The Paradox of Order

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Doug Lemov describes the paradox of order — in the context of a well-behaved class, but with implications well beyond that narrow setting:

Students, whether they realize it or not, rely on teachers to create such environments. Nonetheless, many observers misunderstand them and think they occur naturally. It’s folly to think that left to their own devices a room full of people, almost any room full of people, will behave this way.  Classrooms like Erin’s cannot be achieved without meticulous attention to building the behavioral environment step by step.  Ends and means are easily confused, and because effective classroom culture, when it is complete, is nearly invisible for stretches of time, some people will not see the work that goes into it; they will see teachers who don’t talk to their students much about behavior and believe that the answer is not to talk about behavior much with your students. If you try to ignore behavior you will end up talking about little else, whereas if you are intentional about behavioral culture and establish clear expectations, behavioral issues will ultimately fade into the background as you talk about history, art, literature, math and science.  What you see in Erin’s classrooms is not ‘better kids’ who miraculously behave. What you see is meticulous intentionality in its dormant state.

You must have order to have a learning-intensive classroom. When I say that I am not talking merely about kids of color in urban classrooms.


And while some people fail to see that, there is another side to that coin. Orderly behavior without real and rigorous academics is an empty vessel. This is worth noting because the changes that occur in some classrooms when a teacher brings order to them can be so powerful they can be like catnip. Once you learn to get students to sit silently, the temptation can be to have them sit silently when they should be interacting. Once you teach students to line up in an orderly way, the temptation can be to line them up and keep them in lines. Beware: an orderly room must be orderly to allow academic rigor to thrive. Students must be silent so their classmates may speak in a climate of respect. They must line up quickly so they can get where they need to go for maximum learning. The goal is to get them quickly and quietly through the line and on the learning on the other side, not to keep them in quiet lines because it makes us feel more in control. I often tell skeptics of high behavioral expectations that just because a teacher can cause her classroom to be pin-drop quiet, does not mean she always must. It gives her an option she can exercise at will, not an obligation. And that reminder is good for those of us who believe in order as well.

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