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Classrooms Need More Pizzazz

On a recent trip to London, I visited Cayley Primary School, a high-poverty elementary school that has been using our Success for All* whole-school reform approach for several years. The principal, Lissa Samuel, has been at this same school for many years before and after it adopted Success for All. She is proud of the achievement gains, which include a jump from 30% to 80% of students passing sixth-grade reading assessments. During our conversation, though, she talked more about how disciplinary problems, fights, and stealing had completely disappeared. Success for All has very good approaches to classroom management and social-emotional learning, and Ms. Samuel thought these had helped. But even more powerful, she thought, was the effect of success itself. Kids who feel confident, engaged, and motivated to learn do not act out.

The importance of this observation, which I've heard in many, many schools, is profound. Especially at the policy level, I often encounter a belief that the path to improving outcomes on a broad scale is to use test-based accountability that force teachers to align their instruction with desired outcomes. If students are bored or resistant, then teachers should use effective classroom management methods that keep them in control.

Teachers do need a deep understanding of classroom management methods designed to prevent behavior problems, and then they need to be ready with effective responses if students misbehave despite good preventive efforts. Yet using classroom management methods to get students to attend to boring lessons is shoveling against the tide. The key ingredient in effective lessons isn't alignment, it's pizzazz: excitement, engagement, challenge.

How do you create pizzazz? Well-structured cooperative learning helps to engage students with each other in jointly learning context. Stimulating video content can add to excitement and understanding. Hands-on experimentation helps a lot when appropriate, as does competition between teams or against the clock.

Cayley Primary was full of pizzazz. Its mostly Bangladeshi students worked eagerly in four-member teams. They took turns reading to each other and helping each other with difficult words. Their teachers called on "random reporters" to represent their teams, and teammates prepared each other, not knowing which of them might be randomly chosen to play this role. Brief, humorous videos introduced letter sounds and sound-blending strategies to first graders. Throughout the school, students were invariably kind and helpful to each other. An observer who did not know the history might think that classroom management was not necessary in such a school, but it was proactive use of pizzazz that got it to where it is, and makes it all look easy.

Classroom management strategies matter, of course, but pizzazz matters more. Motivated, engaged, challenged, and successful students are well-behaved, not because they've been threatened but because they are too busy engaged in learning to misbehave. The goal of classroom management is not quiet classrooms, it's productive students. Using pizzazz to motivate and engage kids in learning valued content is the way to manage classrooms toward accomplishing the real goals of education.

*Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

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