George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Culture

Collaborative Classroom Management

When students have a say on behavior expectations or how to demonstrate their learning, they can help create a positive, engaging classroom culture.

January 19, 2022
Small group of students work together in class
FG Trade / iStock

Teachers make most classroom decisions, which can cause power struggles and student conflict. However, giving students power can feel risky; what if access to such power causes them to behave like the students from Lord of the Flies?

Sociocracy, a consent-based governance model and decision-making method, is a powerful tool for promoting classroom collaboration. Collaboration with students on specific decisions can increase engagement, improve behavior, and create a more positive learning environment.

As a program manager at Sociocracy for All, I work with schools around the world to develop sociocratic practices with students from kindergarten through community college. I assist them by organizing professional conferences, developing curricula, producing videos, and connecting practitioners through a community of practice.

I’ll talk below about how sociocratic practices have been impactful in the schools where I work and the Pathfinder School, which I founded for students ages 5 to 14, based on these practices.

Benefits of Collaborative Decision-Making

Collaborative decision-making has the potential to benefit students. When disgruntled students have a say in how they present their learning, they become more invested in doing their projects. Learning to listen to other people’s points of view can help students develop social and emotional intelligence.

Both classrooms and a school can benefit from collaborative decision-making. It can lead to increased attendance. Students show increased motivation and engagement, which can lead to higher academic achievement. When students work together to cocreate behavior strategies, they are more likely to respect and support one another. At one school, students performed exceptionally well on a test assessing perspective-taking abilities.

At Pathfinder, a mixed-age elementary and middle school, collaborative decision-making became an essential component of our behavior management system. For example, the younger students (ages 5 to 8) wanted to rent a bouncy house for the end-of-year party. Older students (ages 9 to 13) objected, claiming that it would cause overcrowding and injuries. The students came to an agreement through collaborative decision-making and spent the money on a trip to a large trampoline park, where everyone could have fun while remaining safe. Consider a scenario in which a group of kids builds consent to decide which takeout food to order.

Here are three examples of how you can use collaborative decision-making in your classrooms and throughout your school.

Make Classroom Agreements Together

Making classroom agreements as a group can improve behavior in the classroom. Follow these steps:

  1. Ask students, “How do we want to treat each other in the classroom?”
  2. Make a list of what the students say.
  3. Request that students sign the list of agreements and commit to putting them into practice for a month, and then follow up to see how things are going. After the trial period, it’s crucial to ask, “How’s it going? Are there any modifications to these agreements that we would like to make?”
  4. When there are conflicts or behavior issues, refer to the classroom agreements.

Students at Pathfinder devised a “quiet meter” with numbers ranging from 0 to 5 to show the level of noise in the classroom. One student was the “noise meter reader,” who would get up quietly and adjust the noise meter to reflect the current situation in the classroom. Students quickly altered their behavior, similar to speeding drivers reminded of their current speed.

Use Feedback Rounds During Short Classroom Meetings

Quick classroom meetings can help with participation and engagement. Set aside 15 minutes each week to discuss how things are going in the classroom. In a circle, take turns speaking. To aid younger students in taking turns, give them a talking object that signals to the group who may speak at the moment.

Ask the students, “What is going well in our classroom?” Alternatively, “What would make things better?” It is critical to recognize and celebrate what is working while also implementing the students’ suggestions for improvement. Taking a stretch break in the middle of a period to get the wiggles out, rearranging the seating to encourage new connections, and starting positive classroom traditions around transition times such as playing “get ready to go outside” music are just a few student suggestions.

Student feedback can help you figure out what kinds of opportunities you need to create for students to show what they’ve learned in effective and empowering ways. Students in one middle school English class, for example, wanted to choose how to present their learning for a lesson. Students produced “brilliant work,” according to the teacher, and “used all kinds of information and skills that they had been learning in previous months.”

Thumbs Up, Down, or Sideways

Consent decision-making is a quick and easy way for group-based decision-making. It is fairer than majority-based voting because all students’ voices count. After using feedback rounds to generate new ideas, students consent to them with a quick thumbs up, down, or sideways. “I like it,” says a thumbs up. “I’m OK with it,” says a thumb pointing sideways. Thumbs down means “It’s not good enough for now, or safe enough to try.”

When a student gives a thumbs down, ask, “What would help you be OK with trying this out?” If they cannot come up with an idea, ask the rest of the class, “What other ideas do you have to make this work?” Real-life examples of where this approach to consent-based decision-making would be beneficial include group project topics, how to care for shared resources, how to keep the classroom tidy, where to go on a field trip, how to spend a shared classroom budget, and how to run a classroom fundraiser.

The results of implementing collaborative decision-making have surprised the teachers with whom I work. In the classroom, collaborative decision-making has several advantages, as well as the potential to improve the school climate.

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