of learning within the group.
How can I find out about the dynamics in my classroom?
As we have already said, classroom dynamics are local. What works in one class might not work in another. So we also need to know how to find out what is happening in our classes so we can take the most appropriate actions. In the webinar we also look at ways we can examine the realities of our classrooms by using:
- Peer observations
- Student research activities
Finally…. when we teach, we should all spend time on the social aspects of our classes. This webinar provides a framework of analysis that can help us make more principled decisions when considering how we manage classroom dynamics.
Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. This blog accompanies his webinar on Managing Classroom Dynamics, where he talks in more detail about how to manage lessons to create the right dynamic for learning.
Gil, G. (2002) Two complementary modes of foreign language classroom interaction. ELT Journal, 56/3
Hadfield, J (1992) Classroom Dynamics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Senior, R. (1997) Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51/1.
Senior, R. (2002) A class-centered approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 56/4 Underhill, A. (1999) Facilitation in Language Teaching. In J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wright, T. (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education, Palgrave Macmillan