CLASSROOM CLIMATE TO SUPPORT HETEROGENEOUS GROUPING

The group of disparate individuals that is assembled at the beginning of the year in a classroom cannot be expected to form a cohesive unit just by virtue of their daily contact. In fact, there are a number of factors which tend to pit children against each other: the group of students who have previous associations and resist entrance of newcomers, social stratification based on wealth, style, appearance, "popularity", race, neighborhood, or association, the tendency of some people to "need" enemies.Overcoming these factors requires teacher leadership and a strategy for pulling the class into a group. Every teacher faces this challenge, but for the teacher who wants to group heterogeneously it is even more important that the challenge be met. If normal behavior in the classroom is bickering, cliquishness, taunting, name-calling, ruthless competition, and/or lack of empathy, then, when placed in groups, students will be able play their roles of bully or victim, royalty or loner to perfection. In the heterogeneously grouped classroom self-control plays a more prominent role than in the traditional teacher-controlled classroom and self-control is more likely if students feel safe and accepted by their peers. (Students who are playing a role are being controlled by peer expectations rather than exerting self-control.) Therefore, it is necessary to precede heterogeneous grouping with the building of a positive classroom climate. Glasser (1986) gives the following example of positive climate in a specialized group:

  • A basketball team may be made up of fifteen players. Seven or eight play regularly. The rest, in most programs that are dominated by the need to win, rarely play in a scheduled game but play only in practice. Still, all work hard and the weakest players tend to work the hardest of all in an effort to get a few minutes on the floor. Weak players do not relax and let the better players carry them, and the better players do not resent the fact that the weaker ones are not as good as they are. In fact, they tend to encourage and help them. And when a weak player finally gets to play and scores, not only is his contribution cheered, but his points are as much a part of the final score as anyone else's. On a well-coached team, all players experience not only power but also a strong sense of belonging, and it would not be amiss to say that there is love both for each other and the coach. . . (But) what is so need fulfilling in athletics, music, and drama is almost completely lacking in English, math and history.

Of course athletic teams are a special case. The "students" are volunteers who are presumably homogeneous with above-average athletic ability and interest in the "subject". Still they are a case worth a look. What would a classroom need to have the kind of positive climate found on good teams? An ideal situation might have:
  • Common goals
  • Willing participants
  • Students who have learned to support each other's efforts and applaud each other's accomplishments
  • Students have learned to appreciate each other's strengths and accept each other's limitations
  • Students who have developed high expectations of each other
  • A broad range of tolerable behavior and considerable latitude for idiosyncrasies and individual differences (Schmuck and Schmuck, 1983)
  • Classroom norms that are supportive of academic progress
  • Open communication
  • Procedures for solving problems
  • Students who feel influential
  • Conditions that promote curiosity, risk taking, discovery, exploration, and a tolerance for ambiguity (Kersh and Reisman, 1985)
  • A learning climate that satisfies the learner's basic needs for safety, belongingness, love and respect so that the student can feel unthreatened, independent, curious and spontaneous (Cohen and Hackman, 1979a; Maslow, 1968)

Not all of these elements are in the teacher's control, particularly the first two. But it is possible for the teacher to influence the elements (even the first two) in order to establish a team-like atmosphere in the classroom.

Assessment of Classroom Climate

Measurement of classroom climate can be done formally or informally. Schmuck and his colleagues, (1966) mistrust "gut feelings" alone and strongly recommend formal evaluation through sociometric instruments, attitudinal surveys, outside observers and/or consultants. For formal assessment tools see Schmuck and Schmuck (1983), Vacha and his colleagues (1979), and the computer program Grouper. On the other hand, a teacher who takes a detached look at the classroom can often get at least a rough idea of the general climate. Are tattling, cliquishness, taunting, or name-calling in evidence? Can the class be trusted to control its own behavior, when the teacher is busy elsewhere? Is leadership diffuse or concentrated? Glasser (1986) provides some questions to help the teacher evaluate classroom climate informally:
  1. Do your students realize that there is power in knowledge, and, if not, have you any program to help them gain this vital belief?
  2. If you believe in academic competition, do all of your students have some chance to win?
  3. Do your students have any freedom to choose what to study or any say in how they might prove to you that they are making progress?
  4. Are they free to leave class to go to the library or to the gym if their work is done and they are waiting for others to finish?
  5. Is there some laughter and good-natured clowning in which you are an active participant as they work and discuss assignments?
  6. Have you been concerned that your students find satisfaction in your class?
  7. Finally, an often overlooked symptom of climate problems is name-calling, a sure sign that the students in a class or school are not accepting and appreciating each other's differences. If tolerated, name-calling rarely goes away. Intervention is required.

Teacher Skills for Improving Classroom Climate
  • The teacher may need to aquire some additional skills in order to create a positive classroom climate. Jennings (1959) identified three factors that contribute to positive social development:
  • The warmth of the teacher - animated, humorous, friendly, receptive and understanding.
  • A hands-on, project oriented classroom with students having some control over the planning of the project and the teacher making sure there is enough time to complete the task with a "sense of ease."
  • Consistent use of democratic methods and open communications.

William Glasser has long been an advocate of shared decision making and diffuse power in the classroom. In his 1986 book Control Theory in the Classroom, he makes a strong case for the teacher becoming less of the worker at the bottom of the public school bureaucracy and more of the modern manager in a classroom:
  • As long as teachers see themselves mostly as workers, (rather than managers), they will not accept the idea that it is their responsibility to restructure their teaching so that it is more satisfying. And to the limited extent that they now see themselves as managers, they are reluctant to give up the traditional way to manage because it does promise a lot of power. In practice, however, most teachers are well aware that it doesn't deliver on that promise. It is hard to feel powerful if at least half your students are paying little or no attention to what you are trying to teach. The most difficult task for teachers who are trying to manage learning-teams is to understand the difference between a modern manager, who is willing to share power and is always on the lookout for better ways to do this, and a traditional manager, who never willingly gives up any power and is always looking for more. . . (Manager-type) teachers will understand that they need students; there will be none of the adversary power struggle that is so destructive in the standard classroom. There will be no phony awards or slogans like 'back to basics' or 'excellence in education' to try to motivate. Since the students are part of the process, they will constantly be looking for ways to improve it. Most important, when any team discovers a new and more efficient way to learn, this knowledge will be shared with everyone so that all can learn more. . . Teachers who act as modern managers structure assignments so that it makes sense to work hard. They coach, facilitate, answer questions and provide materials as needed, but they do not present the material as they do in traditional classes in the hope that students would learn enough to pass a test. Glasser, 1986

Adaptability is a key - both teachers and students learn to adjust to each other's needs. For example, "a student may not wish to stand in line to go outdoors but acceded to the teacher's request. On the other hand, a teacher may not want children involved in boisterous play, but will allow them to let off steam on the playground so long as they walk quietly from the classroom. . . What creative teachers seek is a pattern of mutual adaptation that promotes the most fruitful classroom atmosphere for learning" (Schmuck et al., 1966). In a learner-centered classroom the teacher prizes the learner, is genuinely interested in the student's contributions, allows the student to take a role in determining the course of study, shows empathy and understanding, and builds a strong interpersonal relationship with the learner (Cohen and Hackman1979a).

Classroom Activities to Improve Social Climate

In reviewing research on classroom climate, Schmuck and colleagues (1966) found that:
  • Students need to experience a positive relationship with the teacher
  • Acceptance of self precedes acceptance of school subjects
  • Project-oriented school experiences are most likely to provide necessary initial successes
  • Students need acceptance by, and integration into, the socialized peer structure
  • Anti-school values are best modified by pro-school peers
  • Improved parent/school relations result in improved school adjustment for the child.

These things don't just happen. Building a positive classroom climate requires that students have skills and attitudes that may not be natural to them, skills and attitudes that must be developed and nurtured. Even the "best" classes will not maintain a positive climate if conditions are adverse. According to Schmuck and Schmuck (1983), implementing a classroom climate improvement program requires as little as an hour a week of teaching time -- but it also requires a constant monitoring of climate and adjustment to changing conditions. The first three months of school each year would probably contain the bulk of time spent learning the necessary getting-along skills. Academics would not be ignored during this time of course but high priority goals would be "helping students to feel comfortable with one another, to work independently, to make collaborative decisions, and to learn to behave cooperatively." (Schmuck and Schmuck, 1983) Teachers willing to spend time teaching students to maintain a positive classroom climate must believe that gaining those skills is valuable itself and that the positive climate will, in time, yield academic gains. Both of these beliefs are most likely true. Much has been written about the 21st century skills to be required of today's students and near the top of most lists is the ability to work as a member of a team. Since research shows that academic gains will follow climate improvement (Schmuck et al, 1966), teachers need not fear that time spent establishing positive climate will keep them from their academic responsibilities. Schmuck and Schmuck (1983) identify six elements of classroom climate: attraction, communication, leadership, norms, expectations and cohesion, which they consider to be somewhat hierarchical. They also outline a number of activities for building each of the elements and Vacha and colleagues (1979) have developed an entire climate improvement curriculum based on the 1976 edition of Schmuck and Schmuck. Each of the six elements briefly described:
1. Attraction - A first step in developing a positive classroom climate is to help students begin to appreciate each other's strengths and accept each other's failings. Icebreakers can help students know more about their classmates. Inclusion and sociometric activities can promote attraction.
2. Communication - Open communication involves risk-taking that will not happen unless there is an atmosphere of safety and non-critical acceptance. Developing this atmosphere involves allowing students to practice expressing feelings and active listening. Glasser's classroom meetings (Joyce and Weil, 1986) are one good way to foster open communication.
3. Leadership - In a classroom with a positive climate, leadership is diffuse and constructive. Leadership training and lots of experience being both group leaders and group members is important to improving classroom leadership patterns.
4. Norms - The "code of conduct" in any particular classroom is only partially set by the teacher. Students often set rigid standards that must be met as a condition of acceptance. Norms that are excessively narrow cause many students to be excluded from the social fabric of the class. Broadening accepted norms of dress, ability, appearance and idiosyncrasies is the main goal of activities centering on norms.
5. Expectations - Every time a class member interacts with another, the class's expectations of communication and response behaviors come into play. Inaccurate or unrealistic expectations result in conflict or hurt feelings that needlessly degrade classroom climate. Lessons in this area center on clarifying expectations.
6. Cohesion - If each member's feelings for the class as a whole were positive, the group would be cohesive. Cohesion can be developed by practicing the above five elements while working on joint projects or problem-solving activities.

Besides the Schmuck and Vacha books, Jones and Jones (1981) also detail activities for improving classroom climate. Although they are now out of print, these books are worth hunting down for those in search of activities and assessment tools to help build positive climates in their classrooms.

Responsibility is also an element one would expect to see in a positive classroom: students gradually taking more and more responsibility for their learning and their environment by self-initiated projects or research, voluntarily helping fellow students, and independently getting materials, cleaning up, and controlling noise and movement without reminders (Cohen and Hackman, 1979a). Self-directedness needs to be taught with responsibilities added gradually. In September, the class will be naturally (and properly) teacher-directed. Even "independent" activities will be teacher-directed in the beginning. But as students gain confidence and skills, the teacher would encourage movement toward the goal of self-initiation of relevant projects and activities. The beginning of giving students ownership of their education might involve a classroom meeting in the morning in which students participate in planning their free time by setting goals (and evaluating their performance) in student journals. Routine jobs and actions (watering plants, appropriate drink and bathroom breaks, keeping the room attractive and tidy, etc.) should be released to class members as soon as possible (Cohen and Hackman, 1979a).`
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Conclusion

Several years ago I remember marveling at one teacher's third grade class that could make its way unsupervised through the halls to recess or the lunchroom without any disruption of the surrounding classrooms. When I complimented her on the behavior of her students, she told me that she was lucky to have such a good class. I taught with her for five years and every year she was "lucky". The "good" class is seldom a magical occurrence. A class of students who exhibit self-control in the hallways and approximates the spirit of Glasser's basketball team can only happen when the teacher builds a positive climate in the classroom.