Here is a case study about the pitfalls of getting students to manage their own behavior:

(Go back to Social relationships, Classroom management, or the home page.)

Janice Collins, who taught 4th grade, decided to establish a democracy in her class. In September she began weekly meetings in which she encouraged her students to decide the rules that they would follow in class--rules about punishments for misbehaviors, for example, and about how to treat each other fairly.

At the first meeting, only four students spoke up about anything--and even these seemed hesitant. The others just stared silently, apparently cautious and sceptical. Janice almost gave the idea up right then. She persisted with the meetings, though, because she was convinced that they could work in the long run, and they they would benefit the students if they did.

For awhile, her efforts did pay off. By the winter holidays, over half the class was talking int he meetings and quite a variety of issues had been discussed and acted on. Janice was elated about her success, and hoped even to get the remaining students involved by the end of the year.

But after the holidays something went wrong. With so many participants, some meetings became rather long. Occasionally Janice began to hear the comment, "Is this ever boring!", muttered between students. The problem got worse because by January, most general policies for the classroom had already been debated at least once, and the students were left with relatively minor "fine tuning" of existing decisions. One time in February, for example, the class spent twenty minutes just discussing whether a certain boy who was tardy by five minutes deserved a different number of demerits than another who had been tardy on the previous day by only three minutes.

By March, whenever a class meeting began, Janice could not ignore the fact that many students promptly tuned out: they stared at the ceiling, put their heads down, or even read. At one meeting, in fact, the class "voted" to abolish the demerit system--a significant change--by only 3 to 2, with 20 abstentions! "This is dumb," someone said, and privately Janice had to agree.

But she did not realize the full significance of this vote until the next meeting. "I move," one student said, "that we stop having class meetings, and that Ms. Collins make all the decisions from now on." The motion was seconded and discussion began.

Democracy seemed to be in trouble. Janice was not sure how to respond to this turn of events, or to the specific motion now on the floor.

Questions to Discuss:
  1. To what extent is Janice's experiment with democracy a "success" or a "failure"? Explain your answer.
  2. If you were an experienced teacher giving advice to Janice at the beginning of her experiment (and perhaps using "20-20 hindsight" to help you as well), what advice would you give?
  3. If you were an experienced teacher giving advice to Janice now, when a motion to abolish class meetings has already been made, what advice would you give?

- Seifert Seifert Dec 2, 2010