EDUCATION: More than job-training

Clear, Consistent Classroom Procedures Aid Learning

When I returned to the States after teaching several years in a small tutorial school in London, I was eager to share what I’d learned with my fellow teachers.

One of the procedures followed in that school had to do with formatting a paper. We called it layout. The children were taught to prepare every sheet of paper that was to be turned in according to certain guidelines. Every teacher required the same layout: Name at the upper right, in the “air” above the first blue line on standard ruled notebook paper. Subject under that.Date under that.

NOTE: Children were not permitted to write the date with numbers and slashes: 2/3/10. At the beginning of each month, the name of the month was written out in full: February 3, 2010. After that, the year was omitted and the month could be abbreviated: Feb. 3.

On the first line, next to the red margin, the student identified the assignment in some way. For example, an exercise or set of questions from a textbook would give the name (or abbreviated name) of the textbook, and the page or pages from which the assignment was taken.

If the paper was to be folded vertically before being passed in, then the student’s name was to be written on the outside as well.

One way to prepare notebook paper for written work
One way to prepare notebook paper for written work

The purpose of these guidelines for layout was not only to provide consistency, but to focus the child’s mind as she prepared to do her homework. (It was an all-girls school.)

Children operating without specific instructions regarding layout frequently waste time as they decide where to begin writing. Having a definite procedure for preparing a paper kickstarts the homework assignment for the child. By the time all the required information has been written down, the child’s mind is in homework mode. The book is open to the assigned pages, and the child has no excuse to dawdle.

When I proposed a school-wide layout to be followed by teachers of every subject, one of the science teachers erupted in indignation. She declared that she wasn’t about to be such a Nazi as to require her students to follow such a rule. She didn’t care where they put their names, as long as the name appeared somewhere on the paper. She felt that such a procedure was an affront to the individuality of the student.

As I told my students when introducing them to the guidelines for my own classes, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if the name goes at the right or the left. In the context of a classroom, however, it’s a great convenience if everyone observes the same procedure. As residents of England will tell you, what side of the street you drive on is purely arbitrary. What matters is that everyone agree to drive on the same side.

Individuality is all very well, but conformity is an aid to learning, and predictable routine is a comfort.

A recent article at by Harry and Rosemary Wong, authors of The First Days of School, singles out New York City’s Alain L. Locke Elementary School (P.S. 208) as an example of what consistent school-wide procedures can accomplish.

at Locke Elementary, procedures and routines are the same from classroom to classroom, even on the playground. These procedures make school safe and predictable, dependable and consistent. This is especially important to children who may come from a home or neighborhood environment that does not offer consistency to them.

Parents whose children’s teachers have an “anything goes” attitude towards preparing a written assignment need to take it upon themselves to teach them how to lay out a paper in a consistent and businesslike manner.

2 Responses

  1. @Greg,
    Well put.

    No matter what age group I teach, I find that the most successful students are not necessarily the brightest. They’re the ones who can follow directions, and take pains.

  2. Formatting is a critical component of organizing and submitting papers for publication. Violating the publication guidelines for an academic genre or publication results in an automatic rejection. Besides the mental “switch” component, learners who learn to be consistent can scale up to the expectations of different genres. It is quite a challenge for college instructors to explain to students that the one-size-fits-all mentality of composition does not work within disciplines. It would be interesting to see what the science teacher would say if students could violate the principles of the scientific method and do whatever they please in observations and experiments.

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