Classroom Management Tips: Lessons from Historical Utopias

We want our classrooms to be utopian communities, ideal worlds of cooperation and happiness. Classroom-management experts describe strategies to achieve that dream, but their advice falls across a continuum with the top-down, teacher-in-charge approach at one end and the bottom-up, students-create-the-rules at the other. Which approach is best?

Historical utopian communities as an example

Historical utopian communities struggled with the same questions asked by teachers: what style of leadership is best for the goals of the community? Some communal societies were better than others in establishing a system that fulfilled their goals.

The Shakers were a religious group who established communal villages in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, and Kentucky in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Shakers’ goal was to build communities of believers and live separate from the rest of the world. Their spiritual plan required economic success. In other words, each Shaker had to do a lot of hard work in the agricultural and preindustrial economy of the 19th century.

Shaker villages were not governed democratically; a clear hierarchy existed within and among the communities. However, men and women were considered equal. Male and female leaders who shared power and decision making were appointed, not elected.

The Shakers wrote strict rules called “The Millennial Laws” that governed every aspect of daily life, especially relationships between the members. Like students in a classroom, the members of each Shaker Village were usually unrelated by blood but had to live peacefully together, sharing rooms, meals, and work duties. This level of cooperation required clear expectations for behavior. The rules specified times for waking up, going to bed, and arriving for work and meals. The leadership hierarchy set clear expectations and duties for every member. Work duties rotated so that everyone fairly shared harder jobs.

The Shaker villages thrived, peaking at around 6,000 members in the mid-19th century. The social and economic impact of industrialization after the Civil War was the primary cause of their decline.


Source: Library of Congress

Communication as a key to success

On the other hand, New Harmony, Indiana exemplified a historical communal society at the opposite end of the spectrum. Founder Robert Owen envisioned a more egalitarian society. He believed his utopian community would provide a model for overcoming the economic and social problems common in the early 19th century. Despite his lofty goals, his community was very short-lived, opening in 1825 and closing upon his departure in 1827.

While Owen’s goals were commendable, he did not communicate them clearly. Individuals joined from a wide variety of backgrounds, expecting economic security, freedom, equality, and quality education. However, plans for achieving these goals varied widely among members, who often became frustrated with each other and Owen, who expected everyone to conform to HIS vague expectations.

Owen failed to establish a clear system of governance. He was often absent from the village, failing to leave clear instructions for those he left in charge. When he was in the village, he attempted to clarify the rules but kept changing directions.

Community members often felt they were being treated unfairly. For example, Owen publicly proclaimed that males and females were equal, but in the village men and women were given unequal schooling and work assignments. Members from different social classes were frustrated with work assignments they perceived as beneath them or unfair.


Source: Wikipedia

Implementing these examples in the classroom

The members and goals of modern classrooms and historical utopian societies differ. However, the historical Shakers and Owenites highlight two important themes relevant to classroom management. First, clearly defined goals and unambiguous rules supporting those goals are needed for communities of diverse people to work together. Second, if decisions are made that conflict with the goals of the community, members will become disillusioned and view the system as “unfair.”

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Cynthia W. Resor was a middle and high school social studies teacher before earning her Ph.D. in history. She is currently a professor of social studies education at Eastern Kentucky University. She is the author of a blog, Primary Source Bazaar, and three books on teaching social history themes using essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes,  Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.


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