In an article in today’s edition of The Australian, Tania Apsland, president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, the peak body representing university education faculties, makes the comment that, “If you can get students engaged in learning and they love learning, then discipline problems tend to be minimised.”
I did not know that Apsland was going to make this comment when I offered my own comment in the same piece: “This idea that if you provide an engaging lesson that kids will be engaged and behave, it’s complete nonsense.”
At least it proves that I was not erecting a straw man.
So what is this disagreement about?
In a literal sense, if students are ‘engaged in learning’ then they are unlikely to be misbehaving because it is difficult to do both of these things at the same time. However, I think most would take an additional implication from Aplsand’s comment. It seems to be implying that a teacher’s job is to ‘engage’ students. This is a vague term, but it is often operationalised as providing interesting or fun lessons or drawing kids in with an exciting hook.
Such an approach will not fix behaviour problems. For a start, teachers are not the only agents who affect behaviour. Students are often influenced by a range of factors outside the classroom. By placing all of the responsibility on teachers and their planning, we risk burning out teachers, particularly new ones.
And students will not know how engaging the work is until they’ve started working on it. You may have the potential to really enjoy swimming, but you may refuse to get into the water. This is why schools need robust behaviour systems that include strong strategies, routines and policies that make it the norm for students to listen to the teacher and attempt the tasks they are set. The ability for students to defer gratification in this way with an eye to a greater, long term goal, is one that will set them up well for life in the adult world and they need our help to do this.
Finally, the idea of engagement first might put the cart before the horse. It is likely that motivation and achievement have a reciprocal relationship with a sense of achievement also leading to future motivation. And this ‘intrinsic interest’ may have a longer term impact than the ephemeral ‘situational interest’ produced by a fun game used to hook students into a lesson.
This is not an argument for intentionally boring lessons. We should make them as interesting as we can. However, we need to acknowledge that the kind of deliberate practice that is likely to be needed to gain expertise in an academic subject includes an element of hard-work and drudgery, as does everything else worth doing in life.