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Discipline… It’s not a Four-Letter Word

Phillip stands on a chair, ready to drop his paper-and-paperclip helicopter from the two-meter mark on the door frame. His partner, stop-watch in hand, counts off a “ready, set, go!” Vanessa and Melanie are rummaging through a scrap box looking for heavier paper to construct their second helicopter, while Jeremy and Kyle dig through my desk looking for the biggest paperclip. Another 16 sixth graders are noisily building their helicopters and conducting experiments to determine some of the variables affecting llight. Just as this frenetic scene reaches its crescendo my new supervisor opens the door and stands, motionless, in the doorway. My heart and my confidence skip a beat. Was it my imagination, or did she gasp?

A few hours later, I sat in my supervisor’s office, possibly to hear a reprimand. But, instead, my supervisor shared her excitement about the learning taking place in my classroom during the science lesson she had observed. It seems she understood that the one important difference between chaos and active learning is discipline. Discipline is not scolding or punishment, but an enabling structure for learning.

That subtle difference is not readily apparent to many untrained eyes, and good teaching, be it in a classroom or in a museum, is sometimes stifled by supervisors who don’t recognize the difference. Inquiry learning promotes discovery and revelation. Discovery and revelation generate excitement. And, excitement often creates noise. Therefore, to be successfully used, inquiry learning requires discipline.

While many of the strategies of teaching in classrooms have been adopted by museums, discipline strategies are not so easily transferred. Current behavior management techniques, which may be in use with a class, cannot be replicated in a museum setting. The long-term commitment made by both teachers and students is just not feasible in the one-shot world of museum visits. Nevertheless, the basic tenants still apply.

Discipline is based on communication and relationships. A good classroom teacher begins on Day One, and spends weeks, or even months, developing the relationships that ensure appropriate student behaviors. Docents, clearly, do not have the time to build such relationships, but they can use the relationships that already exist among the children, between the children and the teacher/chaperones, and between the children and the museum to separate active learning and a successful tour from chaos.

Children arrive at the museum with their friends . . . and with their enemies! If teachers have pre-grouped the class, disruptive relationships may have already been attended to. If you must group students without the teacher’s help, do so with care. Younger children may be asked to “Hold up this many fingers” as you count off the number of groups desired. When “All the threes go with Ms. Cathy,” friends are automatically separated because they rushed to sit next to each other as they came into the museum. While this may be preferable for younger students, older students (grade six and beyond) should be allowed to remain with a friend, because they are generally more cooperative this way. (I call this the Sixth Grade, Siamese Twin Syndrome!)

Relationships already exist between students and adults that are helpful in maintaining effective discipline. Children expect you to be in charge. A few moments at the beginning of the tour to set the limits within which the class must operate are essential to a productive tour.

This is probably a good place to explode two myths about discipline. First, ignoring bad behavior extinguishes the behavior only if there is no reward for it. Believe me, disrupting a museum tour in front of your admiring, but more timid, peers provides much more reward than you can offer! DONT IGNORE BAD BEHAVIOR! Usually, stopping the tour and merely looking at the miscreant will suffice. The next step involves saying his or her name . . . and NO more. You don’t have to explain what he or she is doing wrong … he or she knows! Stage three involves standing beside the wrong-doer and waiting for silence before you resume the tour. If all else fails (and it won’t), ask the teacher to intervene, to remove the student from the area.

The second myth is that you can out-talk a heckler. Ask any stand up comic . . . you can’t! Disruptions should be met with silence, and you should maintain a quiet but clear voice throughout your tour.

Several simple techniques will help you communicate and maintain your authority.

  • Insist on groups of manageable size whenever possible. No one can maintain the attention of a group without eye contact; eye contact is difficult with groups of more than 10 or 12.
  • Ask teachers to have students wear nametags, or provide nametags with the museum logo. It’s harder to “hide” if someone knows your name.
  • Seat younger children when you are teaching. Some students above the sixth grade find this demeaning, however, and will refuse to sit. Don’t make it an issue. Offer students of this age the option of sitting.
  • Take charge immediately; don’t wait for the teacher’s lead. Be polite, be friendly, be prepared, and speak so that all can hear and understand you. Finally, relationships that exist between children and the museum can be used to develop the framework of discipline within which a good tour exists. Most children like the museum. They are predisposed in your favor.

Although it is also a myth that simply being interesting guarantees good behavior, the content and structure of the tour go a long way toward creating an atmosphere in which good behavior flourishes. The docent who knows the subject matter. and can deliver at a level consistent with the students’ interests and abilities, is best able to involve children in the learning process. Children who are actively involved in learning do have fewer reasons to misbehave.

One final word about discipline. Be prepared for what you create. If you create drama and excitement, children will become excited. Excited children make noise! But, remember . . .excited children learn!

Jackie Littleton is the Associate Editor of this newsletter, and a sixth grade classroom teacher at Clarksville Academy, in Clarksville. Tennessee. A member of Delta Kappa Gamma and Phi Delta Kappa, she senses as Vice President in charge of Programs for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in the State of Tennessee, and is the President of the Children ‘s International Education Center.

Littleton, Jackie. “Discipline…It’s not a Four-Letter Word,” Docent Educator 1.2 (Winter 1991): 15.

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