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Education Commentary

The Value of ‘Noise and Confusion’

By Eric W. Johnson — April 18, 1990 5 min read

Unfortunately, one of the main criteria by which you are judged as a teacher is your ability to keep “order” in the classroom--quiet; neat rows of seated students; one person speaking at a time after being recognized; and so on.

Perhaps it’s the pressure for classrooms like this that caused a big-city principal visiting another school to comment, “This must be a really good school. You’d never know there were any kids here.”

As a longtime teacher of grades 5 through 11, but mostly grades 7 and 8, I agree that order is far better than chaos. And you should be able to control the behavior of your pupils. But an excessive emphasis on order stifles minds and increases the potential for boredom as students proceed through school.

The effect of overstrict teachers is described by Michael K. Marshall, principal of the Mather School in Dorchester, Mass., in his book Law and Order in Grade 6-E. He compares children in schools to beings in “tidal pools near the ocean, in which a marvelous and colorful variety of marine life flourishes--crabs, underwater flowers, and so forth--when the water is calm. ... The effect of the strict disciplinarian on kids [is] ... similar to the effect of the incoming tide on these pools: The flowers close up tight, the crabs run into cracks and caves, and everything becomes still and colorless as the waves pound overhead.”

In fact, some kinds of noise and confusion are valuable in the classroom:

The miscellaneous, sometimes vigorous buzz of students in small groups talking over and even laughing about a question that interests them.

Such questions, for example, might be: “Is it ever O.K. to tell a lie?” or “What would happen in this room if the force of gravity were decreased by three-fourths?”

If the classroom door is open (I generally favor keeping it closed) and the principal passes by, he may notice what sounds like noise and disorder but really is good education in process.

The sudden, loud reactions to a stimulating idea that you or a student has expressed during a discussion or recitation.

For example, a student says, “I think we should abolish teaching grammar in this school, with all those workbooks, and just write good stuff.” At this point, you should let the vociferous one-on-one--or four-on-four--continue for a minute or two, even though it’s “disorderly.” These moments are highly educational: Kids are thinking and reacting--trying to express their convictions and hear those of others.

But when the exchanges have continued for a brief time, you should call the class back to order. And the best way to do that is not to try to shout over the buzz, but rather to say once loudly, not fiercely, ''Class!”

Even better is to have an old-fashioned classroom bell on your desk and to ting-ting it strongly. Its high sound can be heard over the loudest discussion, and students should understand that this signal means, “Quiet now.” It’s a friendly, easy way of establishing order.

When silence is restored, you can call on a student to initiate a more orderly, “hands raised” discussion.

The open, noisy conversation that you may wish to license when you sense from students’ eagerness that a tightly controlled discussion is dampening rather than stimulating to learning.

In a situation like this, you might try saying, “O.K., this is a pretty interesting question. I’m going to declare a five-minute period of free talk when you can all exchange ideas. Then we’ll see whether you’ve come up with some ideas or answers that are worth reporting to the whole class. Talk freely, but don’t shout.”

This is a bit like a tactic used by Abraham Lincoln, who wasn’t exactly a loose, undisciplined man. In 1832, during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln, then a 23-year-old captain of the Bushtail Rangers, was in command of a platoon marching across the country. He was rather ignorant about matters of drill, tactics, and formations, and when his soldiers came to a fence, he had no idea of the proper military way to deal with the situation. So he commanded, “Halt! Company dismissed for two minutes. At the end of that time, reassemble on the other side of the fence.”

The confusion that sometimes results when the idea in the teacher’s head is expanded brilliantly by a student but the elaboration doesn’t match the lesson plan.

An example occurred in a 3rd-grade classroom. The teacher asked, “Who can tell us what numbers between 1 and 10 can be divided by 2?”

An eager girl raised her hand and answered, “Seven!”

“Emily,” said the teacher, frowning, “you know better than that. How can 7 be divided by 2?”

“It’s easy,” replied Emily. “Seven divided by 2 is 3-.”

There was a murmur of approval in the class, but the teacher, I’m sad to report, replied, “All right, Emily, if you’re going to be smart, you can just leave the room.”

Remember that the truth, even in 3rd grade, is too large to be entirely contained in one teacher’s head. How much better it would have been if the teacher had responded, “Why, Emily, that’s great! I hadn’t thought of that,” and then gone on to let other pupils think of similar, non-prime numbers before explaining that the question should have been better put--"... can be divided by 2 and have the answer come out even?” We need bright students like Emily.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I favor noise and confusion in general--only when they’re a part of the process of education, of developing reading, writing, reckoning, and reasoning.

A letter and response in Ann Landers’s newspaper column offer an example of order properly required and enforced. Though directly concerned with life in the home, the advice also applies to work in schools:

“Dear Ann Landers: I am 15 years old and my biggest problem is my mother. All she does is nag, nag, nag. From morning till night. It is: Turn off the TV. Do your homework. Wash your neck. Stand up straight. Go clean up your room. How can I get her off my case? Pick, Pick, Pick.”

“Dear Picky: Turn off the TV. Do your homework. Wash your neck. Stand up straight. Go clean up your room.”

Otherwise, here’s for more educational noise and confusion in our schools. Without them, as in the tidal pools, “everything becomes still and colorless as the waves pound overhead.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 1990 edition of Education Week as The Value of ‘Noise and Confusion’

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