Teaching Opinion

Response: Keeping ‘The Big Picture in Mind’ While Managing Classrooms

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 26, 2015 11 min read
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(This post is the last one in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; and Part Three here.)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for effective classroom management strategies?

Part One in this series shared responses from Bryan Harris, Marcia Imbeau, Pernille Ripp, Gianna Cassetta, Brook Sawyer and Julia Thompson. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Pernille on my BAM! Radio Show. I also shared related resources at Classroom Management Advice and The Best Posts On Classroom Management.

Guests Kelly Bergman, Patty O’Grady, ReLeah Lent, Barry Gilmore, and Bethany Bernasconi contributed their thoughts in Part Two.

Part Three featured the thoughts of Dr. Debbie Silver, Richard L. Curwin, and Marcia L. Tate.

I’ll be wrapping-up this series today with two special contributions: one from well-known educator (and regular contributor to this column) Suzie Boss, who talks about the tricky subject of classroom management specifically during Project-Based Learning lessons; and the other from ASCD author Jane Bluestein. In addition, I’m including multiple comments from readers.

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss is an education writer and consultant who focuses on project-based learning (PBL) and social change. She is the author of several books about PBL and innovative learning strategies, including Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World and Reinventing Project-Based Learning, co-authored by Jane Krauss (and just updated in a 2nd edition). She is a regular contributor to Edutopia and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and is on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education:

(Editor’s Note: You might also be interested in Suzie’s previous posts here: The Best Advice On Doing Project-Based Learning and Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning)

What are your suggestions for effective classroom management strategies during project-based learning?

In theory, most teachers I talk with like the idea of students directing their own learning. To become adaptable, curious, lifelong learners, students need experiences that put them in the driver’s seat of their education. That’s one reason why teachers invest time to design project-based learning (PBL) experiences. Through projects, students have right-sized opportunities to investigate and make meaning of their world.

In practice, though, PBL often gets messy. Teachers accustomed to an orderly classroom can get frustrated if they haven’t anticipated how they will manage the moving parts of a project. Here are a few field-tested suggestions to keep projects running smoothly so that you can keep the focus on learning.

Encourage students to manage themselves.

PBL is about learning by doing. For students accustomed to a passive role in the classroom, active learning can feel like a big shift. A PBL veteran told me he spends the first weeks of school breaking old habits, such as students sitting quietly until the teacher gives directions. The very structure of PBL--which focuses on an open-ended driving question--can be a challenge for students who are used to being told how to get to the “right” answer. A single project may lead students to discover a wide range of worthy solutions.

In a PBL setting, students take initiative and learn from one another as they seek to answer that driving question. Teachers who encourage students to “ask three before me” are sharing the message that the teacher isn’t the sole keeper of information. Similarly, PBL teachers often circle back to the question, “What do you need to know?” That simple prompt gets students thinking about the tasks ahead, and helps them develop a game plan for how they will arrive at their own understanding. Ask students to reflect on their learning throughout the project through journals, blogs, interviews, or a prompt on an exit slip. Use your check-ins to find out where individual students may be struggling, and then adjust daily learning activities accordingly.

Be deliberate about teamwork.

Projects often involve teamwork. The reasons for collaboration can vary. A project might be complex, requiring students to take on specialized tasks. A project might call for innovative problem solving, which is enhanced by engaging diverse perspectives. Or, a tight timeline might make teamwork essential for getting to the finish line on time. All of these are reasons why collaboration has become so prevalent in the world outside of school. Whatever your reasons for building collaboration into your project plan, be sure to share your purpose with students.

Be purposeful about how you form project teams, too. Balance teams by considering the strengths, assets, and interests each team member brings. (That might call for a pre-project interest survey, or doing an exercise in which students interview each other about their strengths and passions.)

Once teams are formed, don’t assume that collaboration will naturally follow. Be deliberate about teaching students how to work together, how to build on each other’s ideas, how to communicate with each other respectfully, and how to negotiate differences. Some PBL teachers have teams write a contract, spelling out their shared expectations about accountability. This can be a useful document to reference later, if conflicts develop.

Use formative assessment to help you check in on team dynamics (along with individual learning). Sit alongside a team at work and observe how the conversation flows. Is everyone engaged, or are some team members sitting on the sidelines? Use reflection prompts to ask about team dynamics. And if you notice conflict or less than optimal collaboration, that’s a cue that students need help learning how to work together effectively.

Find a rhythm.

When projects are moving toward completion, the pace can get frenetic. Students are likely to be working on multiple tasks and learning at different paces. Find a rhythm for productive, purposeful learning. For example: The day might start with a quick whole-class meeting to refocus everyone on the tasks ahead. You might shift to a mini-lesson or short workshop for a sub-group of students who need specific instruction. Meanwhile, other teams may be working independently--doing research, building prototypes, consulting with experts, and myriad other activities. Regrouping at the end of the class period--even if just for a few minutes--will encourage reflection and “cement” the learning that happened that day.

Leverage technology.

Technology tools can help you keep projects on track. A few examples:

  • Keep all resources related to a project in one place by creating a Google site or wiki.
  • Encourage reflection throughout a project by having students keep a blog about their learning.
  • Help students break big projects into manageable tasks by using a tracker like Trello
  • Encourage good time management with an online project calendar.
  • Use social bookmarking sites like Delicious or Diigo to encourage students to track and annotate what they are researching.
  • Keep a visual record of the rich learning that happens throughout a project with a photo-sharing site like Flickr, or make a virtual project bulletin board on Pinterest.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of project workspaces that combine many of these functions. Project Foundry and Edmodo are two examples

Response From Dr. Jane Bluestein

Jane Bluestein is a former classroom teacher, crisis intervention counselor, and teacher training program coordinator who currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, N.Mex. Her books include Managing 21st Century Classrooms: How do I avoid ineffective classroom management practices? (ASCD, 2014) and The Win-Win Classroom:

Ask teachers to describe their classroom management concerns and most often, you’ll hear about student behavior that interferes with teaching and learning. Unfortunately, much of the information on this topic tends to be fairly vague, superficial, or too highly focused without regard for the bigger picture of the culture of a classroom or school.

Sure, problems are bound to arise with unclear instructions or when you don’t have enough scissors to go around, but I believe that the majority of discipline issues can find their source in one of the following areas:

Power dynamics. In a win-win relationship, teachers use their authority to set limits (or boundaries) and, within those limits, offer choices and options to accommodate students’ need for power or control. Eliminating kids’ needs to compete for power can significantly reduce behavior problems.

Academic success. When students do not believe they have a shot at achievement, there is little incentive to behave. Adjusting content and pacing to academic and cognitive needs can increase engagement and reduce distractions.

Neurological issues. Teaching the way kids learn can also prevent off-task behavior. Be willing to accommodate different learning styles as well as kids’ need for movement to see positive changes.

Social and emotional aspects. Although there are many factors in a child’s life that are beyond our control, an emotionally safe classroom can provide a sanctuary where students can interact positively and respectfully and where they know their feelings and dignity are respected.

Reducing the need to act out to meet these needs is only a piece of the puzzle, however. We also need to question-- and stop using-- management practices that are ineffective or costly to the emotional climate of the classroom. Misconceptions about how to manage student behavior have led to many of the problems we see in classrooms every day. Whether we are relying on rules to inspire cooperation, punishments to react to disruptions, or wasting time giving warnings, using threats, or labeling misbehavior, we are unlikely to achieve our management goals.

Classroom management is a very large, complex issue. Keep the big picture in mind, look for ways to meet every child’s needs, and don’t forget to take care of yourself! If you’re not happy with how things are going, know that there is a better way.

Responses From Readers


The best classroom management technique is still to have an engaging task and be focused on it. My co-operating teacher (about a thousand years ago) always stressed staying focused on what you want the students to do, not what you don’t want them to do. That remains the best advice I’ve ever heard on the subject.


An effective teacher displays true “withitness”. Be aware of what your students are actively doing. Be apart of the educational process. I have noticed too many new teachers focused on their devices and not engaged in being aware of their students. Establish clear democratic rules within the classroom. Be authoritative but not authoritarian. You are not the friend of the students but rather a leader in the classroom. Students of all ages are looking for a"captain of the ship”.

Strive to build the collective, the ensemble and strive to have your students participate in the democracy of the classroom. Develop clear consequences for inappropriate behavior. Be prepared as a teacher to deal with problems as they will occur in all classrooms. Be flexible and be prepared to change your strategies.

Gary Johnston:

I have a list of 10 “norms” that I request of students. Some of them are: come in ready to learn, know what you need to work on, make room for others, have a good attitude about learning, etc. These are helpful, as if a student is acting up, I just ask them to refer to our list. I also ask my students to make a list of norms they ask ME to follow! Some of them are: Have a sense of humor, multiple chances to master something, have breaks. This has helped me cultivate a atmosphere of mutual respect.

Peggy Lo Prete:

I have always found that your belief in a student’s success, has a great impact on making the student believe in himself. Difficult/ challenging students need that special someone who will not give up on them and who are wise enough to know that beneath the tough exterior is only a child crying to be heard. We cannot forget this when all around us it may seem hopeless, for hope, may be the only thing that some kids can latch onto. If we take that away, as educators, we take away their drive, their spirit, their ability to contribute a part of themselves.....

Thanks to Suzie and Jane, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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