Is ‘no excuses’ an excuse for boring and lazy teaching?Posted: April 28, 2016
I hadn’t intended to write about ‘no excuses’ behaviour management. This is because I don’t know a great deal about it. I am aware that Michaela Community School in London uses the approach, as well as other UK Academies and a number of Charter Schools in the US. As an Assistant Headteacher in a relatively tough school in London, I was heavily involved in behaviour management. We were lucky. We had a pot of money allocated to improve behaviour which we spent on employing a group of specialists. They would arrange appointments with students but some students were also given a card that they could use to leave a lesson at any time in order to go and see one of these counsellors. The rationale was that this could prevent major escalations and I believe that it worked to an extent, yet this was effectively an excuse that was designed in to the system.
I do, however, believe that you need strong and effective behaviour management in a school. This has to operate on all levels. Teachers must apply the behaviour policy consistently and leaders must support those teachers. I also think it’s essential that teachers are informed of the eventual outcome of anything that they have referred to senior leaders and, in my experience, this is often overlooked. Poor behaviour causes stress for teachers and is clearly a factor in recruitment and retention. However, a lot of people tend to forget the impact of poor behaviour on other students. Bullying can be incredibly debilitating but even low-level misbehaviour damages the chances of other students to learn; a factor that I believe that many parents intuitively consider when they opt for private education.
I have been involved in permanently excluding students. The paperwork to do this was vast and there was an appeals panel that could overturn our decisions. An excluded student was unlikely to gain anything from the process and yet, on each occasion, I was satisfied that it was the right thing to do because the student was always involved in physically harming his or her peers. This wasn’t about giving teachers an easy life, it was about protecting those for whom we had a duty of care.
It was through this lens that I read Linda Graham’s piece on ‘no excuses’. Graham is an academic who does important research on behaviour, amongst other issues. She writes about ‘no excuses’ and the teachers who subscribe to it with something approaching contempt:
“To my mind, the other thing that this “no excuses” discourse masks is the complete and utter refusal to consider that just *maybe* the kid has a point.
In other words, with a “no excuses”, “zero tolerance”, “like it or lump it” approach, systems, schools and teachers – who are that way inclined – can excuse themselves.
Teach badly? No matter.
Curriculum is mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant? So what.
Treat young people like they are indentured servants with no opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity? S’ok.
It’s okay because our uncompromising standards mean that those young people will have to leave and when they do they will become someone else’s problem. Then we can get on with teaching the kids who like or who can at least endure mind-numbing irrelevant curriculum taught poorly by autocratic teachers who know best.”
This discourse reminded me of an interaction I had with a progressive educator who declared that I had ‘no pedagogy’. I found this puzzling at the time but I am now starting to understand where it comes from. Traditional approaches, including strong discipline, are seen by some as entirely self-serving. No allowance is made for the notion that there might be some thinking behind it. Traditionalists are only interested in themselves; they just want an easy life. The language of education reinforces this perception. What are we to make of teachers who prefer a ‘teacher-led’ approach to a cuddly-sounding ‘child-centred’ one?
There is a clear divide here and, as we can see from the heat that ‘no excuses’ generates, it is not a false dichotomy. There are those who think that we should prepare the child for the world and there are those that think that we should prepare the world for the child. In a recent Twitter discussion about Shakespeare that was sparked by the 400th anniversary of his death, there were those who asked whether children would find his work interesting or engaging and, if not, concluded that perhaps we shouldn’t teach it. Traditionalists might debate which texts should be studied in a curriculum but they would do so on the basis of the properties of those texts rather than their superficial appeal.
It is naive in the extreme to suppose that giving students choice and control over what and how they learn will lead them to choosing pathways that will maximise their educational outcomes and there is plenty of evidence to support this. For instance, a recent study by Danish sociologists took advantage of an incredibly complete ‘big data’ set. They interviewed school principals and asked them how much they agreed with certain statements in order to ascertain how ‘student-centred’ their views were; statements such as ‘teaching processes directed by the students are more important than teaching processes directed by the teacher’. Responses to these questions closely correlated with each other. They then looked at the data from a mathematics test that takes place in Grade 9 across Denmark.
Students in schools where the principals held more student-centred views performed worse. Moreover, there was a greater inequality in these schools. The student-centred methods had an even worse effect on students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Not so cuddly, after all.
The authors are not in any way surprised by this result – it is what they hypothesised. And this is because the explanation can be traced back to Basil Bernstein, and other empirical studies – such as Schwerdt and Wupperman 2011 – have shown similar outcomes.
As I understand it, ‘no excuses’ is part of a whole-school teacher-led educational philosophy. It is not just about giving teachers an easy time. In fact, it is intended to promote social justice and greater equality. It draws upon the curriculum theory of E D Hirsch and the knowledge agenda of Dan Willingham. It draws on the empirical support for explicit instruction. I am not advocating ‘no excuses’. I would need to know more about how it works in practice. But let’s not demonise dedicated teachers who are genuinely trying to do the best for the students they teach.