Chaos Theory

by Robert Pondiscio
December 15th, 2009

Chaos is bad for kids.  Noisy households with no set routines or predictability contribute to lower IQ and behavior problems in children, according to a new study cited by Dan Willingham on his Washington Post blog.  What’s cause and what’s effect?  Certainly, he notes, household chaos could easily correlate with plenty of other issues that could negatively impact children, such as a death in the family or unemployment. 

To get around that problem the authors took a broad spectrum of measures from each family: the parents’ education level, parent’s IQ, a measure of the literacy environment in the home (number of books and so on), the housing situation, a measure of parental warmth/negativity, and a measure of stressful events.  The researchers then used techniques to statistically remove the effects of these other variables before they tested for an effect of chaos on the child’s IQ and on the child’s conduct. They found that chaos in the home was negatively associated with each.

The study has some drawbacks, not the least of which, Willingham notes, is that it could be harder to maintain an orderly home if you have a defiant child. “On the other hand, among the factors that influence your child, chaos is one of the easier ones to address. It’s hard to make myself smarter or to change my housing situation,” he concludes.

It would be interesting to see the same approach applied to classrooms.  It’s not hard to imagine higher level of student achievement, if not IQ, in classrooms that are well managed and orderly.  At the very least, the lack of those qualities is one of the most visible signposts of poorly run schools.

16 Comments »

  1. I hope they’re careful about what they consider chaos. Kids do need to get up and move – especially boys. Just because everyone’s butt isn’t in a seat doesn’t mean there is chaos.

    Comment by M Pope — December 15, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  2. I wonder if the root problem is that chaos tends to mean a lack of clear expectations for kids.

    Comment by Rachel — December 15, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  3. No expectations, no predicatibility, no down time; these elements can be present along with a high level of physical activity, or conversely, they can occur with a low level of physical activity. It’s not about energy level, but about structure.

    Comment by Jane — December 15, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  4. I don’t know this lit. deeply, but I have the feeling that chaos is a proxy for something else, like clear boundaries & expectations. . .

    Comment by Dan Willingham — December 15, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  5. I agree with Jane. The family of one of my ES classmates was pretty high on the noise and activity level, but very high on structure, predictability and expectations. Of course, there were 12 kids in the family … all polite, hard-working, good students with beautiful singing voices.

    Comment by momof4 — December 15, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  6. “It’s not hard to imagine higher level of student achievement, if not IQ, in classrooms that are well managed and orderly. At the very least, the lack of those qualities is one of the most visible signposts of poorly run schools.”

    I guess it’s easy to imagine if you look at the world with anal retentive squeamishness. Some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen weren’t the best house keepers. If we can be aware of different learning styles, surely we can be open to different classroom management styles.

    Comment by Loren — December 15, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  7. “Some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen weren’t the best house keepers.”

    And their efficacy as teachers was assessed how? Some of the most popular teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the most outwardly engaging teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the worst teachers I’ve seen were popular and outwardly engaging.

    All of the best teachers I’ve seen had clear and consistent classroom expectations which students respected as part of a safe and efficient classroom environment.

    These are two different topics being blurred. Yes, there’s certainly room for different classroom presentation techniques, but those shouldn’t be confused with effective classroom management. Classroom chaos is too often justified as creative and innovative teaching when it isn’t.

    Comment by redkudu — December 15, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  8. M. Pope,

    You voice the conventional wisdom, but I am dubious. The allegedly “squirrelly” 12 year old boys that I inherited this year can sit still for two hours straight in my class –without complaint. Sometimes I give them the option of a moving-around activity vs. a sedentary one and the choose the latter. (I know some of you are probably thinking my actions tantamount to child abuse. But how to you “know” children need to move around, or that it’s torture for them to sit?)

    Comment by Ben F — December 15, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

  9. I believe Jane and Mom of 4 are onto something with the notion of structure. It’s more of a “hidden” structure some ed schools stress that can make the difference in the effectiveness of a classroom.

    A visitor can walk into a classroom and observe nothing obvious in terms of rules and regulations and/or climate but most realize quickly that something is or is not working in that room. The kids learn this structure via direction from the teacher over time. In September, it can appear a bit chaotic but by the end of November everyone should be pretty much in sync.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 15, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  10. “Don’t smile till christmas” is a bromide that I think is illustrative of Paul’s comment.

    A classroom, like any unit made up of many people, takes a bit of time to establish. Once rules and procedures are established more activity can take place because the rules have been internalized by the students; they don’t need the enforcement of a disciplinarian.

    The “way” of my classroom takes over because there is structure, expectations, accountability, and I let the kids know I am there to help them. I teach them the standards, but also what they want to know. That is key.

    I am very strict and demanding. Within a couple months the demands I make no longer seem demanding and their behavior is such that I can focus on them and their learning. Oh, and fun! School in my classroom is fun!

    Chaos is chaotic. One’s perception of chaos is crucial to understanding what another means when they use the word. Anyone who has never spent time in a classroom might think things are chaotic when they are anything but.

    Comment by TFT — December 16, 2009 @ 12:09 am

  11. “Some of the most popular teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the most outwardly engaging teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the worst teachers I’ve seen were popular and outwardly engaging.”

    Since you don’t draw any conclusion here it’s hard to accuse you of logical errors, but dogs and cats being mammals doesn’t make a dog a cat. I’m talking about teachers who were criticized by their superiors for messy desks and posters that weren’t hung exactly straight, who nevertheless had high passing rates on standardized exams, high levels of student participation, support from students and parents (the cursed popularity), and heavily influenced the career choices of their students and their lifelong love of the subject they taught.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 16, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

  12. “Some of the most popular teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the most outwardly engaging teachers I’ve seen weren’t good housekeepers. Some of the worst teachers I’ve seen were popular and outwardly engaging.”

    Since you don’t draw any conclusion here it’s hard to accuse you of logical errors, but dogs and cats being mammals doesn’t make a dog a cat. I’m talking about teachers who were criticized by their superiors for messy desks and posters that weren’t hung exactly straight, who nevertheless had high passing rates on standardized exams, high levels of student participation, support from students and parents (the cursed popularity), and heavily influenced the career choices of their students and their lifelong love of the subject they taught.

    Comment by Loren — December 16, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  13. “I’m talking about teachers who were criticized by their superiors for messy desks and posters that weren’t hung exactly straight,…”

    Then I’m able to understand you better, and to say that my comment was in no way based on this level of triviality. When I said “housekeepers” I should have made it clear I meant “housekeeping” in terms of classroom management. As far as classroom appearance, you have different experiences than mine, I think. I really wouldn’t evaluate a teacher’s classroom appearance unless someone has begun hording cats in the cabinets, or, like one of my colleagues, allowing food to rot on shelves underneath stacks of newspapers.

    Comment by redkudu — December 16, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  14. Thanks goodness none of you want to fire me for my messy desk…mine is a TRAVESTY right now. I’m super-embarrassed because the areas of my room for which THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLDS are responsible for keeping clean are neater than my own area.
    ;)

    Comment by Miss Eyre — December 16, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

  15. In my school, teacher desks were verboten. Not child-centered, don’t you know. Mine would have been freakishly messy. Junk-centered, even.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 16, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

  16. I try to have bouts of planned creative chaos and maintain generous protective control with my class. I think it’s a fine line, though.

    Comment by Frank — December 17, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

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