Evolving in the Classroom
This semester I’ve been grappling with what evolution means to me, how we define it collectively and how I define it personally. Having reached the end of our journey in this class, I’ve settled on an understanding of evolution as change. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers many definitions of the word, one of which describes it as “a process of change in a certain direction” (Merriam-webster.com), not specifying which direction represents evolution. A progression of ideas can portray evolution, and an evolving classroom can be depicted by its changes in classroom dynamics. With this idea in mind, I became interested in the evolution of the classroom and the evolution of classroom dynamics that affect levels of participation. Is there an evolution that occurs within the classroom that encourages participation? Hinders it? What role does individual evolution play within the evolution of the classroom as a whole? These are all questions I wish to address in locating a student’s participation.
In my view of evolution as simply encompassing change, evolution may not always present itself in a positive light since change does not always occur in that direction. Individuals constantly evolve but they are not always changing for the better. Looking at the evolution of self within the academic realm, what happens within an individual that affects their output? What, if any, external factors affect the change that occurs within a person?
To address these questions I’d like to relate the story of a young learner and the contribution I saw him bring to the class. I met Jordan at Bowels Elementary School when he was in the first grade. Bowels Elementary is a public school in a neighborhood highly populated by African Americans, which was also reflected within the student population, consisting of about 99% African Americans¹. When I first met Jordan I was told by his teacher that he had psychological issues and was a disturbance to the class, hence why his seat was secluded from his classmates. He sat in the back corner and usually did his own thing regardless of what the rest of the class was working on, something that rarely got called attention to. The way it was viewed was that if he was not disturbing the learning in the class that was good enough for the teacher. But what about Jordan’s learning?
I had my concerns about the situation, unwilling to allow the label he had been assigned to penetrate my views of the student. I wanted him to demonstrate his abilities to me rather than writing him off as a disturbed child unable to contribute to the class. In working individually with Jordan, I saw that he was a very capable student, and when encouraged would produce quality work and responses. While I could see this in him, it seemed that all other adults at the school who worked in any capacity with him only saw that with which he was labeled. Since discussions about Jordan’s characteristics were not necessarily left to confined spaces, he was aware of most of what was thought of him. By second grade he seemed to regard himself in the same manner in which he was viewed.
I had the luxury of working in Jordan’s second grade class that following school year, which exposed me to some touching and heartbreaking comments made by him. I was shocked by the negative views of himself that he had internalized, especially being such a young age. It was painful to observe this. If he thought of himself in this manner at the age of eight, what would become of him?
During second grade he was once again separated from the other students in terms of seating arrangement. Whilst the rest of the class was grouped in clusters of about four, Jordan had a singular desk in the back corner of the room. His work habits seemed to reflect what he thought of himself. Many times Jordan could be found with his head on the desk or playing with something found in the confines of his desk. I would approach him, questioning why he was not participating in the class lesson or working on his handout. He would simply say that he was incapable of completing the assignment. There were days when he refused to do the class work because he was “dumb”, making claims that he was dumb and stupid and that he could not answer anything correctly. The first time I heard him speak of himself in this way I was shocked and was unsure of how to react. He spoke the words strongly and with conviction. It was disheartening to hear an eight year old speak of himself in such a negative tone. I told him he was actually a bright student and asked why he said that about himself. He lifted his head off the desk and pointed to his classmates and said in a dejected tone, “they all think that”, and promptly laid his head back down.
I would refute his statement when he claimed an inability to complete the task at hand. I would ask him to read the prompt to me, to tell me what he needed to do, and to provide an answer to the question. To no surprise of mine, he would eventually produce the correct answer after some prodding. Seeing that he had been correct, a hint of excitement would gleam in his eyes and he would solve the next problem on his own enthusiastically. If the teacher was looking for respondents, Jordan would look to me and once I gave a nod of approval, he would raise his hand eagerly. When not called upon, he would look discouraged and become upset, but I would encourage him to volunteer for the next question. Once he provided his answer he beamed with pride.
I examined the situation, questioning why there were not a teacher intervening Jordan’s negative, perpetuating thoughts. There was no one to step in and validate his worth or to intervene when children made their negative comments, all of which Jordan internalized. Over this time frame from first through second grade, Jordan had changed from seemingly more outspoken to being more reserved and less willing to participate. He had a negative outlook towards his classmates, learning, and himself. This negativity was clearly enhanced by perceptions others had of him and which were made public. His personal evolution, defined by change, did not take a positive route. In terms of how his changes affected the evolution of the classroom dynamics, I would say that largely others in the class learned to not pay him any mind, disregarding his behavior or comments, even when he was attempting to address classmates personally. The group dynamics encompassed a range from acceptance and friendliness towards some while rejection towards others. The way in which Jordan internalized what was said about him was portrayed through his self-esteem and a deficit in class participation. A lack of confidence in himself was initiated by the lack of confidence others placed in him, resulting in his contributions to the group being slim.
To more largely look at the participation found within a group, we can look at the ways in which interactions play out in the different phases that a group undergoes until peak effectiveness is reached.
Bianca-Ohana in the work Evolution of Group-Dynamics in the Classroom in the Light of Communicative Language Teaching describes the varying stages involved in the formation and evolution of a group. The graph portrays the stages of group development as broken into five categories, which are: 1. Orientation Stage, 2. Norm Establishment Stage, 3. Conflict Stage, 4. Productivity Stage, and 5. Termination Stage, in subsequent order. The graph also depicts a positive correlation between the effectiveness of the group and the progression of time across the five stages. As time passes, the group evolves into a more effective communicator across its members. While the stages are valid, they do not seem to portray how individual evolution plays a role in the overall group dynamics.
During the first stage, the orientation stage, students get to know the members of their new group; their classmates. Here there are initial questions about fellow group members, classmates and teachers, exuding a curiosity over the unknown. At this point, students are also made aware of the expectations being held of them as part of the group. During the second stage, the norm establishment stage, rules and norms are agreed upon to ensure productivity in all interactions. The third stage is the conflict stage in which students begin to interact with one another in conversation and produce dialogue. Due to differences in values and opinions, conflict may arise amongst students, and it becomes the teacher’s role to act as mediator and to encourage conflict as positive “since it is the precondition for change and growth” (Bianca-Oana, 330). The fourth stage, the productivity stage, consists of group member readiness to produce the tasks they were initially grouped together for. In this scene, it is the teacher’s role to supply activities that keep discussion focused on what is meant to be discussed rather than straying completely away from the purpose of the discourse. The fifth and last stage, termination, marks the end of the semester and hence the end of the group. For those groups who did not quite form a group, the end comes with ease. In contrast, there are the “mature working groups” who have formed a bond and for whom the end becomes upsetting. Each of these stages is not clearly demarcated and tend to overlap with one another throughout the process, including through a reverting back to specific stages to address certain problems.
Within this description of the five stages of group development that Bianca-Oana portrays, we can note the evolutionary process beginning with a room full of strangers who then form camaraderie and good conversation, ideally. While this is portrayed as the natural progression of group dynamics, what happens when these stages do not necessarily occur for every individual within the group? Is something lacking or does it become a matter exclusive to that individual?
For this question, I would like to look at my personal involvement in groups within the courses I have taken. Something that I have been trying to understand is the differences in my presence within each group over the past three years. I have had many hypotheses and have seen my own ideas evolve depending on new findings I have about myself, details I may have overlooked previously.
Each semester I have analyzed the situation, noticing my amount, however minimal, of class participation. Initially I went with the hypothesis that as a freshman coming from a public education background entering a private college across the country that there was an intimidation factor and a concern over adequacy that held me back from participating actively. Previously, I would have not considered an intimidation factor, but in coming here I heard many of the concerns that had been noted over time, which included intimidation and culture shock, amongst others. These voiced concerns got me thinking about my own position in this school and how they could apply to me. With this in mind, I noticed times in classes when there were particular students who seemed to drop comments construed of brilliance, and towards the end of each semester I would realize that I was placing these individuals too highly and that I was capable of the same participation. What would confuse me was the fact that in all my previous years of schooling before getting to college I had never had such an issue within a classroom. I analyzed the differences and concluded that before, I had been viewed as being at the top, whereas here we were at about the same level or perhaps others were above me. This innately played a role in my level of being vocal within discussion groups. I could not help but hold onto that concern.
From this hypothesis, I went on to the hypothesis that I did not see my voice as necessary in a situation where there was plenty of conversation already occurring. If I had a thought that I wanted to share then I would, but if others were touching on the same ideas that I would have addressed then I found it unnecessary to be redundant. But for me, not being an actively talkative participant in the discourse did not mean that I was not involved with what was being discussed. On the contraire, my mind pondered over the ideas being strewn about. At other times it was simply that I had not yet formulated ideas or opinions of my own on the matter, not having decided in that short span of time where exactly I stood.
Currently, I have thought of yet another possibility to serve as explanation for my reserved nature in the classroom. This new theory involves my innately shy nature, something I have grown away from but seemingly revert back to in certain instances which are outside of my control. What placed this new idea in my head was the feedback I had been getting about how I appeared to be upon first encounter as contrasted to how I was when someone actually got to know me. I am not quite as vociferous upon initially meeting someone, and many claim that they are going to “take me out of my shell”, but it is not a matter of needing to be removed from my shell. It is more a matter of time and becoming comfortable with my surroundings and the people in them. Looking at the stages of group development described in Bianca-Oana’s work, it would seem that I need an extended period of stage one: the orientation stage. I need a longer amount of time to become comfortable in an environment to be able to actively participate in conversations. By the time I am nearing that point and completing stage one, the group in its entirety has already reached stage five and we are out of time. There can be exceptions though, such as when there are not many voices present in the conversation, either due to a small number of group members or because others are not talkative, then I step up and fill that void. This then goes back to my second hypothesis. The rule of exceptions is why I would claim that ultimately it becomes a meshing of all aforementioned hypotheses which serve to dictate my behavior within a new group. While formulating these new ideas, my thoughts on the situation were evolving, constantly changing and finding one that best fit the scenario. While my ideas evolved, they affected the evolution of myself as an individual coming to terms with my participation levels and working to push myself outside of my comfort zone, although that may not have been readily evident to an outsider looking in. While as a group we undergo those five stages, I would claim that each individual undergoes them as well, making the evolution of group dynamics multi-layered.
Another form of evolution that can be observed in all of this is an evolution of the classroom over time. At the elementary level there seems to be a disregard towards a lack of student input by certain children, as portrayed through the example of Jordan’s experiences. For a teacher who must deal with an average of thirty children, if the student is simply being quiet and not disruptive, that seems to be good enough for the teacher who does not then have to deal with classroom management. It could also then be said that there is an evolution of the classroom with the progression of years advanced in one’s education.
In contrast to the acceptance of a silent student at the elementary level, I have encountered a lot more encouragement by varying professors to become a more active participant in class discussions. In certain classes it has felt that professors would ask this of me since I was the only minority student coming from a public education background and a first generation college student that made me a target for representing the other side of things, especially in those classes where having that voice would be most relevant. In these classes I became less inclined to speak because I felt that I was being used to be picked at and dissected for the benefit of the rest of the class. I doubt that is how it was meant by those certain professors; regardless, it did nothing to encourage my participation.
In all of this we see the evolution of the class over time, where it becomes natural to expect a larger degree of class participation the further we advance in our education. There are many factors involved with this, one being that as individuals evolve and mature, classroom management issues lessen and allow greater space for communication amongst one another. While there is that evolution and progression occurring, there are also the five stages of group dynamics which represent the evolution of a certain group. These stages flow into and across one another to develop a constructive group capable of achieving the goals initially set forth for them. Lastly, we have the evolution of an individual, which does not solely involve the maturing process. While yes, maturing is one point of individual growth, there are external factors, interactions with others, and self-perceptions that shape the way in which an individual grows over time. Each of these evolutions is simultaneously affected by each of the others, and they are not easily separated to be able to look at one specifically. All of these together and separately serve to affect the evolution of group dynamics and how a group comes to function.
¹ not actual calculation, measured by my own perception
Bianca-Oana , Han. "Evolution of Group Dynamics in the Classroom in the Light of Communicative Language Teaching." 325-335. Web. 5 May 2011. <http://www.upm.ro/facultati_departamente/stiinte_litere /conferinte /situl_integrare_europeana/Lucrari/Han.pdf>.
Merriam-webster. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary