Is ‘no excuses’ an excuse for boring and lazy teaching?

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.


15 thoughts on “Is ‘no excuses’ an excuse for boring and lazy teaching?

  1. Felicity says:

    Hi Greg, I’m a teacher enjoying your blog. You wrote “Students in schools where the principals held more teacher-centred views performed worse.” Is that right or a typo? From the rest of your post I thought it might have been the opposite.

    Can you recommend any good education podcasts? I’ve just found out about all these ideas (the benefits of explicit instruction, retrieval practice and so on) and I’m keen to find out more.


  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for such an informative and interesting post. I enjoyed reading this immensely.Just a couple of point I think you’d like to consider… first, I think your defense of the “no excuses” approach (as you say, whatever that is…) is very credible and clear. However, one thing that I think we need to recognise as teachers is the types of behaviour we are seeing in our classrooms. I think its fair to say that low level disruption (the usual stuff that we’ve all seen all too often, chattiness, fiddling, jerking around, a little cheekiness) should be handled by skillful management by the teacher. From my own experiences, most of this is done by a combination of creating really good, engaging lessons that are fully interactive for the kids and creating solid relationships with the kids based on mutual respect which comes from listening to each other. (This is probably all the fluffy stuff that the academics and theorists advocate for good learning.) However, I am sure from your post that the types of kids that you have been forced to exclude are the ones where there is little response to anything a classroom teacher could do. I think here, to say this is lazy teaching is to miss the point. Some kids are quite simply not cut out for mainstream education. They need support beyond what a classroom teacher can give them. And here’s the real issue as you pointed out – most teachers have a responsibility to provide opportunities for ALL students in their classrooms, rather than pander to the needs of the few who make choices (albeit choices which exist in a wider sociological context) about their behaviour in a classroom. I guess as educators, it comes down to this – why should the needs of my engaged students who are making and effort and want to learn be compromised by the choices of an individual? I think it is at this point we have to consider the “no excuses” school of thought.

    Thank you again for your wonderful post.

  3. “with NO opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity”

    So clearly, an enthusiasm for academic learning and mastering skills couldn’t possibly form part of anyone’s “developing identity”….

    Also, it’s bizarre how many educators seem to be unaware that children spend roughly 75% of their waking hours NOT in school. It’s as if they haven’t quite grasped that children have a life away from school, with access to social media, family and community. (They even manage to meet up with their friends occasionally.) Does this time not count toward ‘exercising and extending their developing identity’?

  4. Chester Draws says:

    I used to teach a lesson on the need for explicit mathematical language by getting some wooden prisms putting them in a bag and then getting one student put his hand in the bag and then direct another student to draw the net of the prism on the board by instruction only. The kids quite enjoy it, and along the way are taught the need for explicit wording.

    I can’t teach it that way at my current school because there would always be one or two who would turn it into an own opportunity to demean any failures. Sure the class would enjoy it still, but they would no longer be learning. As I don’t allow students to demean others, I don’t teach that lesson any more.

    A no excuses environment would actually allow me to teach that lesson. Similarly if I could get my class quickly to the playing grounds and back again without having to spend much of my time cajoling them to do so quickly and quietly without mucking around on the way, I would actually have some lessons for outside the classroom.

    Contrary to many progressives, strong discipline allows you more freedom to teach in unorthodox ways, not less. You have the opportunity to do things that rely on students behaving well because you know they will.

  5. Tempe says:

    Thanks Greg. More interesting research. Both my kids schools are pretty child-centred. On the odd occasion when I have asked the principal or vice principal about the evidence they have to support these ideas (I supply them with evidence to the contrary) I don’t hear back from them.

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