A case study of a bad argument

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Back in the early 2000s, I worked at a school ‘facing challenging circumstances’ in London. During my time at the school, results improved dramatically. This was not down to any revolution in teaching methods or curriculum, rather I would attribute it to simply getting a grip on behaviour. When I started at the school, there was a split lunch and it would be common for students to take both lunches and roam around the site disrupting lessons. When I left, it was a completely different place. It still had its challenges, but teachers could teach, a sense of order generally prevailed and the students seemed happier.

We introduced a number of measures during this time. There was a patrol system where senior members of staff were given a timetabled slot to walk around the school with a walkie-talkie, available for any teacher who needed help. We introduced a whole-school detention and dedicated a member of admin staff to coordinating it. The headteacher insisted on personally meeting with any student who committed a serious offence, including not turning up to the whole-school detention. Often, these students would be placed in internal suspension.

We were also part of a project that gave us additional money which we used to employ ‘behaviour improvement workers’ who would counsel students. Some students had a pass that meant they could leave a lesson and go to one of these workers if they noticed they were losing control. On the other hand, the money came with strings attached – it became extremely difficult to exclude students. Exclusions were effectively banned for a short time, and when they were brought back, the paperwork was onerous. As an assistant headteacher, I would sometimes have to stay up all night compiling lengthy reports.

The progressivist tradition in education is inclined towards viewing children as intrinsically good. It views poor behaviour on the part of a child as an act of communicating that the child’s individual needs are not being appropriately met. I have some sympathy for this view, although the idea a child is often communicating, “I need structure and clear boundaries,” is not likely to be one shared by many progressivists who instead would tend to stress greater student choice and freedom.

Over recent months on Twitter, progressivism has mostly been expressed as an antipathy towards school exclusions. However, in recent weeks, it has shifted, and the practice of internal suspension has come under the spotlight.

A complete opposition to internal suspension is hard to justify, particularly when it is often used as an alternative to exclusion, and so the argument quickly morphed into one about ‘isolation booths’ and the #banthebooths hashtag was born. The term ‘isolation booth’ appears to refer to the practice of placing partitions between students who are on internal suspension, a bit like the partitions you sometimes see between desks in open-plan offices.

Teachers then began to point out why you might arrange an internal suspension room in this way. If there is more than one student then it is unlikely, given the reasons they may have been sent there, that it would be a good idea for them to interact with each other while suspended. They are highly likely to become distracted, this may lead to poor behaviour and there are then few options left to manage that behaviour. The whole point of internal suspension is its place within a hierarchy of other rewards and sanctions, enabling a student to reflect at each stage.

This is when proponents of #banthebooths reached the end game and began to claim that they were not opposed to all partitions. Instead, they were opposed to ‘deep’ isolation booths. Nobody seems to know what these are and so the argument has finally alighted at opposition to a fiction.

This episode is a clear example of how a romantic argument, high on idealism, begins to falter when introduced incrementally to reality. It is no coincidence that many of the #banthebooths activists are not practising teachers and many of those who have calmly and repeatedly pointed to the flaws in the argument are practising teachers.

There is something about having to put an idea into practice that sharpens the critical faculties.

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4 thoughts on “A case study of a bad argument

  1. It’s quite possible that, given the groups of students you were working with and given the resources and structures you were given to work with them – this was the best option. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s in favor of chaos in the classroom.

    That being said, I don’t think structures and boundaries are the opposite of freedom and choice. In theory, yes, you could say that the freest possible individual would be one that’s not limited by any boundaries – but in practice we are not just lone individuals. This is the genius of liberal democracy – it’s not authoritarian, it’s not anarchy, it’s a society with structures that are designed to maximize freedom for everyone. It’s also perfectly possible to design schools that work in a similar way – look at the Sudbury schools in the US, Summerhill School in England, and other Democratic schools around the world. Darlings of progressivists everywhere, but certainly not without clear structure or boundaries.

    Running a public school in this way is illegal – e.g. usually, children have a legal duty, not just a right, to attend class – but I do think it belongs in the public discussion about education, and maybe it’s a place to find inspiration for things that could be brought in to public schools today.

  2. I’d say it was also a case study in how not to deal with bullies.

    Bullying is in the news in Canada.
    One interesting view was the psychologists looking at how rewarding being a bully can be.

    In the banthebooth example you see people make a big noise with exaggerated claims, calls for going straight to the top if there is any concern. That will scare parents about what might be happening to their kids and scare teachers about whether they will face more challenges doing their job.

    These guys got exactly what they wanted, lots of attention. People carefully trying to be reasonable had no impact. All they did was get frustrated and give the bully even more attention.

    There is nothing you can say to the bully to stop them here. Anything directed at them simply rewards the behavior you are trying to top.

    The best approach is likely to aim any response at the bystanders. Some did this with parodies but enough gave the bully the reward of engagement. I suspect you could do a good blog post on how to respond to adult bullies online. Something along the lines of if you suspect someone is being a bully resist the temptation to respond, if you are sure mute or block and perhaps if you are really sure focus the attention on the best parodies.

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