Why Students Goof Off in Class (Hint: It's Not Because They're Bad)

[Disclaimer: serious misbehavior in the classroom is a serious issue and should be dealt with accordingly. This article is not about such misbehavior, but rather everyday, ordinary “goofing around.”]

A few weeks ago, two of my most hard-working and conscientious students were seated next to each other in the computer lab. Both of them had completed the coding assignment we were working on. I was helping other students debug their computer programs on the other side of the room, and was unaware that these two had finished their work – and now had nothing to do. Seasoned teachers already know what happened next: escalating tomfoolery. One of them typed a bunch of gibberish on the other one’s screen. The other one turned off the first one’s monitor. The first one pulled the plug on the other’s CPU. The other stole the first one’s mouse. Typical seventh grade misbehavior, of course – but this time from two very unexpected sources.

What caused these two “good kids” to suddenly “go bad”?

Bad instructions.

I should have told everyone to occupy themselves with something (appropriate) online if they finished early. Since I didn’t, the two cherubs in question followed my lack of directions perfectly - and did nothing. And got bored. And tried to cure their boredom as seventh graders tend to do, by 1) trying to make each other laugh, 2) getting on each other’s nerves, and 3) both.

A few years ago, as I was observing another math classroom, I watched a kid clown around day after day instead of working on the week-long project he was supposed to be working on. This kid was ordinarily a high-level math student, and I had found his behavior to be exemplary in other classes, so the misbehavior in this case interested me. After he was ejected from the class one day on account of his increasingly disruptive antics, I had the chance (in the detention room) to ask for his side of the story. Fighting back tears, he informed me that he had no problem doing the math and had been trying to work on the project, but that he didn’t understand the point of the project or its directions. (This last part I could readily believe; none of the students understood them.) He also told me that he had been hurt by the teacher repeatedly accusing him of laziness, especially since, up to this point, he had considered the teacher to be a friend.

These situations illustrate a law that I’ve observed countless times over my 30-year teaching career, a law that should be right up there with Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Bernoulli’s law of fluid dynamics: Kids don’t goof off because they’re bad; they goof off because they’re bored, baffled, or browbeaten.

How can we make sure they aren’t bored or baffled? (I’m assuming we all know how to avoid browbeating them.) By keeping all instruction within the Goldilocks zone (or flow channel), the mental region where tasks aren’t too hard (confusing) or too easy (boring), but instead are continually just right. I’ve illustrated this zone below (by modifying an image from my article Why Kids Can Master Insanely Hard Video Games But Can’t Do Basic Math):

Now before we look at how to achieve this goal, let me talk about what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about busy work (word searches, crossword puzzles, mazes, etc., etc., etc.). Schools are littered with this useless crap, because 1.) kids will happily do it, 2.) it’s not confusing, 3.) a kid can complete it incorrectly and it doesn’t matter, and, most importantly 4.) it gobbles up huge amounts of class time. Kids are fine with “working” on this nonsense because it runs out the clock and beats the other more mystifying or soul-crushing work the teacher could be giving them instead. Busy work is excluded from this discussion not because kids don’t learn anything from it (they don’t), or because it doesn’t empower them or make them feel better about themselves in any way (it doesn’t), but because it doesn’t prevent behavior problems. Why not? Because kids aren’t stupid; they know when they’re being condescended to – and they resent it just like we do.

Instruction within the Goldilocks zone prevents behavior problems because it requires and rewards sustained focus, and because it makes kids feel good about themselves, as all genuine accomplishments do. When students feel themselves actually growing and getting smarter – I mean, for real – they're more inclined to do their work, and less inclined to goof around or seek attention.

So how do we get there? By using the classic 1-2-3 punch of “see it, do it, check it.” Each learning task we assign must include an instantly understandable and fully worked-out example to refer to, a related practice problem, and a key containing the fully worked-out solution to the practice problem. (Stay tuned for forthcoming activities along these lines!) By working their way through sequences of related and slightly more complex tasks of this type, and by gradually progressing through “levels” of related and slightly more advanced topics, students will discover more reasons to apply themselves in school and take their learning seriously.

And will have fewer reasons to goof off.

Steve Hare

Math-Whisperer. Humanist.
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