Creating a climate for learning: Five steps

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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Creating the perfect conditions in your classroom so that students are engaged and learning is not easy. Geoff Barton offers five secrets to an effective climate for learning

We didn’t used to talk about a “climate for learning”. I think we just called it behaviour, or discipline, or keeping control. But climate for learning isn’t a bad phrase, and perhaps it tells us a bit more than we realised.

Through the various incarnations of my teaching career, I have always been fascinated by those classroom elements that are most intangible – in particular, the sense of magic when watching great teachers at work.

When I trained in Leicester all those years ago, I remember my tutor, Bryan Palin, taking the class that, by common-room consent, was deemed the toughest group in year 8. I looked on from the sidelines as he coaxed and chivvied, encouraged and cajoled, and then, with apparently effortless self-belief, looked wordlessly at the pupils and brought them to hushed order.

I imagine it was what a horse whisperer does, or a snake charmer, or someone else with an underlying mysticism I don’t quite understand. This class who never shut up suddenly shut up, and all the teacher had done was to look at them. It was the beginning of my fascination with what great teachers do, and the magic they weave.

Since then I have taught a lot of lessons. I have watched a lot of lessons. I have read and written a lot about the inherent skills of teachers. And it is one of the reasons I like the phrase “climate for learning” – not just in a figurative sense but in a literal one too.

This is because those years have taught me that one of the immediate signs of whether a lesson is working or not is sensing the physical temperature of the classroom. If you walk in and it’s too hot – stiflingly stuffy, or airlessly still – then you know that this is unlikely to be a great lesson. The students will either be restless and feisty, or catatonic with airless boredom.

The climate of the classroom matters. It’s one of those tell-tale signs. And first impressions matter a lot.

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. In his book Blink and in his collection of essays What the Dog Saw, writer Malcolm Gladwell gives examples of how American students accurately assessed the quality of a teacher based on a 10-second video clip with the sound turned down.

He marshals similar evidence for the ways in which effective teachers detect an almost imperceptible change in their classroom’s ecosystem, altering the direction of their teaching in order to pre-empt the restiveness, the low-level disruption, that would otherwise have broken out.

All of this is the craft of the classroom, the mix of skills and intuition that teachers deploy to help children to learn.

And so the “climate” in “climate for learning” does matter.

But apart from keeping your classroom cool – literally rather than metaphorically – what are the other key ingredients in good classroom behaviour? Here, based on my 32 years as an English teacher, are five suggestions.

First impressions matter

First impressions matter, as we have seen. Therefore, be at the door as the students arrive.

Pupils at secondary school move from one location to another all the time, probably too much in their early years. It means you need to reassert your expectations at the outset of every lesson. That entails being at the door to say hello, smile, direct students to the seat you want them to take (not where they want to sit), and to deal with any minor infringements of uniform.

Asking a student to tuck in a shirt may not be why we trained to be teachers, but the codified message it sends out is that standards of presentation matter in my classroom. It is symbolically vital. It establishes our quiet authority.

Routines matter

Establish a sequence of routines that become familiar to students, that show them implicitly what matters to you. Insist that coats are off, that books are on desks, that there is silence for the register.

Don’t give any ground on your non-negotiables, because if you get these established, then much of the pupils’ good behaviour will follow. Show that you are obsessive about silence during the register and pupils will assume that you are obsessive – as you should be – about homework being done on time and all the other things that matter.

Language matters

Mediocre teachers often talk too much, whereas great teachers talk for the right amount of time – sometimes explaining at length, sometimes being concise and pithy. There’s no formula to this. But my years of observation tell me that the most successful teachers ask fewer but better questions. They focus on the how and the why rather than the what (“Why does Lady Macbeth disappear from the play” rather than “In which scene does Lady Macbeth disappear?”).

These teachers give pupils time to think and probably discuss a question before demanding an answer. In their classrooms, questions are the centrepiece of the teacher’s toolkit, and they unlock learning.

Similarly, these teachers know how to make complex ideas simple but not too simple, using analogies, metaphors, stories that help pupils to grasp an idea ready to do an activity that helps them to internalise it. Try to watch more great teachers at work. Then listen to the way they use language.

Marking matters

Marking does indeed matter, but only the right kind of marking. How on earth did we get ourselves into the obsessive labyrinthine expectation that teachers weren’t just marking a pupil’s work, but then having a layer of bureaucracy to justify their marking?

I sense that’s about to change, helped by Ofsted which now has no interest in heavy managerial monitoring. The best feedback to pupils won’t be about how close they are to their target grade. It will be about what they have done well and what they should now practise more of. It will, in other words, be about human interaction and about learning.

Rewards and sanctions matter

There is a risk that we over-emphasise complicated and mechanistic systems that give stickers or stars or points or prizes to students for doing well and first strikes and penalties to those who do badly. Sometimes systems like these may be essential. But experience tells me that for most children a comment from a teacher, a postcard home, a simple and authentic “well done” are what really motivates, especially when linked to a very precise suggestion for how to improve. Our schools aren’t factories. But as society enters the age of the robot, human interaction is likely to matter more than ever.

Conclusion

So there we are. Five simple suggestions around creating that climate for learning. Lists like this, of course, make it seem simpler than it is. Great teachers make great teaching look simple. They are magicians. And we need more of them.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

ASCL’s pastoral conference, Embedding a positive climate for learning, takes place on January 23 in London. Visit www.ascl.org.uk or email pd@ascl.org.uk


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