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Chaos in the Classroom

The one thing a teacher tries to avoid on the first week of school is a chaotic classroom. It is a time of community building, introductions, and an orderly classroom environment--except in my eighth grade social studies classroom. In the second week of classes, my students participate in a chaos simulation where paper airplanes are flying, pencils are being stolen, and boys are getting up on their desks and yelling. Generally the mayhem is loud enough that a colleague will stick their heads in to make sure everything is okay. This is the introduction to our year studying government.

The chaos experiment is an attempt to create what Thomas Hobbes and John Locke dubbed a “state of nature”—that is, a time before government when people were governed by their own impulses. I’ve set this up as a simulation, with the guise that they are debating on whether lights should be on or off in the classroom. As a way to frame the “debate” I introduce this as research on boys and learning environments and specifically whether boys learn more effectively with lights off or on. I find this effective since I am always surprised to walk into a classroom and see boys reading and working quietly in the dark. “No!” they will yell as I turn on the lights. So, I know this is a topic they feel invested in.

After the introduction, I give each student a piece of paper on which is written his role in the “debate.” Half the class is given roles that advocate for lights to stay on, and the other half is for lights off. Faces of confusion abound as they read their paper and try to make sense of it. How do I have the boys simulate chaos? It’s not easy. These are eager and earnest eighth grade boys and so it’s a stretch for them to be asked to get on a chair and yell to try to persuade others to keep the lights on. Other roles include: a pencil thief, a pollster, paper airplane factory workers, a factory supervisor, and writers who work on letters to Jerry Ward demanding that lights stay on or off at Fenn, depending on their side.

In the beginning, the boys are tentative. They aren’t sure if they should really comply with the role they’ve been assigned. My only job during the actual simulation is to stand by the wall and continually switch the lights on and off. As the boys realize that they really can stand on their chairs without getting in trouble, they start to dig in. Soon, the factory workers are busily making paper airplanes, boys are milling about the classroom loudly yelling “lights on” or “lights off,” and there’s a trader with fake money buying paper airplanes. It quickly gets loud and disorderly.

After about ten minutes, I end the simulation and debrief. Sometimes the savvy student will ask aloud, “What was that?” Others will ask me excitedly if we can do this every day. Then, I ask them to make the connection. What does this have to do with government? “It’s anarchy!” many of them will yell in a chorus. Then I ask them to read aloud their roles. The pencil thief reveals his booty, the pollsters will tally their votes, and the traders will share how they spent their money. I ask them how it felt to be in chaotic environment and they share their frustration and confusion.  hen, I introduce Locke and Hobbes and the question of human nature. At this point, they are invested and excited to think about government—what does it mean that government is a human institution and how does that shape decisions and choices individuals and groups make when it comes to rules and regulations?

Over the years, what I’ve noticed in doing this simulation is that boys like to move around, they like to interact with others when learning new things, and they are willing to take risks in the classroom. They enjoy the dramatic aspect of being given a role and the freedom to explore it. The chaos experiment is great way to start the year, teach a concept, and get to know my students. As James Madison so aptly put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” 

Posted by in Elise Mott on Sunday December, 1, 2013


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