Professor Pamela Snow has written a fascinating article reflection on 20 years as a researcher. This closely mirrors my teaching career that began in 1997 and so it is interesting to consider the parallel experiences.
I will pick up on a few points, chiefly with the aim of building a bridge. I have observed that Snow has been concerned for some time about teachers dismissing the expertise of non-teachers and she makes this case again:
“Another oddity I have had to get my head around, in shifting from health and social sciences to education, is the resistance displayed by some, to the notion that non-teachers might have something to contribute to consideration of what goes on in the classroom.”
Snow suggests that a family doctor would not be as ready to dismiss the opinions of a pharmacologist and I am inclined to agree. A pharmacologist is likely to be in possession of information that has direct and practical relevance to the doctor’s job. So what is going on?
It might help to consider a point that Snow and I agree about – Teachers should avoid sarcasm. I made this a key recommendation in the classroom management chapter of The Truth about Teaching and I did so for the same reason outlined by Snow – sarcasm involves saying the opposite of what you mean and so you always risk communicating the opposite of what you intended.
However, nobody ever taught me this at university and I didn’t pick it up from a specialist in developmental language disorders. Instead, it emerged as craft knowledge through the process of twenty-or-so years of working in classrooms.
The reason I have highlighted this point is that it is one of the few practical suggestions relevant to teaching whole classes that I have seen from a non-teaching expert.
When I researched my book, I was struck by the dearth of practical classroom management research. I relied quite heavily on relatively few sources, some of which, like Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline, seem as much based in craft knowledge as they are in theory.
Instead, what we tend to hear from experts is appeals for more understanding. Snow writes of the language difficulties of young offenders and of the literature on the school to prison pipeline, suggesting:
“Not everyone in education is fond of the fact that there is a literature on the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
I’m not fond of the fact that there is a school-to-prison pipeline, but given that there is, I would expect there to be a literature on it. I think this illustrates a breakdown in communication.
It is my perception that many non-teachers have a hypothesis that goes something like this: If teachers understood about developmental language disorders or trauma or the school-to-prison pipeline then that would fix everything. Why do they resist this knowledge?
But understanding doesn’t get you very far. When you are teaching an unruly Year 9 class on a wet Thursday afternoon, you can understand them all you like, but that won’t help you much. You need practical strategies. And these cannot solely be strategies that involve one-to-one pseudo-clinical interventions involving large numbers of adults in a nice quiet room somewhere away from the classroom, they need to be things you can actually do in the classroom.
We do have such advice when it comes to phonics and we do have some advice on how to speak to children, such as avoiding sarcasm, but where is the large body of practical and rigorous research on managing behaviour in classrooms full of students?
When teachers decide to build schools based around their craft knowledge of what works then they are hounded on social media and criticised in the strongest possible terms by academic behaviour experts. Much of this comes across as a strongly ideological ‘set the kids free’ rant rather than a reasoned critique based on solid evidence.
Yet when I look at what heads like Katharine Birbalsingh are trying to do and I look at the literature – the behaviourist literature in particular – I see a high degree of coherence. There is antecedent control – instead of kids having the usual unstructured free-for-all at lunch time, there is a family lunch with their tutor. There are negative – but not particularly harsh – consequences for poor behaviour and rewards and recognition for good behaviour – i.e. the kind of prosocial behaviour needed for normal functioning in wider society. All of these expectations are explicitly taught with the ultimate goal of kids doing the right thing ‘because it is who I am’.
This is not about making teachers’ lives easier or meeting some weird teachers’ need for compliance or any of the other rubbish that is bandied about, it is about helping students be their best selves.
I cannot be sure, but I strongly suspect that Birbalsingh’s approach will be pretty effective at disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Non-teachers could have a useful role here, drawing on their understanding of the kinds of disorders and issues children face, they could suggest practical, evidence-based modifications or additions to approaches based on craft knowledge. Perhaps they could suggest something else entirely that is less based in behaviourism, but that is practical and can be deployed in real classrooms full of kids. That’s where the discussion should be.
Because teachers do understand that many kids have a tough start in life – one that stacks the deck against them. What teachers want to know is what they can do about it.