Chaotic Classes


I taught a chaotic class this morning. There were teenagers everywhere, laptops, chemicals, singing, maths game websites, shouting at each other, quite a bit of swearing. I’m fairly certain there was no actual hitting, and though the walking may have been fast I don’t think it could really be classified as running. If only because there was too much stuff all over the place and no room to run. And I was out of the room several times so it could have happened then.

Like many science teachers, I am a control freak at heart. They may be diluted but they are still acids and corrosives and fire for goodness sake. Nothing would make me happier than to force them all to prove that they are serious and careful and safety conscious and will never, ever be distracted before letting them loose. Except it would either mean we never do practicals, which would make me very unhappy, or it could mean there was very little fun happening, which would make me unhappier still.

So in spite of the fact that this morning’s class had me figuratively curled up in a corner gibbering, I’m also extremely proud that I can corral my inner control freak enough to do it.

Good chaos and bad chaos

There is most definitely good chaos and bad chaos, and being able to pick the good chaos and ride it is essential in teaching. Because if you want independent thought and experimentation and engagement, good chaos is where it happens.

Having one group up the back showing neutralisation, another at the side making bath bombs, one at the front catching hydrogen in a balloon and another comparing red cabbage indicator to universal indicator would be difficult enough. Add in the fact that they have designed the experiments themselves and there’s another layer, with forgotten items, elaborations and bits that didn’t work out the way they expected. Then add in video cameras and suddenly they don’t need to just do the experiment, they need to make sure it’s in the light and held up against a white background and they are standing out of the way.


And unfortunately there was also some of the other kind. There were technical problems with transferring the videos onto the laptops. The editor couldn’t deal with the file type from the camera and there was no converter. Videos are big files and take a long time to copy, save and manipulate which means hanging around waiting.


I made some mistakes here. I checked that we had the editing software but it didn’t occur to me that we would need or not have a converter and I should have checked. I think it was a reasonable assumption that the school video cameras would be useable with the editing program, but assumptions are never good and can always trip you up, as this one did. Always check.

I should have had a backup ready. Do I think it would have been useful? In this case not really. Given that there were so many things happening I can’t really see those particular students quietly sitting down with another activity, but I didn’t even have the option of trying. And you never know, one or two of them might have. Bottom line, it’s always a good idea to have something you can whip out if things go pear-shaped, especially something like a relevant puzzle or cross-word so they don’t feel they’re being punished with more work.

Were they so bad?

One of the reasons I’m reflecting on this here is the perception of other adults in the room that the class should have been kept in. Of course I was reflecting anyway, but that really made me question the lesson.

I still think the correct answer was no.

Leaving aside the whole issue of appropriate consequences for student behaviour, I want to go a step back and ask what was appropriate behaviour in this context? Because I think part of the problem that makes planned chaotic classes even harder comes from judging them against an ideal, rather than reality.


The ideal but non-existent classroom.

In the ideal view of classes, all students are engaged and on-task. I’ll even bet that for the majority, if they were asked to envision a classroom with everyone learning, the image would include students sitting at desks and studiously engaged in reading or writing, or possibly bent over a computer. If you stop and think about it you know that this is an ideal image. Someone in that class is thinking about the weekend rather than the lesson. Someone is listening to a friend or an iPod. Someone is creating art rather than writing. We know that, and we accept it. So long as the majority are on task the majority of the time, we know that reality is everyone gets off-track occasionally.

Now translate that into a lesson that you know is going to be chaotic anyway, with people walking around, asking questions, needing help and needing a lot of space. Everything is noisier and more active. And that includes the people who are off task. When everyone else is being loud and walking around they aren’t going to surreptitiously whisper to the person next to them, they’re going to head over and see what the other groups are doing or call across the classroom.

And where was I while all this was going on?

I was in and out a few times, getting things that people hadn’t realised they would need. But the larger part of the time, I was helping students. Part of the deal when you plan a chaotic lesson is that you will run the whole time, because active thinking and exploration is hard and students need lots of support to confirm and push their daring. And the art of teaching is in the choice – is this disruptive enough that I stop what I’m doing here to go deal with that over there? Making those calls is why we get paid.

Of course I was keeping a lid on it – as I stated at the beginning I don’t think they went over the line, while the swearing was louder than normal I don’t think it was worse than normal. Everyone completed their videos and got them uploaded, which was the aim of the class. Do I wish it had been smoother? Of course. But I can’t blame them for technical problems and me not having a backup.

In the end

Chaotic classes are hard. I know teachers who can do them effortlessly and thrive on them, but that’s not me. I generally have a ball while they’re happening but it’s hard on the nerves. Because they really do put it up there in great big flashing neon lights – you are not in control.

You know what? You are not in control in the quiet classroom either.

In fact you’re almost never in control, and if that’s your aim then you’re in the wrong profession.

The thinking, the learning, the exploration that happens in a chaotic class are what it’s all about. And it’s more important to be riding that whirlwind than making myself feel comfortable by pretending I’m in control.

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