Tag Archives: classroom management

What am I doing here?

It seems obvious that students might find it helpful to know what they are going to be learning, and yet, consistently sharing learning intensions with students is a relatively recent phenomenon in most classrooms. –Dylan Wiliam

After a post last week about articulating learning goals, a question was e-mailed to me by an educator who wanted to know if learning goals need to be written on the board for every lesson. Sometimes the objective of a lesson, the educator rightly asserted, is to have students discover answers on their own without direction from a teacher.  A classic example of this is a SOLE lesson, where student inquiry is guided by a single question and Za learning objective is not present. Students are encouraged to discover meaning during their pursuit of an answer. Whether or not teachers should make learning objectives present for students during a SOLE lesson or other inquiry-based activity is a great question as it addresses a fundamental principle of lesson design and classroom management. Namely, how much information do we need to give students so they can answer this question: What am I doing here? Luckily, Dylan Wiliam writes about this dilemma in his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, so we can turn to him for an answer. Wiliam and his book are amazing, by the way.

Wiliam calls the sometimes mandated approach of having teachers post a learning objective before each class “wallpaper objective.” Clearly, with a term like this, Wiliam is not in favor of this approach. Wiliam believes that “sometimes it’s not even a good idea to tell the students what the lesson is about” (56). A SOLE lesson is a classic example of this. The point of a SOLE lesson is for students to discover meaning behind a question by working together to make connections between relevant material. Therefore, for Wiliam, it is not necessary to post a learning objective during each class. “Sometimes we can be very specific, such as when we require laboratory reports to be structured in a particular way–diagrams are to be drawn in pencil and labeled, and so on,” explains Wiliam. “At other times, it may be that the best we can do is help the students develop what Guy Claxton calls a ‘nose for quality'” (58). Rubrics can play a part in this process as long as they are shared with students who are given time to think through, in discussion with others, what the rubrics mean.

Wiliam believes that sometimes it is appropriate for the teacher to present learning intentions and success criteria to students at the beginning of a lesson. He shares that teachers of younger students find the acronyms WALT (We are learning to) and WILF (What I’m looking for) to be helpful at informing students of a lesson’s intent. “Unfortunately,” Wiliam writes, “in many districts, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: a lesson is regarded as a bad lesson if the teacher fails to post a learning objective at the start” (69). Wiliam does include in his book some ways learning goals can be reinforced without resorting to “wallpaper.”

Wiliam’s Non-Wallpaper Techniques for Clarifying Goals

  1. Have students look and analyze samples of other students’ work
  2. Peer review where students discuss the quality of their work
  3. Have students design test items with correct answers about what they have been learning

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if a teacher were to post an objective with every lesson. However, like Wiliam, I don’t think it’s essential for classroom success. If I saw a successful lesson, I would never find fault with a teacher for not writing a learning objective on the board–especially when the point of the lesson might be to have students find their own question-mark-452707_640connections. What makes a genuine difference in a classroom is when a teacher works to ensure that the questions they are asking students are of a high level, that all students get to participate in the learning process, that the problems students try and solve are written clearly and are relevant to learners, and norms have been established in a classroom so students can be given freedom to explore material while staying on task. Oftentimes lessons are not as successful as they can be because one or more of these things are missing. We should always strive to make our lessons and meetings as specific as possible for participants, and agendas, clearly defined learning objectives, and rubrics are a big part of this. “Like everything else in teaching,” Wiliam summarizes, “there are no simple rules, and it is up to the teacher to exercise professional judgement in how best to communicate learning intentions and success criteria to students” (69). It’s important to note that the less students have to wonder “what am I doing here?” the more time they will have to think about a task.


Some Thoughts on Student Engagement

The educator and founder of the Understanding By Design curriculum model, Grant Wiggins, recently relayed the results of a survey he administered in a fairly typical American high school. The roughly 1000 students Wiggins surveyed attended a suburban school in the midwest and earned respectable test scores. The survey Wiggins used asked students questions about how they liked their classroom experiences. About 2/3 of the students attending the school answered Wiggins’s survey. Of the students who responded, about 95% reported feeling bored at some point during their school day. About half of the students indicated that they were either bored each day in many classes or a little bored for brief periods each day in one or more classes. In the most startling statistic, only about 5% of the students polled indicated they were rarely bored during a typical day at school. One of the most cited reasons by students in the survey for their boredom was that “the teacher talks too much.”

Source: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/fixing-the-high-school/

After teaching for over a decade and observing hundreds of classes, I can attest to the dangers of too much “teacher talk.” However, is teacher talk, more commonly called “direct instruction,” always a bad thing? What causes student boredom? The fact is, no clear-cut reason has ever been established for what students mean when they say they are bored in schools.

In a 2003 review of the academic literature on boredom, Stephen Vodanovich concluded that there really is no agreed-upon definition of what boredom is (Vodanovich 570). One study Vodanovich found equated boredom with “monotonous or repetitive activities;” in another study it was equated with “a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating environment” (Vodanovich 570). These two definitions, while somewhat different, do present us with a starting point in trying to define what students mean when they say they are “bored” in school. Monotony, repetition, and inadequately stimulating environments are likely to cause student boredom. While this seems obvious when reading it here, the reality is it can happen in classrooms across the world (and in department meetings!). When planning, it is imperative to keep these causes in mind.

To find out definitively the reasons why students feel they are bored in school, a few years ago, a team of researchers began conducting what is perhaps the largest study on student boredom ever undertaken in American schools. Beginning in 2003, the group of scientists and educators from Indiana University set out to measure precisely what students meant when they said they were “bored” in class. The researchers’ intent was to isolate the factors inducing boredom and determine how they could use the student feedback to strengthen classroom engagement. What is now known as the High School Survey of Student Engagement Institute (HSSSE), these researchers administered a questionnaire to students across the country in hopes of figuring out just how engaged—or not engaged—high school students were. In 2009, HSSSE published a report on their findings. 103 schools from 27 states participated and 42,754 students answered survey questions about their classroom experiences. The data told the researchers at the institute a telling story about the state of student engagement in American classrooms.

The researchers at Indiana University defined boredom simply as a “temporary form of dis-engaging from school” (Yazzie-Mintz 6) then asked students two very specific questions about it in the survey. Students were asked the following: “Have you ever been bored in class in high school?” and “If you have been bored in class, why?” The scale of the HSSSE report makes their findings particularly valuable. Nearly half of all students reported being bored every day they were in school. 17% of students polled for the 2009 report indicated they were bored in every class they took. Only 2% of students reported never being bored in school (Yazzie-Mintz 6). This means that out of over 42,000 students, only about 850 reported that they were always interested in what was happening at school. These results mirror closely what Wiggins found in his single-school survey.

The researchers found the most oft-cited reason students were bored in school was lack of engagement during direct instruction, more commonly known as teacher talk. As the bar graph illustrates, when asked the degree of excitement or engagement students felt when a teacher used direct instruction, nearly 45% of all respondents said “not at all.” Of all the pedagogical models identified in the survey, teacher lecture was clearly the least liked activity. Only a little over 5% of students claimed they liked that model “very much.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.32.31 PM (1)
Source: http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf

For students, the most popular classroom activities in terms of engagement were discussion and debate, group projects, and projects and lessons involving technology. The 2009 HSSSE report made it clear to educators that students respond better to hands-on inquiry-based learning and not direct instruction (Yazzie-Mintz 11). So, if you are a teacher utilizing direct instruction frequently, the statistics indicate that between 1/3 and 2/3 (or more!) of your students will likely be disengaged and probably bored during your talk.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I can remember one lesson in particular that really stunk. At the time, I thought my idea was going to be a dynamic way to bring Greek history to life. I spent the better part of a weekend at the library researching the intricacies of the ancient Athenian political system. I created a PowerPoint presentation that touched on key facets of Athenian democracy from the Areopagus to the Boule. I felt my presentation was good—so good, in fact, I bet it could have been given to a class of graduate students. I was so excited that week to lecture about the Greeks! I had even found a flow chart describing how Athenians participated politically. What freshman in high school world history would not want to hear that explained? In what was my first year or two of teaching, I found nothing odd about the fact that during the presentation, I would be the only one doing the talking. This is what all my college professors did, I reasoned.

When I gave my presentation, I talked to my students about how Solon laid the foundation for Athenian democracy and how the reforms of Cleisthenes organized voters into demes to limit the power of the aristocracy. Throughout the course of about twenty-five slides, I broke down the nature of the Athenian political system as my students sat and listened during the 70 minutes of class. I did a great job of explaining the intricacies of Athenian politics; my graduate school professors would have been so proud. The only problem was my audience was about twenty-five fourteen-year-olds who after politely listening to me for a few minutes became more interested in what was for lunch than they were in my telling them about the history of ancient Greek politics. My excitement giving the lesson quickly dissipated as I realized the students did not care that much about ancient Greece—or at least my version of ancient Greece. I knew by looking into the eyes of my students as I talked about Solon that I had lost them.

As I progressed in my teaching career, I realized that the more I lectured, the more I bored many of my students. In fact, my Greek democracy presentation became legendary in its ability to induce boredom. I even used it to threaten students if they acted up. “Hey, if you guys don’t behave, I can always give my Greek democracy presentation,” I would say to nervous laughter. The reality was my students did not hate history. My students just preferred to be active in the discovery process instead of having me discover history for them.

I found that very few students wanted to sit for an entire class period and listen to me talk. Over the years, I found myself editing more and more out of my presentations in hopes of engaging students. In fact, I stopped giving the Greek democracy presentation all together. After a few years of teaching, I realized I was not as successful as I thought. I needed to listen to my students through surveys and daily feedback about what was and was not working for them. I needed to tailor my classroom activities around what they liked to do. In short, I realized a student-centered classroom was essential if I was going to engage, inspire, and get students to love history.


Vodanovich, Stephen. “Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Psychology 137.6 (2003): 569-595. Web.

Wiggins, Grant. “Fixing the High School—Student Survey, Part 1.” Granted, and…~thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins.” N.p. 21 May 2014. Web.

Yazzie-Mintz, Ethan. “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report            on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement.” Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. (2009): 1-26. Web.

3 Free Ways to Change Classroom Dynamics


When your class seems like it needs a break from the normal routine, try one of these ideas to energize your teaching and change the classroom dynamic. Listed below are three ways a teacher can get students re-focused during a lesson or unit and get everyone excited about the learning process. 

1. Screen Gather

For the times when information is given in a direct instruction format, try breaking up a lecture by getting students out of their seats. If yourby Johan Jansson presentation has images embedded in them, try having your students get out of their seats and congregate where the presentation is being projected. This method works particularly well when analyzing political cartoons, photographs, or even writing. By bringing students closer to the screen and each other they become more engaged in the learning process by becoming more careful observers of content and willing discussion participants. They also get out of their seats which is essential to keeping them active. When they are gathered around the screen, ask them to discuss what they notice and guide them to a better understanding. For great ideas about what kinds of questions to ask students when analyzing a cartoon or photograph, check out Visual Thinking Strategies and the Learning Network’s weekly feature “What’s Going On in This Picture.”

2. Seating Arrangement

Are we still sitting like this?

Still in columns and rows? Admittedly, this is an effective way to create a workable classroom space which helps to explain its popularity since students first started attending school. However, it might be good to change your classroom dynamic by changing how students are seated. Get students moving throughout a lesson by having them rotate their desks into small groups. When students are going to complete an assignment or handout, have them do it collaboratively instead of in isolation by changing how they are sitting. By moving desks from columns and rows to small groups or even a large circle, interaction will increase and students might become more engaged. Don’t be afraid to have students change seats frequently during a lesson or to move their desks multiple times so they can work with different people around them. Try organizing students into clusters and not in columns and rows. For more ideas on how to create active learning environments, check out this issue of 360 dedicated to rethinking education spaces.

Such a neat idea!
Such a neat idea!

3. Work With Students

Teachers around the country are beginning to realize that classroom dynamics change when they start working alongside their students on projects. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the classroom came when I created with my students. This model is especially important when teaching writing. Besides teaching students how to write, we as teachers need to show our students that we are writing with them. There is no better way to do this than by experiencing the writing process alongside them. Let students know that this process is never easy. If fact, it can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. Share your writing struggles and triumphs with your students by writing along with them. This concept was recently illustrated by Tara Smith, a sixth grade teacher from Glen Rock, New Jersey who recently wrote a blog post about teaching writing and Penny Kittle’s influential book Write Beside Them. 9780325010977“It wasn’t enough to share mentor texts, to confer, to do all those other things that good writing teachers do,” she wrote on the blog Two Writing Teachers, “I needed to share my own writing life with my kids, and walk them through my thinking as I wrote.” Check out Tara’s thoughtful piece and try working along with your students, letting them know you experience the same struggles they do.

These three ideas are fun ways to reshape a classroom dynamic both literally and figuratively. Give them a try. Best of all, they’re free!

Jonathan Olsen