On Tuesday, I complained about the proposed phonics check becoming a political football in Australia. The problem with turning what should be a technical question about evidence into a political question is that people stop looking at the evidence and start asking which position they are meant to line-up with politically. This is a big problem in education where most teachers and academics are left-leaning and an idea can be killed-off by dubbing it conservative, no matter how inappropriate that label is.
Think of it this way: If you have built a career and reputation around downplaying the role of phonics in early reading and advising teachers to teach three-cuing strategies then it is far easier to defeat your opponents by dubbing them conservative than by deploying research evidence.
I think that classroom management is another issue that receives similar treatment. There is a perception that tackling classroom behaviour issues is somehow a conservative agenda. This might explain why we are not even having the conversation about behaviour in Australia, despite disturbing evidence that it is a particular issue here.
In 2017, we learnt the results of an OECD survey of students across 68 education systems who were asked about their experience of science lessons. Australia ranked near the bottom on a measure known as the ‘index of disciplinary climate’, indicating a negative disciplinary climate.
Yesterday, a separate survey of teachers, TALIS 2018, was released. Again, this points to problems with the disciplinary climate in Australian classrooms. It therefore follows that improving classroom behaviour should be a key priority for Australian politicians and education bureaucrats. It is true that the evidence for the most effective approaches is not as strong as for phonics, but Blaise Joseph reminded me earlier on Twitter of a 2014 paper by Sue O’Neill and Jennifer Stephenson that surveyed the literature as it stands. O’Neill and Stephenson report a list of practices that are supported by varying levels of evidence and it is striking that, while some of these could be applied by individual teachers, most make much more sense as part of a consistent, whole-school policy.
So why are we not having conversations about whole-school approaches?
Firstly, I think there is shame for teachers in admitting they have a problem with behaviour, so they tend to play it down. This is exacerbated when people suggest that poor behaviour is the teacher’s fault. There is also a dynamic where the more senior you are, the better the students will behave and so those with authority may see behaviour as less of a problem than graduate and early career teachers.
However, I also think that the political framing of whole-school behaviour policies as authoritarian and somehow right-wing plays a significant role.
And yet this is perverse. Left-leaning teachers should, at least in theory, be concerned for the disadvantaged. Yet who do you think suffers most from disrupted classroom environments? Is it wealthy, privileged children or poor, disadvantaged ones?