A very long post!
Here in Scotland over the last decade or so, we’ve developed a bit of a consensus about our curriculum and the way we run our classes. Of course, there’s never any such thing as universal agreement on anything – there are still some people who believe the earth is flat – but I’d suggest that we are generally largely on board with our constructivist Curriculum for Excellence, despite its vagueness and its problems with content and knowledge, and largely in agreement that relationships are the most impost important aspect of the ethos of any classroom, despite concerns about the minority of pupils who cause disruption.
So it’s odd watching England tear itself apart in ‘traditionalist vs. progressive’ Twitter invective, and bizarre to see platforms given on the blogosphere, CPD events and even conferences to half-baked ideas on both sides of the invective. And most bizarre of all is the ‘no excuses’ movement in regard to behaviour.
We know the drill (literally); children need consistent oversight of their behaviour in order to ensure ‘they direct their full attention to the instruction’. Of course, it’s intimately linked with Direct Instruction models of teaching; engage with any ‘trad’ teacher and at some point they’ll say ‘you should read Hirsch / Willingham’ as if they are sharing divine revelation with you. I have, of course, and a whole lot more besides, and recognise what those writers offer in the context of a wide range of theoretical perspectives out there. But a DI model isn’t the issue here; the issue is that traditionalist teachers have used the DI model – with its focus on knowledge, content, teacher expertise, drill and practice – to smuggle into classrooms, dining halls, corridors, playgrounds and even pupils’ own spaces like common rooms an approach to behaviour that is authoritarian, damaging and, potentially, supportive of bad, bad teaching.
Let me put some cards on the table. First, even though if I had to I would describe myself as ‘progressive’ (as progressive as someone whose instincts lie at the Illich, Fanon and Freire end of the spectrum can be), I have no antipathy to ‘knowledge’, and no pupil goes out of my door not knowing something they need to know – and that’s the same for any good teacher, ‘trad’ and ‘prog’ alike.
Secondly, ‘No excuses’ policies are clearly a dumbed down, barely understood version of Assertive Discipline; it is as if some teachers have looked at a poster about it through the wrong end of a telescope while passing by in a car at 50 miles per hour, have channelled their 18th century Punch to declare ‘That’s the way to do it’ and then gone on the road in their brightly coloured booths to tout snake oil as the next sliced bread.
Now, there is nothing essentially wrong with Assertive Discipline – and I say that because I know about it. I am an accredited Assertive Discipline trainer, and have delivered courses in it from Shetland to Leeds. I’ve worked with Geoff Moss of Behaviour and Learning Management, the foremost trainer in the country for Assertive Discipline courses. So I am clearly not – nor have I ever been – the wishy washy hippy who waves flowers at a classroom that has descended into mayhem while cuddling a teenage psychopath.
The basic precepts of Assertive Discipline – set clear rules and procedures, encourage adherence to them with the use of consistent praise and rewards and discourage breaking them with the use of consistent sanctions – are fine. Over 16 years, I have seen student teachers turn classroom behaviour around (for a while) with class wide reward schemes like ‘marbles in a jar’, or improve their lessons by habituating themselves and their pupils to consistent routines such as the instructional PRINT. It can be very successful at changing behaviour – because that very limited outcome is its only aspiration. Even Lee Canter, that Jerry Springer-esque doyen of the whole movement, was absolutely clear; when all is said and done, when all of the marbles are in the jar, when all the demerits have been handed out, when all (positive or negative) phone calls to parents have been made, you should – must – ‘build relationships.’
And behaviourist strategies cannot do that; they aren’t designed to. Behaviourism focusses only on behaviour, not on minds and certainly not on hearts. Dogs are conditioned to respond in a particular way to a stimulus, but it has nothing to do with understanding, since we can elicit exactly the same response quite quickly if we change the stimulus. Similarly, schools which use ‘no excuses’ policies are frequently lauded for their ‘respectful ethos’, yet we cannot know that a policy that sends children to detention for forgetting their homework or for dropping litter or for talking in the corridor builds respect; all we can with any certainty say is that they are behaving in a conditioned way to a stimulus, as if they respect us. They may not – indeed, it’s absolutely certain that some won’t – and, if we changed the stimulus we use to encourage respectful behaviour, we’d get just the same result.
That’s why I think that we have to be much lighter on our feet in terms of behaviour management, that we have to utilise not just the blunt tool of behaviourism, but cognitive constructivist and social constructivist strategies too. It’s the core of the way I’ve been getting student teachers to conceptualise behaviour management for years now, and it’s something I’ll return to in later posts, perhaps.
But in the meantime, ‘no excuses’ is a stony ground for our classrooms, and for anyone who wants to build relationships with pupils. Just think about it; what other human relationship imposes such conditions? Would you marry someone who said there was no excuse for not having the dinner ready on time, and who put you in a room until you’d learned your lesson? How would you react if you visited acquaintances and they sent their elderly mother to the garden shed because she’d lost her purse through a hole in her coat pocket? The notion of there being no excuse for behaviour is to deny the very essence of humanity, people making their way in a universe which is at times capricious and unpredictable, a universe in which in the face of things we can’t control we all have the right to make judgements which at times will be flawed or judgments which at times might be unfathomable to others.
There is no excuse for me being annoyed, or depressed, or distracted, or unhappy? You expect me to respect that? Feck off. Of course, OFSTED will remark on how respectful I am because I won’t say that to your face or you’ll send me to the shed; but still, seriously, feck off.
But children think differently, we are told, and need guidance. One recent conference presenter claimed ‘Children do not always know how to behave because they are children’. Just think about that; children, who from the moment they are born interact with their environment, who learn at a few weeks old how to respond to facial features, who make gestures from an early age (my beautiful six month old great-nephew has learned how to manipulate visitors with the cuteness of the way he cocks his head to one side when you speak to him), who cooperate with each other in the sand pit at nursery, who learn to walk and talk and read and count and eat with a spoon and make friends and enemies and learn the difference between a friendly dog and a scary dog before they even come to school – these children ‘don’t know how to behave’.
Even if that ludicrous, arrogant statement were true, it seems rather odd that you would then put all your eggs in the one behaviourist basket that explicitly doesn’t take knowledge and thinking into account. The message is, ‘I don’t care what you think or feel or believe or what has happened to you or how upset you are or what you’ve learned about the myriad of human beings you’ve interacted with in your life; there is no excuse. Now go to detention.’ It is wrapped up in the lie that this builds ‘resilience’; but unless it engages with thinking, with emotional awareness, unless it coaches and counsels and mentors, it does nothing other than teach the child to acquiesce, and the benefits to be gained – the avoidance of discomfort, of blame, of pain – from continued acquiescence.
And for bad teachers (or underqualified or unqualified or lazy teachers), this is hugely attractive. It puts them on a pedestal, raises their own esteem at the expense of the pupils’. The rash of advertisements for ‘detention directors’ is often couched in the language of success – ‘excellent learning environment, ‘achieve academically at the highest level’ – and yet they fail to answer the question of what the hell is going on in those schools that a detention director at a salary of thirty grand a year is required at all.
But questions don’t go down well with the ‘no excuses’ brigade. The head teacher of one of those schools recently claimed that ‘All good schools run detentions. They would not be good without them.’ Just think about those two assertions. All good schools run detentions; what is the evidence for that, that every single good school has a detention system? Data please? And can we conceive of a good school that doesn’t? Well, if you can, you are apparently wrong, because schools cannot be good without a detention system. By definition. Yet query those assumptions and you’ll find yourself Twitter-blocked…
And it excuses bad teaching, because ‘no excuses’ is, for some, simply a means of controlling those awkward moments when a teacher is shown to be an absolute arse. Another ‘trad’ blogger, mulling over notions of authority, recently wrote the following:
‘Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.
‘There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.
‘What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.’
So there you have it. ‘Trad’ behaviour management is not about the purity of knowledge, the primacy of content; it is not about truth or wisdom or even basic accuracy. It is about the preservation of an illusion, the illusion that teachers are superior, infallible. It is as intellectually bankrupt as those Victorian teachers who believed they donned their authority every morning with their academic cloaks. It is ineffably smug.
And there is no excuse for that.