Fair deal of give and take

24th October 1997 at 01:00
No one likes work much, neither pupils nor teachers, says John Fines, who shares some thoughts on classroom management

Let's face it, none of us likes work, neither teachers nor children. This is not to say that work cannot be fulfilling and joyful. It's the getting started that causes all the pain.

Children as much as teachers won't willingly submit to obedience either. Yes there have to be rules, there need to be leaders. But we all grumble at it and most of us make a fair bid at subversion or even revolution from time to time.

It would be possible to discount these elements of classroom work as just the natural whinings and groans inherent in any human machine. You have to grin and bear it - better still ignore it and stride on with confident smiling face, sure that optimism will do the trick. But this is a reaction to the condition, not an ignoring of it.

Equally, one could say that work and obedience are parts of a virtuous system, that laziness and sedition are parts of a vicious system, so we are duty bound to promote the one and confound the other. Again, this is a reaction and further confirms the proposition that you must do something, that there are things to be done.

Let us consider reactions to the problems posed by the call to work and obedience under four headings: The Avoidance of Struggle; Flexible Use of Time; Power Sharing; and Honouring the Deal - that the work will be worthwhile, is genuine, is necessary, will be regarded and will be rewarded.

The avoidance of struggle

Avoiding struggle is more complex than it sounds and it certainly isn't intended as a liberal cliche. I have faced moments of struggle with children who are determined to fight physically and have no intention of keeping any rules. That will remain necessary while we have children with huge emotional problems in our classrooms. We must protect them from themselves and others from them long enough for rationality to ensue. But school life isn't a succession of big fights - it is the little ones, all piled up on top of each other, that build the bitterness.

At the beginning of class, particularly at the beginning of the day, we all arrive with our own build-up of fire. The car wouldn't start, the children lost their shoes, I lost my bag, dyspepsia crawls on, and I am missing my bed. And so are they. Probably several of the children have already clocked up four or five scraps at home or on the way to school and they are feeling sore. They want to take it out on someone. Winding up the teacher is in itself a great game.

Imagine the scene . . . Three girls have strolled out of the classroom without permission, the teacher is trying to cope with the register. They return to a thunderous denunciation. One enlarges the row. "They didn't come with me, I went to the loo. I don't need them to wipe my backside for me." OK, a little coarseness can sometimes inflate the row. The girl, who has a background of physical abuse, is clearly saying with blazing eyes: "Go on - hit me."

The teacher swallows hard: "Let's just cool it for a moment - you know I have to get the register done and I am asking for only a little help and co-operation. Will you give that to me?" A straight question, eye to eye and the girl says "I suppose so" and flounces to her seat, admitting that the spat is over. Later in the class she writes a particularly good piece of work which the teacher shows the class and praises in detail.

There is no moral to this story. Children shouldn't wander and know they shouldn't wander. Anger will out, and if suppressed will get worse. Yet the teacher's willingness to abrogate the fight does earn its own reward. Commonly in our schools the teacher would have taken this invitation to a fight and struggled back at the children - telling them noisily that they are at fault, that this behaviour must stop. Apparently the teacher has won - the children are sitting down in silence, cowed into submission - but when the teacher turns to say "Now this is what I want you to do today" he meets a group of sullen activists who will do all they can to wreck his plan and to give nothing.

Our teacher has learned over the years that there is often a little flak to go through before a lesson can begin. Silliness, chatter, small struggles, provocations, groans, grumbles. Children take up physical attitudes - some saying "You try and make me do it - you'll see", others saying "I really don't like it here". Having watched our teacher cope with this nonsense and avoid a fight I can say with the assurance of three years' observation that this class always produces its best work after a bad start. I do not know why this is, only that it is so and that it has to do with turning away from the struggle.

Flexible use of time

Time is the surveyor-general of work discipline, and we all hate its implications. Getting there on time is a worse drag than just having to be there. Having to be ready when we are not yet ready - when we haven't even recovered from the trauma of getting up - is acutely painful. I have watched children sleeping in class and these little protests of mortality have touched me. To be too tired for real work is a common problem for teachers and children. Many teachers try to cope by hectoring or wheedling. "Come on, come on, stop that chatter now. Get your books out. Pay attention. We've wasted five minutes already. At this rate we shall get nothing done."

This teacher is working hard, doing the ringmaster routine and in the end he gets the elephants on to their stools. But they have no reason other than inherent good nature to join in the act. With their eyes they are saying "That's your problem, mate, not ours. We don't want to do the work anyway. "

The children's informal activities, their chatter at the start of a lesson, are enormously useful. I need to take the temperature of the class before I start - are they full of bubble or mad as wasps? Are they happy or cross? Are they in orderly or disorderly mood?

They too need to take my temperature. I am a weekly visitor, and they want to tell me things: how they got on with the puzzle I left, what Sammie did in the last lesson, why Jonathan isn't here, how many merit points Harriet the virtuous has accumulated, what the science teacher said he would do to Ollie before he threw him out.

I listen, and giggle, and stroll around as they fossick with their unpacking and finding of what they will need. I enjoy their kindly care - "That cough's no better, Doc" - and we laugh a lot before I slowly gather their attention and we are comfortably ready to begin. By then I know where I shall begin, and what I can hope to bid for from them - something I could never have guessed without our ritual of greeting. And I am faster at getting started than most teachers, only we start happy.

A reverse of this is that I do a lot of time management for children. Given an open-ended task most children will sit and suck their pens, play and chatter. That is fine for a time (never plunge children straight into the formalities of work) but they do need some clues as to what will be required of them. Thus if I am asking them to make up their minds about their position in a debate I will say: "OK, seven minutes in pairs - that means everybody ready by five past by the classroom clock." This proscription is backed in my mind (and understood by them) that it will take two minutes' messing about to get on task and that at five past they will all flap around saying "Not ready yet" so I give them three more real minutes.

This is "flexi-time" with a vengeance but it is my way of helping them cope with getting something done without struggling.

Power sharing

Power is displayed in classrooms with rich symbolism, almost court-like. Teacher in front conducts the proceedings, governs according to the rules (or will), teacher talks, instructs, explains, commands, organises. Teacher decides the extent of the children's participation. Many would say "What's wrong with that, without that there would be chaos, wouldn't there?" Possibly, so let's confine ourselves to some simple notions of power sharing which might improve the king and his subjects situation. One thing that cramps children is sitting still in one spot. Their natural instinct is to bob up and down, run around, sit curled up in a ball, balance a chair on two legs. We tell them to sit up straight and still for very long periods of time. In my class Ollie is just a bag of squirms - he can't sit still and straight, so he is in trouble.

One ways you can lift this inhibition is to put some movement into the lesson. I often have children writing on the board (why should that be my preserve). It may take seven goes to get Pharaoh spelled correctly but seven numbed bottoms will have had a bit of a wriggle, and we now all know how to spell Pharaoh.

Similarly I will have children up to do role-play, tell stories, set puzzles etc, and where am I? - at the back of the class, of course. Power sharing often means joining the children and because symbolism is so vital a part of our classroom relationships, the symbolic abnegation of power is important. Thus I spend a great deal of time listening to children. I also take time to engage them in decision-taking as to how we shall do a piece of work. Do we want rough and then best, or can go straight to best on this job? What will that entail? How can we ensure a good product?

I ask children to consider rules for work - shall this be individual or in pairs? If in pairs how shall I know who did what? How much noise can we bear? What should we do if it does get too noisy? How shall we display the stuff? What is the best size of paper? Sometimes I am so worked out of a job when the children begin the task I do the work alongside them - writing or drawing. They comment on my work, firmly but kindly - "You chose the wrong size piece of paper, so you couldn't get the train all on." "Thank you," I say, for politeness should come from us as much as from them, and if they feel free to praise or criticise my work then they are the readier to accept my inducements.

Let me confess a silly example. When I took over my current class of 10-year-olds the regular teacher and I talked with them about their views on history and one delightful elf called Eddie immediately said "I really, really hate history". I said how very useful that was because it was my job to try to help teachers make history a bit more interesting for children. So at the end of the lesson Eddie marks me out of 10 - 10 being gross and 1 being brill. I switch on the "Eddieometer" and after careful and judicious thought he announces the score for the day. The children think he is a bit mean and urge him to mark me higher, but he solemnly explains that that would do no good, would it, it wouldn't be true. Once I got a 2!

It is a symbol of my willingness to extend my role as a marker to one who is also marked from time to time. The children love it and it is never, never demeaning.

Honouring the deal

A deal is two sided, and is never completed unless both parties are satisfied. A broken deal is a breakdown of trust - no more deals may be made until that trust is rebuilt. Thus we can have all the apparatus of a liberal classroom: no fights, good flexible use of time, power sharing, but unless the work that is the heart of the matter - what we are here to do - is visibly good to all parties, the deal is off.

Children know from long and bitter experience that the work teachers offer them is often there to fill up time because the teacher can't think of anything better to do. They growl furiously "What's the use of this?" and they speak with tones of justice. We tell them they must learn to read effectively when the vast majority come from homes containing neither books nor newspapers. We enforce endless sums on them when they know that in everyday life people don't do these sums but work with a quite different kind of mathematics. We give them worn-out computers to learn systems they will never come to use. We teach them about countries they know they will never visit. No wonder they ask "Why do I have to do this?".

One cunning ploy used by many teachers is to create an endless stream of light, undemanding tasks where little effort is required and each task fulfilled reveals another waiting to be done. It creates an atmosphere of business without being oppressively demanding. Sadly (for devisors of such schemes put lots of effort behind their creation) it is death to learning.

All real tasks are big tasks, requiring study in depth, effort in response and sophistication in presentation. Above all, the worth of the task must shine out from it so that all can see. If you need to argue with children about the worth of the task it is probably worthless in reality - we haven't asked the right questions, they are doing so. Of course the children should go to the picture gallery. Why, they cry? Because its here, because I say so, because I've booked the bus, because . . .

A good task must be seen by the whole school community as important and valuable, and its successful completion must be rewarded by heaps of praise. These workers in our state factories of education must know we believe in them because they are our future and rejoice in their success because it really means a lot to us.

You can't do many tasks like this in a week, term or year. They will need support structures - time for research, for making notes, for discussion and consideration of the direction we are taking, for rest, relaxation and reflection. I would love a curriculum in which each class (or even year group) did maybe three major tasks a term. In that amount of time you could devise room for all subjects and lose all the nonsenses. What a great school to be in - or is it Pie in the Sky Academy?

John Fines is visiting professor of education at the University of Exeter

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