Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Pack

"While it is true that animals are not humans, it is equally true that humans are animals"
Frans de Waal

Just out of the den

In young adolescents the veneer of civilisation is extremely thin. They are urged by bodily changes towards dangerous adventures. Actually they are not aware of risks at all. Their inner clock is running wild, they act on the spur of the moment. Their natural habitat has recently been changed from the family at home in which their place was well defined into the peer group in which they constantly have to fight for their place in the pecking order.

I believe order in the class room should be dealt with on a down to earth level. It is not about rules, decency, tests and marks, mobile phones, expletives or whatever you can come up with to describe what happens in the classroom on the level of human behaviour. Order in the class room is about the pack.

My Habitat

I work in most fortunate conditions. My school is embedded in a rural environment in which strong family bonds still exist. Parents are ashamed when the school invites them for a showdown. The school is very well organised, there is a clear behaviour policy. Teachers are adequately supported by the management in case of trouble. Young teachers are systematically coached by experienced colleagues.

Even in this best of all worlds it happens once in a while that a class runs amok. Suddenly a group of neat young kids finds themselves in a situation in which they cruelly destroy the teacher's ego in a concerted effort. It happened in a tutor group of mine a couple of years ago, they crushed a cover teacher for Latin. It took only one lesson, the colleague was in tears. Individually all those amiable gifted children expressed afterwards that they were embarrassed and utterly ashamed of themselves. It just started, and then they could not stop it any more. They had turned into a pack of wolves.

Theoretical ruminations

Now what branch of science describes this type of behaviour best? I take it to be ethology. Especially the studies by Frans de Waal shed light on the order in the class room. De Waal's work describes the order in groups of chimpanzees as an intricate pattern of political bonds maintained meticulously by the alpha-male and his allies within the group.

What had happened in my tutor class was that the newly appointed cover teacher failed to show plain alpha-person signs in his first lesson, which confused the class so much as to follow their own pecking order. The queen bee of the girls took the lead. She manipulated the complete group into destructive behaviour, just for the fun of it, and to establish her reign. One of the creative rumbustious boys was ushered into the role of hatchet man and he found out what really would be extremely offensive against this weak adult. So the seat of the teacher was covered with maggots collected during an experiment in biology class the hour before. It clearly was a deliberately contrived act by the whole group. Only one student objected, but she was forced to comply with the others.

The event reminds me of De Waal's description of a bunch of young male chimpanzees that foray into the territory of an other group to find themselves some one to kill. A film on Youtube depicts such a gruesome event

Are you the alpha-person?

So order in the class room is about only one issue: are you as a teacher the alpha-person in the class room, or are you not? This is not a simplification, it makes it more complicated.

For example: young teachers often have a mindset which does not allow them to take command of the group. They prefer co-operative amiable behaviour. They are just nice guys or girls. They have never been a leader anywhere. But a teacher must aspire leadership to become the alpha-person in the class room.

Next to that it is not enough just to act bullishly. Bullish teachers challenge bullish students, you don't want to fight every minute in all lessons, do you. Just your appearance in the class room should suffice to calm down the young rebels. De Waal's observations show that the alpha-person is a master in political bonding. He has a deep knowledge of all the relations in the group, and knows perfectly when to bully a young rascal, when to show affection, and he knows how to dole out favours to win loyalty.

The Perfect Class Room

So my metaphor for the perfect class room is a group of monkeys on the rock. Everyone is relaxed and enjoys the day, grooming and flea-picking, communicating and playing. The old monkey on top of the rock sometimes is teased by the youngsters. They pull his leg for fun, not too seriously, as they know that when he comes down, hell breaks loose. He seems to be dozing. But he knows what's going on down there, all the time. He sees to that. He must, if he loses control, they will tear him apart.


Frans de Waal's quote: Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, How Morality Evolved;Princeton University Press, 2006, Appendix A pg 65.

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