Three strategies to create instant classroom culture

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:

What is classroom culture? Why does it matter? Primary teacher and school leader, Robbie Burns, looks at the five elements of classroom culture and offers us three ways in which we can cultivate it instantly


Why behaviour management is insufficient

What does it feel like for students to be part of our classrooms? I mean really be themselves, in a place where learning is the most important thing, not compliance; a place where the rules and expectations you set make sense all the way down.

The idea of classroom culture tries to address issues such as these. The term suggests an interwoven fabric of ideas, behaviours, norms and structures that do not always make sense or connect in a logical sequence. When we educate and every year our students leave us for pastures new, they take with them part of the culture we give them. We give it to them through our lessons, through our subjects, through our assemblies and through the relationships they have with us.

Although the term “culture” is slippery, you know it when you see it. You know it is there when you walk into a classroom filled with energy and passion and love and care. You also know what it should not be when you walk into a classroom and scan the room, looking into the half-opened eyes of students, slumped over their desks.

For this reason, it is important to acknowledge that the essence of the culture of the classroom is always there; it is up to the teacher, within the ethos framework of the school, to decide the form it will take. Like the title of Tom Bennett’s excellent new book (2020) suggests, teachers need to “run the room”, adding shape to the essence of the culture of learning in which their delivery of content, implementation of practice and giving of feedback sits.

Classroom culture best encapsulates a holistic approach to what it means to be a student in – and part of – “this” school. It goes beyond terms such as “behaviour management” to include relationships, routines, procedures and systems. If anything, the “management” of behaviour is just one element of the essence of classroom culture. Maintaining order and focus is a pillar, stood among four others, that ensures that the means of participation within the lesson are understood by all.


Classroom culture: Five elements

As Lemov describes (2015), there are five elements of classroom culture. I will briefly describe them here before explaining how we teach with them in mind.

Discipline: The word discipline is often used as a verb and one that is synonymous with punishment, or at the very least something that is negative. Teachers might often say: “I had to discipline that student.” A better way to think about discipline, however, is probably as a noun. Discipline, when referred to as a process of teaching someone the right way to do something is what promotes stronger classroom cultures. “I taught my students discipline.” This sense of the word is also captured in the meaning of self-discipline. Teaching with discipline implies a front-end investment in teaching your students how to be students, and that requires a fair amount of planning. How will students sit, line up, enter the classroom, and take notes? How will they discuss? This will also lead to endless amounts of practice to fine-tune the discipline you are trying to instil.

Management: In contrast to discipline, management is about reinforcing behaviour through the use of consequences and rewards. What we typically call disciplining is often really management: giving consequences. Some teachers see this as the whole game of classroom culture, but as we have established, there are far more elements at play.

Control: Control is your capacity to cause someone to choose to do what you ask, regardless of the consequences. Some teachers may consider this to be a dirty word and see it as wrong to be willing to “control” someone else. However, all of us exert control over other people’s actions at some point and we do it because it is the right thing to do, especially for teachers. This is the sense in which we seek to control our students. Teachers who have strong control over their classes succeed because they understand the power of language and relationships: they ask firmly and confidently, but also with civility. They express faith in students’ ability to meet expectations. They replace vague commands like “calm down” with specific, assertive ones like “please return to your seat and begin writing”. These actions promote clarity, purposefulness. If you are able to do this consistently, you can save consequences for when they are really needed.

Influence: If control gets them to do things you suggest, then influence gets them to want to internalise the things you suggest and make them their own, to add to their understanding, and character. Although less visible than getting them to behave, getting them to believe – to want to behave positively – is necessary to long-term success. If influence is the process of instilling belief, maximising it should be an intentional goal of every teacher’s classroom culture. This year more than ever I have been acutely aware that the content that I teach is not the only thing that my students learn from me. I bring myself, my beliefs, my attitudes, my character to the room and this is picked up by students and must be acknowledged. It is a balancing act for us as teachers between our professional and personal persona – not to mention making sure we embody the beliefs and values of our school and not undermine them.

Engagement: One of the most common reasons for poor classroom culture is a boring lesson. The human mind is powerful and when it does not encounter stimuli to challenge it, it will soon find something else. Great teachers get students busily engaged in interesting and challenging work. Although engagement is not the only litmus test for the quality of teaching, it can be a good lens. When students have not been engaged in a lesson I have taught I have often reflected on how I delivered the content or whether the pitch was right.


Classroom culture: Three strategies

Now that I have explained the essence and form of classroom culture, hopefully showcasing the holistic nature of this concept and the insufficiency of one such as behaviour management, I will explain three strategies, their action steps and provide a commentary on how they can be implemented – building classroom culture instantly.


1, Threshold

What is it? Greet your students at the door, setting expectations before they enter the classroom.

How? Expect students to stop and say hello to you before they enter the classroom. Welcome each student by name making eye-contact. State expectations of what students do once they enter the classroom.

Commentary: At first glance, this is really simple. But done well, it sends clear messages to students. More is revealed in the meaning of the term “threshold”. Commonly, it is the word used to refer to the part of the room by which a person enters. And that is just it: when the teacher stands there, with a warm and positive demeanour, they say something about the “room”. When threshold is done well, a teacher “says” to students that:

  • I care about you in every part of the day not just when you are producing work for me.
  • I care about your character, politeness and soft-skills such as simply saying “hello” to me while you look me in the eye.
  • The culture of this room is set by me, as your teacher, and I want you to participate in the right way.


2, Do Now

What is it? A task that reviews prior learning that can be done independently. To be completed in silence.

How? Gather data on student understanding from prior learning. Create a task that includes questions and activities from prior learning. Expect students to complete this task silently and independently. Review with students and get them to self-mark.

Commentary: This is not a new strategy. The key is that it is seen within the framework of classroom culture. For us, this is the first 10 minutes of the day as students settle, put their things away, and get ready for the structured lessons. It includes retrieval practice from all subjects to reinforce the interconnectedness of the curriculum. When “Do Nows” are done well, a teacher “says” to students that:

  • What you learned yesterday, last week and last month matters to your learning today. Every moment matters. Be ready to think hard about all the other things you have learned.
  • I care about what you do during a Do Now and expect your best effort. When we review content, you have the chance to check what you have learned and how well you have learned it.


3, S.T.A.R Sitting

What is it? Teach students to Sit up straight, Track the speaker, Ask and answer questions, Respect those around you.

How? Teach S.T.A.R Sitting. Model and Expect S.T.A.R Sitting. Reteach where needed.

Commentary: I have often sat through CPD sessions on “active listening” or “active speaking”. I have walked past lots of posters with nice pictures of these things. Quite often though the initiative fades away within weeks. This is not to say that these sorts of things are not important. They are. But STAR is the most powerful way I know of to do this. It is memorable and easy to refer back to in lesson times without wasting time; it is directly linked to non-verbal cues that do not disrupt a lesson; it is quickly actionable and it is a clear way to talk to all staff about how they can develop strong discipline within their classrooms.


Conclusion

It is time we thought differently about behaviour management. It is time we embraced the holistic nature of school and classroom culture and analyse it carefully through this wide-angle lens. When we begin with essence, make sense of its form and create actionable strategies for this area of school life, we create a framework for both our teachers and students that goes a long way in supporting the ethos elements of our school and clear ways in which we will develop the whole child year after year after year.

  • Robbie Burns is a teacher and assistant vice-principal for teaching and learning at Bede Academy in Northumberland. He has written for a range of publications on primary education and curriculum. This article has been adapted from some of Robbie’s blog entries at www.howthenshouldweteach.wordpress.com. You can follow him @MrRRBurns


Curriculum Design Online Conference

  • Robbie Burns will be presenting during the Headteacher Update two-day curriculum design conference which takes place online on July 6 and 7. For the full programme, visit www.curriculumconference.com

Further information & resources

  • Bennett: Running the Room: The teachers’ guide to behaviour, John Catt Educational, 2020.
  • Burns: The form of classroom culture: Three essential strategies (Threshold, Do Now and STAR Sitting), How then should we teach? blog: https://bit.ly/3xSp2pU
  • Lemov: Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college, Jossey-Bass, 2015.


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