The classroom management problem

Yesterday, I was quoted in an article for the Australian Financial Review. I was responding to a new report by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) that examines the practices of high-achieving yet disadvantaged secondary schools – schools that are apparently rare in Australia. For some partisans, the mere mention of the CIS is enough to provoke rage:

I have been campaigning for some time on behaviour in Australian schools and the complacency expressed about this issue by our putative experts. Just as with reading instruction, it is difficult to determine exactly what faculties of education teach trainee teachers about behaviour, at least to the satisfaction of those teacher educators who wish to deny the existence of any problem. Anecdotally, I hear from teachers that they were not taught much that has subsequently been of any use – this was my own experience as a trainee. Moreover, many claim they were told that poor behaviour is the fault of the teacher for not planning interesting enough – or ‘engaging’ enough – lessons. And occasionally, such sentiments break out of the grassy quads and into the media.

For instance, writing in The Conversation, Jeffrey Thomas, a lecturer in behaviour management at the University of Tasmania, made pretty much exactly this claim. Interestingly, the piece is ostensibly about the use of collective punishment. I am not a fan of collective punishment because it is unfair. However, Thomas then leverages this issue to take aim at any kind of punishment, whether collective or not, before suggesting a different approach to dealing with poor behaviour:

“Teachers mainly use collective punishments when students are disruptive… Because such behaviour happens mostly when students are disengaged, the first thing schools can do is actively promote engagement. Engagement includes students’ sense of belonging, enjoyment in class and the value they place on education.

Ways to promote engagement include prioritising individual student well-being, explicitly designing classes to be interesting, and creating a safe and enjoyable learning environment. If a student wants to be at school, he or she is much more likely to behave well.

Teaching practices such as universal design for learning… or inquiry based learning… may result in fewer behaviours that come from disengagement.”

As with much academic commentary on behaviour management, it raises more questions than it answers. We are told what not to do. We are told to create safe environments. But the only guidance we are given on how to do this is by applying Universal Design for Learning or Inquiry Learning. These approaches are both open to huge variation in interpretation and there is little evidence of their effectiveness in improving learning outcomes (see here and here). More pertinently, there is a lack of evidence that they improve student behaviour. Indeed, Thomas is only able to link to an article that attempts to define inquiry learning and a paper about the effect of Universal Design for Learning on lesson plans.

At least Thomas acknowledges that classroom behaviour needs managing. David Armstrong of the School of Education at Flinders University in Adelaide wants a, “wholehearted rejection of the manage-and-discipline model.” Again, Armstrong’s argument is heavy on condemnation of approaches that involve negative consequences for poor behaviour, but you have to dig to find a kernel of a proposed solution. In one section of the paper, Armstrong acknowledges that:

“In Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the US, teachers are known to experience damagingly high levels of occupational stress. Low-level ‘disruptive’ behaviour and more serious incidents of challenging behaviour have been directly implicated by research studies in the severity and frequency of occupational stress experienced by educators.” [References omitted]

At face value, this looks for all the world like a strong argument in favour of more and better behaviour management. And yet this is the opposite of what Armstrong is calling for. Instead, if schools are more inclusive and less punitive, then presumably a miracle happens and behaviour becomes a non-issue and everyone is happy. Well, maybe not quite. Armstrong also suggests that, “National in-service programmes to enhance teacher resilience in response to challenging behaviour by students with disabilities or [mental health] difficulties could be constructed and call on sound, evidence-based models such as cognitive–behavioural therapy.”

Stressed-out by student behaviour? Therapy might help.

As I outline in my book, The Truth About Teaching, there is a wealth of evidence about effective ways to manage classroom behaviour. True, much of it does not come from gold standard randomised controlled trials, but there is at least enough to offer teachers and schools advice on tried and tested strategies and approaches. The basic premise is simple – set-up rules and routines and take control of the classroom environment, such as by being strategic in assigning seats to students, then reinforce with plenty of positive acknowledgement and, as a last resort, mild sanctions. This evidence comes from the ‘behaviourist’ research tradition in education and is either ignored or actively denounced by many experts.

So why do our experts take this line? Surely they want to be more useful to the profession and have more of a practical impact on the ground?

Yes, but we have not yet accounted for ideology. The prevailing ideology of education faculties is educational progressivism (which is not to be confused with political progressivism). This takes a romantic, naturalistic and individualistic view of childhood. Learning is meant to be an effortless, playful, self-directed act. This is why Thomas prescribes a dose of inquiry learning to cure our behaviour ills. Any misbehaviour is seen as a reaction to being placed in a stifling, joyless environment and is a signal to the teacher that they have failed the child in some way, perhaps by not meeting their individual needs. Children possess the opposite of original sin – original innocence. Whereas adults can and should be held accountable for their behaviour, children are not in any way accountable, which raises the question of when this changeover occurs.

This naturalistic view of learning is at odds with the understanding we have accrued over recent years from the fields of cognitive science and educational psychology (e.g. here). But my impression is that cognitive science has not made much headway in education faculties. Until it does, the pronouncements and denouncements of ideology will continue to dominate.


4 thoughts on “The classroom management problem

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    The term ‘behaviour management’ neatly encapsulates our problems: the profession recoils in horror at the notion of discipline, which is equated with repressed little robots brutally subjugated by sadistic control freaks. And of course young people who become teachers having spent all of their days since infancy in schools have very likely never experienced a normal human organisation which is based upon the expectation that bosses tell employees what to do. If they’re lucky, they may have encountered a few teachers who had the knack of making kids behave, but they’re too naive (or too deluded by their training) to understand that these teachers are lacking in self-doubt: they don’t have a problem with authority. In all probability, they’re mature entrants to the profession.

    My first impression on visiting Michaela was that their routines were far in excess of what is necessary to maintain good discipline and morale, but upon reflection I concluded that it’s mostly for the benefit of the teachers. It’s the only way you can get them to grow a pair. And I do think that it’s rather marvellous that Michaela actually get kids to be considerate of others and to express gratitude.

    Yet at the bottom of all this is an engine which Katherine would be the first to admit: competition. This is where progressive politics enters progressive education–it is assumed by progressives of every stripe that our first duty is to remake humanity into a kinder and gentler breed, with collaboration and cooperation replacing competitive instincts. Of course it doesn’t work that way–which is why the modern teacher has to learn to ‘manage’ behaviour. But as Katherine understands, collaboration and cooperation are natural behaviours too. As we argued in a recent PTE post, “Ironically, competition also produced collaborative efforts beyond the wildest dreams of our more progressive teachers, with pupils spontaneously pairing up to test each other, or to coach the weaker pupils.”

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  4. Troy Davis says:

    I think we can agree that there needs to be a greater focus in teacher education programs on classroom management.

    While playfulness, inquiry, autonomy, and well being are critical to development, I agree that some teachers construe these elements as an invitation to create an unstructured learning space free from responsibility.

    However, I do worry that a false dichotomy has been presented to teachers in that he or she needs to be in complete control of the classroom at all times or he or she is permissive and reckless. Let’s not conflate progressive education with permissiveness.

    We will likely disagree that the need for discipline is overstated but hopefully agree the need for responsibility is often understated. Subsequently, I think it is vital to develop a sense of autonomy in learners; however, with autonomy comes responsibility. In other words, I think most kids want to be responsible, autonomous learners and we ought to give them opportunities to demonstrate autonomy – like picking their own seats, as well as responsibility – agreeing to change seats if they are disruptive.

    I also agree that teachers ought to avoid power plays in the classroom at all costs. It is a loss for everyone, especially the teacher and it could potentially damage a relationship beyond repair.

    Finally, I have often wondered why there is not more emphasis on helping new teachers with classroom management. It seems more than a little unfair to expect them to address the daily well being of learners while having only superficially exploring this facet of teaching in their faculty. But where to start? Mentorship? Co-teaching? Coursework outside of learning theory?

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