In a recent post, I referred to a podcast interview with Dr David Armstrong. Armstrong’s contention was that we should stop attempting to manage children’s behaviour. He compared it to managing finances or cans of beans, claiming that this was dehumanising. Armstrong went on to suggest that we target teaching at children’s individual interests and perhaps even plan around those interests.
I instantly recognised this as a version of the long-running argument that has played out between educational progressivism and traditionalism. Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, progressivists have forcefully argued for following children’s interests and traditionalists have argued that all content is not equal and so proceeding in this way will lead to a degraded curriculum. Progressivists have called for what the 1960s Plowden report into U.K. primary education described as ‘permissive discipline‘ – there is no need for behaviour management strategies because students will behave well provided they are doing something they love and that is suited to their particular level of development. Traditionalists tend to suggest that quality education can be tough and unrewarding at times and so students need to be pushed along.
Readers of this blog will be well-versed in this clash of philosophies and will have their own view of where along the progressivist-traditionalist continuum they lie. But what made Armstrong’s interview intriguing was the claim that his position is evidence-based. This is a strong claim that draws to mind evidence-based practices in medicine based upon randomised controlled trials. I was interested to understand how a position that I view as essentially ideological could be framed in this way. And so I asked David Armstrong about this on Twitter.
To his great credit, Armstrong replied pretty quickly with a number of links. He also referred to his book but, unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that. The links he provided are here, here, here and here (one didn’t work).
Although short, the first paper, by Paul Cooper, summarises a number of kinds of intervention that can be effective for students with behavioural difficulties. He looks at the evidence suggesting that positive relationships and teachers’ personal warmth are important. He outlines the various types of behaviour intervention available and the longest discussion is about behaviourist methods that seek to modify behaviour through external measures and antecedents.
One such behaviourist scheme is The Good Behaviour Game: Each class is divided into two teams, any time a member of a team misbehaves then the team is awarded a point, and the team with the fewest points at the end of the day gets a reward (sometimes both teams can get a reward if they are below a certain number of points). The evidence suggests it works but I would not feel comfortable using it because the grouped withdrawal of the reward amounts to a collective punishment and I think that’s wrong.
Another behaviourist intervention is Response Cost: Each student starts out with a number of points or tokens and each time he or she misbehaves, a point is taken away. Rewards are then given to students who have a certain number of points remaining.
I am an advocate of using behaviourist approaches to managing behaviour, even if I am not particularly keen on these ones. Yet whatever you think of them, they epitomise an approach of managing students’ behaviour.
The other experimental results outlined in Cooper’s paper relate to ‘cognitive behavioural’ (CB) interventions loosely based on cognitive behavioural therapy. The results are promising but many of the sample sizes for the experiments are tiny, typically involving 2-4 students. CB interventions are essentially a form of therapy that seeks to make students aware of negative feelings and patterns of thinking so that they can better control them. I am cautious about such an approach in the classroom. Teachers are not trained therapists and they have other objectives to achieve such as the teaching of reading and maths. I can readily accept that such interventions may work with small groups of students in a focused environment but that’s almost a call for specialist provision. If inclusion is our goal then we need ways of delivering effective interventions in regular classrooms.
On the whole, I thought this was an very good paper on the subject but I couldn’t see how it supported Armstrong’s contention that we should not seek to manage behaviour, given that all the strategies mentioned had the goal of managing student behaviour.
The second link is to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Behavioural Medicine that seems, from the references, to have something to do with getting patients to stick to their treatment regimes or give up smoking. I couldn’t quite figure out the relevance to classroom practice.
The third link is a review of evidence-based practices for children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). It focuses on a range of outcomes such as play and communication, rather than being restricted solely to challenging behaviours. Again, behaviourist approaches feature heavily in the list of practices alongside CB interventions and, again, I am left wondering about the applicability of some of the methods to the classroom. The fact that behaviourist interventions – such as a reward or the withdrawal of a reward – seem to work generally, as well as in the specific case of children with ASD, suggests that they may have some classroom applicability. However, I was unclear about how all of these interventions were enacted. For example, would an approach that involved individual instruction be one that could be applied in a regular classroom?
The final link is a paper by Armstrong himself. It is not really a review of evidence, more a subjective identification of ‘wicked problems’ such as, “The adverse flow-on effects of neo-liberal educational policies on children or young people with disabilities.” This is fine, but I don’t think it adds anything in terms of evidence-based practices.
So I am still keen to understand the data that supports the arguments made by Armstrong in his interview. Unless I’ve missed it, I can’t see the evidence against managing children or in support of tailoring teaching to their individual interests. Instead we have lots of evidence on how to manage students most effectively. Yes, Armstrong grudgingly admits that behaviourism can work if you just want students to ‘comply’ but where is the evidence to support the approaches that he is more enthusiastic about? Is his really an evidence-based position or is it a philosophical and ideological one? There is nothing wrong with it being the latter as long as we all recognise it as such.