We are not supposed to talk about it. Certainly, many education academics would rather we didn’t. If we must talk about it, heaven forbid we label it a ‘crisis’ because that would then signal that we are part of some dark, right-wing plot.
The topic, of course, is the poor behaviour that many teachers and students are confronted with in Australian schools. I was quoted in a news item in yesterday’s edition of The Australian, commenting on the matter. The reporter, Rebecca Urban, makes the point that according to survey data from the OECD, classroom climate is very poor by international standards with, ‘one-third of the students in advantaged schools, and about half of those in disadvantaged schools, reported noise and disorder in most or every class’.
Calm and orderly classrooms are a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for learning to take place and Australian schools often lack them.
The news report drew attention to a recently published longitudinal study showing that responsible students who payed attention in school went on to have higher levels of education, higher incomes and more prestigious careers. It is hardly a shock finding, but it does give the lie to the romantic notion that schools somehow get in the way of creativity and innovation and that today’s badly behaved teenager is tomorrow’s entrepreneur.
Fixing the situation in Australian schools would be relatively simple. It requires two key steps. Firstly, teachers need to be trained in evidence-based approaches to classroom management. These exist. The research mainly comes from behaviourist psychology and it’s pretty robust as far as education research goes. As I made clear in The Australian, it is necessary to have negative consequences to draw upon, but the majority of classroom management is actually about setting conditions that anticipate and militate against poor behaviour occurring; systems such as the use of seating plans and positive reinforcement. I certainly became a better teacher once I learnt some of these strategies and that is why they form a key chapter in my soon-to-be-published book for new teachers.
However, none of these strategies are of any use unless teachers are supported by a robust whole-school behaviour policy with active leadership and graduated levels of intervention. A school culture is no different to the culture of any other organisation in that it is defined by what it is prepared to tolerate.
Unfortunately, reasonable people who have run challenging schools and who understand these issues have allowed the debate to be defined for too long by anti-discipline fundamentalists. The choice is not one between punishing and excluding students with relish and a more humane approach. The choice is actually between a position based on a reasonable and moderate application of evidence-based strategies and a position that sees all behaviour as a form of communication; if only we would listen to what is being communicated there would be no need for ‘punitive’ approaches. It is based upon the romantic view that children are inherently good and corrupted only by adults. What kind of monster are you if you want to ‘manage’ the behaviour of these little forces of nature? Of course, this dogma defies both evidence and common sense.
It is time for seasoned teachers to talk a little more about the issue of classroom behaviour. It is a subject that needs to be wrested from the hands of ideologues and given light and air if we ever wish to address it.