One suggested cause of Australia’s underwhelming performance in the recently released PISA 2018 results is a lack of suitably qualified teachers, particularly in the area of mathematics. Such an argument is highly plausible, but imagine if we did recruit a whole lot of excellent mathematicians to the teaching profession and then placed them in something akin to a vision of hell painted by a renaissance artist. I think we would still have a problem.
At the same time as assessing academic performance in reading, mathematics and science, the PISA researchers asked 15-year-old students a series of questions about their experience of school. One of these was about bullying. 13% of Australian students reported frequent bullying. Of the relatively wealthy group of countries that belong to the OECD, only New Zealand students reported a higher rate. Overall, Australia’s issues with bullying were worse than most other countries in the OECD (OECD countries are black in the table below):
That is worrying enough, but PISA researchers also asked questions about the disciplinary climate in class. In 2018, they asked students about the climate in their language-of-instruction lessons (i.e English lessons in English speaking countries). They asked students about the frequency of events such as noise and disorder, students not listening to the teacher, students not being able to work well or students having to wait a long time for the lesson to start. From this, researchers constructed an ‘index of disciplinary climate’. Again Australia fared badly:
Unsurprisingly, and consistent with previous findings, the researchers found that a worse classroom climate was correlated with worse academic results.
Anyone familiar with previous rounds of PISA would not be surprised that Australia fares badly on classroom climate. In 2015, researchers asked similar questions about the climate in science classrooms.
At that time, some commentators wondered whether this issue was isolated to science lessons. We now know the answer to that. When the results became known, a number of educationalists came out to claim there was no problem – nothing to see here. Why?
The first thing that anyone needs to appreciate if they seek to understand Australia’s behaviour crisis is that, for ideological reasons, most educationalists are deeply opposed to talking about it or tackling it. They would even object to me characterising it as a ‘behaviour crisis’ despite the evidence presented above. This is because they have adopted a romantic view of childhood in which children, rather than being complex individuals who sometimes do the wrong thing, are entirely innocent and blameless. This is understandable in the context of the early 20th Century when progressive educators were pushing back against the use of physical punishment in schools, but it makes little sense in today’s science or English classroom.
When you adopt this ideology, attempts to manage behaviour are seen as sinister and coercive. Poor behaviour is not taken as a signal that a child has made the wrong choice, but as an act of communication. ‘All behaviour is communication‘ is the mantra. The child is communicating to the teacher that his or her needs are not being met. This is usually translated as meaning that the lesson is not entertaining enough (educationalists would use the word ‘engaging’, but in practical terms they mean ‘entertaining’). This shifts the blame for behaviour to the teacher. Yet academic learning, just as with pretty much anything worth doing in life, will always contain an element of hard work and slog. Part of the role of school involves reconciling students to that reality.
Getting the teaching right
Entertaining lessons may keep students quiet for a while – “let’s make a poster!” – but they will not necessarily lead to much learning and they will not tackle the root cause of the issue. However, this does not absolve teachers and schools of their responsibilities. Many of the negative externalising behaviours that our notional new cohort of maths teachers might experience will be rooted in a long history of educational failure. I can only imagine what it is like to come to school every day as a 15-year-old, troop from lesson to lesson and constantly be confronted with the fact that I cannot read fluently. I would certainly become frustrated and I would look for an outlet and a different field in which to excel.
We should not be putting students in this situation. We need to use effective teaching methods to ensure all students learn to read and do basic mathematics. Explicit, structured teaching that is highly interactive and seeks a high success rate is the backbone of this approach.
Nevertheless, young people who can read and write will still choose to misbehave. This is because they are human. The good news is that there is plenty that teachers can do to prevent behaviour issues from arising in the first place and then to manage them when they do. This knowledge is not widely shared with teachers because the ideology of educationalists is the ideology of our schools of education and can be briefly summarised as: What kind of monster seeks to control a child?
That’s why the second chapter of my book for new teachers is devoted to classroom management techniques. These mostly stem from an approach known as ‘behaviourism’ that many educationalists are keen to deride. In decreasing order of frequency and emphasis, behaviourist techniques seek to manipulate conditions to prevent poor behaviour arising, positively reinforce desirable behaviour and provide a cost to poor behaviour. Teachers should set-up routines for how to start the lesson, create seating plans, reward good behaviour with a smile and a positive word, draw attention to the students who are doing the right thing rather than the ones who are not, walk towards an area of the room where misbehaviour is starting to occur, admonish privately rather than publicly, avoid sarcasm and use mild punishments such as short detentions for repeated infractions.
These strategies work at the ‘Tier 1’ level of a model known as ‘response to intervention‘. They will not always work for all children because some have very complex needs. These students may need small-group or individual support or they may require specific accommodations in the classroom (such as a pass that allows them to leave class if they are losing their temper). That’s why classroom management must be integrated into a wider, whole-school approach.
Unfortunately, many schools do not have a wider, whole-school approach and instead have a culture that undermines teachers. In too many schools, leaders do not take responsibility. In some schools, there is a behaviour policy in place but teachers are not supposed to use it. If a teacher goes through all the appropriate steps and ends up asking for help or setting a detention, a school leader is likely to see this as a sign that the teacher is not teaching ‘engaging’ enough lessons. It’s all the teacher’s fault.
You can get by in such schools, but you have to adopt some kind of coping mechanism. Making posters is one. Being charismatic, old, male and in a position of seniority helps. If you don’t want a confrontation with parents then a good strategy is to not chase missing homework and to give out high grades even if they are unearned. Essentially, in bad schools you need to tell jokes, lower your expectations and work your way up the pecking order.
Our notional new maths teachers may choose to do this, or they may choose to quit.
There is another way. School autonomy policies in England have led to a new breed of ‘free school’ that are state-funded but largely free to follow their own course without interference from educationalists and bureaucrats. Interesting, Andreas Schleicher of PISA recently visited one such school in London, Michaela Community School. It has a whole-school policy that is both warm and welcoming, while being firm. I don’t think we would want to exactly replicate Michaela in Australia, but at present it is hard to imagine creating a school that is anything close to it.
If behaviour is a form of communication, then the behaviour captured by PISA is communicating to Australia’s politicians and education officials that tackling this problem is long overdue. They need to stand-up, be strong, ready themselves for the onslaught from the ideologues and do the right thing.