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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I had an epic battle with a tangle of barbed wire a while ago. I'm glad to report that my cuts and scratches are healing nicely, and I'd like to share with you about how this battle revealed to me a number of brilliant truths about classroom management.

I had decided I had to do something about the tangle of barbed wire hidden in the grass on our property, so I began to untangle it. Very quickly, I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number One: Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. There are so many barbs that they catch on one another and the strands between.

Soon, I noticed a pain in my left arm. To my dismay, I saw that I was tangled in the wire. Barbed Wire Fact Number Two: It has a life of its own. No sooner would I untangle a few feet of wire than the wire would attempt to bounce back and try to tangle itself again. Applying this new knowledge, I hooked the free end of the wire to a fence post and resumed the untangling process.

Now I had another problem. Barbed Wire Fact Number Three: Barbed wire doesn't thread. It gets caught on the other wires as soon as you try. So, I ingeniously rolled the end of the wire into a loop and passed the whole loop through the tangles. Controlling an ornery loop of barbed wire was dangerous enough, but trying to put it through other tangled loops was just asking for trouble. It worked OK for the first few loops, but quickly the wire decided it did not want to be cooperative.

I didn't have enough hands to keep it all in place, but then I put my foot on the wire and used a bit of baling wire to tie it back and make it stay in a loop. That is how I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number Four: You cannot control barbed wire without help.

Finally, I began to make decent headway with the tangle. But, sadly, I noticed that as I added loops to my threading loop, it was starting to threaten my arm. I thought about getting some more baling wire, but then I stumbled across Barbed Wire Fact Number Five: If you roll the wire upon itself, instead of just looping it side by side, the barbs work in your favor and keep the rebellious loops under control all by themselves.

Now I was in charge, and I made the barbed wire work for me, which made untangling the rest of it a cinch.

Coiling the Classroom

As unpleasant, frustrating, and painful as untangling that barbed wire was, sometimes I find that managing classrooms can be even worse. But one can apply the brilliant truths I learned about barbed wire to a classroom to get it under control, too. Simply recognizing (and respecting) the nature of education will help us deal with all of its prickly tangles, but I have also added a few ideas that might be of use to you in creating your own neatly wound classroom-management coils:

Even When Barbed Wire Is Not Tangled, It Is Tangled
Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess. Add to that the multitudes of state standards, and it's no wonder that lesson plans sometimes get jumbled. The true task, then, is to focus on one tangle at a time. Find where the barbs are getting caught and target that particular standard or behavior until students have mastered or solved it. Then go on to the next tangle.

Barbed Wire Has a Life and Mind of Its Own
Classrooms are ever changing and evolving. What worked very well one day may not work the next. And there's often another tangle that appears, especially with older students. They prefer the comfort of being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. They know it is a lot easier to do worksheets than to actually write, create, or produce a viable product.

We constantly have to struggle with overcoming mediocrity (laziness) and getting our students to think and behave in creative ways. Our job is to stay at least one step ahead of the students and to differentiate the curriculum to match their current needs (not wants), because they might change at a moment's notice. Variety is the key.

Barbed Wire Doesn't Thread or Cooperate
Today's students are more sophisticated than kids of years past, and the threat of discipline is less capable of motivating them to modify their behavior. Thus, we need to employ other creative methods that fit the students we have now. Closer contact with the students' parents will help untangle some knots. Cell phones are a huge benefit. Parents carry them all the time, so you can get in touch with them all the time.

Another strategy is to avoid the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Put that on the shoulders of the student, where it belongs. Students understand consequences, and if an infraction occurs, they need to take responsibility. It is a question of changing "I am going to punish you" to "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" The difference between these statements is that with the second one, when you are not there, your students will still monitor themselves.

You Can't Control Barbed Wire Without Help
I see teachers struggling to "control" their students by keeping them busy. The students wait around to be told what to do, or they get fidgety and start mischief. However, when students help create a binding, high-performance contract with their teacher that has consequences, the teacher can leave the control method behind and move into the channel method, described below.

You Can Make the Barbs Work in Your Favor
Lockstep instruction, with no student choice or input, is a barbed tangle waiting to happen. The students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths. It just takes some encouragement, suggestions, and individual concern. The very tangle of chaos and confusion that we tried to control -- and that was causing us grief and pain -- now becomes our helper.

Focusing Student Energy

When correctly channeled, the frenetic energy most students display becomes enthusiasm and zeal for learning rather than reasons for disciplinary action. When students get done quickly with their assignments, do we give them busywork or allow them to play, or do we encourage them to choose a project that will feed their interests and truly engage them in individual study? (This is differentiation, extension, and enhancement.) A student of any age can write a book, create a movie, choreograph a dance, create a song, design a house, build a skyscraper, solve a problem, paint a masterpiece, or discover and share something new. Project learning and inquiry learning fit the bill nicely.

I survived my tangle with barbed wire, and after intense effort and experimentation, I was able to master it and finally get it all coiled neatly -- well, as neatly as one can coil barbed wire. I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the way I felt as a teacher when my carefully planned and choreographed unit was effective, even with all of the on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe that is why there are so many people, but so few teachers. We are willing to tackle that barbed wire, knowing that we probably won't come out unscathed. But we are willing to take the risk if it will help our students. So, wear your scars with pride.

Please share some of your nasty tangles and how you were able to tame them.

Comments (98)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Charles Green's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Classroom management and barbed wire is an interesting comparison. I agree that every day is different and just when you think things are going well, you better beware of a barb. With all the classroom management techniques I have tried, I have found my relationship with the students to be most effective. I have to constantly praise and encourage students and show them that the work is important and that they can do it. I must work on activities students can do when they get done early. That's when my tangles occur.

Tiffany Powell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching with tangles was a great blog for me to read! This is my first time blogging, but I got so many tips and techniques that I can use in my classroom. I teach fundamental classes where many students are unmotivated and unwilling to try something new. I found that allowing them to accept responsibility for their own actions along with encouraging them to think critically made them want to participate in class! Thank you for your post!

vicky Townsend's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The analogy of the barbed wire was terrific. I too found myself tangled in the wire this past year. I do plan to hopefully have the wire working in my favor this year. Your information helped me to reflect upon my own classroom and realize that my students are not the only ones that change with the wind. It seems that once I find something that works, that very next day it has to be changed.

Ashley Bilinovic's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading the barbed wire analogy to the classroom, I would have to say that I agree. I am in my second year of teaching, and I would have to say that I am a pretty organized person. Although that may be true, behavior manangement can be a tangled mess with 25 children, all with different personalities and backgrounds. There are many times in my own classroom that I can see myself trying to control my students and they seem to have their own agenda. I have to realize that when I work with my students and create trusting relationships built on suggestions and input, the relationship can grow and foster into a great learning opportunity for all involved. Building relationships as a whole community will allow the children to work together to become "untangled". It isn't just the teachers job or the students job to fix the problems in the classroom. It is the responsibility of the entire unit. Working together is key!

Aimee Du Quette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a comparison! I would have never thought to compare classroom management and barbed wire, but it works. I am going into my third year of teaching and I believe my management is pretty good. "Focusing Students Energy" was my favorite part of the blog. I am going to incorporate the idea for students to choose a project of interest when finished early with classwork. I want to give my kids the opportunity to learn using different modalities. That is a great way for me to do that. I can have different projects under different subjects. Within in each I will use Gardners theory of multiple intelligences when I plan the activities for students. Thank you, what a great blog!

Megan Geiger  Valdosta, GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time blogging on educational websites. I came across this website from a graduate course I am taking. I loved the comparison that Ben Johnson made. I just finished my first year teaching and found that behavior problems were something that I struggled with. Each student is different and comes with different challenges, as a teacher I feel that it is my job to figure out the best way to work with each child. The quote "Barbed wire has a life and a mind of it's own" and the what Mr. Johnson said caught my attention. The same discipline and punishment will not work the same on every child. I completly agree with this article and I am not exciting about blogging!

Rita Woods's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this blog was great. Good subject matter. Just teaching for 2 years now I am getting the feel that classroom management is an issue all over the country. Keeping in control being flexible and learning from situations can only improve yourself as you continue to improve your craft you already have. Keep Learning, Keep Seeking.

Stefanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for the wonderful insite to how many of us educators feel about classroom management. It was very eye opening, especially to those of us just beginning our teaching careers like myself! I really enjoyed the way that you had broken down those troubling areas that classroom management has and helped us with insites to making those "neat" coils in the classroom.

As an elementary art teacher, I have many classes everyday with a varitey of ages, learning styles, and behavior plans. It can be a challenge for classroom manangement because each class is unique and behaviors are different. You had written, "Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess." This is so true! We have to do our best to help these situations when they occur, which they will most certainly occur!

Thanks for the insites. I look forward to returning to read your future blogs about education!

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I know what you mean and what you feel. But there is no need to despare, solutions abound. We just have to know where to find them. You are doing the right thing by searching for these solutions. If you don't mind, I have a couple that might help. Two tools that I have found to be extremely helpful in preventing tangles and even untangling them are- Anticipation and Distraction. I will be talking about the distraction skill further in one of my future blogs, but I will comment on it now too. I am looking at anticipation not in terms of the emotion or hurrying up and waiting... but in terms of anticipating possible student reactions and responses as your prepare your lesson plans. Having a plan A and a plan B and C prepared according to those quite predictable student reactions will do wonders for your sense of peace, joy and happiness in the classroom. The other, distraction, is what you do to help the students learn without knowing they are learning. It is the art of being deliberately obtuse, unpredictable, and fresh. You catch the students by surprise, you mix things up, you make the students wonder what new and interesting thing is going to happen next. As an untangler, this skill works well too. I was dealing with an emotionally charged student and out of the blue, I asked what she liked on her pizzas. Without batting an eye she told me, and all of the sudden, we were discussing peperoni, pineapple and chicago style pizzas. Another deft switch, and we were back on topic and she was none the wiser, but somehow felt better.

Best of luck!
Ben Johnson (author)
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are correct that students have a hard time trusting teachers that don't show interest in them. Developing that relationship does not happen by accident and does not happen without risk. Figuratively, the teacher has to be willing to expose the quite vulnerable arm or leg to the tangle of barbs. A teacher does this by sharing with the student the real teacher, not just a talking head. Once the student sees that the "Hello, how are you?" comes from a real person, then they respond by not showing their barbs. The trick is to share your reality at the same time you engage students in learning. Edutopia is full of ways to do that- chief among them are project based learning and inquiry. Transforming the traditional "I talk--you listen" teacher to a teacher that creates a learning environment and encourages discovery and exploration within it--making the student be their own teacher, is the ultimate way to show the students you care. You sound like you have a good grasp of the tangled needs of your students. Hang in there and always keep untangling.

Best Regards,
Ben Johnson (author)
Natalia, TX

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