Why ‘all behaviour is communication’ resonates with educational progressives

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I’ve written before that the statement, ‘all behaviour is communication,’ fits the definition of a deepity. It is false on the level that most of us interpret it – people do lots of things without the intention of communicating something to anyone else. Moreover, the more general term, ‘behaviour’ is often used in education as a synonym for poor or challenging behaviour, and so the statement suggests that all such behaviour is an attempt to communicate. Again, this is false because we can point to many examples – such as stealing – where communication is actively avoided. However, if we extend the definition of ‘communication’ to mean any flow of information, intentional or not, then we may argue that all behaviour is a source of information about the person who is enacting the behaviour. In this case the statement is true but lacks any utility because it applies to everything.

The function of a deepity such as this is to promote the first, false meaning using the authority of the second, trivially true meaning.

But this raises the question: Why? Why would anyone want to promote the idea that every incident of challenging behaviour is an attempt to communicate?

We will return to that question in a moment, but first it is worth looking at the origin of the statement. Many researchers believe some children, particularly those on the autistic spectrum, often engage in non-verbal behaviours because they are unable to communicate verbally, either because they lack that capacity or because circumstances prevent them from doing so. When discussing the results of a study, one research paper explained it the following way (thanks to @bernywern for the link):

“The results were consistent with an hypothesis stating that some child behavior problems may be viewed as a nonverbal means of communication. According to this hypothesis, behavior problems and verbal communicative acts, though differing in form, may be equivalent in function. Therefore, strengthening the latter should weaken the former.”

This all sounds very reasonable but it does not amount to a statement that all behaviour is communication.

The alternative, all-encompassing version appeals to people because it is consistent with educational progressivism.

I was recently sent a copy of an excellent book, Progressive Education, by John Howlett. It is a sympathetic account of its subject and contains considerable historical insight.

As Howlett suggests, Rousseau is generally acknowledged to sit at the start of the progressive education tradition proper, if not wholly within it. Importantly, Rousseau’s time was at the intersection of The Enlightenment and Romanticism. This allowed for the synthesis of two important sets of ideas. Rousseau’s great work on education is his novel, Emile, about the education of the eponymous young man. As Howlett explains:

“Although Emile is learning solely through the products of his own experiences (the Enlightenment-empiricist precept), the form and type of these experiences must spring from the innate impulses and knowledge of the child whose desires, Rousseau contends, should not be thwarted by the tutor. A key plank of progressive and romantic thinking lay in recognising the value of the wisdom of the child…”

This sentiment is perhaps best summarised when Rousseau states that, ‘Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man.’ Essentially, children have more recently left the hand of the author of things and it is adults who mess them up. We should therefore pay more attention to, and follow, their desires. For Howlett, this is the same tradition that sees A. S. Neill refrain from intervening as his daughter destroys his beloved piano.

It is into this tradition that ‘all behaviour is communication’ feeds. It is the desire to see only good in children and, when this is not apparent, to attribute that to some fault of current circumstance or some fault in the adults surrounding the child. It is this that educational progressives, whether they call themselves this and are aware of the history or not, think that children are attempting to communicate.

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11 thoughts on “Why ‘all behaviour is communication’ resonates with educational progressives

  1. I still think RS Peters was closer to the mark on Rousseau:

    “the methods of learning from Nature and things are so contrived and controlled that even Skinner might be envious… the tutor, who is the only model available to the child, exercises his authority by structuring Emile’s learning environment, not by directly imposing his will on him.”

  2. Csikszentmihalyi, who is no progressive, suggests that children seek opportunities for optimal experiences to exercise their growing skills,, and will go outside acceptable norms when their ability to find them within those norms is restricted. One might considerthat that applies to some classrooms, and quite probably large portions of their now over-controlled lives…

    1. He might suggest it. It doesn’t make it true.

      People in Australia do not have “over-controlled” lives. Compared to previous generations our freedoms — political, social, sexual, religious or economic — are unmatched. (Where are these magic societies with less control? Sure, Congo might be one, but in a very bad way.)

      Many people are much more concerned that excessive choice in modern society leads to aimlessness. I tend to think that has some truth.

      It certainly seems to be the case with children. Children from strong family backgrounds aren’t half the discipline problem of ones from undisciplined backgrounds. Discipline, if firm but fair, creates self-discipline.

      Choice is fetishised, but that’s because people confuse it with Liberty.

      1. I wasn’t justifying poor behaviour by saying that, and I think neither is he. But it seems plausible that boundary pushing is a response to insufficient scope for other opportunities.

  3. Most autistics are quite capable of verbalising their wants. If they know them. Very few are mute, especially when alone with someone they trust.

    Problems do come when the autistic doesn’t know what the issue or trigger is, true. And that can lead to odd behaviours.

    We are expected then to believe that their non-verbal actions are communications for the something they don’t themselves understand. That’s a stretch for “communication”.

    I have experienced much more problem getting shy students to explain an issue than autistic ones. Autistic ones will say what bothers them with no regard for the feelings of others, which can annoy, but you don’t wonder what they think.

    Autistics tend to react reliably and honestly. It’s non-autistics who will lie to cover up something wrong. Non-autistics will try to protect others’ feelings, and be economical with the facts.

    The really big issue autistics face is that people will not *accept* their clearly stated desires. People get annoyed with them precisely because of their bluntness.

    That the most straight-forward, direct people on the planet are the poster children for indirect communication is somewhat odd.

    1. Chester while I applaud your comments on the nature of some autistic children (usually those diagnosed) it isn’t true that all autistic children or people will be loud and tell you their thoughts. It is a spectrum and we usually label those higher on the spectrum with the label autistic.

      The combination of autism with introvert leads to a very quiet child that may appear shy or withdrawn but simply doesn’t enjoy speaking. More and more studies are showing this especially in girls on the spectrum.

      Greg, please be aware that dismissing a lot of the conversation around “all behaviour is communication” because been picked up by the progressives is incredibly destructive. The need to understand our students is implicit in good explicit teaching practices, and suggesting that this banner is an excuse doesn’t paint a good picture.

      To many teachers are still seeing autism as the “beautiful mind” ideal or worse the Sheldon from Big Bang and it’s not true. Many on the spectrum exhibit different traits that make them slightly abnormal but not disruptive or belligerent, with care and understanding they can become wonderful members of society. I know because I am the adult autism teacher that was the weird student in class, that got the social cues wrong and so didn’t talk until a couple of caring teachers took the time to know me for me.

      Please, please, please teach the student, not the subject.

      1. Iain,
        Why isn’t it the problem for that those such as yourself that understand what you really mean by “all behavior is communication” should rephrase it to say what you really mean?

        As Greg has pointed out and you seem to allude to the four words mean whatever someone wants and so become useless as a way to communicate anything serious.

        It may have been a clever turn of phrase the first time someone said it in the context of addressing understanding non-verbal clues from a student but it has become jargon that people now spend a huge amount of time discussing when the actual issue can be clearly stated with just a few more words.

        Same goes for “teach the student, not the subject”. I can’t imagine any situation where saying that to someone in person would be a good way to get them onside to what you actually want them to do. You cannot teach English to no one.

        People who love their jargon more than getting their ideas across really do waste a lot of energy. There should be a carbon tax on it.

      2. Iain, the problem of shy autistics is largely the shyness, not the autism. I’m not suggesting all autistics are loud at all. I’m suggesting that if you do get a response it will be a direct one.

        For the very shy that will mean asking them alone, or more usually asking them via their parents.

        Introverts and shy people (not the same thing) generally don’t communicate anything much. The “all behaviour is communication” tends to be meaningless when the person’s response to stress is to stay as still and quiet as possible.

  4. Those whose main concern is what people are communicating should be a lot more embarrassed that a piece of jargon – all behavior is communication – has caused such a fuss and drop the catchy but poor phrase.

    The problem is in part our love of a catchy phrase and being in the club that is for or against it. Looking at the twitter discussion some people are using criticism of this phrase to signal their belonging to one club and how those not in the club are unworthy. The sad part is these are often people who teach English or literacy but seem to worry more about who is saying something than discuss the shortcomings of a sweeping generalization.

    We don’t have handy short words for intentional verses unintentional communication. It would be a lot easier if those who worry about the root causes of behavior said all behavior tells us something about the actor or perhaps the request is to always address the motives for behavior. But sticking to their guns on a phrase that is ambiguous demonstrates their own communication problem, the root causes of which seem quite sad given the context is educating kids.

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