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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Class You Dread

One of my classes is normally the lowlight of my day. It's full of generally well-behaved and capable kids. But something about the chemistry is terrible. I hate it. They hate it. We all feel like we are grimly marching to the bell. Eyes are rolled. Sighs are sighed. Comments are muttered under the breath.

Something had to be done.

I talked over the situation with a school psychologist friend for a good hour. Many people only see school psychologists in their role working with learning disabled students, but helping teachers problem-solve in their classroom is under their umbrella as well. I didn't want to take stabs in the dark with this group. A failed attempt would have been worse than no attempt at all. I wanted a professional to endorse the plan.

There were a few little things first. I changed the seating chart, to jostle them out of their habits. I papered over the little window in the classroom door, which is a frequent distraction (there is some little punk who likes to stand out there that period and make faces or something). I gave them a little speech about our goals, their futures, and positive learning environments and the behaviors I saw that indicated their attitudes were all that positive.

The big "intervention" (the psychologist's word of choice these days, it seems) was: Each day before class, I write on the whiteboard the list of the problem numbers assigned for homework that night. While class is going on, I am looking for positive learning behaviors (taking out materials without being asked, attempting practice problems, volunteering to answer questions, asking questions, etc). If all goes well for 5-10 minutes, I quietly X out one of the homework problems. By the end of the period they may have 3 or 4 less problems to do that night.

If you are savvy to basic behavioral psychology, you'll recognize this as negative reinforcement. In a nutshell, removing an undesirable consequence in order to promote good behavior. Which, psychologist friend informs me, research has shown to be more effective than punishment or positive reinforcement.

It's also a random and variable reinforcement interval. I didn't tell the students I'd delete a homework problem exactly every 5 minutes, for example. The intervals will change and be unpredictable. Also promoted by research.

He used a bunch of other big words that I don't remember.

He warned me that I would have to stick with it for a while. The kids didn't trust it at first. They wanted to know what the catch was. They were sure they'd have to do the deleted problems later, or something. They wanted to be the ones to choose the problem to delete. They also tried to start arguing with me about when they deserved a deletion. All of this has taken some time.

But it's been pretty painless. And, the environment in the classroom has certainly improved. More kids are contributing more often, kids are more willing to engage, and I don't dread going to this class anymore.


  1. Kate

    Thanks so much for posting this. Its very encouraging to hear that other teachers have this kind of difficult problem and are able to do something about it.

    I appreciate your honesty in sharing,

    I appreciate the careful way you went about approaching the problem.

    Russel Montgomery

  2. I never heard about anything like this before. Is it something you will use elsewhere, or just in problem classes?


  3. Russel- Thanks!

    Jonathan - It was meant to solve a particular problem. It's not something I'd do with every class.

  4. Kate,

    Did you let the students know you were going to eliminate problems when you introduced it or just let them figure it out? When I read this post I thought you were in my classroom while writing it. Thanks for the great post.

    Justin Barber

  5. Hi Justin - Honestly, this happened 2 years ago...I don't even remember which class it was. I think I briefed them on the plan to eliminate assigned problems in recognition of on-task behavior. But I don't remember for sure. Let me know if you try it and how it works out.


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