Tuesday, February 4, 2014

5 Ways to Influence Social Power in the Classroom

In my years of teaching, some of my classes have gelled and others have, well...fizzled.  I recently heard the phrase "social power" and suddenly it all clicked. 

Students are social beings and their interactions with each other and the teacher are among the most important factors in the classroom.

In many ways, this "classroom chemistry" is intangible, yet it influences every interaction and has a potent effect on all learning.

The phrase "social power" perfectly captures that unknown factor of classroom chemistry.  Here are some questions that get me thinking more about social power:
  • Why has there been more success in a class when a particular student is absent?
  • Why do some groups of students work better together than others?
  • Why is there a different "feeling" among my different classes?
  • Why are some classes more "positive" and others more "negative?"
  • Who are the leaders in the classroom? How do they use their power?
In my experience, the students who have social power greatly influence the culture of the classroom, and sometimes their effect is fun, or energetic, and unfortunately, it can be mean or even undermine teacher.

5 Ways (I've attempted and will continue to attempt) to Influence Social Power
1.  Build relationships with students.  Studies show that students are more apt to work for a teacher who believes in them and cares for them.  An Educator's Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems by Mark Boynton and Christina Boynton has a great chapter about developing positive student relationships.

2.  Model the behaviors you want students to show (and not show).  This is small but important. Teach students how to handle conflict or team interactions, and follow the classroom rules too.  (Be on time!  No cell phones!  Be present!)  Now, when my class is overzealous and hyper and unfocused...that may come from me, at times.  I have to admit it.  

3.  Create a positive class culture.  The book Reaching All by Creating Tribes: Learning Community is one of my favorites.  It got my thinking about the small things than can change the tenor of the room.  We celebrate birthdays, and when students self-correct, they mark correct answers.  I also love the classic page-turner The First Days of School:  How to Be an Effective Teacher, which gives strategies for creating an environment that celebrates learning.

4.  Use group work structures.  I love Kagan Cooperative Learning because it gives many strategies for the flexible grouping of students and for creating structures to encourage students to work effectively together.  I find that these structures help to create a positive class culture and build relationships with students.  The fact that all students are working simultaneously also removes the stage for attention seekers.

5.  Conference individually with students.  Thanks to group structures, I have many opportunities to discreetly chat with students, and I have been able to use positive influence to get students with "charisma" who are leaders to focus in meaningful ways.  (Some students use their charisma in negative ways; I try to coach them to use this strength to help move the class forward.)

I try my best to practice those ideas, but I do not always succeed. When faced with an angry student who is looking for a fight, or a class where the ten students who hold social power are chatty and off task, I struggle to keep us all connected and happily learning together.  But I will keep trying.

What are your thoughts on influencing social power in the classroom?


  1. Wow you really hit on some great stuff here. Culture is the secret sauce in building a great team and this is what a classroom is. In our district they have "teams" but do no team building whatsoever. "Team" is just a label they put on a random collection of kids. It is really a misnomer.

    Someone interested in this topic of team building might be interested in 2 books. "The Culture Game" a fantastic book of gamifying culture creation, and "Tribal Leadership." Both are must reads for any culture hacker.

  2. I am not a teacher just an observer and a builder of teams.

  3. Hi! Thank you for the comment. I agree that it takes more than just putting students in groups to create teams. I will definitely read those books - thanks for sharing this recommendation with other readers and me.