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.