The scene is familiar. The student, frankly hopping out of their seat, arm stretched aloft and flapping like a leaf caught in a cobweb during a coastal storm. A tortured simile, but you probably get the point – it’s familiar, and a little annoying.

Yes, Sammy, I know you know. You putting your hand up is the signal to me that communicates “Sir, I know this.” Please stop pestering me, I’m the one who decides who answers questions, and you’re making a scene.

But I know the answer sir!

Sigh.

This case might only be mildly annoying, but there is a whole group of student behaviours within the category of “trying to participate but being infuriating with it” that might be annoying to start with, but can quickly turn into something worse than annoying. For example, a student who puts their hand up and calls out the answer – on the face of it this isn’t really that bad, it’s not like they are deliberately trying to disturb your lesson. But disturbing it is, and it kills your class Ratio. If you don’t challenge it, you send a message to the rest of the class that you aren’t the one in charge, that calling out is ok, and potentially that this part of the lesson doesn’t really concern them as it increasingly becomes less of a whole class lesson, and more of a small conversation between the teacher and the two or three students who are dominating the room. If you do challenge it, conflict almost inevitably follows – I was just saying the answer, sir – and we begin a protracted conversation where you are trying to explain to the student why what they did was wrong, and all the while the rest of the class are slowly zoning out.

In the student’s head, they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. This is key. Students who deliberately disturb or talk to their neighbour or whatever, it’s obvious they’ve done something wrong and if they argue with you then you just follow your standard escalation strategies and school policy. Done. But in this case when the students says they were just saying the answer, in their head they really haven’t done anything wrong – which makes convincing them that they have all the harder.

I’ve seen a lot of behaviours like this both in my own classes and when out and about. I’ve seen:

  • students whispering the answer to a student who’s been Cold Called
  • students calling out when another student makes a mistake to point it out or correct them
  • students repeating the question for a student who’s been caught napping by a Cold Call
  • students showing each other their mini-whiteboards to each other before I’ve asked for them to be held up
  • hyper competitive students making eyes at each other across the classroom when one of them gets something wrong or right
  • students immediately call out the answer to a calculation question the second the teacher says “I’m just going to get my calculator”
  • students get really annoyed with a teacher when they stick their hand up, flap it all over the place and don’t get asked. Sir why do you never ask me?

These things happen a lot. At their mildest, they are just a bit annoying. But left unchecked they can very quickly escalate into students calling out as a matter of course, followed by a blurring of the line between what is “good” calling out and what is “bad” calling out, culminating in a noisy classroom where the teacher is not fully in control.

Some teachers might say that I’m approaching this all wrong. That this enthusiasm should be encouraged – that we should be trying to harness it and spread it around the classroom like engagement fairy dust. If that’s what you’re looking for, then this blog probably isn’t the one for you. I imagine classes where that is allowed to take place end up with much lower Ratios; with the loudest students dominating and with introverted, quiet or non-academically-confident students feeling more and more marginalised. If you want to avoid that kind of a classroom, read on.

When I started noticing these behaviours and how tricky they were to deal with in the moment without conflict, the first thing I wanted to do was build a common language around them so I could discuss them along with potential solutions. At this point, I hit a wall. What should I call these behaviours? Non deliberate disruption? Positive disturbance? Compliant non-compliance?

Having hit the wall, I decided to reach out to the master himself – Doug Lemov. Doug told me that his team calls these things Sins of Enthusiasm. Absolutely. Flipping. Perfect. A beautiful phrase that captures the essence of the behaviours perfectly. Armed with a shared language, I could go back to teachers and talk with greater clarity about the things I was seeing and how we could deal with them. Below are a few ideas which came out of those conversations. They aren’t fool proof, but they may help and please do let me know if you have any other effective strategies.

  1. Challenge everything: you simply cannot allow students to sin, even if it is due to their enthusiasm. You send a message to the rest of the class that sinning generally is fine and that you don’t control your room. You introduce inconsistencies and opportunities for students to say “but you let Sammy call out!” which further undermines you and deteriorates your hard won classroom culture of mutual respect and fairness. 
  2. Cut the conversation dead: under no circumstances do you want to get into a long conversation with a student about whether their behaviour is wrong in front of the rest of the class. It kills your ratio and control of the class as a whole. So if you challenge the behaviour and the student says “but I was just…” or whatever you have two routes:
    1. Sammy, I don’t want to talk to you about it now but please do not call out again for anything. Do you understand, yes or no?
      This script makes things very clear, prevents a further conversation from occurring and doesn’t take too long, minimising your loss of ratio
    2. Ok everyone hands down…[Be Seen Looking, make eye contact around the room]…I want everyone to listen to this because it’s important. Eyes up here. Thank you. Sammy just called out the correct answer. In this classroom, we do not call out our answers, even when they are right. We don’t tell our friends the answers and we wait our turn patiently. This is because everybody should have the chance to learn and think for themselves without somebody else ruining it. You aren’t actually helping them – you are taking away their chance to think. So from now on, I don’t want to hear it from anybody. Ok, so the question was [repeat your question that Sammy called out to and get on with the lesson]
      My personal preference is for option b here as it means you get to say what you need to say, but to turn it into a learning experience for the rest of the class in terms of their culture going forward.
  3. Antecedents: telling someone they need to challenge the behaviour is all well and good, but it’s really difficult and draining to actually do. Far better to get ahead of the problem first (a general approach I describe here). If you have a class full of students who act like this, you need to make sure you are even clearer with your Front-Loading and Means of Participation. A script like “without calling out or telling your neighbour the answer, please put your hand up once you have the word equation for photosynthesis” is going to minimise the chances that Sins of Enthusiasm are committed. If you have students who get annoyed when you don’t pick them, use the mini-whiteboards more, and make it clear that the way they show you how confident they are in their answer is by being the first to put their whiteboard up when you say 1, 2, 3 sow me your answers. That way they can express their enthusiasm, but not sinfully.
  4. Be prepared: this is probably the most important one. I’d imagine it’s the same few students who commit these Sins lesson in, lesson out, so make sure you get to them before the lesson. Have the conversation with them where you explain exactly what they are doing and why it is inappropriate. Make it clear to them that you’re so happy they want to be involved, but that it isn’t fair on everybody else to take away from their ability to fully participate. Finish firmly with a “Are you clear on that? Good. That means that if you keep on doing it you’ll get a warning like everybody else, and then after that we follow the normal consequences” and the like. Follow up with a phone call home and again, tell the parents how great it is that their child is enthusiastic, but sometimes it bubbles over into behaviour that doesn’t help them or the rest of the class. Remind them of this conversation on their way into your next lesson, and then if they do it again a raised eyebrow or look communicating “we talked about this” will be enough. Instead of “but I was just saying the answer” you’re more likely to get “oh yeah sorry my bad.”

As with all my posts on behaviour, nothing here is 100% guaranteed to work. They are tips and ideas that should help, and I hope they do. As ever if you have anything else you can add or contribute please do.  

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 As ever, I don’t hesitate to point out that I am very much not an expert in behaviour stuff, just an ordinary punter trying to work things out. If you are interested in reading advice and guidance from people who are experts, then I can’t recommend highly enough:

Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov (my understanding is that 3.0 is on its way at some point and will have a section on Sins of Enthusiasm)

Running the Room by Tom Bennett

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