Dysfunctional Classes, Part III: Engaging Personal Ownership

In the third part of his series on influencing dysfunctional classrooms, John Jensen talks about how to engage students’ personal ownership over learning.


This is the third part of a series from John Jensen on how to effectively manage dysfunctional classrooms. [Part I, Part II]

Engaging personal ownership. Turn to the charts on the wall, and explain how you plan to use them.

“Those who go out for a sport want to know how you’re doing, how your effort helps you improve, so you collect your statistics, your ‘stats,’ if you can. Knowing the result of our effort helps us choose whether to do the same thing or change it, and scoring by itself adds interest. If you’re playing a game and someone says, ‘Let’s just play and not keep score,’ the game usually becomes less interesting, right?” Notice your appeal to the easy yes. You’re about to ask them to do something already familiar to them. They keep score constantly, but you’re going to bend it slightly to aid learning.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

“This chart here has all your names down the side,” you say, pointing. Instantly every one of them scans the chart to locate their own name. Whatever you say about the chart has just increased in significance.

“It’s about concentrating. Beside your name are columns, each with a date on it. At the end of each day, I’ll give you time to multiply two things, the number of minutes you concentrated on your work times your degree of concentration 1 to 100. Think of it as minutes times a percent. So perfect concentration—not a single distractive thought—for 50 minutes means 50 times 100, or 5000 Concentration Units (CUs). If you fool around most of the period and when you do study you let yourself be distracted, you might multiply 20 minutes times 40% concentration totaling 800 CUs. Every day, enter a figure in that day’s column. At the end of your row is a space for a cumulative , running total of your CUs. If I think you either overestimate or underestimate your concentration, I may talk to you about it. The number you give yourself isn’t graded. It’s just a tool to help you keep track of your effort.”

The fact that this chart is displayed publicly is not lost on students. They can’t help themselves from comparing the score they claim with what everyone else enters. They’re gonig to be alert to anyone exaggerating their score. To increase the relevance of the measure, you might discuss their perception of their ability to concentrate—what helps, what hurts, how to think about it, how to apply it, and the difference it could make for them. You could tell them about Albert Einstein (cf. first book of my series), who claimed to be able to work without a single distractive thought for 42 minutes.

“The next chart that’s blank now and has no names on it,” you continue, “will be a line chart for the class overall. I’ll fill it out for you based on a slip of paper you give me at the end of the period that answers two questions: ‘How did people treat me?’ and “How did I treat them?” Just write “I’m treated” with a number beside it, and “I treat” with another number beside it. A 10 means really well and 1 means poorly. I’ll average them and post the “Am treated” line with a blue marker, and “I treat” line with a red marker. These two measures side by side let you see how you view what you do overall. If the two lines are very close together, this would mean that everyone is really being honest, facing what they do personally, and acknowledging others’ positive actions accurately. “

The hidden meaning of the chart is that just beginning to measure a behavior implies a direction for improvement. Students like to regard themselves as getting better at anything that’s socially validated. Few issues are more important to them than how others treat them, but you want them also noticing a correlation between what they personally dish out and what they receive. You might gather the same data also by asking them literally to count up the number of positive actions of others toward them, and the number they themselves did toward others.

When they’re accustomed to the measures above, present next the chart containing eight wide columns with their names down the left. At the time you draw it, leave enough margin at the top so that on a slanted line extending from the top of each column you title each as follows: 1) look at speaker, 2) leave a brief silence (explain this as “don’t interrupt,” 3) speak in short messages instead of long speeches, 4) ask a question (peer to peer), 5) connect ideas, 6) summarize others’ ideas, 7) give compliments, 8) include everyone, and 9) tell what helped you. Note that each of these behaviors is observable. Others can identify when a peer does one of them, enabling them to give another positive feedback for it (these and other communication skills are discussed in detail in my series, cf. below)

Here we catch them in the act of doing the right thing without even asking them to. The “yes” is so easy that they’ve already done it. Post the chart where it’s accessible both to you and the students. The column titles should be large enough that students can read them from anywhere in the room. Learn the categories well enough yourself that you readily spot students doing them. As you wish, go to the chart and make a tally in the appropriate column beside the name of a student who used that skill.

I saw this used in a classroom of high school students so dysfunctional that they were bounced out of the public schools. Quickly they became interested in the teacher’s tallies. At first they treated it as a joke, but then became more serious and invested in it. When she was focused on other things and forgot to use the chart, they reminded her. She then allowed them periodically to go to the chart and give each other tallies for behaviors they observed, which steadily improved communications and good feelings among them.

You can use the skills in many ways. One is to brainstorm with them a list of topics they’d like to discuss, and rank them in the order they prefer. Then give them just 8-12 minutes a day in groups of three or four to talk about the selected issue using the skills list. Afterward they go to the chart and give each other tallies for the skills they noticed being used, or do this verbally as they conclude the group. While extended discussion about the topics can of course be valuable, here our prior concern is establishing group norms supporting high quality communication. With these in place, a host of desirable outcomes are achievable.

With the dominant group norm tilting toward consideration for each other, Appreciation Time is a simple but powerful way to deepen those feelings and reinforce constructive behavior. Ask each student in turn, “Who gave you a good feeling today and what did they do?” They answer by naming another person and telling what they did. The student speaking is reinforced for recognizing the deed, and the other for doing it. As the question is repeatedly asked and answered, they realize that friendly, constructive behavior gets attention, and inconsiderateness and unkindness appeal less and less.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.

References. “At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare, “ Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.

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