Book Review: Cultivating “Classroom Life” in Real Space
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Figure 1: "Classroom Life: Shaping the Learning Environment, Classroom Management Strategies and Teaching Techniques" (cover)
Classroom Life: Shaping the Learning Environment, Classroom Management Strategies and Teaching Techniques
By Thomas K. Babalis and Konstantina L. Tsoli
New York: Nova Publishers
Series: Education in a Competitive and Globalizing World
Teaching K12 is not for the faint-of-heart. The learning objectives change fairly constantly in order to prepare learners for the 21st century. There are a variety of high-risk assessments that learners have to engage. The funding is generally tight and growing ever tighter. The students themselves hail from all corners of the world and have differing and unique needs. They are often not fully engaged, and the non-complete rates in high school still hover around 30%. How may teachers create classroom environments that are conducive to student learning?
Thomas K. Babalis and Konstantina L. Tsoli’s “Classroom Life: Shaping the Learning Environment, Classroom Management Strategies and Teaching Techniques” (2017) takes a comprehensive look at “classroom life,” as an education-focused social ecosystem and physical space. The teacher stands as a critical part of the learning experience, with influence over virtually every part of the classroom. By temperament, character, and training, the teacher plays a critical role in shaping learners to function well in a civil and liberal democratic society; the teacher models respect for learners and strives to ensure learners’ respect for each other.
“Classroom Life” consists of three parts: Shaping the Learning Environment, Classroom Management, and Special Psychopedagogical Issues at School. Each chapter starts with learning objectives. Each chapter contains a case or scenario and questions related to that scenario. There are references to research and models. To emphasize certain points, the authors employ some elementary diagrams (line drawings) and comic strips. An erudite drawn owl suggests that readers review their initial ideas of the topic at the beginning of the chapter to see how their ideas may have changed by the end, to encourage reflection. Generally, each chapter also consists of some applied suggestions on how to apply constructive teaching practices. (Chapter 17 consists of two poems only.) [The chapters read fairly roughly, without sufficient transitions between parts of a chapter.]
This work focuses on getting back to fundamentals. An educator’s job is to disseminate knowledge and skills while also socializing students. The co-authors write in the Foreword of a student-centered approach in the classroom that cultivates in them…
the skills and values that foster self-awareness, empathy, critical and creative thinking, healthy interpersonal relationships, conscious decision-making, problem-solving and management of emotions, creating the best possible conditions for a resilient present and an even brighter future. There are mainly two ways to achieve this: i) by educating students and sharpening their skills so that they may prevent or handle everyday difficulties, crises and problems, and ii) by developing meaningful, fertile and excellent cooperation between teachers and the families of students, while at the same time making the school more open to society. (Babalis & Tsoli, 2017, pp. vii – viii)
This applied book, apparently written for pre-service and practicing teachers, focuses on how to achieve the stated ideals practically within a real-world environment. The book opens with a “My Classroom Life Self-Assessment,” an assessment related to the particular chapters. Some of the statements read as follows: "I cultivate the critical and creative thinking of my students," "I apply hierarchical intervention strategies to behavioral problems,” and "I apply preventive and interventional strategies related to school violence and bullying.”
The choices are frequency words: always, usually, sometimes, rarely, and never. There are 5-8 such statements for each of the three parts of the book. (Some of these statements are multi-barreled, which is not clean design and which introduces noise in the outcomes. One statement seems to conflate “critical thinking” and “creative thinking”.) The idea is if the respondent chooses “never” or “rarely,” then they are advised to pay specific attention to the particular linked chapters.
The romanticized idealisms in the work give a sense of something old-school. An early case describes a teacher who defends the importance of his work as follows: “As for myself, I wake up early and go to school, where 25 little faces are waiting for me every day with inquisitive minds and eyes that sparkle…” (p. 3)
A Didactic Tone
Babalis and Tsoli employ a didactic and fairly simplistic approach. They define terms. They do a lot of numbering and listing without necessarily cohering into applicable methods. When explaining models, they write as if the research pointed to absolute realities (without qualifiers). They convey the sense that if an authority in the field made an assertion, it must be so. Besides the certitudes, the actual research citations are fairly selective and even idiosyncratic. Many of the topics addressed in this work are broad-scale ones with literally hundreds to thousands of possible citations, so some selectivity is expected—but major contributors to an area should be acknowledged, and the research selections should not be so idiosyncratic. (This same practice of authors being self-indulgent may be seen in their image selection. In a section on creative thinking, they include a photo of 2016 Rio Olympian Lefteris Petrounias. It is unclear how this individual demonstrated creativity per se. This individual’s performance might be a point-of-pride, but it was a stretch to include the image in this book.) The writing suggests that there are obvious defined solutions and few if any other options in teaching contexts.
Classroom climate is created through both the physical space and the social connections. There are four elements to the classroom climate: cognitive, social, emotional, and physical (p. 10), as experienced by learners. To create an effective classroom climate in a democratic society, the authors point to the importance of freedom of expression and participation, acknowledgment and acceptance of others, “the principle of tranquility and proportional defusion,” “scientific and educational integrity,” respect for individuality, and teamwork (p. 11). These lessons would hold people in good stead over a teaching career.
Teachers need to be aware that their unthinking comment or action may adversely affect their learners and break trust with them and discourage their learning. For example, they tell readers to encourage learners in public but correct in private. They exhort: “Mutual assistance, encouragement, cooperation, safety, organization, equality and clear objectives have a positive impact on learning and the self-perception of students” (p. 12). While much of these observations are common sense, there are benefits in reminding people to be considerate of their learners (through empathy) and to uphold their professional responsibilities.
There are benefits to having a classroom management plan for a constructive learning environment. The authors write: “On the other hand, a negative classroom climate hinders learning and student development. Such a climate is considered chaotic, hostile and disorganized, riddled with fear, punishment, sarcasm and derision. It also creates feelings of retreat, decline and disappointment (Babalis, 2011a, as cited in (p. 15). What follows then is a table of “instead of” doing this, “try” this… (p. 16).
The authors list “main traits of a good teacher” (p. 28) in a way that does not accommodate possible differences (and teachers are not all cut out of the same cloth). This listing also gives the sense that this work may apply to particular socio-cultural contexts but not others. The authors suggest the application of a sociometric technique in the classroom but does not really introduce sociometry in any sufficiently rigorous way for application (to mitigate people’s social biases and lack of inclusion of others) (pp. 29 – 30). One insight about social environments: students are both attractive and repulsive to others based on various features of the individual based on their social status (p. 88).
When listening, teachers are encouraged to be impartial and not to jump to conclusions based on early observations. They should avoid “roadblocks that hinder communication within the classroom” [e.g. no “ordering, threatening, preaching, persuading with logic, giving advice, criticizing negatively, consoling (without letting the other person reveal their true feelings), interpreting hastily, being sarcastic, ignoring the subject, and excessive and inappropriate questioning]” (p. 45). There are examples that help illuminate the coauthors’ points further.
The examples and scenarios in the work are both positive and negative. For example, one teacher is depicted asking a student for permission to use his life experiences with getting injured and wearing a cast as part of a lesson. The scenario ends with the student feeling appreciated and being affirmed (with his peers signing his cast).
Building Pedagogical Relationships
At heart, teachers are building pedagogical relationships with their students. The authors explain:
Teachers are neither friends nor parents of their students. They are professionals who offer guidance in the form of advice, but not familiarity, are available as an academic mentor, and set personal and legal boundaries in their relationships with their students. (p. 61)
Later in the book, the authors talk about the importance of protecting vulnerable students. For example, it is important to protect the following from exploitation: “migrant children, Roma children, children who are trafficking victims, street children, children with disabilities, refugee children, (and) juvenile offenders” and so on (p. 274). They also list various disabilities that may be challenging to learners: “physical damage, visual impairments, hearing impairments, mental dysfunction, emotional disorders, speech disorders, (and) learning difficulties” (p. 278). Such statements of values soften my hard reviewer’s heart but still leave a lot of the challenges in place.
Do’s and Don’ts
The authors can be fairly doctrinaire. For example, they tell their readers that they either have a sense of humor or not (p. 67). If they don’t naturally have a sense of humor, and they make an attempt, they’ll be called out as fake by their students. Huh? As another example, in one of a long line of bullet points of advice, the authors write: “It is best to focus on the student’s effort rather than the final result. Therefore, it is best to say, ‘Well done, you made a great effort,’ instead of, ‘Excellent job.’” (p. 70) This seems cosmetic and not particularly relevant.
Teachers are not trained robotically to follow formulaic rules but to adjust to complex environments with complex people, and it seems limiting to have lists of rules (as if people worked in deterministic environments). Paint-by-colors may be transferable in a few contexts, but not most. There are many ways to effectively approach teaching.
For example, the authors apparently engage in some unwarranted stereotyping. In their listing, the authors cite “Factors Related to Teachers” and in this include some stereotypes (of gender, age, and relationships), without actual source citations. Such assertions are harmful and not useful. Some examples follow:
Gender (it is believed that women develop better relationships with younger children, but encounter greater difficulties in exercising discipline)Age (younger teachers are more popular among students and more affectionate towards them)… (p. 66)
If part of living in a democratic society means not going with unfounded stereotypes about others, then this section is somewhat problematic.
A Broad Range of Topics
The authors do engage a broad range of topics, which is a strength and a weakness. There are benefits to thinking about spatial pedagogy and how space design may affect learning. There are benefits to thinking about classroom zones and how there are various learning centers in a classroom. It helps to consider the setup of desks, the lighting, the acoustics, and the spatial distribution of resources in a classroom. It helps to consider how to effectively group students for learning. It’s beneficial to think of a Socratic oath in teaching. These sparkles of insights are positive, but there is a lot of other stuff to work through to find these.
On some topics, the authors overreach beyond their areas of specialization, but they do not pursue enough foundational research to introduce those topics with confidence. For example, no one would disagree that teachers play a critical role in handling school violence and bullying, but the issue is how (and especially “how” based on empirical research). What are the warning signs of a potential school shooting? What are ways to handle live and unfolding crises? Yes, it is important to understand a child in his / her social context—of family, community, and school—and to reach out to parents as needed (p. 247), but what does this actually mean in an applied sense?
Some Areas for Improvement
On the one hand, the authors describe a number of “shoulds” in how the world should work, but not enough about how to actually achieve difficult things. For example, the authors open with the idea that teachers should be socially appreciated but are underpaid, but there is nothing practical that would change that sense. On the other, they go into excessive detail in a way that disrespects readers. They write:
At the beginning of the year, it is not uncommon for a teacher to inherit a classroom which is neglected and tasteless, full of old equipment and outdated books. In this case, it would be advisable to start with one part of the classroom at a time and gradually go through the entire class. First they must supply themselves with a waste basket and a recycling bin for all the waste. What usually ends up there are faded papers, old posters, craft paper, hardened glue, paints, dried out pens, chalk that is not used on the white board, books without covers, homework or tests which are not going to be used or drawings from children in other classes. (p. 94)
Do professionals really have to be told how to clean a classroom? Then, too, there are challenges with some of the word choices. In one list, the authors start out with mentioning both genders but then end up pointing only to the male personal pronoun (p. 38). The authors talk about teaching to “foreign pupils” (p. 269), which would not pass political correctness muster in many classrooms. In another case, the authors describe students who are held back a year with the subheading of “rejection and stagnation” (p. 182) seems somewhat weighted negatively. The authors describe the importance of teacher “withitness” (being “with it”) or being attentive in a complex environment with a number of dynamics going on simultaneously (p. 240).
“Classroom Life” touches on some important aspects of contemporary K12 teaching. It is important for teachers to maintain democratic principles in the classroom and to balance between structure and flexibility. Respect for others is critical for a psychologically and emotionally safe learning environment for all. (If anyone is picked on, everyone suffers.) A positive classroom climate is important so that people may concentrate and acquire the necessary understandings and skills to advance.
The educational field benefits from having resources to help teachers improve their work and own the full importance of their professional contributions. However, authorship and co-authorship require a stronger editorial hand, so that the research is sufficient, the writing is smooth, the ideas are sound and sufficiently supported, and the work is ultimately beneficial. In this, this work reads as rough-cut and would benefit from a stronger editorial hand and improved visuals (with label legibility, consistent line thicknesses, respect for visual conventions, parallel construction in terms, alignment of informational contents with the diagram, and so on).
This book, though, would be stronger if it did not leave out contemporaneous touches. For example, technology as a component of classroom life. There were no mentions of mobile devices or computers in the book, for example. The book does not really describe modern students even though there are plenty of resources and statistics about modern learners.
“Classroom Life” has some important contributions to make, particularly in the areas of ideals and in some areas (such as in Chapters 10 and 13, on cooperative learning and differentiated instruction). The section on teaching meta-knowledge (p. 165) was also helpful. Maybe the optimal way to read “Classroom Life” is with a pen or stylus in hand to pick out helpful insights to improve teaching.
About the Author
Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. She has worked as a college instructor for decades.
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