I often point people towards Paul Graham’s short 2008 essay, How to Disagree. It clearly and succinctly provides guidance for engaging in the kind of debates that develop online. However, one of Graham’s earlier essays, What You Can’t Say, perhaps provides an even deeper insight into the way debates are shaped by the surrounding culture. He makes the point that in every time and culture there are taboos – things you cannot say – that it would be perfectly acceptable to say in a different time and culture.
In our shattered world, people inhabit bubbles of thought online that are close to impervious to the outside. You can extend Graham’s argument to a difference between these bubbles. A taboo in one is a fair comment in another. This becomes clear when bubbles collide.
I think that’s what happened to my recent post on behaviour in Australian schools. Although published on Sunday, it began to attract comments yesterday which all seemed to be coming from a similar perspective. I am speculating here, but I suspect my blog was posted on a Facebook group for those with an interest in school inclusion. To members of this group, what I wrote was taboo.
There is a difference, of course, between a taboo and a comment that a lot of people just happen to disagree with. You may think I am motivated to characterise disagreements as taboos because that makes them sound less reasonable, enabling me to dismiss them without having to reflect on the flaws in my own argument. However, I think there is one distinguishing feature of the comments (that are present at the time of writing) which a fair-minded observer would notice – with one exception*, they do not explain what it is that I have written that they disagree with.
Instead, doubt is cast upon my ability to teach and I stand accused of spreading hate and stigma. Why?
I can only assume that this is due to my views on how the debate about school behaviour has been framed by some through the lens of disability. Some campaigners wish to claim, for instance, that schools disproportionately suspend and exclude students with disabilities. However, if we decide to construct a disorder such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder as a disability, a disorder with the diagnostic characteristics of being angry, defiant and vindictive, then it seems slightly less surprising that students with this diagnosis will be over-represented in these statistics. By pointing this out, I am perhaps diminishing the value of an otherwise powerful argument.
The odd thing is that I do not believe that campaigners against school exclusion and for the rights of children with disabilities would differ a great deal with me on what the evidence shows. We can perhaps agree that being excluded from school is associated with many negative life outcomes, although I might question the assumption that the former somehow causes the latter rather than there being some underlying cause of both. And I think we would agree on a substantial proportion of the way challenging behaviours should be managed in class. This is probably best understood using the Response to Intervention model – a research-developed model of intervention that has been used in fields as diverse as early reading instruction and behaviour management:
Tier 1 represents what all students in a school will receive. In early reading, this should be a systematic phonics programme. In behaviour management, this should consist of students being explicitly taught routines and expected behaviours. There is also room for reasonable accommodations within Tier 1 that deal with a child’s specific needs within a whole class context. An obvious example that we often might not even think about is for some children to wear glasses. Others can include seating positions, being given written copies of verbal instructions or perhaps the ability for a child to voluntarily choose a time-out if they judge they need one.
Some of these approaches are likely to benefit all students and teachers may not be aware of them. That’s why I was keen to publish a piece with Professor Pam Snow for American Educator about the best methods for helping students with Developmental Language Disorder. Friday of this week has been designated internationally as a day to raise awareness of Developmental Language Disorder and I was planning to write a post to coincide with that.
Research on managing student behaviour is not as solid as that on early reading, partly due to the ethical difficulties in conducting such research, but there is enough to provide some general guidelines for Tier 1, as I discussed in the book I wrote for new teachers. The most fruitful area seems to be behaviourist research. This emphasises preventing issues from arising by using seating plans, class routines and other thoughtful forms of organisation, and the positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviours. Behaviourism also maintains a place for negative sanctions, although this is never the emphasis – everything else should be tried first.
Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is a framework that employs many of the techniques of behaviourism and one that I have seen advocated by disability campaigners. When reading about PBS, the role of sanctions is usually downplayed to the point of nonexistence, but they are still there. For instance, in one 2005 study of whole-school PBS, students were given an ‘office referral’ for disciplinary infractions such as fighting with peers. Importantly, although these referrals initially increased as PBS was introduced, over time they dropped to a lower level than the starting point. This should be a goal of any behaviour intervention – a reduced need to escalate problems to the next level. This is why I believe that a more systematic approach to the problem of challenging behaviour in Australian schools would eventually lead to lower levels of suspension and exclusion. That does not require, and in my view would be hindered by, a top-down mandate to reduce exclusions by X%.
I think the biggest difference between my perspective and that of campaigners is that I am a practising teacher who sees these issues as practical problems rather than moral issues framed in absolute terms. I know what it is like to teach ‘citizenship’ to a class of Year 9 students on a wet Thursday afternoon in winter. I want pragmatic solutions of the form, ‘You could try… or you could do…’. It does not help me to be told that ‘all behaviour is communication’ or that ‘children have a right to be included’. I need to know what you practically want me to do and it has to be more tangible than, ‘be more understanding’.
And we need to be aware of the limits of schools. I am sure some students are not receiving the reasonable adjustments they should be receiving that would enable them to make better progress. However, it is also the case that a child who is exposed to serious abuse at home is unlikely to be magically fixed by some adjustment that a teacher makes to her class of 30 students. Similarly, a child whose behaviour is caused by frustration resulting from poor reading instruction will not be fixed by a time-out card in science class – the underlying issue must be addressed. Teachers certainly can affect behaviour, but there are limits. This is where the other tiers of Response to Intervention need to take over.
It seems odd to me that people who can agree on so much always end up talking past each other in this debate. I believe this is due to the different frames through which we see the issue. I think campaigners believe that top-down, legal mandates that force schools to reduce exclusions and that force teachers to not be ‘punitive’ and to accommodate students are the goal. After all, a change in a law or regulation is a clear, easily communicated goal for any campaign to have.
Teachers, on the other hand, are still worrying about all those practicalities.
The quintessential example of the two sides talking past each other can be seen in the kind of exchange that has played out many times on Twitter:
Teacher: What would you do if a child had sexually assaulted a classmate? Would you send them back into class with the child they had assaulted?
Campaigner: Why choose this example? The vast majority of school exclusions are for far less. Are you trying to slur kids with disabilities?
Let me be clear. Teachers do confront situations like this and they do need to know how to deal with them.
None of this miscommunication will be solved by making the topic of school behaviour a taboo. If campaigners wish to make the case that students with disabilities are over-represented in exclusions statistics or that schools are not adequately catering to the needs of students with disabilities then they should do so. This perspective is important to an informed debate. However, they must then expect teachers to join in the discussion. They must expect analysis and critique.
I understand that this is a deeply personal issue for many of the people involved – people who have often been drawn into campaigning by the mistreatment of loved ones. However, nobody is served by silencing discussion. By hectoring teachers and suggesting they are unfit to teach, campaigners alienate those who they need to convince. Maybe some campaigners really do think many teachers are unfit to be in the profession, but as Dylan Wiliam has often suggested, it is far easier to improve the teachers we have than to find new and better ones. Eventually, we need to accept that dialogue between the two perspectives, even if it is sometimes robust, is in everyone’s interests, especially those of children with disabilities.
*In the post I refer to the fact that the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder lists behaviours, ‘that would previously have been seen as simply bad’. One commenter wrote, ‘I don’t agree that bad behaviors are now part of the diagnostic tool’.