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Why Viewing Classroom Management as a Mystery Can Be a Good Thing

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2015 3 min read
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As experienced teachers know, you can never have too many different classroom-management strategies in your back pocket.

Why’s that? I’d say it’s because classroom management is a constantly evolving “mystery"—not a straightforward “puzzle.”

Mysteries and Puzzles

Security expert Gregory F. Treverton originally developed the frame of puzzles and mysteries and applied it to foreign policy challenges like the Cold War, the Iraq War, and terrorism. In effect, he describes puzzles as problems that follow some type of logical analysis and which typically lead to clear conclusions. With puzzles, we tend to look at an action after it has taken place and trace back to its causes.

Mysteries, on the other hand, are composed of far more fast-moving parts and ambiguities. The individual uniqueness of the key actors’ self-interests and how they might change and interact with other need to be identified. Treverton suggests that we can be far more effective at preventing an unwanted action by approaching challenges as mysteries instead of as puzzles.

We generally find the flow-chart clarity of puzzles more satisfying than the messiness of mysteries—it echoes the old saying of how much more simple life can look when “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Treverton cites numerous examples of how our bias towards looking through the lens of a puzzle has often led us down a disastrous path of not only not preventing actions we wanted stopped, but even making situations worse.

Classroom management is indeed a mystery—there are countless moving parts in a classroom every day, and the trials of adolescence often make them change every minute! Looking at classroom management as a puzzle will typically lead to frustration and disappointment. I don’t believe any strategy is going work all the time with all of my students. So because of that challenge, we can never have too many strategies in our back pocket to help.

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I’ve shared many different classroom management strategies on my Websites of the Day blog and my Education Week Teacher column. However, I believe that any effective classroom-management strategy rests on two foundations: building relationships and having a positive attitude.

Building Relationships

Building relationships with students—through a variety of ways—is a cornerstone of effective teaching, including classroom management. By emphasizing this practice, educators can both model that behavior for our students and demonstrate that relationship building is a critical skill for living.

Though this is important for all students, researchers have recently found that for boys in particular, the quality of the relationship they have with their teachers is critical for learning. In an international study, researchers found that when boys were asked to describe lessons in school that they thought were especially effective, most were unable to do so without at the same time talking about the relationship they had with their teacher:

For so many of the boys, the issue was not what subject or instructional approach engaged them, but rather for whom they might risk engagement and effort (Reichert & Hawley, 2014).

To apply this finding to the classroom-management context, another quote—this one from author Mark Goulston in The Harvard Business Review—summarizes it well: “You don’t win on the strength of your argument. You win on the strength of your relationship.”

Being Positive

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop a positive relationship with a student by utilizing a strategy of anger, threats, and intimidation. Recent research has reinforced extensive previous studies that have found it takes positive behavior to reinforce positive relationships and have positive results in the classroom. (Here are some recommended specific actions teachers can take.) Two studies concluded that shouting at children, as opposed to reasoning with them, actually tends to make behavior problems worse; one research project found that students performed worse on exams when reminded of the consequences of failure as opposed to those who were given a more positive message by their teachers. Another study found the same results, along with some intriguing observations that one of the researchers, Tali Sharot, offered to NPR:

The study findings square with neuroscience showing that positive information is processed in many parts of the brain, while negative information tends to be centered in the prefontal cortex, Sharot says. That's the part of the brain that matures last, into the 20s in many cases. It's the area in charge of judgment and problem solving. "We learn better from good news than from bad news," Sharot says.

Of course, no one is superhuman, and it’s doubtful that any of us can focus on relationship-building and maintaining a positive attitude 100 percent of the time in our classrooms—especially in the face of the challenges that confront us daily.

One way I attempt to remind myself of the importance of relationships and the need for positivity might also be a useful suggestion for other teachers: I’ve taped a sheet on the computer screen in my classroom containing a sentence I’ve modified from a ubiquitous comment found online. It says:

My student is not giving me a hard time. My student is having a hard time.

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