CONTROL in the classroom, deconstructed etymologically



I’ve been away for a few weeks and coming back has made a few things apparent:


1) I’m learning so much online through all of this connectivity (THANK YOU !)

2) Learning, unlearning and relearning is an endless evolution.

3) Learning requires a fair amount of freedom as it does control, a fair amount of order as it requires flexibility (or chaos)


another one of those balancing acts of duality !!!


This brings me to a brilliant post by Jemma Gardner “Control yourself (Hu)man” which really got my wheels turning.  In her post, Jemma describes how she encourages CELTA trainees to “let go of the reins” when they teach and to be “human” (hence contrasting with what I assume is not “robotic” or rigid).

As the dualities of order and chaos / control and freedom have always fascinated me, I started digging around the etymology of control and was once again blown away at what lies beneath a word when we reach back into time.

One stem in control is “-rol” and it comes from Latin’s rotulare meaning to roll or rotate. More specifically, a rotulus, was a roll of paper on which something was written, such as an actor’s role, which originally meant the written lines an actor was to read. Control first arose as a full word a few hundred years ago in middle French as contrerole (counter-roll), which meant a duplicate or second register (extra one for safe-keeping).

HENCE, I see two somewhat obscured meanings in control’s etymology:

1) safety/security (second copy for safe-guarding)    2) writing

I’d like to reach even a bit further to show that writing, at its origins, was most often concerned with the CONTROL of civil life.  The Code of Hammurabi, nearly 4000 years old, “is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world” (wikipedia). The code’s 282 laws were largely concerned with establishing civil and commercial standards, and just so happened to include the ever-so-famous dictum “an eye for an eye”.



How was there security or safety before such early laws ?

Was it simply chaos ? Can there be organization in ‘chaos’ ?

and for teachers… if we don’t establish order, will order establish itself ?


These days phrases such as “flipping the classroom” or “disrupting” or “revolutionizing” education are quite popular. While many times these phrases are accompanied by a new type of educational technology, I wonder to what extent “who’s in control” will be a driving force in what disrupts education in the years to come.


What do you think ?


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  • Caplee

    Good thoughts.  We want an orderly process conducive to learning but that certainly doesn’t mean over powering control.  I agree, let lose of the reins by planning well, having an active curriculum and bringing out the genius in every child.  With the classroom being where ever we can find teachable moments 

  • Brad Patterson

    Hi Cap

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.  I agree with you.  It’s a subtle topic, more easily seen in practice than necessarily put in words.  Tough, especially if we have to work in an already standardized curriculum, but there should always be room for allowing the students to negotiate and drive classroom direction.   Cheers, Brad

  • Willy cardoso

    fantastic! that’s what the kind of thing I was looking for to adorn my imperfect TESOL-France workshop on classroom management (and control).
    Can I ask you something? Can you direct me, help me become aware of, or even write something on the word ‘consciousness’ ?? (I already know a bit about the ‘co’, or so I think, which is really interesting)

    Brad, I’ll come back and leave a proper comment, I love the topic, but so in a hurry now… see you soon!

  • Brad Patterson

    Hey Willy !

    I had a feeling you would like this post, and as a matter of fact, I almost linked to your complexity theory post from last November (I feel it’s pertinent to the answer of how tribal societies (pre-writing) self-organized).  However, I wanted to keep the post more open… keep people asking and answering questions as opposed to giving my answers (or yours for that matter !).

    There’s a bit of etymology above for consciousness… basically it’s con + science.  In this circumstance, etymologists see science as “knowing” or “seeking”, however if we dig further towards Indo-European it actually means “to cut”.  One of my favorite posts ever was on the subject:

    Would love to have a further developed comment from you, as well as any resources that have paved the path for your thoughts.  Cheers !   Brad

  • Naomi Epstein

    AS usual, you got me going “Hmmm, wonder if the word in Hebrew is also connected to these things?” Is the dictionary a good place to look?
    Very relevant topic and I also enjoyed Jemma’s post!

  • Tyson Seburn

    Hammurabi’s Code was a central primary source in my academic life at the beginning of last year’s term.  I was exposed to it for the first time in the History class that accompanied my language classes.  Though it was meant to establish an order of conduct for his peoples, I’m sure before it there was just a different style of order, not one to rigidly follow how Hammurabi wished. 

    I don’t believe that any of the buzzy ‘approaches’ that are currently floating around the ELT world really are any different.  Their order is just different (in some cases better) than that which a coursebook writer/publisher has suggested.

  • Jason Renshaw

    Brilliant Brad.

    This is a really interesting issue at the moment. On the one hand I hear (constantly) this idea that learners are going to do their own thing and control themselves, basically. However, I still regularly meet learners who instinctively WANT direction and leadership from their teacher, and I don’t think it is an unfair expectation in many ways.

    So hmmm, would be fair to say I’m of two minds with this control thing, and (interestingly) those two minds haven’t been mutually exclusive or in conflict.


    - Mr. Raven

  • Brad Patterson

    Hey Naomi.  Glad to be back and disussing life, education and WORDS with you ;-)  

    Control as a “full word” didn’t exist in romance languages until probably around the 1500s, so it’s a branch or two past where it would link directly with hebrew.

    That being said, I’d be fascinated to hear how “control” is expressed in hebrew and to hear if tracing back its history adds a new spice to the tale of control.   Cheers, brad

  • Brad Patterson

    Hey Tyson-

    Thanks for the input on what you think is ‘buzzing’ around the ELT world.  I was hoping to hear of someone experimenting with new ideas.  I remember when I did my RSCON presentation, @markbarnes19:disqus  talked about having “no rules” in his classsroom.  It struck me, and I thought directly of the subtle difference between “rules” and “order”.  

    Rules may be more rigid, but then again they may not be (An rule-less order can be VERY RIGID too— i’m imagining the order in tribal communities regarding monogamous or polygamous relations,  for example.  Probably not written but very rigid). Rules certainly seem more static in general than an environment where order is “envisioned” and evolves with the participants.   I think the big divider is that rules are planned, and sometimes top-down without the down’s input.  Honestly, though I haven’t passed from thinking about these ideas to serious experimentation yet.  This frame-of-mind impacts how I teach, but I’d like to dig deeper sometime soon.

    Oh, and I feel like we should make a cool new saying with Hammurabi in it… ;-)   Time old truth is that old becomes new again (and it’s hip then… just like that word “hip”)

  • Brad Patterson

    Hey Jason-

    Glad like you enjoyed the reflection.  I’m not surprised at all that you’re of “two mind that aren’t mutually exclusive” as I see it as a duality thing, and it’s the dynamic nature of change regarding the environment that seems important to me.

    I also think it’s interesting that you’re hearing constantly that learners are going to do their own thing and control themselves.  Immediately I wonder to what extent this changes from culture to culture.  I’d think we’d find quite a bit of this ‘independence’ in Australia, the US, or France for example (where they are very independent and yet exist in a more rule-oriented, top-down system).  I know that in China if I were to introduce too much “choice”, there was at times a risk of activity failure because some required a bit more leadership or direction from their teacher.

    Listen to and go with the flow, I guess.     Cheers, brad

  • Naomi Epstein

    The dictionary has “to control” as the same word for “to rule” which is a word that dates from the Bible.  We go back to school tomorrow – I wonder what the language teacher has to say about it!

  • Brad Patterson

    aha… feels like a conspiracy theory is forming… LOL ! RULE in english is directly tied to the word REX (latin) or REICH (german) or ROI (french) or REY (spanish) or RAJA (hindi)… KING !

    Enjoy the return to school, and please, please ask the language teacher.  I’d love to keep digging on this one, and merci for your efforts, Naomi !

  • Julie raikou

    Brad, as usual with your etymology posts, you’ve set me off on another journey!  The Greek word for control is ‘ελέγχω’

    I started searching and found an excellent resource which I didn’t know about, sharing for any other Greek speakers

    The entry for  ‘ελέγχω’  states that ‘In the Homeric dialect the meaning of the verb is ‘treated with contempt, shame.’ The same meaning is inherent in other words of the same family that period (or elencheii, the controls, testing). In the Ionic-Attic dialect the meaning of this word family is closely connected with the operation of the courts, so in the words implies the concept of questioning by the judicial process, control, reformulation and the appeal of arguments.’Seems to be an argument for less ‘control’ and more ‘freedom’ within the classroom!

  • Brad Patterson

    Fascinating! Digging back in time and into different languages is such an adventure.  A big σας ευχαριστώ Julie for piloting the greek adventure !  

    RE: “…an argument for less ‘control” and more freedom within the classroom” 

    I was specifically interested to see what the PLN would have to say about “self-organizing” or student-driven order in the classroom.  I don’t have extensive experience in such efforts and am curious as to how it might play considering all the different factors involved.

  • Jemma Gardner

    Hi Brad, 
    Finally, I have found the time to read this wonderful post! Firstly, I am glad that my post inspired you to think about the words like this. Secondly, thanks for the mention. 

    I find it absolutely amazing how words take their place in our language. Reading this has inspired me to think more about this and to look things up more often. Thanks! 

    You’ve also reminded me of something that happened during the last Celta. When I am observing from the back of the room, the trainees who are not teaching are sitting next to me. I have made it a habit to have little slips of paper with me to write thoughts / rhetorical questions etc.. on to pass to them as they watch. In the last week, as we watched a trainee finally get the balance between control and chaos right, I wrote. 
     ”Controlled chaos is……. ” and left space for them to complete the sentence. I wrote “….. a wonderful thing.”
    I don’t have the slip with me at home, but here are a few of their ideas that I can remember - 
    “the Celta course.”
    “a good balance.”

    I will find the slip at work and let you know the others! 


  • Brad Patterson

    Would love to hear what other words they come up with.

    Hope you’re being so busy is a good thing.  Sounds like you’re really enjoying the teacher training, so probably is, eh ?

    My uncle gave me an etymological dictionary for college graduation.  I used to lay around on the floor of my first post-college apartment, basking in the sun and reading that book from cover to cover.  These days it’s on my computer and I probably check a word at least once a day.  I think it’s a fine addiction ;-)     Cheers, b

  • Jemma Gardner

    Hi Brad, 

    Here are the other responses to the sentence stem:

    “Controlled chaos is…. where miracles happen.”
                                             …. my life and the way geniuses work.”
                                             …. the Celta course.”
                                             …. / can be an effective method.”

    My favourite is the first one. 

  • Brad Patterson

    Nice !  Thanks for digging up that piece of paper, Jem.  Look forward to hearing more of the controlled chaotic experiences ahead for you, both teaching and training.  Cheers, b

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