Science Classroom Management: Controlled Chaos

Probably my favorite thing about being in science education classes is the fact that I’m constantly surrounded by starry-eyed idealists. My professors and classmates are constantly spinning tales of beautiful futures where kids come to school excited to learn, where they’re given freedom to explore and create and take command of the classroom, manning the helm as they bravely charge forward to become their better selves in a world that they’re capable of changing. It’s hard for me to listen to people talk like this and not get at least a little bit pumped up. After all, the entire reason I wanted to be a teacher in the first place is because I wanted to help kids grow, and what would be a better environment for them to do so in than a place where they’re actively in control of their own learning?

That said, there’s a fine line between freedom and chaos, and this teaching style could very easily result in disaster if poorly executed. If students have no direction, no pedagogical goal or insightful reflection to accompany the choice and freedom they’re given, then the science classroom’s open windows quickly turn back into prison bars not unlike the ones that accompany a “drill and kill” style of lecture. Freedom, choice, and creativity are amazing and essential tools for the development of scientific knowledge and skills, but with no purpose, they’re meaningless and the classroom can quickly devolve once more into “Doing things because I’m told”.

So, let’s start off by talking about what it is that we want from our classroom. A good progressive science classroom allows students to do the following:

Make connections on their own with hands-on experience

There’s an old expression in education, one I’ve heard countless times since I decided to enter the profession. “The best management strategy is a good lesson plan.” One of the leading causes for students to act out in class is the fact that they’re bored. When you’ve got all kinds of energy and nowhere to put it, suddenly pulling the hair of the girl in front of you becomes a much more appealing plan of action than just sitting super bored for even longer.

When your lesson is cool, engaging, and lets students do things with their own two hands, it’s a lot easier for them to keep on task since the task is something they actually feel motivated to do (Intrinsically, right, Mr. Pink?). That said, the chaos needs to have structure, otherwise your students will become confused and get off task/ become disruptive again. If you just tell them to “go nuts”, they’ll follow that order to the grave and play around with no endgame goal in mind. In the worst cases, it’ll be like this:

Don’t get me wrong, the play is the most powerful educational tool you’ve got in your arsenal as a teacher. It’s just that in order for it to become the superweapon it’s destined to be, you have to supplement it with things that keep your students on track. Constantly be asking thought provoking questions, constantly have handouts with clear directions and purposes, and make sure your students know what it is they’re looking for. Yes! The solution did bubble when we added the calcium? Why did it do that? More importantly, how could be use this reaction to do something useful for us? Does it make a product that we can use to make medicine? Could we use the released gas to build up pressure in a piston system? Make sure your students are thinking the entire time they’re playing. That way, the connections they make are their own, but they can reach them more easily and actually correlate them to the material.

Have options

We might all be created equal, but we’re not all created the same. I love science so much that I’d marry it if I could, but for a bunch of students, the labs and data analysis that I adore feel more like a root canal. Not all students are engaged by the same things, and no matter how cool we think something is, we’ll always have students who don’t care. But that’s okay.

The solution is to not only present the information in a variety of ways, but also to give your students lots of opportunities to express themselves and make the learning their own. Have research projects where students can present on a topic however they want, writing songs, making dance moves, doing a skit, or something else entirely. Have days where the students build machines out of materials that they bring themselves, have days where you make your students get up and act out the formation of planets. Talk about the biology of attraction for students that love fashion, calculate the amount of energy in a death star beam for the sci-fi geeks. Lots of people don’t care about a lot of things, but nobody on earth cares about nothing. By giving your students options, they’ll stay engaged for longer, and more importantly, they’ll be able to have a direction and application for their learning.

Work in a safe place

The definition of “safe place” for the ideal science classroom is twofold. First, let’s talk about literally making your classroom a safe place. Make sure your students know what’s expected of them in the lab. Having straightforward, clear, zero-tolerance rules like “No horseplay in the lab.” and “Always put your glassware back in your drawer.” Also, make sure that all instructions are given clearly and repeated as much as necessary. Students should have a copy of the lab in their hands at all times so that they have a reference for what they’re doing.

Another important aspect of lab safety (brought very clearly to my attention during my time at field this semester) is to make sure you have things prepared ahead of time. You can lose a lot of students’ engagement if they become confused about what they’re supposed to be doing or if you have to set up glassware for the lab at the beginning of the class period. If you can, come into school early with a plan on how you’re going to set things up and where the students will be at each phase of your lesson. Maybe run your directions by a friend or coworker and make sure that they’re easy to interpret and follow.

The other definition of “safe place” refers to a space that’s open for discussion where students can talk and express their ideas without fear of judgement or mockery. Make sure that you crack down really hard on disrespect between students and that you foster an environment where you ask a lot of questions that lead students to discuss various topics.

At the end of the day, the key to management is respect. If your students respect your authority enough to decide that the things you’ve chosen to have them do are valuable and interesting, then they’ll play along. Make sure they know the reasons behind your actions (teachers who like to flex their power are horrible), and make sure to let them put a little bit of themselves into everything they do.


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