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Creating the Classroom Culture


Creating the Classroom Culture

Success in any endeavor is directly proportional to how well the people who are involved in it get along with each other.“    —Dr. William Glassier

Feeling like you’re part of a group of people who actually want each other to do well changes everything.“  — Nadeen M., student

As every teacher knows, the difference between a student’s success and failure in school is often directly tied to motivation.  In general, unsuccessful students do poorly because they are unmotivated. Even successful students may be motivated for the wrong reasons, going through the motions of doing school, gaming the system; their goal is to accumulate good grades, and learning is often incidental for them.

Many of the factors that contribute to these motivational problems —  social pressures outside of school, their personal histories of success and failure in school, the stresses of poverty, being told what to by adults all day (they are teenagers, after all), family issues — are completely out of our control.

Even worse, because our primary goal is for students to become internally motivated to grow personally and intellectually, we are confronted with an inescapable paradox:  We cannot make our students become self-directed learners.  Any extrinsic rewards we use to cajole or entice them to rely on their intrinsic drive are doomed to sabotage that drive.

What can we do?  Since we cannot make it happen from the outside, this most fundamental transition, the acquisition of a sense of agency, must occur from the inside out.  And here we have a most powerful tool at our disposal. There is one factor, perhaps the most critical in shaping student motivation, which is often invisible because it is everywhere.  It is the classroom culture, and, like fish in the sea, we and our students are unaware of the water in which we swim.

We are all cultural creatures, but our students, who are actively forming their adult identities, are especially so.  If a student finds himself in a classroom culture that is riddled with cynicism or apathy or mean-spirited selfishness, he is prone to internalize and act on those attributes.  If, on the other hand, the classroom culture is energetic, compassionate, and engaging, he will tend to conform to those norms.

We cannot, as teachers, force any student to become a responsible, self-directed learner, but we can work to create a classroom culture that supports and cultivates those traits. When a student feels as much pride in what he is doing in his biology or history class as he does on his basketball team, we know the right culture has been established.  The goals of the group have become his internal goals as well.

So what do we as teachers need to focus on to create this culture?  We need to be mindful of a set of transitions that must occur simultaneously.  The biggest change is one of purpose. We are dismantling the Curriculum Transfer Model and replacing it with the Student Growth Model.  Our priorities as teachers therefore shift from successfully delivering the content to facilitating our students’ intellectual and personal growth.  Our focus moves from teaching to learning. We are changing our classroom structures to be more responsive to individual student needs, more inclusive, and more socially engaging.

We are giving our students voice, the power to make decisions for themselves and for others, the freedom necessary to steer their own learning process.  We are challenging unsuccessful students to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, so that they can become tenacious, self-directed learners. We are working to help them cultivate the attributes of success.

We want our students to learn and to grow into their full potential.  The structures described in this book—study groups, learning contracts, student self-evaluation, and so forth — provide essential scaffolding for that purpose, but none of these strategies can be successful unless they are built on the foundation of an appropriate classroom culture.  The internal motivation that propels students’ growth grows out of that culture.

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2.1 What Students (And All Humans) Need

2.1 What Students (And All Humans) Need

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a class.  For the most part what made the difference in this class is that I didn’t feel like a number.“      —Meredith T., student

Your classroom was an oasis for the sort of rich, vibrant learning that is so conspicuously absent throughout the entire educational system.“ —Emil M., student

Our first job in building the right classroom culture is to create a space that fulfills the basic needs of our students.  They must choose to establish this culture with us, and that can only happen when it feels right to them, when their psychological needs are being met.

In Choice Theory, Dr. William Glasser suggests there are five fundamental conditions that need to be met for people to lead fulfilled lives.  People have to feel that they are safe, that they have some degree of agency and power, that they have freedom, that they have a sense of belonging, and that they have fun.  Glasser argues that when any of these elements are missing, it adversely affects a person’s ability to lead a fulfilling and successful life.

Let’s consider what each of these might look like in a classroom:


There are a number of components to feeling safe in a classroom, from being unafraid of physical threats to feeling free from humiliation or bullying.  As teachers, we have an ethical obligation to ensure that our students are not in any form of danger, or even perceive themselves to be in danger. Fear, of course, is harmful to the human spirit in any number of ways.  But on a purely functional level, fear is also detrimental to learning.


Like everyone, students need to have a say in what happens in their lives.  When they can express what they need or give feedback to a teacher without fear of encountering defensiveness or ridicule, when they can contribute ideas to the improved functioning of the class—when they have a voice—their attitude in working with people who have authority over them becomes healthier.  At its best, the everyday functioning of a classroom should cultivate the skills of being a responsible, empowered citizen.


Students want to have choice in what they do—again, like everyone else.  This may involve deciding what kind of homework would be most useful or how best to use open work time.  Learning the difference between freedom and license—that is, learning the responsibilities that go with freedom and the limitations of freedom—is an important lesson, learned best by experience.


Replacing what many students find to be a solitary and competitive experience with a sense of being part of an authentic community is an essential building block in any classroom culture.  The powerful pull of street gangs, no matter how self-destructive and violent, is testimony to the fundamental importance of belonging. How much healthier it is for that urge serve the goals of learning and personal growth.


Though the idea of having fun is routinely overlooked in conversations about school reform, it remains critically important for students and teachers alike.  Fun is a pivotal ingredient of mental health. It makes the learning process pleasurable, which in turn makes it more personal, more engaging and more effective.

Beyond these five conditions, there are, no doubt, many other fundamental needs we could list.  Here are two more that I believe in deeply:


Many students experience school as fundamentally inauthentic.  This perception warps their motivation and undermines their enthusiasm to learn.  It is hard to define what an authentic classroom experience is, but we (and our students) all know it when we see it.  Maintaining authenticity requires vigilance—both teachers and students can easily revert to well-developed habits of mind and behavior that undermine the authentic experience.

Intrinsic Drive

As described in the last chapter, all human beings have an intrinsic drive to learn and excel.  Experiencing the sheer pleasure of exploring and mastering new ideas and skills is hard-wired into every student.  When they realize that such experiences are possible in an academic setting, it can be a turning point in their lives.


2.2 Establishing Bedrock Beliefs

2.2 Establishing Bedrock Beliefs

Our minds can shape the way a thing will be because we act according to our expectations.”    — Federico Fellini

At the heart of any classroom culture lies a set of beliefs that shape how it functions.  These may be implicit beliefs, rarely discussed or even thought about, but they are real and shape student behavior profoundly.  For us to reshape the culture, then, we must reshape those beliefs.

The paradigm shift discussed in the last chapter cannot be imposed on students;  it cannot happen unless they freely buy into it. We have to find a way to come to consensus with them on a series of fundamental beliefs that often contradict much of what they have experienced in school.  Creating that consensus requires real effort — we are challenging some deeply held beliefs, after all — and an investment in time, particularly at the start of the year, is essential.

Students must do the internal work of challenging their current understanding of school and creating a new internal vision of what it could be instead.  There is no shortcut; you cannot do this work for them. These beliefs cannot be taught like more content. They are too personal, too internal. Students must think and write about them, converse and even argue about topics they have probably never explored in school before. When a critical mass of students come to consensus on these beliefs, this new way of thinking gets woven into the very fabric of the classroom culture, not superimposed on top of it.

The topics of conversation

Here are some of the discussions students will need to have to begin to believe in and participate in the new paradigm. 

An authentic vision of school.  The Curriculum Transfer Model is probably all your students have ever known.  Shifting from that approach to the Student Growth Model requires them to challenge their understanding of the fundamental purpose of school.  It’s best to start with the big picture. “Why are schools for? Why am I doing this work? What does any of this have to do with my life?” In most classrooms, these questions are rarely, if ever, discussed.  

All too many students believe that the purpose of school is to “cover” the curriculum.  What they experience is a stream of disjointed concepts (think Boyle’s Law or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff) that have little or nothing to do with their lives.  Students chafe at being told what to do all day long, and they resent having to do busywork. Furthermore, the act of learning is often an impersonal activity.  It is as though the only part of them that matters in school is their ability to successfully master the curriculum. In other words, for too many students, school feels inauthentic.

The good news is that, even though students may initially have a wide range of reactions to our new approach — from fearful confusion to outright cynicism — it has the strong advantage of being more authentic in their eyes than much of what they have experienced in school thus far.  Once it becomes clear that there is an honest, legitimate reason to do the work of learning, the educational process becomes much more interesting and meaningful to them.

The primacy of genuine learning.  For many students, particularly successful ones, the biggest challenge will be replacing their well-established habits of doing school — going through the motions of learning and gaming the system to get good grades — with a healthier and more responsible attitude towards learning.  The paradigm shift we are seeking requires them to recognize that doing school is a meaningless waste of time. They must believe that there are essential skills and knowledge they need to live the kinds of life they want, and that the only way to master those goals is to genuinely learn them.

The importance of who they are.  When students come to believe that they themselves —who they are becoming in school, how it is preparing them for life — is as important a goal as the content they are learning, they will often embrace the new paradigm. The focus on their personal growth is a powerful draw.  Being adolescents, it is common and completely age appropriate for them to be preoccupied with acquiring their adult identities. The usefulness of the character traits discussed in the last chapter is self-evident to many students. Making the acquisition of those traits one of the highest priorities, making your class more of a voyage of self-discovery, can therefore be very appealing to them.

Relying on the intrinsic drive. In my experience, students are well aware of the power grades have to distort their motivation in school.  To become intrinsically motivated, they must believe there is an alternative to the usual game they play in school.  Like many people, they will be initially skeptical of the idea that they have an intrinsic drive to learn and excel for the sheer pleasure it.  But they know they have such motivation for other non-academic activities — so why not in this class as well?

Becoming a community of self-directed learners.  For the Student Agency Model to work, it is necessary for every person to take responsibility for his own learning, but that is not sufficient. Every person must also contribute to the success of everyone else in the class.  Unlike most of their experience in school, in which they are in competition with other students, they must now become aware of and work for the good of the group. As discussed in the last chapter, the sense of belonging to a community has a powerful effect on student motivation and well-being.

The mechanics of these early conversations with your students, as well as other aspects of establishing the classroom culture, are discussed in depth in a separate reading, Starting the Year”.

Guidelines for the conversations

No matter what the topic being discussed, the initial conversations should begin with students exploring and expressing their own point of view about school.  What has their experience of school been? What has helped them learn and grow? What has been counterproductive or meaningless? Giving them permission to speak candidly in your presence can be a liberating experience for them, and it establishes the first steps in building a working relationship that is based on mutual trust.  

It is essential to give students a voice in these discussions, but it is also necessary to give that voice some structure and some limits.  Exploring these topics can be uncomfortable for some students. Others, particularly those who resent school or feel oppressed by it, will want to push the envelope by testing your willingness to allow an honest conversation.  Others will want to take this opportunity to express their grievances about how they have been treated in school. Your patience and your resolve to have honesty in your classroom must be combined with clear boundaries about what productive and respectful conversation looks like.  The role modeling of such discussions can be critically important.

Exploring these topics is often best accomplished in small discussion groups, so that even reticent students will be more comfortable opening up and participating.  Some students in each group will also likely be comfortable relating their group’s ideas to the whole class, and in that way, everyone can be involved in trying to get to consensus.  

Once the realities of school — from their perspective — have been explored, students need an opportunity to think about how to improve it.  If they could make school perfect, what would it look like? You may have to remind them that there are essential skills and knowledge that they must learn to live a good life.  In other words, they should start from the premise that in an ideal world there will still be school and they will still need to learn, but that it doesn’t have to be the way it is now.

How would they address the shortcomings that they experience in school?  How would they make it more meaningful? The real impact of these conversations occurs when they begin to see that there are real, practical ideas that can be implemented to make school a much, much better experience.


2.3 A Question of Governance

2.3 A Question of Governance

To govern:  From the Greek kubernan ‘to steer.’”    — Oxford Dictionary

Watch a toddler throw a tantrum, and you can see what unconstrained behavior looks like.  Fortunately, most of us get better at controlling our actions, or life would be pretty chaotic.  We constrain ourselves for a number of different reasons. If you are waiting at a stop light, for instance, and there is no one around, you don’t drive through the intersection because you might get caught and get a ticket.  That is an external constraint.

But there are other reasons to control your impulses.  If you are taking a shower and you have the urge to sing a show tune at the top of your lungs, you can let it rip freely and without inhibitions, no matter how good (or poor) a singer you may be.  The reason you don’t jump up on a table in a restaurant and do the same thing, however, is because we don’t do things like that in public.  This is a cultural constraint, and it is quite effective in preventing that kind of disruptive behavior.  Cultural constraints are a powerful factor in the classroom, as in life.

In fact, cultural imperatives not only constrain problematic behaviors, but also encourage positive behaviors.  Kids practicing soccer in the local park or amateur actors rehearsing a play in community theater will put in enormous effort towards accomplishing a common goal.  Soldiers in combat will even overcome their survival instincts when their culture demands it of them. Our students, who may be listless and disengaged in academic classrooms, will often come alive in extracurricular activities.  The local culture within the group ignites their intrinsic drive to work incredibly hard and do things they never thought they could accomplish.

These local cultures within the larger culture give their members a sense of belonging and purpose.  People who identify with such a culture will push themselves toward excellence in service of a common goal, like winning a game or putting on a show.  The energy, dedication and enthusiasm that is released in this process can be overwhelming.

Our goal as teachers is to create a classroom culture that motivates our students in the same way.  It is something that rarely happens in academic classes — just walk down any school hallway and look at the expressions on students’ faces as they sit at their desks — but I believe that lack is largely due to a cultural expectation, an unspoken belief that joy of experiencing the intrinsic drive just doesn’t happen in classrooms.

And yet it is possible.  I have seen it in my own classes and in the classes of teachers I have worked with.  When it happens, the results are often beyond imagining.

We need to remove ourselves from the age-old and futile role of trying to provide motivation for our students.  When we try to force them to work, when we nag or harangue or bribe them with points, it simply isn’t very effective, and often makes things worse.  (This is especially true for students who are unsuccessful in school.) We fail because we are trying to motivate our students and steer their behavior from the outside in.  Classroom culture, however, does this same function, with astonishing effectiveness, from the inside out.


2.4 Instilling a Common Purpose: The Prime Directive for the Classroom

2.4 Instilling a Common Purpose: The Prime Directive for the Classroom

"When a “we” is formed, we have a common agenda."  — Winton Marsallis

For any culture to cohere, its members need a common purpose.  Think of a sports team, where the purpose is to win games, or an extracurricular activity, where the purpose might be to build a theatrical set or publish a student newspaper.  Such a purpose gives the culture meaning and direction, and it is what its members behavior is organized to accomplish. In your classroom, that purpose is defined by the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive, as defined in the last chapter, is this:  

Self-directed learning is the basis for all

classroom decisions, large and small.

This is the bedrock that guides all the work of transformation that you will implement in your classroom.  It is also the bedrock of the classroom culture, so let’s simplify it for the sake of discussing it with our students.  The Prime Directive in the classroom might be simply stated:

Our purpose is for every one of us to learn as much and grow as much as possible.  Everything we do in this room is based on that purpose.  

Establishing this idea and reinforcing it tenaciously is critically important in creating the classroom culture you are trying to achieve — it is the common purpose that gives meaning to everything that you and your students do.  It helps organize their behavior.

In addition to providing a powerful positive motivator, the Prime Directive has a corollary that is a powerful constraint on inappropriate or counterproductive behavior.  It is this:

No one has the right to interfere with anyone else’s learning.

This has the remarkable advantage of making the rules impersonal.  They are no longer the dictates of the teacher being imposed on the students, but rather the ground rules that are necessary to be able to pursue the common purpose and obey the Prime Directive.  When a student is disruptive, for example, a teacher can legitimately say “I think you are making it hard for the students around you from learning right now.” It’s not the teacher making a student do something, it isn’t a power struggle, it’s just the way we do things here.  We are about learning.

This also makes many problems self-correcting.  When the culture has a common purpose, people who violate that purpose find themselves outside the culture, something that most teen-agers don’t want to do.  Many situations that might have become disruptive power struggles are now handled within the classroom when students remind each other of the purpose of doing what they are doing.  For instance, a study group that wants to finish going over a test or a lab group that wants to complete a lab activity may constrain the disruptive behavior of one student without needing the interference of a teacher.

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2.5 Creating a Sense of Community

2.5 Creating a Sense of Community

"How are you supposed to work with each other and feed off from one another when you don’t even know their name?"     — Anna L., student

Everyone knows everyone

The first order of business in creating a sense of community is making sure that every student knows every other student in the class.  Especially in large schools, where it is impossible for anyone to know everyone, there are strangers in every room. Some students remain anonymous to their classmates for the whole year.  Anonymity is a serious barrier to creating a sense of community and must be actively challenged. It allows passive students to avoid being engaged, and creates a vague and nagging sense that not everyone is connected.

If students are to have a sense of belonging in your classroom, everyone needs to know more than just their classmates’ names.  To work well as a coherent group, they also need to know the strengths and weaknesses of all the people in the room.

This can be accomplished by randomly reassigning students to work with each other so that everyone meets everyone in the course of the first few weeks of school.  Students should introduce themselves at every opportunity and pay close attention to who they work well with.

Cultivating social cohesion

Lest we forget one of Glasser’s fundamental human needs, it is important that students — and you — have fun on a regular basis.  Many teachers don’t trust that they can maintain control of the class if their students are socializing and having fun. This is probably the source of the “don’t smile until Christmas” school of thought on maintaining a fearsome posture towards discipline.  Ironically, however, a lack of fun can often create disciplinary problems.

Socializing and other informal, non-academic activities are essential in building social cohesion, the glue that holds the community together.  Too much socializing can be chaotic and can take away time for learning, but too little undermines the sense of community and is therefore bad for learning as well.  The issue of productive socializing is discussed in depth in the next section.

You may have to contend with administrators or colleagues who are proponents of the bell-to-bell approach.  I would argue that that posture towards learning requires relentless control on the part of the teacher, which in turn undermines the sense of being a community of learners. Watch what happens to such a class when there is a substitute teacher in such a class.  There will almost always be sabotage and disrespect. Students will act out because they can, because they are frustrated, and because their motivation to behave well comes from the controlling presence of their teacher, rather than from within.

However, when a group of students has a sense of community and ownership, a substitute teacher will have a completely different experience.  I have seen this first-hand, many times. When students feel that the class is their own, a sub’s lack of familiarity is a mere inconvenience in getting done what they were going to do anyway.  They will stay on-task because they themselves wish to accomplish those tasks. They will learn because they want to learn.

Insisting on students being on task bell-to-bell may look more efficient, but in the long run, it does not promote self-directed learning.  Remember, doing school looks efficient too.

“When the people no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend on authority.“    — Lao Tzu


One of the hallmarks of a functional community is the sense of trust that permeates the atmosphere.  That trust begins with you, the teacher. An ironclad rule of human nature is that when people are not trusted, they become untrustworthy.  I have found that the best posture is to trust my students as much as I can, and to deal with incidents where students betray that trust as teachable moments.

Beyond the trust that exists between you and your students, there is the broader question of them trusting each other.  In many classrooms, a student tends to only trust a small number of friends. Everyone else remains a stranger, more or less.  In a community, however, there are no strangers. Fortunately, there are many activities available that are designed to promote this sense of broad, mutual trust in the whole group.  These are described in Starting the Year”.

The reason why this issue is so important is that making mistakes and learning from them is an essential part of mastering new concepts and skills.  Admitting failure in front of others takes real courage. Unless students trust each other, the sense of shame that they often feel when they do badly on a test, for instance, cannot be replaced with the posture of seeing mistakes non-judgmentally.  Students cannot see mistakes as feedback, as an essential part of the learning process, in the way that missing a lot of free throws may be an important step toward mastering that skill.

Trust is also a key ingredient in creativity.  As Ken Robinson, the maven of creativity, says, “If you are not willing to make mistakes, you will never do anything original.”

School unintentionally teaches students to be risk-averse.  Successful students become preoccupied with getting the right answer, which subverts creativity and risk-taking.  Unsuccessful students are, in one form or another, trying to avoid being humiliated by their failures. If we, as teachers, intend to foster creativity and critical thinking skills in our students, we have to find ways to open them up to taking chances, and that requires trust.

You treated us as young adults, showing that you believed that we were responsible, smart, motivated, etc., and by doing that, we simply stepped up to the plate and showed you that’s what we are, without needing to ‘prove you wrong.’        —Anna L., student


Mutual respect is another essential ingredient in building a sense of community, and again, it begins with you.  A teacher’s respect (or lack of it) for students is telegraphed through his behavior, his rules, his classroom strategies.  If we believe in the common purpose described above, and if we truly feel we are in it together with our students, that posture comes through and improves the working relationship.

One of the best guides to treating students with respect is simply applying the Golden Rule:  How would we feel if an administrator treated us the way we are treating our students? Many teachers I talk to feel they are not respected by their administrators, who sometimes make decisions without even considering how it affects teachers, and never ask for input or feedback on how well those decisions are being made.  Recognizing that this is often the way our students feel about us is sobering.  It should cause us to rethink our use of power.

Of course, another essential piece of community is that students show respect to each other.  That means no bullying or teasing, no demeaning comments. This must be one of the fundamental rules that you enforce vigorously, because allowing disrespect between students sabotages the sense of community more directly than almost any other behavior.

Class contributions

The shift from a top-down, teacher-directed classroom to a community of learners gives students a more active role in the learning process.  It also calls for a greater responsibility on their part in making the class run smoothly. An autocratically-run assembly line can be handled smoothly with one foreman.  A community, with all its freedom and messiness, requires a communal sense of responsibility.

One way to distribute that responsibility is to have students take on jobs, which I called class contributions.  In my class, these jobs included maintaining the room, becoming a mentor for other students, organizing lab equipment, maintaining student portfolios, watering the plants, and so forth.  Depending on your subject matter and your student body, of course, your list might look quite different.

These contributions come in a wide range of levels of responsibility.  Being a steering committee member (more on that shortly) who helps make executive decisions on the functioning of the class requires a larger commitment and more responsibility than, say, watering the plants.  Nevertheless, having every student contribute to the good of the group enhances the sense of belonging and ownership that is so important in building community.


2.6 The Art of Appropriate Socializing

2.6 The Art of Appropriate Socializing

Can we talk?

In many traditional classrooms, socializing is seen as a distraction from learning.  The diagram below expresses an all-too-common response to the natural desire of students to talk to each other.

The rigid separation of these two domains is unnatural and deeply counterproductive.  Maintaining it requires endless vigilance on the part of the teacher and lends itself to unnecessary power struggles.  These are teenagers, after all, and socializing is, for most of them, a very high priority. Fighting it can often feel like trying to hold back the tide.  Fortunately, relinquishing that struggle will actually improve learning.

The importance of conversational learning

Students teaching and learning from each other, questioning and arguing and patiently explaining new ideas to each other, is a central aspect of a community of learners.  That means students have to talk to each other. Recognizing the centrality of conversation learning requires a different way of thinking about socializing. For students to understand that teaching and learning from each other is an essential tool, they must be trained to be able to socialize and learn at the same time. In other words, they must learn the art of appropriate socializing, as seen in the diagram below.

In this diagram, there is significant overlap between the learning and socializing.  There will still be individual learning, of course, as indicated by the area to the left of the overlap.  This can include listening to an introductory lecture, doing homework, taking a test, or any other solitary activity.  

There will also be socializing that is unrelated to learning, as indicated by the area to the right of the overlap.  While this may at first seem to be a waste of time and a distraction, it is, within limits, essential in developing the social glue necessary to develop trust and a sense of belonging within the group.  Having students learn to self-limit this aspect of group work to a reasonable amount is part of the skill of appropriate socializing.

How much is enough?  In general, I have found a goal of 80% to 90% on-task behavior, regardless of the activity, is reasonable.  I believe this is a realistic acknowledgment of human nature, but of course you will have to decide for yourself, given your particular students and your own preferences.  Before you do, though, I would encourage you to think about department meetings or whole-school presentations you have attended. Was every person in the room 100% attentive the entire time?  If not, why should we then expect it of our students, who are, after all, teenagers, and hard-wired to socialize?


2.7 Redefining Power in the Classroom

2.7 Redefining Power in the Classroom

Organizational charts generally have a vertical structure, with powerful people at the top and powerless people at the bottom.  Communities, however, don’t have a vertical structure — your classroom shouldn’t have one either.  Take another look at the two diagrams in sections 1.2 and 1.9 of the last chapter. They show the difference between classrooms based on the Curriculum Transfer Model and the Student Agency Model; the type of power structure built into each of them is obvious.

Avoiding a vertical, autocratic power structure doesn’t mean abdicating your power as a teacher — you still control the classroom, shape the organization of what students are doing, and deal with inappropriate behavior.  The issue is how to use that power without making students feel powerless.

Good management requires having a candid working relationship with the people who are being managed.  It means listening to them for input before making decisions that will affect them, and listening to feedback about how well those decisions are working after they are implemented.  In your classroom, it means paying close attention to your students’ reality as you steer the class. It means giving them a voice and listening to what they have to say. When a student is thus empowered, it changes his level of engagement.  It is also good training in citizenship.

Another unspoken aspect of power in the classroom is how grades are used.  In many traditional classrooms, grades are a tool to motivate students. They are used as rewards for desired behavior, like completing homework or participating in class, and as punishments for unwanted behavior.  Grades are clearly a form of power, and they have an unintended corrosive effect on self-directed learning. Their role in the classroom, and how they can be redefined to serve self-directed learning, is discussed in full in the chapter “Grades Reconsidered.

A balance of power.  For many teachers first exploring this approach, one of the most challenging tasks is reframing their use of power in the classroom.  It requires a subtle sense of balance, navigating through conflicting priorities. On the one hand, part of the sense of feeling safe that students need comes from a clear set of rules they can rely on.  Some students, especially those whom school has treated badly, will inevitably push against those rules to test their teacher’s resolve. At these moments, a clear, dispassionate, but firm response is needed.  “I’m sorry, but we don’t do that here.” Every student needs to understand that there is a bottom line when it comes to behavior.

On the other hand, the use of power, like everything else, must serve the Prime Directive.  If we want to prepare students for life, to teach them how to be self-directed, to teach them the skills of citizenship, they, too, must have power in the classroom.

Finding the appropriate posture that lets a teacher weave his way through the tension between these priorities is difficult.  For many teachers, the trust required in releasing control of the power teachers have in traditional classrooms is extremely difficult.  Giving students the freedom to choose, and, inevitably, to choose badly, can feel out of control and counterproductive. Relinquishing the role of handing out grades to reward and punish requires trusting that students can find an alternative, internal motivation to learn.  Making these changes requires a leap of faith, and that requires courage and the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

For other teachers, giving up the traditional autocratic role is a relief.  The problem for them can be recognizing and enforcing the limits of student behavior.  Too much power can be as counterproductive for students as too little. A classroom that feels anarchic is not conducive to learning and is certainly poor training for the natural constraints of good citizenship.

Furthermore, for students whose personal lives are chaotic, whose home life and life on the street feel out of control, school is where an understanding of the rule of law, the appropriate use of power for the good of the group, is learned, possibly for the first time.


2.8 Making Rules

2.8 Making Rules

"The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.  Let go of the law, and people become honest."   — The Tao te Ching

Rules exist when trust does not.  Like any group of people, students can’t always be trusted, and there must be rules in a classroom.  But it’s also true that the very existence of rules telegraphs a lack of trust in students, which ironically can actually create untrustworthy behavior.  There is a saying that every new law creates new criminals. This is as true of adolescents as it is of everyone else.

A good rule of thumb is to have as few rules as possible.  The rules you do have should be clear, simple, and have a common-sense feel to them.  Above all, they should serve the Prime Directive. By using broad statements, you can avoid diving into so many nit-picking details that the list of rules feels oppressive.  For example, it’s possible to create a complex system of escalating consequences — lost points, detentions, calls to parents, and so forth —for not completing homework. A better option is the rule that if a student has a pattern of not completing homework, it leads to a conversation with you on why that is happening, and how the student thinks he can solve the problem.  By not reacting to the first infraction, this rule acknowledges that everyone misses deadlines sometimes; it’s the pattern of missing work that calls for intervention.  Even better is to combine this rule with a strategy to reduce the amount of unfinished work in general.  This can be accomplished by having homework serve a practical function, like being prepared to have a conversation in a study group. (This strategy is described in detail in the chapter “The Role of Student Work”).

We have all experienced the common bureaucratic response to unwanted behavior; rather than dealing directly with a few individuals who are acting inappropriately, rules are created instead to prevent that behavior by everyone else.  This is the source of many unnecessary rules and unnecessary resentment. For instance, imposing a dress code on everyone because one student wears something inappropriate to school is a bad idea—it’s much better (although more difficult) to talk to the student directly.

Some rules are logistical in nature: how grades are derived, or how missed deadlines will be handled.  Common sense and the Prime Directive should dictate these rules. For example, consider the question of how long a time students should be allowed to prepare for a retest.  That amount of time should be based on how long remediation remains a meaningful part of the learning process. Cramming for a retest months later to improve a grade at the end of a marking period almost certainly turns the activity into busywork.  When it comes to logistical rules for your students, it is always a good policy to be able to explain the common-sense basis of each regulation, both to your students and to yourself.

Other rules fall into the category of ground rules—general guidelines on how we behave in this room.  Here are some examples:

“We are here to learn as much as we can about physics and about ourselves.”

“Every person has the right to learn without interference.”

“This is a mistake-making place.”

“Be honest.”

“Share the wealth.”

Notice that these ground rules are all stated in a positive, non-punitive manner.  “In this room, we treat each other with respect” has a very different feel than “Never be disrespectful to others.”  

When inappropriate behavior occurs, as it will, a conversation about which ground rule this is bumping into can be a useful exercise.  When a student is cutting corners, doing busywork, or even cheating, referring to the rules “We are here to learn” and “Be honest” can lead to a meaningful conversation.  When a study group is off-task too much, “Share the wealth” is the guideline that needs to be emphasized.

The consequences for breaking rules must obey the Prime Directive as well.  If a student is sent to a detention center because he is 15 seconds late to class, it interferes with learning.  (Besides, when students are kept out of class because they weren’t in class on time, the punishment and the crime are just too similar.)  Enforcement of rules is best done non-judgmentally and with compassion whenever possible.

Rules should be acceptable to everyone in the room.  If appropriate, students can participate in establishing them at the start of the year.  Some rules, such as the use of a bathroom pass, can be determined together, but how much say students may have in creating rules may be limited.  It’s important to remember that they probably have little or no experience in deciding such things, so you may need to direct the conversation firmly. In any case, with guidance, you will generally end up with the same few ground rules in every class.  It may also be useful for students and/or parents to sign off on them as a commitment.

Balancing school rules with the rules of your classroom

What do you do when you are creating a non-punitive environment with your students, but the school has a rule book that is filled with punitive regulations about everything in sight?  How can you deal with the fact that your students are experiencing an entirely different disciplinary scheme in their other classes?

The solution is to be honest about the reasons for your approach.  If your students understand the bedrock philosophy of your class, the rules will make sense to them.

There is a delicate balance between staking out what you believe is the moral high ground, and disrespecting your colleagues or administrators who don’t share your beliefs.  It is essential to discuss the different approaches with them non-judgmentally and make sure your students do the same. The issue of balancing your desire to change with your need to remain on good terms with colleagues who disagree with you is one that requires vigilance and care.

This guideline is also important when discussing the classroom culture you want in your room. Your students will see that your priorities are often in opposition to what they experience in their other classes.  Conversations about the importance of the sense of community you are constructing with them should never veer into denigrating other teachers or their teaching style.


2.9 Giving Students Voice and Autonomy

2.9 Giving Students Voice and Autonomy

"It is amazing how many teachers just don’t listen to their students."       — Cara-Alexander S., student

Students, quite literally, have little or no say in their academic lives.  If they find homework boring or if the class is moving too quickly, they will complain to each other, but saying so publicly is generally considered rude or disrespectful to the teacher.  There is no way for them to express their point of view.

Part of your job in creating the classroom culture is to create mechanisms for them to do so.  Their perceptions are important feedback for you so that you can respond to their academic needs.  Checking for your students’ point of view can be as simple as stopping a class periodically to talk about, say, how useful the recent homework was, or whether the test they just took was a fair assessment of what they learned.  

They can also express themselves in writing, which gives you a chance to read and respond to your students on an individual basis.  When asking for written feedback, I always provided prompts, giving them potential topics for their writing, and encouraged them to write a letter, rather than writing in a question-and-answer format.  I would stipulate no minimum length, to avoid them seeing it as busywork. I did not grade these efforts, and I made it clear that their responses would not affect their standing in the class, or their standing with me personally.  

Grade conferences, also discussed in Grades Reconsidered, are another excellent opportunity for candid conversations and real dialogue about each student’s experience.

Giving students voice—the ability to express their experience—can be much more than a safety valve to relieve their frustrations.  As you change your practice, students can have a powerful role in steering the path you take. You can explicitly invite them to participate in steering the process of change with candid discussions.  

Some teachers may, at first, find it daunting to give their students this kind of opportunity.  Teachers may feel that it is rude or disrespectful for students to critique the class. They may also be fearful, on some level, about what they themselves may learn during the feedback process.  After all, if students find fault with some aspect of the class you have created, it can feel as though they are finding fault with your abilities and efforts. It can be difficult to remember that you are on the same side as your students: that you are trying, together, to create a better, richer, and more authentic classroom culture.  Teachers may feel that it is safer to continue as they have done, without ever truly checking in with their students to see how things feel on the other side.

This attitude, however, damages learning—both your students’ and your own.  Your goal is for them to change their behavior, their motivations, and their working relationships, at the same time that you yourself are changing your classroom structures.  In a sense, you and your students are co-evolving. In my experience, when students are given a forum to provide feedback, they will become a rich resource of ideas for improving every aspect of the classroom.  Their creativity and the quality of their constructive criticism can be quite extraordinary.

Steering committees

A potent vehicle for student voice is a steering committee.  This structure gives a small group of students, who are willing to meet regularly outside of class, the opportunity to express their point of view about classroom issues.  Even if the group is as small as three or four students, they can represent the others in helping to make collective decisions about the structure and functioning of the class.  Getting the entire class involved is as simple as reminding them of an upcoming steering committee meeting the day before, and giving them time in class to talk to the committee members about any issues they think should be addressed.  

At a steering committee meeting, students can bring those issues up, and you can raise any issues that you think should be addressed.  Students will often have remarkably useful suggestions for dealing with those issues, because they are seeing them from a student point of view.  Of course, you retain the power to veto ideas that seem impractical or otherwise misguided. I found that suggestions from students were consistently useful in improving the class.

Announcing the day after a committee meeting that together you have come up with a new strategy that will be implemented immediately can have a powerful impact on the sense of ownership students feel.  It is perhaps their first sense of representative democracy, and it can be profoundly empowering.

Of course, giving students voice and listening to their point of view takes courage, whether from a steering committee or from the class at large.  You have to trust that they will take the opportunity seriously and not use it to merely vent or criticize you personally. You have to find your own balance on this issue, and you have to be true to yourself.  Your goal should be to trust students as much as you comfortably can and to have faith in your own ability to deal with any abuses of that trust as they occur. As the level of trust between you and your students deepens, you will find new ways for them to speak more candidly and provide ever more useful feedback.


One of the invisible factors in creating negative student attitudes and behavior is their near-complete lack of freedom.  They march from class to class and teachers tell them what to do. They rarely have any significant choices to make. A colleague once told me, “Of course they have a choice—they can do what I tell them to do, or not.”  My response was that this is not my understanding of the meaning of freedom.

One of the most important lessons that comes from students participating in a community of learners is about living responsibly with new freedoms.  Defining freedom in the classroom is largely about defining the limits of freedom. A student’s freedom of expression and behavior ends the moment it interferes with any other student’s ability to learn.  Ultimately, the Prime Directive defines what freedom looks like in the classroom.

For instance, one of the rules in my class was that on the rare occasions when we watched a video, it was a student’s choice whether he would pay close attention or take notes.  What he did not have the right to do, however, was to interfere with anyone else’s ability to watch and learn. In other words, there was no freedom to talk during the movie. This rule defines and limits freedom, and is true to the Prime Directive.

Many of the structures described in this book promote the appropriate use of freedom by students.  Learning contracts and other forms of differentiated learning offer excellent opportunities for students to make meaningful choices.  Once they learn to be more metacognitive, they become better suited to deciding whether they need to continue practicing a new skill, for instance.  Even a small amount of choice makes a huge difference in their posture and their working relationship with you.

The freedom to fail

I have heard administrators and teachers say that students do not have the freedom to fail.  I could not disagree more. The freedom needed to be successful is exactly the same as the freedom to fail.  Students cannot make good choices and become responsible, independent learners unless they are also able to make bad choices.  Making mistakes is an important part of independent learning, both academically and personally. You have to trust that if they make bad choices, even disastrous choices, they can learn from the experience.  Mistakes provide teachable moments that can lead to personal growth.

One of your jobs as a teacher is to wean your students off their dependence on you, but to do it at a pace that allows them to be successful.  Many students, even successful ones, have little or no practice in making meaningful academic choices. Therefore, how you introduce student choice is critically important.

Giving up the unrealistic belief that you can make your students successful does not mean allowing them to fail without responding.  Being tenacious in your support of a student who is struggling is not the same as using force to try to make him succeed. Some students desperately need to know you will not abandon them, even as they test your resolve repeatedly.  They may not show up for a review session you scheduled with them, or repeatedly “forget” to do the work they’ve agreed to do. It takes grit to hang in there with such students. Having compassion for them, understanding that they have been damaged by years of being told they are failures in school, can help provide the tenacity needed to be persistent in your work with them.


2.10 Charisma is Not Enough

2.10 Charisma is Not Enough

Sometimes, a teacher’s charisma and passion for their subject can foster real enthusiasm and loyalty in their students.  This can result high levels of student motivation and an excellent working relationship between teacher and students. Sadly, however, it may or may not translate into true, long-lasting learning.  Students will have wonderful memories of their experiences in the class, but if you test them a year or two later, you’ll find that they often don’t remember much of the content they theoretically learned.   

After a decade of doing school, the shocking truth is that even highly motivated, successful students often haven’t learned how to learn effectively.  They are not particularly metacognitive, for instance. They may not know how to make good choices (for instance, to continue practicing a skill they haven’t mastered yet).  They may never have had the option of choosing how they will learn. And because they have learned to be risk-averse in the process of getting good grades, they aren’t good at learning from mistakes, which is an essential component of the learning process.

The key to encouraging self-directed learning in your classroom lies in establishing a culture that has it as its central purpose.  By all means, retain your enthusiasm and passion for your subject and for the art of teaching, but recognize that your motivation is not sufficient — it must be combined with the appropriate culture to engender students’ motivation to learn.  Once that culture is in place, all that remains is to create classroom structures that teach students how to learn well. The structures described in the rest of this book are designed to do just that — to teach students how to become self-directed, responsible, and skillful learners.

Letting go of the unrealistic obligation of providing your students with the motivation to learn is a liberating experience.  It is also eminently practical — your students will learn more if they are driven by their own intrinsic drive than by your enthusiasm.  

I think the ideal role for a teacher is  expressed well in a poem taken from the Tao te Ching.  Although this advice is several thousand years old, I believe it is completely relevant to classrooms today .

When the Master governs, the people

are hardly aware that he exists.

Next best is a leader who is loved.

Next, one who is feared.

The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn‘t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

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2.11 Other Considerations

2.11 Other Considerations

The spice of life

For the culture in your classroom to be an antidote to the machine-like quality students often experience in school, your class should offer some variety and the occasional surprise.  This can serve to enliven both your experience and that of your students.

Depending on room constraints, students should be physically active and should move around periodically.  This may be as simple as creating new working arrangements by occasionally moving seats and desks into new formations.  

Lesson plans should include choreographing when students will shift from one mode of activity to another, moving between activities done by the whole class, in study groups, or by students working alone or in pairs.  Changing from teacher-directed to student-directed activities, and from controlled activities to open work time in which students are choosing what to do, will add to a sense of energy and excitement.

Of course, if you are working with students who are immature, disengaged, and/or resentful of being in school, becoming adept at transitions will take training.  I have found that timing transitions with a stop watch turns these transitions into a challenge that can help motivate students to shift from, say, whole class to study groups and back in a minimum of time.  While you never want chaos and noise to interfere with learning, such transitions are a moment when students can be exuberant in a limited way.


If you are leading a teacher-directed segment and you sense that your students are in a low-energy state, consider it an opportunity to do something spontaneous.  That may be having them do something physical to break into their apathy—have everyone stand up and do 10 jumping jacks, for instance, or run around the room making noise for one minute, as clocked with a stop watch.  Or perhaps it’s time to have a conversation about why this moment isn’t working. It may be that a critical mass of students already understands what you are talking about and needs to move on to the next topic.  It may also just be time to change the mode and have them get into a more active role in small groups or pairs.

Responding to student listlessness by spontaneously changing what you are doing so that they can become engaged again will likely come as a shock to your class.  It may never have happened to them before, and it reinforces the Prime Directive in a very dramatic way. You are telling them that if what you are doing isn’t enhancing self-directed learning, you, too, need to change things.

The physical setting

Geometry matters.  How people in your room feel is affected by the room itself.  Having students sitting in rows makes them feel like your class is more mechanical, less personal.  It suppresses conversational learning, and for many students it feels oppressive. Having them sit in a U-shaped pattern or a circle when they are doing a whole-group activity feels much more inclusive.  Sitting in small groups, even when that entails occasionally turning to face the front of the room for instruction, is preferable to straight rows.

Beauty matters as well.  Replacing the glare of overhead fluorescent lighting with garage-sale lamps scattered around the room, and daylight wherever possible, makes a huge difference.  Plants, rugs on the floor, alternatives to rigid student desks like a comfy chair or two, mobiles hanging from the ceiling, the sound of water from a bubbler, all contribute to student comfort.  Creativity should be on display whenever possible.

Students can contribute to the decor too by covering bulletin boards with colored paper and putting up various posters and art. For years, I had my students paint old wooden chairs in the lab area of the room, sometimes with remarkable results.  Some teachers start with a bare room and let students arrange things early on in the year. Others want students to feel comfortable from the first day and will set up the room beforehand, allowing students to make changes to the decor on a regular basis.  

Giving students the time and materials to decorate the room is an opportunity for them to have fun and express themselves creatively.  The more they contribute to the way the room looks, the more ownership they will feel.

The issue of music is complicated.  Students will often argue that they work best listening to loud (and occasionally obscene) music.  It was always hard for me to believe that this wouldn’t interfere with, at the very least, some other students’ ability to concentrate.  Having students use headphones is one way to resolve this problem, but that tends to isolate them. It may also violate school rules. I have found classical music played at a reasonable volume is often acceptable, even if it is something students will never listen to on their own.  There also doesn’t need to be just one solution to the issue of music. Variety may be the best solution. In any case, the Prime Directive must always be the guiding factor—if a solution enhances everyone’s learning, it is good. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be allowed.


One other technique that I found helped give students a sense of belonging is to have a daily saying posted.  I had a small whiteboard mounted in the front of the room, and every day I would put up a quote that often had something to do with the day’s activity.  I found that some students read the quote every day, sometimes even writing them down in their learning journals, while others generally ignored them. Sometimes, particularly if the saying was provocative in some way, it would stimulate a conversation.  In any case, it soon became part of the fabric of the class that there was a little bit of philosophy or humor built into the day.  


2.12 Tenets of a New Paradigm

2.12 Tenets of a New Paradigm

Establishing a culture of learning is a prerequisite to a classroom that works

Being part of a culture of learning motivates and engages students. The most appealing way to draw them into a culture of learning is to intentionally replace the pointless activities of doing school with meaningful ones. When a teacher explicitly renounces busywork and cramming for tests, she sets the stage for true collaboration with her students to focus on the common goal of learning.

Members of a community internalize the ethos and the goals of that community

When that community fosters students’ intrinsic drive to learn and to excel, when it is dedicated to a posture of engagement towards the act of learning, then they, being social creatures, internalize that posture.  For this reason, a community of self-directed learners is an optimal school structure.

The Prime Directive in the classroom is this:  Our purpose is for every one of us to learn as much and grow as much as possible

Everything we do in this room is based on that purpose.

No student has the right to interfere with another student’s learning

This is the basis of all classroom discipline.

Change the structure, change the culture

When you walk into a typical classroom, there is a front to the room where the teacher stands and places for students to sit, much like a theater has a stage and an audience. What if a room had no front?  What if students learned from each other as well as from the teacher? What if they graded themselves? The hierarchical structure of most classrooms, with the expert teacher delivering the curriculum to the amateur students, can be replaced by a community of learners, in which the common goal is the success of all its members in learning about the curriculum and about themselves as learners.

Enjoyment enhances learning

The standard posture towards socializing and having fun in a classroom is that they interfere with a student’s ability to pay attention and do the work of learning. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Emotionally pleasing activities — having conversations, getting out of the seat and doing a physical activity, occasionally talking about things which matter personally — make an activity more meaningful and memorable, not less. The idea that having fun in school and doing the work of learning are mutually exclusive is simply not true.

Student voice opens student hearts

We all know how it feels to be made to do something and not have any say in the matter—it is a motivation killer. When students gain the ability to talk about their experiences, it relieves their all-too-common frustration and brings them a sense of being part of something. School is now being done with them, not to them, or even for them. Student voice is an essential component of a culture of learning.

Student well-being and goodwill are precious assets that must never be squandered

A healthy working relationship between teacher and student relies completely on student goodwill. There can be no true collaboration without it. And students can only afford that goodwill when their fundamental human needs are being met.

This is the glue that holds the community together. Whenever a teacher makes decisions that will affect students, it is of the utmost importance to prioritize their sense of well-being.

The use of force is counterproductive

The power struggles that do so much damage to the emotional well-being of teachers and students also damage the student’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Above all, it is essential for students to feel like their teacher is on their side and that they share a common goal of student success.

Establishing a classroom culture in which students act responsibly, without the autocratic use of force by the teacher, is role-modeling of the highest order

It is teaching students a posture towards life that will help them be successful in any endeavor, in any career, in any community. It will prepare them, better than anything else, to be good citizens in a democracy.

Teachers are ultimately responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, but when the appropriate classroom culture exists, the responsibility of maintaining a safe, effective learning environment gets distributed. It is much easier for a teacher to maintain that environment when his students support him in this effort.

When the whole person is engaged in the act of learning, new knowledge becomes more meaningful

The meaning of a new idea or skill is based on how it relates to the rest of a student’s world. The more connections there are, the more context and relevance the new knowledge has to the learner’s life.

Learning is often considered a strictly cognitive function, but it runs deeper and is more resilient when new knowledge is connected to the emotional experiences of students. When a student brings his sense of humor, his personal perspective, and his history into the conversation, learning becomes deeper and richer. The sense of community is also deepened when whole people are actively engaged in learning together.