Withitness in the Classroom
What is Withitness?
A good teacher is usually great at multitasking. Their mind is able to process multiple sensory inputs at once—the random sounds in the classroom, the voices of her students, people walking by her classroom door—all while conducting a lesson and focusing on the educational content that needs to be presented. This is a characteristic that educators refer to as withitness.
When a teacher has withitness, she seems to have x-ray vision. It’s almost as if the teacher knows what’s going to happen before it actually does. Withitness encompasses multitasking, classroom awareness, alertness, intuition, and confidence—all in a way that projects a powerful image to every student in the classroom. The teacher is in control. She knows, and because she knows, the students know that there is no need to act out. Because she knows, she can stop misconduct with a look. Her body language and proximity enable her to maintain control effortlessly.
In an article entitled “Are You with It?,” Deb Wuest presents an excellent summary of withitness and related characteristics that all lead to effective classroom management.
Do your students think you have “eyes behind your head”? Can you deal effectively with the demands of several students at the same time? Are you effective at maintaining lesson momentum, changing activities when interest is waning or modifying activities to keep students busy? If so, you are using many of the techniques incorporated by Kounin into his discipline model.
Kounin’s model focuses on preventive discipline— techniques and strategies designed to prevent the occurrence of discipline problems in the first place. According to Kounin, good classroom management depends on effective lesson management. Kounin’s key ideas include the “ripple effect,” “withitness,” “overlapping,” effective transitions, class management, and satiation.
Wuest proceeds to describe two of Jacob Kounin’s (Kounin, J. S. Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms. Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, 1970. WikiEd suggests an updated treatment by Charles Wolfgang. Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems: Methods and Models for Today’s Teachers. John Wiley and Sons, 2001). key ideas:
Ripple Effect. The “ripple effect” occurs when the teacher corrects a misbehavior in one student, and this positively influences the behavior of other nearby students. The ripple effect is influenced by the clarity and firmness of the correction. The effect is greater when the teacher clearly names the unacceptable behavior and gives the reasons for the desist. Firmness, that is, conveying an “I mean it” attitude, enhances the ripple effect. The ripple effect is greatest at the beginning of the year and diminishes as the year progresses. At the high school level, Kounin found that respect for the teacher along with high motivation to learn lead to the greatest student involvement and minimum misbehavior by students.
Withitness. “Withitness” is a term created by Kounin to describe the teacher’s awareness of what is going on in all parts of the classroom at all times. We commonly refer to this as “having eyes in the back of the head.” To be effective, the students must perceive that the teacher really knows what is going on in the gymnasium. If students are off task and fooling around, the teacher needs to send a clear message that communicates to the students that the teacher sees that they are not working and they need to get started. Withitness can be improved with practice, such as learning how to effectively use systematic techniques to scan the class. Keeping your “back to the wall” as you move throughout the class helps you see the broader picture and be more aware of what is going on.
The effectiveness of withitness is increased when the teacher can correctly identify the student who is the instigator of the incident. Teachers who target the wrong student for a desist or a reprimand are perceived by the students as not knowing what is really going on (i.e., not “withit”). When several incidences of misbehavior occur at the same time, it is important that teachers deal with the most serious incidence first. Timing is another aspect of withitness. Teachers should intervene early and quickly in dealing with misbehavior. Failure to do so allows the misbehavior to spread.
Both the ripple effect and withitness are important ideas. When taken together, they can help you to project an aura that leads students to believe you have x-ray vision.
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