A Social Classroom

Without first building a social classroom, it will be more challenging for any of the other teaching strategies to take hold.”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

In How Humans Learn, Joshua Eyler extols social pedagogies, a concept found in Bass and Elmendorff: course designs that make the representation of knowledge to an authentic audience integral to the construction of knowledge (p. 82). That’s a dense definition, so let’s unpack it.

The representation of knowledge is student work in any amount or form that exhibits the students’ understanding: an explanation, a presentation, a policy proposal, an architectural design, a research paper, a mini-documentary, a diorama, or anything else suited to the challenge.

An authentic audience is comprised of those with an interest or stake in the matter under investigation, whether inside or outside the classroom.

In other words, social pedagogies are designed by teachers to encourage students to share their newfound knowledge with the world beyond the classroom.

Eyler seeks to extend this definition of social pedagogies to include such teaching approaches that leverage our innate human sociality to further a class’s learning objectives.

Before we can make productive use of social pedagogies, we must create what Eyler calls a social classroom, one in which healthy interactions foster social learning. A social classroom is free of corrosive interactions and harmful social dynamics. Eyler says there are at least three elements that make up a social classroom.

Three components of the social classroom:

  • A sense of belonging
  • Pro-social classroom management style
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

I will summarize these elements now.

Sense of Belonging

“College students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable”

Yeager, et al. (2016).

Carissa Romero describes belonging as when students feel “socially connected, supported, and respected. They trust their teachers and their peers, and they feel a sense of fit at school” (2018).

Romero expounds: “Instructional practices that promote trust and enhance belonging also have long-lasting effects on student outcomes.” In discussing the existing research on social belonging in higher education, Yeager, et al, write “college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential” (2016).

Interestingly, a look at several studies on belonging interventions reveals mixed results. A complex interplay of variables such as size, type, and culture of the school may confound efforts to draw straight-forward conclusions about such interventions. One variable, however, stands out: student ethnicity. Students from minority and under-served populations, such as African-Americans, derive an unequivocal boost from belonging interventions.

For example, social psychologists Walton and Cohen (2011) studied the effect of belonging on the academic careers of 92 African-American (49) and European-American (43) students. Half of each population were given information intended to buttress their sense of belonging. It did so by framing social adversity as common and transient.

For three years, Walton and Cohen observed health and academic outcomes of the African- and European-American students in both the experimental and control groups. In white students, the difference between control and experimental groups was negligible, but black students in the experimental group benefited significantly. Those students closed the achievement gap with their white classmates by 79 percent. They also reported less illness and fewer medical visits over the three-year period.

Joshua Eyler’s words on social belonging are particularly salient to Plymouth State: “Colleges and universities should certainly be paying close attention to the degree to which students feel like they belong, particularly since this factor seems to affect decisions related to the much-ballyhooed retention, progression, and graduation rates” (p 85).

His lesson is that the institution can take steps to give students a sense of belonging in the community, but professors are the ones who influence belonging in the classroom

How belonging relates to classroom norms in a public school setting

Selected References on Belonging

Broda, M., Yun, J., Schneider, B., Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(3), 317-338.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447-1451. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198364

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., … & Gomez, E. M. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24), E3341-E3348.

Prosocial Classroom Management

“Social and emotional competence supports classroom management efforts and may in fact be an essential component”

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

The second necessary piece of a social classroom is a prosocial management style or, in other words, one that fosters community building. Traditional classroom management consists of the rules, discipline, policies, and expectations established by the teacher so learning can occur relatively unimpeded. This standard is necessary, but not sufficient, to create a prosocial learning climate. The instructor also must exhibit Social and Emotional Competence (SEC). According to Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg (2009), SEC is comprised of five traits:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Responsible decision-making
  • Self-management
  • Relationship management

Jennings and Greenberg have laid out a model (figure 1) to account for the complex interplay between SEC and outcomes for both students and teachers. Teachers with higher SEC, Jennings and Greenberg assert, tend to produce healthier teacher-student relationships, enjoy fewer class disruptions, see higher grade attainment, and suffer lower burnout rates. Teachers with high SEC know how to “use emotions such as joy and enthusiasm to motivate learning in themselves and others.”

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

The authors point to a body of research that suggests “teachers’ SEC supports their classroom management efforts and may in fact be an essential component linking this new orientation toward classroom management, healthy classroom climate, and positive student outcomes.”

SEC influences a surprisingly diverse array of outcomes: for both students and the teacher, both inside and outside the classroom, and in the short- and the long-term. In other words, those who are socially and emotionally competent are cognizant of their feelings, those of others, and of how the expression of one’s feelings affects the other. Those with SEC also make decisions thoughtfully and take responsibility for their actions.

The benefits of SEC are manifold, but for the purposes of the social classroom, it creates a healthy atmosphere for social teaching and learning: “teachers higher in SEC are likely to demonstrate more effective classroom management; they are likely to be more proactive, skillfully using their emotional expressions and verbal support to promote enthusiasm and enjoyment of learning”.

References on Building a Prosocial Classroom

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

Modeling Intellectual Approaches

Third and last in Eyler’s non-exhaustive list of qualities that make a classroom social is an instructor who models intellectual approaches.

Modeling as a scholarly study began in the 1960s, when Psychologist Albert Bandura devised a theory of social learning. Bandura’s social learning theory helped to bridge the behaviorism dominant at the time with other methods of explaining behavior and motivation. Bandura “stressed the importance of observational learning and modeling” (2005).

Modeling in Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Lynda.com video by David Hogue

Whereas behaviorism is predicated on conditioning via the rewards and punishments experienced by an individual, social learning theory posits a sort of vicarious conditioning. That is, people observe the actions of others and unconsciously work out how and whether to imitate the observed behavior. When people notice positive outcomes, they will be more likely to model such behavior in anticipation of the same outcomes.

Bandura’s work has been very influential and serves as, well, a model for college instructors. Joshua Eyler implores us to model these intellectual approaches in the classroom:

  • Show positive regard and empathy for all students 
  • Explore diverse perspectives on scholarly issues 
  • Use logical argument 
  • Limit our agonistic approach to other scholars’ work 
  • Cite our sources orally and visually 
  • Demonstrate methods for productive and collegial disagreement 
  • Offer constructive criticism 
  • Find value in the contributions of students 
  • Listen 

If we embody these traits in front of our students, they will notice the positive outcomes and, quite naturally, model them in the future.

References on Modeling

Bandura, Albert. (2005). In K. Krapp (Ed.), Psychologists and Their Theories for Students (Vol. 1, pp. 39-66). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3456300013/GVRL?u=plysc_main&sid=GVRL&xid=d9737b33


In summation, the three characteristics outlined above tend to produce a social classroom:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Classroom management style that is prosocial
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

Successfully bringing about a social classroom will allow us to implement social pedagogies, which include collaborative learning, peer instruction, and discussion-based learning. I’ll delve into some of these more in a later post.

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