It makes sense that the way students perceive themselves often determines whether or not they will be successful students. So why is it that some students seem unaffected by repeated attempts to have them develop positive perceptions of their current academic status and overcome misperceptions of their past actions? It might be because, as educators and parents, we are ignoring the most impactful concern of students – the perception of the future. The premise of this article is that a person’s perception of the future has the greatest effect on behavior. Give a student hope about what he could accomplish, and he will put forth the best efforts to learn and comply with class behavioral norms. Educators generally believe that students learn more by doing than by listening or observing. This system works within those parameters and has students working with teachers cooperatively after a given lesson. It is not enough to keep students centered on daily progress and success. Students have to feel as if they are charting and controlling their own destinies. Letting them project future success through tasks of organization, teamwork and leadership is more powerful than any piecemeal daily positive reinforcement that teachers dole out for completion of individual and narrowly cast assignments. The logistics of how a classroom is organized and the overall atmosphere created is key to the success of this program. First, the classroom is arranged in groups. This produces better learning results. I have always believed that the whole is greater than the sum of it parts. I find that groups of four works best. However, when class size is not divisible by four, a group of three or five work just as well. Each group or team selects a captain who selects a lieutenant. The captain need not be the best overall student but an individual that the others will listen to (and hopefully be motivated by) so that the team can work together to achieve an assigned goal. As a teacher you now have a group of allies with captains and lieutenants to help organize and direct the learning process. If a captain is not working out, simply elevate the lieutenant or select a new captain. Once the student leaders have been identified, the groups choose a name for their team. With older children I have them select colleges or universities' names. Younger learners pick a color for team names. However, whatever name the students select, let them have fun with the naming process. One of the keys to organizing classroom instruction is the amount of time the teacher allows to present a lesson and how it is presented. I cannot over emphasize that the time a teacher lectures in front of the class should be significantly reduced. Rarely do I take more than 15 minutes to lecture on a given lesson regardless of the subject or age of my class. The “real” learning takes place during their group time. Remember it’s not how much you teach, but how much they learn. What is not completed becomes homework. When possible, I have students exchange papers team by team and grade someone else’s work. Upon obtaining his or her own work back, students are able to have the teacher reexamine the assignment and make a final decision. In this way students get results quickly and get a sense of what is needed to make their groups more successful. However, essays and more complicated assigments are graded by the instructor. What works for me is getting students out of their seats and away from their desks and on the floor. Sitting at their desks seems to inhibit communication and for these students needing to stretch their legs is a welcome respite from constantly remaining in their assigned chairs. Most importantly, in this system of teaching points are awarded for good work and decorum. For example, after each session of group work, points are assigned for those who worked in an orderly fashion, helped each other and simply avoided copying each other’s work. Generally speaking, it takes two weeks to a month before all students are comfortable with this method of operation. Scores are tallied daily and the members of the winning team or teams receive an award. It is human nature that the more severe the consequences or the greater the reward will result in a higher level of motivation. Over the years I have found great success in rewarding the winners in all assignments of the day the grade of A or (in the case of a perfect paper) an A+. Those who do not win simply earn whatever grade they achieved. Although it may seem counterintuitive, students knowing that they have an A grade most often try harder to earn the A+ grade. The daily totals are added together, and at the end of a week or whenever a test might be given the team or teams earn(s) an A is the test to be given the following day. My experience has been that even weak students prepare for the test enthusiastically knowing the grade of A awaits them. They almost always put in great effort to achieve an A+. The whole class is focused on earning points for teams. I recommend not taking away points for poor conduct, but awarding all other teams. Through peer pressure students tend to accept the procedures and rules of the class without having much if any teacher–student confrontation. If, however, a given child is having difficulty, I speak to the student privately, encouraging that individual to attempt to comply to the class’ code of conduct. It is extremely rare that any situation ever needs more than this type of communication. Approximately every month or so I change the makeup of the teams, making sure that other worthy students have a chance to be captain. Over the years my students have enjoyed and embraced my teaching methods, realizing that punishment is rarely if ever part of my classroom management style. In general the parental response has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of the parents over the years have raved about the level of enthusiasm their son or daughter exhibited at that time toward learning. Occasionally, a few parents raised concerns about my style of teaching, but upon receiving standardized test scores, they came to realize it was all worthwhile. Now and then a parents have been uncomfortable with my non-traditional methods. One of fellow teachers stated, “I guess some people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.” However, keeping parents informed so that they will view these changes with an open mind can quell any reservations and fears about this approach. Overall, I and my methods of teaching have usually been popular with students and their families. My philosophy is that school is a serious place, but most learning should be fun. The future perception method I have personally used in my classroom for more than decades has resulted in a significant improvement in standardized test scores and the drastic reduction (if not complete elimination) of discipline problems. Although my methods work well across the board, it is particularly aimed at the reluctant learner and students with various learning difficulties such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia. Major behavioral issues have been managed very well under this system as well. Those that have tried my methods and adopted my philosophies have embraced them enthusiastically. I hope you try these methods and modify them to your needs. I strongly believe that once you do, you will never go back to a traditional classroom.
Gary Cooper has been an educator for more than 45 years and has taught students from nursery school to college. He is also a guidance counselor and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Cooper is a recipient of a Teacher of the Year Award and has also been cited twice in Who's Who Among American Teachers.