Learning in a classroom is contingent on good classroom management; the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review describes one component of this as “maximising opportunity to learn.” Students have long lamented how teachers seemingly have “eyes in the back of their head”—which is actually a helpful tool in building positive student behaviour.
When I was studying to become a teacher, I remember one of my education professors talking about using “the eyes in the back of your head” as a classroom management tool. Of course, while an actual additional pair of eyes would certainly be helpful, she was referring to an awareness of what was happening in the classroom, even when seemingly focused on something else. What she considered eyes in the back of your head, others (e.g., Kounin, 1977) have termed withitness.
Ideally, this can mean near-constant sweeps to observe students’ behaviour in the classroom. Where is students’ attention focused? What are they doing? Who is speaking? What could become a source of distraction?
Classrooms where learning is optimised are often characterised by minimal disruption. That’s not to say those incidents don’t exist, but great teachers often successfully anticipate and prevent them from happening in the first place. When disruptions can be prevented, a teacher can maximise the opportunity for their students to learn. An element of great teaching is recognising these potential issues and halting them from progressing.
As someone who learned to drive in the US years ago and currently preparing for my UK driving test, I see some interesting parallels here. The written “theory” test requires would-be drivers to identify driving hazards from video clips. As someone who has been driving for years, I have little difficulty spotting the object in the clip that could cause me to brake or swerve; I can easily recognise the dangerous situations where such hazards are more likely.
For another analogy, you can view lifeguard training videos to see situations when a lifeguard makes a pool rescue. Often you can see the lifeguard preparing for a possible rescue a few seconds before it’s needed—they can recognise the dangerous situation developing. (Watch a few yourself, rewinding each time to focus on the swimmer in trouble, and you’ll probably be able to spot the warning signs quickly too.)
A teacher needs to be the lifeguard of classroom management. Keep an eye and ear out across the whole room for potential misbehaviour. Be the driver and adjust the course so it’s not a threat.
That said, the eyes in the back of your head are not just a tool for a teacher to know what’s going on; a teacher can help effect positive behaviour by communicating this awareness to students.
By signalling this awareness, you not only remind them of expected behaviours, but you also give students a chance to correct their behaviour before it escalates. In our analogies, you are like a driver sounding their horn or a lifeguard blowing their whistle.
These signals do not need to be explicit to be effective. Teachers with strong classroom management may be able to do many without disrupting the flow of the lesson. You might pause mid-sentence for the briefest of moments instead of hushing two whispering students. Catching a student’s eye with a knowing glance can stop them from pulling out their mobile phone.
Personally, I would wander around when teaching, so used proximity to students as a subtle signal that I was aware of what was happening. (A favourite adaptation of that would be to ever-so-nonchalantly just rest my hand on the corner of a distracted student’s desk for a moment, without breaking my conversation or looking down. It was so subtle the other students may not even pick up on it, but impossible for the distracted student to miss.)
Will these eyes in the back of your head solve every disruption or improve all student behaviour? No, there will be times you’ll need to jump in the pool or slam on the brakes. Classroom management often requires a multifaceted approach; it takes time and effort to build a supportive environment with clear rules and norms. But having a sense of withitness and using your eyes in the back of your head is a good start.
As with anything, anyone can hone these tools; for example, you may find these strategies helpful:
- Ask a trusted colleague to informally observe their class; try to focus purely on their students’ behaviour and your colleague’s response.
- Practise identifying the “developing hazards” of student behaviour. What things often precede misbehaviour or disruption in your classroom?
- Build up experience “shifting gears” in classroom practicalities (e.g., firing up the projector or passing out papers) so they won’t take your focus from what’s happening in the classroom.
- Consider potential causes of disruption in a lesson and how you could mitigate these. (e.g., if shuffling books and papers cause students to lose focus or start chatting, consider have students pull them out at the start of lesson.)
- Plan in advance which explicit or subtle cues you can use in a lesson; be ready to deploy them as needed, instead of having to make them up as you go.
Finally, also consider the social norms of your classroom. Student behaviours that are undesirable but are allowed to occur can appear normal or accepted by students, and (in their minds) tacitly approved of by the teacher. What you permit, you promote. You can hear more on this in our podcast episode on Classroom Management.
You can also learn more about withitness and other strategies for classroom management in EBE’s Maximising Opportunity to Learn course in the Great Teaching Toolkit. It provides an evidence-based overview of how and why maximising the opportunity to learn helps both teachers and students—as well as further strategies to pursue it.
Kounin, J. S. (1977). Discipline and group management in classrooms. R.E. Krieger Pub.