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Projects about the Classroom Environment

The projects in this section are about the classroom as a social and educational setting-a learning "environment," to use a weather-related metaphor. They therefore attend both to your activities as a teacher, and to students' responses to your activities. Project 5 focuses on a common mistake in interpreting others' behavior, what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, and its impact on managing students' misbehaviors. Project 6 focuses on a key idea in modern education, the notion of inclusion of students with special educational needs. Like other major ideas in education, inclusion is understood differently by different individuals, and Project 6 explores some of those differences in understanding.

Project 5: Why Do Students' Misbehave?


This project explores students' (and others') explanations for misbehaviors that most commonly occur in class. The project challenges you to think about how teachers should respond to misbehaviors in the light of the alternative explanations for why they occur.

Background and Orientation:

A long line of psychological research has documented something called the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is a tendency to hold a double standard when explaining the causes of human actions: we attribute the cause of other people's actions to their character or personality, but to attribute the cause of our own actions to situational factors or circumstances surrounding us. When an acquaintance shows annoyance about waiting in line at the store, for example, we are tempted to think that he or she has an impatient personality; but when we show annoyance about waiting in the line, we are more likely to see ourselves as simply responding to the inefficiency of the bank tellers. The fundamental attribution error happens to people of all ages and in a wide variety of situations, including classrooms.

The fundamental attribution error has important implications for creating a positive classroom environment, because it implies that as teachers, we may underestimate situational influences on students' behavior and overestimate the importance of their personality or character in causing their behavior. This bias may not matter much when students are behaving well-being helpful, working hard, and the like. But when they misbehave or fail to learn, the fundamental attribution error can create serious misunderstandings about why the behavior or failure to learn has occurred, and tempt teachers to respond in ways that are less than fully effective. If a student talks out of turn, for example, is it because the student lacks self-control (a character trait) or because the lesson is uninteresting and neighboring students are too easily available for conversation (situational causes)? There are various possibilities, and the teacher must remain aware of as many as possible in order to make intelligent responses to them. (If you are interested in more background about the fundamental attribution error and its complexities in social situations, check the references and useful sources,as well as an article by Gilbert Harmin, referred to earlier.) For this project you will explore how much the fundamental attribution error actually occurs in teachers' explanations of students' behaviors, and reflect on the consequences of what you discover.


  1. Think back to all the incidents during your school years in which you behaved in a way that your teacher or peers considered inappropriate or "bad." Choose one incident that you consider having been especially inappropriate or "bad." It could have happened in any year of schooling-from kindergarten through your current year at college or university. It could have concerned academics, social behavior or a combination of the two. (Obviously, if you never did anything "wrong," then you can't do this project; but chances are, that was not the case!)
  2. Write a one-page description of the incident, making clear exactly what you did or said that was "bad" or inappropriate. Then on a separate page, explain your reasons for behaving as you did, as you understood them at the time. Be as truthful as possible: include both internal reasons (like how you were feeling, the sort of personality you had), and external reasons (like others' behavior that triggered the incident, or the teacher's personal qualities). Save the description and explanation to look at again later.
  3. Now revise the description of the incident so that you disguise your identity. You can do this partly by phrasing it in the third-person-instead of saying "I did this..." or "I felt that...", write "She (or he) did this... or "She felt that...". You can also disguise it by changing the names in the description, both yours and others', and by changing any other identifying details (like the school where the incident occurred).
  4. Show the revised (i.e. disguised) description of inappropriate behavior to at least three friends, and ask them to speculate about why the student behaved as he or she did. Ask them, as well, how they would deal with the incident if they were the student's teacher. For each interview, encourage the interviewee to give more than brief answers. Tape record each interview. (For advice for giving effective interviews, go to the section called Making Interviews Successful; and for advice for making tape recordings of good technical quality, go to the section called Tape Recording Interviews Successfully.)
  5. After listening to the tape of interviewees' responses, compile a list of their reasons.Group reasons according into one of three categories: 1) "reasons caused by the student," 2) "reasons caused by factors outside the student (e.g. teacher, class, family)" or 3) "reasons caused by both."
  6. Write a one-page reflection comparing the interviewees' explanations for the incident with the explanations you previously wrote (from Step #2) about the incident. Speculate about why others' attributions and your own do (or do not) differ. If they do differ from yours, comment on how the difference might create problems for a teacher trying to deal with the incident.


  1. Compare your results with those found by other education students, especially with regard to whether their self-attributions differ from interviewees' attributions. Did some students find more gap than others? Did any find a "reverse fundamental attribution error"-that is, find that they attributed their own behavior more to their character and personality, but that others attributed the same behavior more to situational factors?
  2. Instead of showing the disguised incident to three friends (as in Step #4), show it to three experienced teachers. If possible, include at least one teacher of children with unusual or extreme behavior problems. Ask them, as well, to suggest how they would deal with the incident. How, if at all, do their attributions differ from yours, and how effective would their responses be in preventing recurrences of the behavior?

Project 6: Understanding Inclusion


This project invites you to look closely at what makes inclusion of children with special needs especially likely (or not) to work well. In doing so, it also challenges you to think about how you might make inclusion work well in your own classroom.

Background and Orientation:

The terms inclusion or inclusive education refer to educational strategies that help children with special educational needs to learn to their fullest potential while also participating as fully as possible in the life of regular school classrooms. Full discussions and explanations of these ideas are found in a number of places. See, for example, the references listed in the section called Inclusion and Peer Acceptance, or the background information in Constructing a Psychology of Teaching and Learning about Inclusion and Peer Acceptance, or the discussion about inclusion in Houghton Mifflin Company's Teacher Education Station Inclusive Classrooms Concept Cart.

The term "inclusion" resembles two older terms used in special education, mainstreaming and integration. Unlike the term mainstreaming, however, inclusion is meant to recognize that regular or "mainstream" classrooms are not something to which children with special needs must simply adjust; teachers of regular classrooms must also modify their expectations appropriately so that these children can experience success. And unlike the term integration, the term inclusion is meant to emphasize active recognition of children's special needs by members of a class, and not just their physical presence in the classroom.

What inclusion means concretely, in actual classrooms with actual children, will depend on many factors: on a child's particular special needs, on the age and grade-levels of classmates, and on a teacher's educational and social goals for the class. Inclusion in one class may therefore look quite different from inclusion in another. For this project, you will investigate the diversity in methods of inclusion, as seen from the standpoint of regular classroom teachers.


  1. Begin by writing one or two pages about your current expectations about what might make a student feel more (or less) included in classroom life. Be both general and specific-that is, include comments about general qualities of a class, but also about specific teaching strategies, goals, or arrangements that might make inclusion successful. If you lack experience working or observing in classrooms, don't worry; just speculate anyway, using your common sense and whatever general experience you do have. If you do have classroom experience, try to be as comprehensive as is reasonable within a page or two of reflection. Set your reflection aside to use later.
  2. Interview three teachers for 15 minutes, about what they believe makes a student with special needs feel more (or less) included in classroom life. If possible, choose teachers who differ in their experience with inclusion, such as one who has "hosted" a lot of children with special needs, but another who has not. Tape record each interview. (Advice about making successful interviews can be found in the section called Making Interviews Successful, and advice about making recordings of good sound quality can be found in the section called Tape Recording Interviews Successfully.)
  3. Listen to the tape recordings and take notes on the teachers' most important points. Look for similarities and differences among the teachers.
  4. Revise the reflections you wrote earlier (in Step #1), prior to the interviews, in the light of the comments from the teachers. If your earlier ideas resemble the teachers', comment on why this may be so. If they differ from the teachers', reflect on why they may differ. Take note, also, of whether the teachers agreed among themselves, and why they may have done so (or not). On balance, when educators talk about inclusion, are they talking about the same thing?


  1. Instead of focusing on children with officially designated special needs, focus instead on "regular" students who do not seem well-accepted by peers. (For more about students who are not well-accepted, see the section of references called Inclusion and Peer Acceptance, or see the series on the Web called Children without Friends, published by the National Network for Child Care.) What factors affect their feeling under-included, and are they remedied in the same ways as the factors affecting children with special needs? Interview teachers about this question, as described above, and write a reflection about the results.
  2. Instead of focusing either on children with special needs or on poorly accepted students, focus on children who are highly popular, respected, and therefore "included," either socially or academically. (There is more about peer popularity in the section of references called Inclusion and Peer Acceptance.) What makes certain children so popular and included? Is it possible for them to feel "overincluded"-that is, does their popularity or inclusion also create problems, either for themselves or for classmates? Interview teachers about this question, as described above.

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