Predictability and Novelty in the Classroom: You Need a Balance of Both
When walking through the hallways in a school you can observe classrooms and you will notice many variations in atmosphere and levels of interest and excitement. In some classes there is very low energy. Both students and teacher are dragging and listless. In other classes the noise level is high and students and teacher both seem a little unsure about what’s supposed to be happening. What’s the difference between these rooms? The best classes seem to be those that have a balance between routines and fun, unusual activities.
What should be predictable in your classroom? What do students need in order to feel comfortable in their environment. What do you need in order to have a proper teaching environment? There are several things that you and your students need to be able to rely on. They need to know that you are prepared with a worthwhile lesson, are in control of the classroom at all times and that you will not embarrass or humiliate them. You need to be able to count on certain predictable factors from your students every day as well. You rely on your students to be respectful, cooperative, well-behaved and willing to do what you ask. You know this will be the case because you spent time upfront at the beginning of the year training these behaviors.
Isn’t all that predictable stuff boring? No. In order for you to be able to present interesting, engaging lessons everyone needs to understand their role. Students need to know what you and other students expect from them. The teacher needs to know what students expect. Lack of predictability in these elements equals chaos. Your classroom management system is always running just under the surface of your classroom. This is what allows students to feel safe enough to participate and take risks.
Where does novelty fit in? Good classroom management allows you to take some risks and put faith in your students’ ability to handle new challenges. You can totally change your classroom and know that your students will quickly adapt.
With younger children novelty can be frightening (that’s why so many little ones cry when they see Santa or a clown) so you have to think your lesson through carefully. Make sure they feel safe before you throw them a curve with something novel. You will also need to spend time framing the activity so that they will be prepared.
Teenagers, on the other hand, crave novelty. One reason they are bored by school is that they are numbed by the routine and predictable nature of many of their classes. Doing something, unexpected, or very different from your normal style will catch your attention. Remember you can’t be novel all the time. If novelty exists all the time, it’s no longer novel!
Ideally, your classroom should be a mixture of the expected and the unexpected. If there is too much predictability, students will be bored. If there is too much unpredictability students will not be able to relax and chaos can ensue. To come up with ideas for novelty, think like a student when you look at your lesson plan. If you were a student in this class, what kinds of things would you hope that the teacher would do? What would make it fun for you? Thinking like a kid can help you create lesson plans that rock! Often it’s just in the presentation.
When talking about the Roman Colosseum I took my class out to the track field. I told them the measurements of that field and the height of the bleachers. Then I gave them the dimensions of the Colosseum and we put people in different areas to show the size. This had several benefits. Students got some exercise which increases their cognitive functioning. They were doing something different by going outside. They were able to visualize how big the Colosseum actually was by seeing the size compared to the track field. This is not an earth shattering activity- but it qualifies as being novel.
Novelty just means doing a little something different every once in a while. Something that will catch the kids off guard. If they never really know what you’ll do next they will pay much more attention in class. Predictability for safety, novelty for fun and exciting. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing!”