UK newspaper, The Independent are reporting that, “Teachers should ignore low-level disruptive behaviour in the classroom to reduce it.” This is, apparently, based upon a University of Exeter Medical School study conducted by a Professor Tamsin Ford. Unfortunately, The Independent does not see fit to provide us with a link to the study and when I checked Google Scholar, I couldn’t find it. Without the details of the methods used, it’s hard to draw any conclusions.
However, even within the terms of the reporting in The Independent, it seems as if the headline may be a little misleading. The main strategy in the study seems to be the use of positive reinforcement or, as an old staffroom stalwart might describe it, ‘catching them being good’. This is an effective strategy and one that I recommend in my new book (which should now be available for dispatch, my publisher tells me).
The basic premise is that you highlight the students who are doing what you want: “Excellent work on this table – good to see you have all started the exercise.” This provides a cue to students on a different table who haven’t started the exercise. These other students then have the opportunity to get to work without having to lose face. I like this strategy a lot because it helped me with one of the most difficult classes I ever taught. I believe that it gives the classroom a more positive atmosphere and enhances the teacher’s authority by pointing out to the rest of the class the students who are doing what is expected rather than highlighting those who are not.
However, the idea that this is all you do and that you simply ignore poor behaviour is a nonsense.
The bottom line is that everyone in the class must start the exercise. If positive reinforcement doesn’t get them going then I would move over to the students who are not completing the task. Usually, physical proximity is enough to send the signal, but I will want to have a quiet word with any who still have not received the message. Ultimately, there will be a system involving a warning followed by graduated sanctions to back this up. This system doesn’t need to get a lot of use but it does need to be there.
Some people have qualms about positive reinforcement. They suggest that it involves praising students for what they should already be doing, rather than for something exceptional. They may also point to evidence against praise from self-determination theory. The idea is that if you praise someone for washing the dishes, they will lose intrinsic motivation for washing the dishes in the future. Alfie Kohn is probably the best know populariser of this idea.
However, there is conflicting evidence and there has been an ongoing debate in the literature. For instance, Cameron and Pierce (1994) found no negative impact of praise on intrinsic motivation and this then drew a rebuttal from Ryan and Deci (1996) of self-determination theory fame. This wasn’t the end of the matter and the debate persists. It may be that the argument is slightly at crossed-purposes and that we don’t benefit by conflating verbal reinforcement with cash payments and trying to analyse them all as rewards.
The bias of my own experience means that I am inclined to see the value in verbal reinforcement and I think this view is supported by a range of evidence, including from teacher effectiveness research. This may be a long bow to draw, but if Alfie Kohn was right, and his theory applied to dogs, then dog training would simply not work – the more treats and praise you gave the dog for sitting, the less likely the dog would be to sit in the future. Yes, humans are not the same as dogs, but it would be surprising if we were wholly different opposites.