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Why consistency in behaviour rules can be harmful

Psychologist says teachers should strive to find a balance between 'tight' and 'loose' cultures in their classrooms

Behaviour, pupil behaviour, Tom Bennett, DfE

When it comes to behaviour management, Michele Gelfand thinks that teachers should spend more time thinking about The Muppets. And not only The Muppets Sesame Street, too. 

Why? Because the distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland believes that these programme’s characters have something important to teach us about culture in the classroom.

Speaking on this week’s episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast, Gelfand borrows a metaphor from journalist Dahlia Lithwick to explain the difference between people who represent what she calls “tight” and “loose” cultures.

“We talk about Sesame Street characters through what I would say is a tight/loose lens. [Lithwick] talks about the 'order Muppets' like Kermit the Frog and Bert, and the ‘chaos muppets’ like Animal or Cookie Monster. And so you can think about this as what kind of Muppet are you? Do you veer tighter or do veer looser?”


Quick read: 5 ways to improve classroom behaviour

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Essentially, Gelfund is talking about social norms. She describes social norms as the "glue that keeps us together" - they help give us our identity, they enable us to coordinate and they create power structures.

However, some cultures have stronger norms than others – tight cultures. While some have very weak norms – loose cultures. 

The Cookie monster veers towards a loose culture; Kermit the Frog to a tight culture. 

Gelfand, who has recently published the book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World, says that we all have a preference between the two. 

“Everyone has a sort of default setting on the tight/loose mindset based on their own experiences; their class; their culture; their gender," she explains. "People who veer tighter tend to have, for example, more normative radar: they register rules more, they're managing their impulses more. And they like a lot of structure.

"People who veer looser tend to not notice rules as much. They tend to be more risk-taking and even a little bit impulsive. And they also embrace ambiguity and so they really are very different mindsets."

Behaviour and better classroom management

In schools, the difference between pupils and teachers is that teachers can usually choose where they end up: teachers who respond better to a loose culture are more likely to seek out roles at "looser" schools, and teachers who prefer tight cultures wind up working in "tighter" schools. 

Pupils, meanwhile, end up getting what they are given. And that causes problems. 

classroom behaviour

“If you're coming from a very tight culture [at home] into a very loose classroom, it can feel very ambiguous and really kind of scary," she says. "On the flip side, if you're going from a culture where there are very few rules into a context where there are a lot of rules, you can really wind up violating a lot of norms and get into trouble.

“And so teachers need to be mindful that their students, especially in very diverse contexts, are coming into the classroom from their household cultures, tight or loose, with certain expectations around what makes sense for them.”

Thinking about classroom practice explicitly from a tight/loose cultural perspective, therefore, can be a way for teachers to help students adjust to the demands of their subject, she believes. 

Cultural balance

And, where teachers notice that there is a cultural mismatch with a significant proportion of their class, is there anything they can they do about it?

Many schools now advocate that the school culture should win out, and remain consistent and that children will fall into line. 

However, Gelfand suggests that the best approach here is to seek a level of cultural balance that will work for both teacher and pupils, through introducing either extra flexibility or additional structure, depending on which direction you need classroom culture to move in.

She refers to achieving this balance as “the Goldilocks principle of tight/loose”.

“It's tailoring your organisational culture, your school culture, to the demands of your environment in terms of tight and loose, but then making sure that things don't get too extreme in either direction, because that's where we start having a lot of problems,” she explains.

In the podcast, Gelfand goes into more detail about how whole-school context plays a role in driving the tight/loose balance of culture, and also offers further advice about how teachers and school leaders can create that all-important balance necessary for both Animals and Kermits to thrive.

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