Creating a Classroom Culture

Posted: April 6, 2011 in Classroom Environment

In my not too distant teaching past, I became frustrated with the lack of student involvement and their willingness to “take chances” by providing answers to problems or to even speak up at all. I would develop what I thought was an outstanding lesson or activity that required students to think deeply and tackle some of the big ideas of mathematics only to be disappointed by how little they would willingly participate.

I lamented the STUDENT’S’ lack of effort to engage and even came to resent THEM for this! “How dare they not appreciate how hard I worked to make the lesson exciting and well-planned? What was THEIR problem?” I became so upset that I spoke to a colleague (co-author Scott Adamson) about the challenges I was facing and we came to a startling conclusion….maybe it wasn’t the STUDENTS’ fault….maybe it was the INSTRUCTORS’ fault and that just so happened to be ME! I would need to change (scary thought) and “force” them to behave how I wanted them to in class. It was eye-opening but I learned that they actually had to be taught how to act in my classroom.

Within just a few minutes I came to realize that if I wanted students to feel comfortable interacting with others they most likely did not know I had to teach them how and create a comfortable environment for them to branch out in.  I learned that even more frightening for students than just talking to others they don’t know is the notion of asking them to actually attempt to solve a mathematics problem in the presence of others who might think they are “dumb” if they are wrong.

In my next posts, I will begin to share some of the techniques I have used over the years that have made a huge difference in getting students to collaborate, hypothesize, challenge, and debate their own and others’ work in a constructive and exciting way!


  1. Grace Garner says:

    I have taught math for over ten years and have developed decent rapport with my students. Many times I have been exposed to “ice-breakers” for the classroom and utilized a few of them from time to time. After attending a faculty development workshop at my community college, led by Trey Cox, I was persuaded to be a little more intentional about incorporating several non-math related activities at the start of the semester.

    For a developmental level class with lots of students with math anxieties, my goal was to use about 6 activities over the first several weeks with several shuffles of the groups (per the recommendations of Trey), rather than the 1 or 2 I had used traditionally. Yes, I said 6!! With the philosophy that I was training my students to interact and communicate freely with one another and becoming comfortable sharing their ideas was the exact behavior I was wanting them to do as we moved into the math content. I was convinced this was ideal for the low level students, but not necessarily as valuable for my higher level class. It takes a significant time commitment to do that many “ice breakers”.

    No exaggeration, my low level class was the BEST class I have ever taught. The interactions of the students was ideal. They asked questions, shared their ideas, critiqued one another, asked more questions, and provided solutions with explanations for each other. They learned deeply and rigorously. I saw the students’ personalities, including both strengths and weaknesses. They kept each other in check and I just reinforced the tone and expectations I wanted for the class. On the other hand, my higher level class was very small and after only doing a couple of the get to know you activities, there was still a hesitancy that remained for the entirety of the class. So, I am convinced of the power of investing the time to break down the barriers from the start. I will continue to implement the non-math, community building activities over the first several weeks of class in order to foster the type of student engagement I have wanted all along.

    Thank you, Trey, for convincing me it was “worth it”, the “why” it is worth it, and the “how to”. Your samples on this website are awesome! I hope to come up with one for you worthy of the list.

    Grace Garner

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