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In a recent paper, Linda Graham, an academic at the Queensland University of Technology, speculated on what motivates commentators to declare a behaviour ‘crisis’ in Australian schools. Apparently, talk of a crisis is part of an attempt by ‘neo-traditional’ teachers to gain control of the agenda. This should be resisted because:
“Despite claims of a crisis in student behaviour – particularly in disadvantaged communities – my research team saw little evidence of student-driven disruption. Much more common were lower-level issues… where teachers themselves derailed the teaching and learning process; often by micro-managing their students or by being unprepared.”
Perhaps Graham has been looking in the wrong places because there is plenty of evidence of student-driven disruption in Australian schools. I have already written about data collected by PISA and TIMSS on disruption and bullying and how this compares poorly with international norms. This data has been dismissed in some quarters as relying on self-reports, i.e. students reporting their own experiences in surveys. I’m not sure why we should discount such evidence.
We can now add the powerful voice of principals to the powerful voice of students. A new report by researchers at the Australian Catholic University finds that principals in government schools are operating under extremely challenging conditions. A significant factor is the level of violence and threats of violence that they face. Over a third of principals report being the victims of violence, primarily at the hands of students. When analysed by sector, more than 40% of principals in government schools experienced physical violence in their workplace and roughly 53% experienced threats of violence from parents and students. These strike me as extraordinary figures.
Principals in other sectors, such as independent schools, fare better. And this signals the growing stratification of our education system; a stratification that is exacerbated by calls to make schools more inclusive. I will explain.
A class of thirty
When it comes to classroom disruption, it is essential to gain the perspectives of active classroom teachers. This is because teachers understand the problem of teaching classrooms full of thirty students at a time in a way that academics and other education professionals often do not. When you work one-on-one with a student, you can adapt to their specific needs, in real time. You can try a variety of ways of engaging them and you can spend time listening to them. Dealing with a challenging student in a one-on-one situation is poles apart from dealing with that same student in a classroom of thirty.
In a classroom of thirty students, you simply cannot spend large amounts of time with an individual. If you want to talk to a student privately, you may ask them to stay behind at the end of the lesson, but even that is fraught because it is often going to be seen as a punishment, whether intended or not.
Most of the children in a large classroom will have developed the biologically primary skills of negotiating relationships and following routines and norms without significant amounts of explicit instruction. They will have picked up these skills through the normal processes of socialisation. However, a minority will not possess these skills, either because of a cognitive impairment, because of the environment they have been exposed to, or perhaps both. This is not to blame these students, but to recognise, as everyone in education does, that different students have different needs.
A regular classroom teacher is therefore presented with a large class, with some students who are ready and able to learn maths or history or whatever academic objectives the teacher has planned, and some who should be working on social and behavioural objectives, either primarily, or in parallel to learning academic content. The trite response – that a teacher should ‘differentiate’ in order to paper over these chasms – is not sufficient because there is very little evidence that this kind of differentiation works.
An alternative may be to separate out students who need to work on social and behavioural objectives, for some of the available class time. There are costs and resources associated with doing this. And yet even if a school can overcome these obstacles, it risks being accused of not being inclusive because it is not including all of its students in all of its lessons. This is because, for some, ‘inclusion’ is a dogmatic position based on perceived rights, rather than a pragmatic stance.
Finally, by making behaviour expectations explicit, developing routines and seating plans, and by reinforcing these through positive and negative contingencies – by essentially removing a lot of student choice over behaviour – it may be possible to help many students to overcome challenging behaviour, remain in class with their peers and focus on academic content.
Are inclusive schools actually inclusive?
One of the reasons that Graham objects to talk of a behaviour ‘crisis’ is that she sees it as part of the argument for adopting ‘no excuses’ approaches to behaviour management. I don’t like the term ‘no excuses’. The original meaning of the phrase was to describe schools serving students in deprived communities: schools that would not accept those circumstances as an ‘excuse’ for academic failure. More recently, it has become conflated with the notion of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour management and, roughly speaking, stands for schools with strong and explicit behaviour expectations. The reason I object to the terms is because I don’t think such schools allow literally ‘no’ excuses or have literally ‘zero’ tolerance.
From our current understanding of cognitive science, it does seem clear that students who exhibit challenging behaviours are more likely than their peers to benefit from strong and explicit approaches to behaviour management. These are the students who, due to background, did not learn pro-social behaviours implicitly. Moreover, middle class teachers, who learnt such rules implicitly themselves, are likely to assume that everyone knows these rules and judge a lack of adherence to them as a sign of defiance or perhaps a behavioural disorder. By making the rules absolutely clear, we level the playing field. Of course, in some circumstances, a cognitive impairment may mean a student is incapable of understanding or following agreed norms, but I suspect this applies to far fewer students than the number who currently exhibit challenging behaviours.
We have a lot of evidence that rules and routines, supported by positive reinforcement and less frequent negative consequences, have a positive impact on classroom climate. Depending on exactly how the schools involved manage their approach, it may be that the so-called ‘no excuses’ model provides the greatest chance of success for students who exhibit challenging behaviours. These schools may therefore be more inclusive than their counterparts.
Yet some argue that ‘no excuses’ schools are inherently selective. They may not create explicit barriers to entry, the thinking goes, but their uncompromising position may discourage parents who have challenging children from sending them to a ‘no excuses’ school in the first place.
Such a notion of covert selection is an interesting one which, if accepted, could be widely applied. For instance, those schools that allow poor behaviour to persist are covertly selecting against students whose parents prefer an orderly classroom climate. What are we going to do about that? What should we do about that? This effect probably explains the increasing stratification of our education system.
If I am right, one of the best ways of making schools more representative of society at large would be to support them in developing strong and clear approaches to managing behaviour.
It may seem like common sense but it is important to understand the vastness of the forces arrayed against any such development. Education is still largely informed by a progressivist philosophy in which children are viewed as inherently good and therefore all challenging behaviour communicates an unmet need. If only teachers met these needs, the behaviour would stop. This makes the mistake of assuming that such behaviour does not need to be taught.
Educationalists are also inclined to map ideas about power and oppression onto classrooms. In this view, telling students the rules and making them follow these rules is oppressive and is analogous to a country ruled by an authoritarian government. Often, such sentiments will be accompanied by a vignette about how rebellious the (middle-class and with plenty of resources to draw upon) educationalist was at school. Instead, we should let the kids run free. No more bricks in the wall, man.
I am up for this discussion. I think we should take it out to wider society and see who wins the debate. Which better serves the ends of social justice? Is it to teach challenging students how to relate to each other and what the commonly accepted norms of society are so that they can hold down jobs, maintain positive and healthy relationships and stay on the right side of the law? Or is it to allow them to do as they choose; as a matter of principle; as a matter of their human rights?
Our education system would benefit from such a public discussion. We might even open a few eyes.