Australia’s secret crisis


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.

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6 thoughts on “Australia’s secret crisis

  1. Miss H says:

    I really wish behaviour were taken more seriously. All but one school I have worked in has had chronically bad behaviour in the majority of junior classes (shouting, throwing things, wandering around, swearing, talking over the teacher) and a large minority with poor work ethic (no books, no pens or pencils, no homework, needing constant reminders to follow instructions, not starting work until absolutely have to, etc). I have a great deal of sympathy for students who are upset or very tired and unable to focus, I am also willing to explicitly teach expectations and routines that I expect students to follow and the school I currently work in does good work with the truly appallingly behaved minority. I am now so worn down by the constant arguing, rudeness and threatening behaviour that I am seriously thinking about leaving teaching. Amazes me that so many just expect this level of behaviour and that unions don’t take this up in a serious fashion.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    It’s seldom I have any fundamental disagreements with your posts, but to talk about behaviour as a technocratic or management issue is to miss the point altogether. The only alternative to authority is anarchy, but we’ve become such wimps on the issue that we’ve lost the belief that we have any right to impose our will upon our pupils. Kids aren’t encumbered with such scruples, and they exploit our insecurity mercilessly.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that the majority of teachers have to make the magic transition from the back of the classroom to the front without any exposure to the real world. As one trainee teacher replied when asked what she knew about children, “I’m not sure, but until very recently I was one”. And these days, teachers do need to be told that it’s OK to have their pupils facing them and to have seating plans–but what is really needed is the sort of sea change in attitudes that only rare people like Katherine Birbalsingh have the guts to implement. And the funny thing is that her kids love it. They respect authority that is open and honest–it’s seen as a refreshing contrast to mealy-mouthed attempts to ‘manage’ unruly behaviour. Kids have a strong sense of right and wrong, even if we’ve lost it.

  3. Alex Brown says:

    I am in my ninth year. I have taught a total of ONE CLASS – an Advanced English group for Year 12 – where quiet (not silence) mind you, was the norm. They also had 1:1 computers so who knows what was happening when I was at the board.

    I am now a Head of Department at a school with some very challenging students and appalling rudeness. I am insisting on clear rules and routines, positive reinforcement, and parent contact. I run Faculty detentions at lunch and after school.

    While no teacher will argue against me, most don’t apply the rules consistently or warmly either. The Principal supports me, but the Deputies, who organise the suspensions, are overrun.

    It’s going to take an enormous cultural shift to fix this one. I fear Australia – the land of the ‘c’mon mate, take it easy’ as much as the fair go – might not have it in us.

  4. Sarah G says:

    It’s a challenge too when there is no discipline, high expectations or routine at home. In fact it is like swimming upstream some days.

  5. Pingback: Teachers and students want the same things, so what’s the problem? – Filling the pail

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