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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Make Like a Goat: The Art of Distracting Unruly Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I have 17 acres in south Texas, and half of the acreage is wooded. Particularly in the northern part of my property, there is an obnoxious vine in the lily family, called greenbrier, that grows everywhere.

The leaves are a beautiful vibrant, glossy green, but the vine is a tough, thorny monstrosity that never stops growing, and catches on your clothes, scratches you, and climbs trees, forming an impenetrable barrier that eventually kills them. You know how Bermuda and Johnson grass spread through underground tubers? So does this horrible plant. And I thought barbed wire was bad.

But, as usual, as I battled this evil force, I learned some things about education. Smilax bona-nox L. hides in the shadows and spreads itself beneath the soft forest floor with seemingly sinister persistence. When it is ready, it shoots up tendrils that grow three feet in one week. Soon, the tendrils turn into a tough, woody vine with vicious thorns that would do a rosebush proud. When I saw the tendrils, I would cut them down, but in a few days others would replace them. Chopping the runners beneath the soil only multiplied the problem -- literally.

I investigated and found out that the only way to get rid of greenbrier entirely is to use a systemic approach and go for the heart of the problem. The experts offer several alternatives: I could spray the runners with a broad-spectrum herbicide like Roundup, I could trace them back to the main tuber and dig it out, or I could let loose the most formidably destructive beast known to man: a goat. It turns out that this horrendous plant is edible.

How does all this chatter about plants relate to what happens in the classroom? Learning stops when students' attention meanders like greenbrier, and misbehavior pops up like little tendrils all over the place. If these tendrils are not taken care of promptly, they become tough, thorny problems that can make a teacher want to quit.

Attacking such problems head on is tiresome and frustrating for the teacher and creates an antagonistic atmosphere in the classroom. What a teacher needs to do is to turn the tables and take advantage of the situation. Just as a goat is able to use greenbrier to meet its needs, a teacher must channel the misbehavior to meet his or her needs. It is not about control. It is about the most powerful tool a teacher has: the art of distraction.

Experienced teachers know that it is essential to start a lesson with the students' attention. That is why they prepare some sort of hook -- or, as influential educator Madeline Hunter called it, an anticipatory set that draws the students into the subject to be taught. As a foreign language teacher, I liked to start my classes off with a story or a joke. I spoke in Spanish and I acted out the story, pointed, and did whatever I could to help the students understand. Then I had them help me tell the story or joke. Once we had gone over it, I could get into the lesson that related to the story or joke.

But once we got started in the learning process, how did I keep the students on task? A number of cardinal rules helped me:

  • Never sit down behind your desk while there are students in the classroom.
  • While students are practicing, be a goat and nibble around the room, never stopping too long in any one place.
  • Always give the students a reason to be engaged -- a time limit, a competition, a reward, a project, a case study, or a real-life problem to solve.
  • Make sure that the standards for performance are clear and that the students know that they will have to perform.
  • Keep the pace up by chunking the learning into smaller activities that last no more than five to ten minutes.

What did I do with students set on disruption? I ate them. To put it more diplomatically, I channeled their energy by distracting them long enough to get them on task again. Younger students are easier to distract and refocus than older ones, but the same principle applies: You ask a question they aren't expecting.

For example, let's say a boy is bouncing a hard rubber ball in class. Rather than yell at him to stop, I could ask him if he can do it with his left hand, then behind his back and under his leg. Then I could tell him that if he has such skill with a ball, the current assignment should be a snap. You see, he knew that the activity would irritate me. That was his motivation to begin a conflict. But distracting and redirecting take the conflict away and build rather destroy relationships. Often, you'll find that the more goofy and obtuse the distraction, the better.

A masterful distracter can catch a student off guard with humor, personal interest, and engagement. He or she can then skillfully assimilate the unwanted behavior and rechannel the energy of the student in productive ways without the student ever catching on about what happened.

What masterful ways have you found to distract and redirect student behavior? Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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