Sunday, June 8, 2008

And How Much Structure is Too Much Structure?

Before I started teaching, every person with whom I spoke during pre-service training said the same two things were most important in a classroom: structure and routines. I didn't believe them, and I learned the hard way. A group of chaotic students isn't conducive to learning, and is pleasant for anybody to be around. But I wonder at what point there's a trade-off between creating an ordered environment and teaching students self-control and independent thinking. If students do nothing but follow routines, what will happen to them when they're out on their own?

What got me thinking about the subject was this post on the Fordham blog. In it, the author, Christina Hentges, describes their experience riding the metro with a group of KIPP students. Here's an excerpt:

They appear as a small army of pre-teens in matching t-shirts, standing single-file on the right side of the escalator. Several adults walk alongside various points in the line while one leader holds court at one entry/exit turnstile (leaving the other three or four clear for commuters). He hands out a farecard to each child, who then goes through the gate and returns the card to an adult waiting on the other side. The children continue to the next escalator, remaining in single file as they ride up to the street or down to the train platform. While waiting for everyone to assemble, they line up in rows of 10; once everyone arrives, each child pulls out a chapter book and begins to read. They stay this way until they’re instructed to move along. The choreography is impeccable every time.

Part of me thinks this is good. It's hard to imagine exactly how it would be helping the students (not to mention the other commuters) if they ran pell-mell around the station. I like that they're being trained to respect others. I like that they're being trained to read during downtime. I like that they are under control.

And yet . . . I can't help but wonder what the students are learning from this. Are they learning that they should control themselves or that they need to follow directions? When they visit the subway station with their friends, do they walk calmly over to a bench and read quietly until the train arrives -- or do they go nuts b/c they don't have to follow directions?

Structure and order are necessary but, at some point, I have to believe that they're detrimental.


Anonymous said...

Structure and organization? The important thing is to know how students think. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

Anonymous said...

From my experiences teaching low income students, I firmly believe that it is better to err on the side of "too much" structure than too little of the same. So many of these students have little or no structure in their home lives. A very structured school environment tends to work well for these students.

However, I'm not sure that a similarly high amount of internal school structure would be necessary in suburban schools, with a different population of students. Possibly that is why the school uniform movement seems to focus more on the inner city schools than the suburbs.