Adam Voigt: Changing context is a start to changing student behaviour.

It’s not too often that I recommend teachers take pedagogical advice from real estate agents … but this is the exception.

For they clearly have our measure when it comes to the understanding that location is everything. Real estate agents are acutely aware that you can’t build a palace in a swamp and expect your prospective buyers to be gushing in their praise and reaching for their chequebooks. You see – location (or context in teacher parlance) really is everything if you are looking for a specific desired behaviour.

We see evidence of context impacting behaviour everywhere. I remember (don’t ask me why!) a news story on a tour that Prince Charles and Camilla made to Australia. They were scheduled to attend an event on Bondi Beach in Sydney where some NRL players where giving a beach rugby demonstration. These players were in their
element! With singlets on, ‘guns’ on show, tattoos prized and pecs and quite a crowd of their favourite supporters – bikini clad young ladies.
And then the Royal Party arrived for the customary line-up of handshakes and pleasantries. What do you know? These brawny and confident athletes were reduced to quivering, perspiring messes as they scrambled to remember the correct protocols. Many were incapable of recalling the rehearsed “Your Royal Highness” and reverted back to
their default Australian “G’day”. Here was a total change in behaviour, just because two rather unremarkable English people wandered onto the beach.
There are many who will determinedly tell you that there’s only one person whose behaviour you can change – yours, of course. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s utter rubbish. Try walking into your next staff meeting naked and see if you happen to impact the behaviour of those around you. I bet you can picture it! (Note – do NOT actually walk into
your staff meeting naked. It’s the highest known limiting career move you can imagine!).
The point of all this is that you can generate changes in behaviour by changing the environment or context in which certain behaviours are occurring. Try delivering explicit teaching from a different vantage point – like sitting on a stool – to see what the levels of engagement are.
Try dressing in a more formal way if the classroom environment is getting too casual. Try placing classroom reminders on walls instead of providing them verbally. Try wearing a favourite cap in work time as a
signal to students that you are not available for their 15th request for the toilet this morning. Try … try anything!
As Teachers, we often forget that we have almost complete control over the classroom context. Our default mechanism is to strategise or to DO something different. However the problem is often not our strategy at
all, but the context in which it is being delivered. Even the best pedagogy (the palace) will fail if employed in a bland, lifeless and learning space (the swamp).
Great teachers already intuitively know the impact of context. Their classrooms have an air of excitement and feel like great places to learn or even just to be. But never believe that this has emerged by blind luck. These wonderful teachers have spent their whole careers in cycles of contextual trial and error.
Some changes you make to the context will work spectacularly and some will fail miserably – that’s the art of pedagogy. Trial and error remains a highly valuable method of learning that we seem averse to in
contemporary schools. It’s perhaps pertinent to begin embracing the concept of learning through failure by tinkering with the context of our craft.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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