Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Broken Windows Theory for Teachers

The Broken Windows theory has become known as the way that NYC turned around its crime rate during the Giuliani era. Now, I only lived in NY for the last year or so of Giuliani's reign, but I've heard plenty of criticism of him and the tactics the police used while he was in office. That said, the Broken Windows theory is interesting and potentially useful for the classroom.

The theory is that crime rates correlate most with the number of broken windows in a neighborhood, not because broken windows cause crime, but because they are a sign that people don't care and aren't taking care of things in the neighborhood. Apparently, this gives others the impression that they can get away with things, and crime escalates from minor to major. So, cracking down on little stuff can help prevent larger problems, by communicating that this is a place where people pay attention and enforce a certain standard of behavior. Here's how the Atlantic Monthly describes the theory:

Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Today, my principal mentioned that the District Superintendent told her (during last week's Principals Conference) that the minute you walk past one piece of paper on the floor, one staff member slacking off in the classroom, one student running in the hall, you have opened the door for major problems. I recognized the Broken Windows theory: show the students, their parents, and the staff that you have high standards, even for the little things, and they are more likely to meet those standards.

I think this is sensible and true. When students leave my classroom, I dismiss them one table at a time, and I glance across the room. I call students back in to pick up papers left on the floor near their chairs (whether or not they dropped the paper), to push in chairs left out, etc. The Broken Windows theory at work. We have a neat and clean classroom. Even small pieces of paper on the floor will not be tolerated. I have few or no problems with graffiti, gum, sunflower seeds, etc., partly as a result of this attention to detail. Similarly, everyone on our staff is strict about talking on line, walking appropriately in the halls, speaking respectfully to others, and so forth, and although we spend a lot of time dealing with line behavior problems, we simply do not deal with fighting, students cursing out teachers, and the other problems that plague schools. I will acknowledge that our students are a highly-motivated lot with attentive parents, but I can imagine what would happen to their behavior if we didn't sweat the small stuff: chaos.


Blogger Aaron said...

It is interesting that even when I have been working as a teacher this is the first time I listen about the Broken Window theory! I would like to apply it in my classes, and if it ends up being as effective as generic viagra I will keep on including it in my plans.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

It is a very interesting observation about broken windows.

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10:02 AM  

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