Renegotiating Classroom Treaties

Many classrooms are governed by tacitly negotiated treaties. That is, students trade in their compliance and cooperation –– student behaviors that alleviate the challenges of crowded classrooms ––  for minimal demands for engagement by the teacher. When I have worked with teachers trying out open-ended tasks for the first time, I will often hear about “pushback” or “resistance” from the students: “I tried using this activity but the kids balked. They complained the whole time and refused to engage.”

These student responses indicate that teachers are violating their part of the treaty by going beyond minimal demands for engagement and increasing intellectual press. Put differently, by using an open-ended task, teachers raise the social risk, leaving students open to judgment since they can not rely on the usual rituals of math class to hide their uncertainty. Treaties may, as their name suggests, keep the peace, but they reflect norms of minimal engagement that interfere with deeper learning.

In my own observations, I see teachers struggle to move students past their initial reluctance to participate and make it clear that active involvement is required in their classrooms. Renegotiating classroom treaties requires a clear vision for what student participation can look like, structures to support that vision, along with the determination to see it through. The teachers I interviewed for my forthcoming book all emphasize how critical the first days are for setting these expectations for their students, particularly since their expectations may differ from what students are used to in math class. “It’s entirely intentional that I begin setting norms and structures on the first day of school,” Fawn explains. By launching the new school year by showing students what it means to do math in her class, Fawn renegotiates the classroom treaty through norms and structures, introducing the Visual Pattern and other discourse routines from the start. She says, “I need to provide students with ample opportunities to experience the culture that we have set up. We need to establish and maintain a culture that’s safe for sharing and discussing mathematics, safe for making mistakes, and a culture that honors each person’s right to contribute. There needs to be a firm belief among everyone that mathematics is a vital social endeavor. Building this culture takes time.”
Starting the school year with clear expectations is important, but guiding individual students’ participation is an ongoing project. The teachers I interviewed have numerous strategies for monitoring and building positive participation throughout the year. Students students who hide or students who dominate make for uneven participation. The teachers describe how they contend with these inevitable situations.
When figuring out how to respond to quiet students, the teachers try to understand the nature of students’ limited participation. Not all quiet students are quiet for the same reasons. At times, quietness is rooted in temperament: some students inclined to hang back until they feel confident about what is going on, but they are tracking everything in class. These students do not contribute frequently, but, when they do, their contributions add a lot to conversations. This kind of quiet is less of a concern and can even be acknowledged: “Raymond, you don’t talk a lot, but when you do, I always love hearing what you have to say.”
Other times, quietness signals students’ lack confidence. That is, students indicate some understanding in their work or small group conversations, but they do not have the confidence to participate in public conversations. With these students, the teachers seek out individual conversations. Chris calls these doorway talks, while Peg calls them sidebars. (“Trying to deal with calculators and rulers at the end of class, I couldn’t make it to the doorway!” Peg tells me when I note the different names.) “I might say to a kid, ‘You know, you had really good ideas today, and I would have loved to have heard more of them in the conversation we had a the end. I think you have a lot more to contribute than you give yourself credit for.’” Sometimes, there are ways of encouraging good ideas to become public that do not directly address the student. Chris explains that he might say something like, “I haven’t heard from this corner of the room.” He then asks other students to hold their ideas while waiting for a contribution from the quiet group.

Of course, some students are quiet because they really do not know what is going on. This could be due to a language issue, in which case, the teacher needs to modify instruction to give them more access to the ideas. If there are other learning issues going on, this might suggest the need to check in with colleagues about the students performance in previous years or in other subjects.

Talkative students pose another kind of challenge to the expectation that everyone participates.  On the one hand, they can provide wonderful models of sharing their thinking. They can be the “brave volunteers” who explore their thinking publicly, and teachers can lean on them to get conversations started. On the other hand, they can be domineering, making it difficult for other students to get a word in. The quiet students who temperamentally need to think before they speak have their counterparts in some talkative students: these are the students who think by talking. Asking for their silence sometimes gets heard as asking them not to think. When I have had students like that in my own classes, I make sure to assure them that I value their engagement but that I need them to find other strategies for processing so that other students can be heard. Sometimes, students with impaired executive functioning, like those with ADD, have a hard time with the turn-taking aspect of classroom dialogue, so not only do they talk a lot sometimes, they struggle to take turns. Again, teachers can respond by valuing students’ ideas while helping them participate more effectively: “I know you get excited, but we need to take turns so that we can hear each other.” Finally, domineering behavior can get expressed through a lot of talking: students who are highly confident in their understanding and want to explain to others. Teachers need to judge the extent to which this is altruistic, a sense of trying to share knowledge, and the extent to which it shuts conversations down. In the first case, students can be coached towards asking questions of their classmates, channeling their impulse to talk into something constructive. In the second case, the dominance can be corrosive to the classroom culture and the students might need stronger redirection. For all of this feedback, similar strategies of direct address (via sidebars or doorway talks) and indirect address (“Let’s hear from somebody else”) can help teachers manage participation.

11 thoughts on “Renegotiating Classroom Treaties

  1. I love your phrase “tacitly negotiated treaties”. I think one of the things that can make it so challenging to develop a culture of authentic engagement and risk-taking (particularly with open-ended tasks) is that kids have been able to operate under the same tacitly negotiated treaties for many years. We’re trying to renegotiate the way they navigate math class (and all the stress and emotion that math can bring up) when they’ve developed other survival strategies over the course of several years.


  2. I’d love to learn more about what to do for the first few weeks; I teach 2nd grade and we have to balance curriculum with routines with structure with excitement. Whew! However, I am always looking for a better, and more efficient way to start school. What are some new ways to think about this?


    • Thanks! I enjoyed reading this.

      I wonder if you know of further resources/research that you would recommend on this topic. I am a coach and am working on planning some meetings that I could facilitate for teacher teams/departments that would help teachers think about how they renegotiate treaties in order to get students involved in student-to-student academic discourse. I’ve found a lot of resources on what it can look like (the vision you mentioned) when students are active participants in conversation, but haven’t so far found much about how to make those first steps when the current norm involves a lot of “sit and get.” I’m hoping to design a meeting outline to be a template my colleagues could tweak and use in other schools and later in the year. Because it may also be used later in the year, I’m interested in what you think about how to renegotiate treaties during the year, not just at the beginning.


      • This is such a tough issue. I am finishing up a book manuscript on just this topic. I think a lot of our math ed community have not done enough to focus on classroom climate. The 5 aspects of a motivational classroom that I will write about in my book are: belongingness, meaningfulness, competence, accountability, and autonomy. I have posted about most of these in this blog and I would point you there as a start. In addition, the post that started me on this current book journey was called “What do you think and why?” I hope you find these posts helpful — until my book comes out next spring! Thanks for reading.


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  5. Hi, my name is Allie Bauch and I am currently studying to become a high school math teacher at the University of Illinois. Reading your post was really interesting to me because it parallels with what we are learning in one of our education classes right now. Our focus right now is learning classroom management techniques in order to help us facilitate a productive and engaging class. You brought up the importance of getting to know quiet students and see what it going on before making any judgments just because they don’t participate. In class, we have learned how important identity is in the classroom and understanding your students beyond just being a student. Sometimes, an individual is having a bad day or doesn’t understand the material and that is why they are not participating. There is a lot more to a student then what meets the eye and I’m glad you expanded on the importance of that in your blog. I like your idea of “doorway talk” and how having side conversations with these individuals can help with their confidence in the classroom. There are also the students who participate a lot that need to be managed so that others can participate as well. It is important to find the balance of not turning them down but incorporating other voices as well. Thank you for giving me some reinforcement about the ideas that we have learned in class. It was fun to read them in action. I was wondering how you would address a student who struggles with authority and doesn’t seem to listen to a single word you say?


  6. Thank you so much for posting this! I love the idea you present here of what norms can and can’t be in the classroom. Norms, especially for math, are so often the same from year to year, but you show that by setting expectations early, we can expect so much more from the students. As a pre-service teacher, we learn a lot about community building and setting expectations. While often those are talked about in terms of being kind and general classrooms rules, I think it is also really important to build the community for and around math. By building a positive classroom community, we can make sharing ideas and being supportive a norm of the classroom. Further than that, we can make contributions and supporting peers socio-mathematical norms. I like that you address quiet students and those who don’t share as much, since both of those kinds of students can often disrupt the socio-mathematical norms in a classroom. By pairing students together and working together, you can have all of these students participate together and learn together, enforcing the classroom norms and equal sharing and participation. I love the idea behind creating these norms in your classroom from the beginning, and changing the way students think and learn about math throughout their schooling. I would love to know more about how you might differentiate your classroom within these norms for students or different learning styles. How would you adjust the socio-mathematical norms then, if at all?


    • “Learning styles” is one of those ideas that has a common sense appeal but has not been shown to really have a lot of traction. I think the reason it has common sense appeal is because it is usually helpful to learners to have ideas introduced in multiple modes: seeing, hearing, experiencing, explaining, exploring. But I worry when learners get pinned down as having a particular “style.” I realize this is probably not the point of your question, but I wanted to signal this since it means I won’t answer your question exactly as you posed it.

      Here is my answer. Just like any important ideas in your classroom, norms should be communicated in multiple ways: through conversations, signs, modeling, and labeling positive behaviors. By providing that kind of attention to our norms, we increase the chances that students will recognize them and adhere to them.

      I hope that helps!


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  8. I think this is an excellent consideration of the challenges of changing classroom norms. As with anything else, we as teachers need to think deeply about the outcomes we seek for our classrooms.


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