A quintessentially unhelpful article about behaviour

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In yesterday’s post, I argued that understanding the reasons why students misbehave is not enough. Teachers need to know what to do about it. Too much advice is predicated, I suggested, upon the idea that understanding behaviour is the end goal and this is unhelpful.

Little did I realise that the UK’s Chartered College of Teaching was about to publish a quintessentially unhelpful article about behaviour under its peer-reviewed Impact masthead.

After a little toing and froing, the author, Sue Cowley, seeks to largely dismiss ‘behaviourist’ approaches to managing classrooms without providing any practical alternatives.

Briefly, behavourist approaches are probably the best researched classroom management methods available. This became apparent when I reviewed the evidence for my book, The Truth About TeachingClearly, classroom management is a difficult area to study and so the body of evidence is less developed than the evidence on early reading instruction, for example. Nonetheless, there are some pretty clear approaches that tend to work for most students, most of the time and that may therefore serve as Tier 1 in a Response to Intervention model for managing classroom behaviour. Cowley seems to think that the fact that these approaches don’t work for all students in all circumstances is a fundamental flaw. It is not because nothing does and that’s why you need a tiered response.

Behaviourist techniques consist of three main tools which are, in decreasing order of importance, antecedent control, positive reinforcement and negative consequences. Antecedent control is the one that is often neglected, and yet it is critical to making behaviourist systems work. Antecedent control involves manipulating the environment. For instance, if students keep switching the lights on and off in the corridor, you could approach this via reward or punishment. However, you could instead choose to replace the regular light switches with key switches, require students to enter the classroom from an external door rather than the corridor or walk the students along the corridor in single file. This is antecedent control.

Common forms of antecedent control include instituting a seating plan and setting up classroom routines that negate the need for the teacher to constantly issue instructions. It is important to realise that we have a natural bias known as the ‘fundamental attribution error‘ that leads to us attributing behavior to conscious decision making rather than recognising that poor behaviour is often a rather involuntary response to circumstances. This may result in us taking poor behaviour too personally. Behaviourist approaches that employ antecedent control are one way of overcoming this bias.

Cowley seems to associate behaviourist approaches with mythical teachers who, “position compliance as a key goal.” The key goal for any teacher is for students to learn. There are those of us who think compliance with a basic set of expectations is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for learning, and there are perhaps those of us who do not think compliance is necessary, but nobody has it as a key goal. And there is also no conflict, as Cowley implies, between the use of behaviourist approaches and the goals of teaching students how to behave and developing their self-regulation. There are those who argue that positive reinforcement acts against intrinsic motivation, but this appears to be something of a myth. Even Cowley suggests the evidence for such a claim is mixed.

Cowley seems unaware of the role of antecedent control in behaviourist approaches. Instead, she suggests excluding behaviourism by definition:

“…if we view ‘good behaviour’ in relation to self-regulation and making choices for reasons other than avoiding a punishment or gaining a reward, this will lead us to an alternative set of conclusions.”

Yes, if we define good behaviour such that it cannot be a response to two of the three tools in the behaviourism kit bag then, yes, we would have to rule out behaviourist approaches. But why would we do that?

We might do that if there was a good alternative available. Unfortunately, Cowley does not appear to have one. Instead, we are led down the garden path through an anecdote about her own changing views on behaviour and some barely relevant research on driving offences and the ‘marshmallow test’. The closest we approach a practical suggestion is to use a more ‘restorative approach’ where, “The ‘consequence’ of poor behaviour is that staff have a discussion with the child and the parents – what happened, why did it happen, who did it affect and how could we stop it happening again?”

Even if this is effective, it seems impractical. Are we going to call in the parents every time a student shouts out in class or nudges another student in the ribs? Even Cowley acknowledges that, “these approaches are harder to put in place in a large setting, with a higher ratio of students to staff”. Perhaps we should just tolerate the, “typically ‘off task’ behaviours and ‘low level disruption’ that most concern teachers.” I’m not clear.

What is clear is that this kind of meandering non-advice is of little help to teachers and school leaders.

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2 thoughts on “A quintessentially unhelpful article about behaviour

  1. Thanks so much for this post and the one prior, Greg. Managing behaviour is such an important skill for beginning and experienced teachers alike, a skill that is rarely given the practical support it deserves in graduate training or, indeed, for practising teachers. What resonates most for me is your highlighting of the importance of antecedent controls. When applied appropriately, these controls can often obviate the need for reinforcement or consequences.

    I’m reminded of colleagues who manage behaviour so adroitly. The way they make it look so easy belies the tremendous graft and preparation that they put into their management practices. They will carefully plan seating arrangements, have expectations for how students enter and exit a room, use specific questioning techniques, pay attention to their voice modulation and body language, plan engaging lessons that have defined aims and are well suited to the immediate needs of their students, engage with students in co-curricular activities or in the yard, demand high standards of work and behaviour, decorate rooms, consult with parents and school support staff, organise assessments or referrals to educational psychologist and other professionals, and the list goes on. They do listen to students to understand the cause of their behaviour, but they always have at hand a large “toolbox” of practical strategies to prevent poor behaviour from surfacing in the first place.

    I am also reminded of school leaders who recognise that there are practical systemic antecedent controls that can make behaviour more manageable at a whole-school level. One simple example comes to mind: instead of focussing on the development and staffing of increasingly complex levels of consequences for bad behaviour one of my principals spent an equivalent amount of money on installing glass in place of walls on the corridor side of classrooms. This sudden introduction of public visibility had the immediate effect of controlling not only student behaviour, but also teacher professionalism. The change in behaviour was remarkable.

    Visitors to my current school are sometimes bemused by the “OCD” way we manage assemblies, SACs, exams and supervised study areas, but don’t realise that these “controls” are precisely why, to a large extent, we don’t have challenging behaviour and why our students can get on with learning feeling safe and without distraction.

  2. Pingback: Notes on behaviour: an honest, primary perspective – The Quirky Teacher

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