Who Really Controls the Classroom?

January 23rd, 2008 by ChrisPa


(cross-posted at In Socrates’ Wake)

Today in one of my classes I made an observation. I suggested that whether the class, as a whole, turned out to be good or not really depended in large part on how engaged the students in that class decided to be. If the class was quiet, or uninvolved, the class wouldn’t be so good. If they spoke and talked to one another, it would be really good and fun. Some of that depends on the teacher setting this up the right way, setting a good tone, and so on. But some is all on the shoulders of the student, and his/her own attitude towards learning, or towards education.


Essentially, I strongly believe that no matter how skilled the teacher, it’s always possible that the class he/she is teaching will actually suck. I very firmly believe that even good classes are always just a short step away from failing. One student who brings the right mood to class gets sick, and it’s all downhill from there. Sometimes bad classes, in reverse, become good classes at the drop of a hat (I’ve had that happen, and it’s always strange). Someone decides to get invested, to laugh, and it’s infectious. Others start doing it. And then, before you know it, you can’t wait to teach that class again.

To me, the point is a humbling one: teachers, although they play a necessary role in making a class a good and enjoyable experience, really have limited control over the actual outcome of the course. In fact, I’d say that the teacher maybe controls 30% of the destiny of the class in this regard. If students resist (for one reason or another), and bring uncooperative moods to a class, there just won’t be much that a teacher can do to change it. Teachers have names for these classes — they call them (perhaps lacking some creativity) “bad classes.” “It’s a good class” means “people in there are receptive.” “It’s a bad class” means “they just stare at me” (well, it can get worse than that).

Sometimes I think that students underestimate the amount of control they have, as a group, in making their own educational experience a good one. While of course I realize that some teachers do a bad job of setting up a classroom in an effective way, many times when students say “man, that class sucked” what they really should be saying is “boy as a group we really stunk up that joint, didn’t we?” At the same time, sometimes when students think a class is really good, it’s not necessarily the teacher, but more so the students themselves who successfully brought the right mood to the class, one that made learning fun to do.

What do you folks think? If you had to assign percentages, how much control does the instructor have over making the class a good one? How much control do the students have?

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