Complacency about behaviour in Australian schools

In 2015, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) had a specific focus on science and so it asked students across the world a series of questions about their science lessons. Among other issues, students were asked how frequently the following occurred:  “Students don’t listen to what the teacher says”; “There is noise and disorder”; “The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down”; “Students cannot work well”; and “Students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins”. From these answers, PISA computed an ‘index of disciplinary climate’. The results for Australia are shocking:

Index of disciplinary climate with Australia highlighted (my highlighting).

As Dr Sue Thompson from the Australian Council for Education and Research (ACER) points out, “[The] Level of noise and disorder reported in the classroom is one of the highest in the OECD [countries] and it’s a problem at grade 4 and grade 8 level as well as at year 9 and 10 level.” Thompson’s comments about grades 4 and 8 are likely to be based upon survey data from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which was being reported at around the same time as the PISA findings and demonstrated, if it were needed, a clear negative relationship between levels of disruption and achievement and a worryingly large amount of student reported bullying.

I don’t teach in a challenging school in Australia. Having taught in three government schools in England, one that was particularly difficult, I have a visceral understanding of what sits behind these statistics; of the pain, humiliation and lost learning; of the quiet kids who are overlooked and forgotten as teachers wrangle unruly classrooms. The fact that the situation seems worse in Australia than the U.K. is deeply troubling.

It is worth highlighting that the findings are based upon self-reports and it is always going to be hard to be concrete and definitive about something as subjective as discipline. For instance, different cultures may have different interpretations of the survey questions. Nevertheless, the data set is large and most reasonable people would conclude that there is an issue with classroom behaviour, it is unlikely to exist only in maths and science lessons and Australia should face it.

Sadly, our behaviour experts don’t appear to be reasonable. The overriding need is to dismiss this kind of data as a manufactured crisis, got up for political reasons. To this end, it doesn’t really matter what logic is used. For instance, Professor Linda Graham asserts that, “Classroom management is one of the most covered topics in teacher professional development,” and most teachers ‘score well’ on it so we should stop worrying about it, whereas Dr David Armstrong informs us that, “The ‘behaviour management’ concept is outdated and requires urgent reform in favour of modern research-informed perspectives from developmental psychology and behavioural science.” So what are we expected to believe? Is one of the most covered* topics in teacher professional development a concept that is outdated? Because that would be strange.

This is reminiscent of phonics denialism where those who seek to avoid reform claim simultaneously that all teachers use phonics anyway while suggesting that phonics isn’t very important. You can’t have it both ways and some sort of committee ought to be formed to work out exactly what the line is.

In the meantime, the best bet for enlightened schools and teachers is to go and seek out some of the best evidence about how to manage behaviour problems. A lot of this comes from the unfashionable ‘behaviourist’ school of psychology. A good source, worth investing in, is this book by Robert Marzano that surveys the evidence and Tom Bennett offers some sound, practical advice in this report for the U.K. government [Edit – in the comments I have been pointed to Sue O’Neill’s work]. I will also be devoting a chapter of my new book to the topic. Hopefully, that will be out next year.

*It is deeply ironic for an academic to assert that a topic has been ‘covered’. Schoolteachers are all too aware that this is meaningless and what matters is that it has been learned.

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20 thoughts on “Complacency about behaviour in Australian schools

  1. See the research by Sue O’Neill on this – preservice teachers are NOT well prepared in evidence-based classroom management

  2. As someone who has worked at a university and is a teacher, I can say that there are a number of issues:
    – courses are very theoretical with little in the way of anything practical.
    – Many of the people taking behaviour management courses in our universities have little or no teaching experience and so rely on what they read from texts about behaviour management
    – There is not enough psychology in our teaching degrees so what is learned about behaviour management is not grounded in a deep understanding of human behaviour. Rather teachers are taught about a smorgasbord of strategies they can use.
    – You can now do behaviour management as a totally online course. Need I say any more!

  3. Anecdotal I know, but the advice I was given about classroom management during my Dip.Ed. was complete nonsense EXCEPT in the little unit about Special Ed., which was one of the best bits of the course. Probably because the Special Ed. people knew the value of clearly-defined expectations and easily understood instructions, they had a handle on what was needed. The pity of it was that this was considered the domain of Special Ed. only, when it is in fact plainly applicable to all students.

  4. I sincerely hope ITE programs are including more evidence based practices in classroom management than when I did my research into this area 5-6 years ago. The Great Teaching Inspired Learning report by BOSTES in 2014-15 suggested there was some improvement at least in NSW ITE programs. I agree with others above the the need for a better understanding of human behaviour and that special ed folks deliver the goods: we have to!

  5. There may be deeper cultural issues too. Family environment; social respect for teachers, even teachers’ self image as a respected and fundamentally significant profession may all be soft spots in the cynical ‘tall poppy’ Australia.

  6. It’s interesting that you quote someone saying saying BM is one of the “most covered” topics in Australian ITT, I’ve seen from several sources (and experienced) that this isn’t necessarily the case in the UK. Even taking into account the difference between covering and learning that you point out do you think this is an honest account off ITT in Australia? BM involves such a complex mix of skills (in my opinion) that it must be very difficult to teach properly outside of the classroom walls.

    1. …BM involves such a complex mix of skills (in my opinion) that it must be very difficult to teach properly outside of the classroom walls…

      There’s definitely some truth to this, but one of the really important things I learned from that Special Ed unit described above is that it’s surprisingly difficult to devise rules/expectations that are completely clear and not susceptible to interpretation (which, in practice, means cynical manipulation by kids and/or litigious parents). This sort of thing CAN be taught in teacher training courses IMO. But of course practical experience is also vital.

      1. Yes I agree. I think when I said “properly” what I was really referring to was full mastery. But then I don’t think there’s anything in teaching that you can learn about fully without getting into the classroom.

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