Archive for April, 2009

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Eight Out Of Forty-Three Ain’t Bad (If You’re a Member of SMT)

April 30, 2009

After six weeks of term in which my year ten class have continued to disrupt every lesson, I decided I’d had enough. I found the worst few incidents of the last couple of weeks (being called a twat by Charlene and being told to fuck off by Daniel) and emailed SMT about it. I was surprised to get responses. I was not surprised that the responses consisted of passing responsibility to other people and/or denying knowledge of the incidents. Neither incident had appeared on the school’s behaviour database system despite two weeks having passed.

There were some incidents on the system. Madelaine and Will had been given a day in isolation on Wednesday (this is the standard punishment for being sent out of lessons). Madelaine had earned this by repeated interruptions and calling another student “a pregnant bitch” and Will had earned this by refusing to stop singing while I was talking. The odd thing about this is that on Wednesday, when they were meant to be isolation, Madelaine and Will had attended my lesson and disrupted it. I raised this and was told that these students had been let out of isolation unsupervised to go and have injections. They had then gone to my lesson to disrupt it rather than returning to isolation. Evidently the pleasure they get from stopping me from teaching is not easily foregone.

At a tough school you expect to have lessons disrupted and you expect to get verbal abuse. You can also expect SMT and HOYs to ignore incidents referred to them. However, they usually act eventually when it’s every lesson for a fortnight and you are emailing them every day about what’s happening. This time it’s been six weeks without progress. Previously well-behaved kids were joining in. So I contacted my union rep, Diane, to ask to see her about what was happening. (Unions are actually quite good at politely asking why kids are allowed to victimise their members with impunity, that’s why Jim Bulmer the head at Stafford Grove was reputed to bully union reps with hostile observations until they left). She popped in to see me while I was in the detention hall. I was allowed out for a brief chat and the Deputy Head “just happened to” overhear. Before I knew it there was a flurry of activity and he was agreeing to meet me Friday afternoon to discuss the matter.

I did my homework. I compiled the 43 incidents into a handy spreadsheet. 17 had not appeared on the behaviour system. Of those that had appeared only 8 listed any form of action that had been taken.

8 out of 43.

It even shocked me to see how many incidents of verbal abuse had been ignored. That said, it is the repeat offenders that make the inaction so depressing. Dave had walked out of 5 lessons without anybody doing anything to encourage him to stop. Daniel had been sent out of half the lessons he’d attended. Printed it out just made it obvious how badly I’d been let down by the system. How badly the kids in the class had been let down by the system.

On Friday I was surprised to see the Year Head for year 10 joining us. The Deputy Head and Year Head were soon promising to chase up certain students and let the year ten mentor assist in lessons. If anything they were too helpful now that the unions were involved; I had to persuade them that I didn’t currently want any help with my other year 10 class. As ever, the excuses were the main entertainment value of the meeting. The Deputy Head talked at length (convincingly) about how the schools budget for Teaching Assistants had been underspent and how outside contractors had been unable to deliver the updated behaviour system on time. The Year Head was less convincing. Apparently the lack of action on her part was down to:

a) Computer errors which made incidents just disappear from the system

or

b) Other members of staff leaving the door to the Year Head’s office open, thereby allowing students to sneak in and remove referrals from her desk.

Of course, if you believe that you’d probably also believe that the main discipline problem in school is “low-level disruption” and that exams are as difficult as they were twenty years ago.

Postscript

The following Monday I got to see the full list of results from the first modular GCSE exam year 10 took in March. Out of the ten classes in the year group there were only two in which the majority of students had met or exceeded their targets. I had taught both of those classes. No other class had more than three pupils reach their targets. A number of my colleagues later explained to me that their results were disappointing because they’d had some poor behaviour with year ten recently.

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With a Little Help from my Friends

April 23, 2009

I met up with a few old friends recently.

One of them is a councillor with responsibility for education (thankfully not “children’s services”) for a medium size unitary authority. He told me that he thought his authority was doing well, at least according to exam results. I pointed out that results cannot really be compared over time due to changes in exams and he accepted that it was the figures relative to other schools that showed progress had been made. He was also quite keen to point out that there were various groups, such as those responsible for The Cambridge Primary Review who were opposed to testing even though it was the only way to reliably judge whether kids are learning or not. I told him my view that schools were massively failing due to poorly thought out aims, such as inclusion, and idiotic patronising initiatives from both government and from private companies selling snake oil.

He agreed that SEN provision was a mess, but said that it all came down to money; Special Schools cost more. With regard to initiatives telling teachers how to teach, he asked if I was claiming teachers should have more autonomy, because if so then I needed to realise how terrible a lot of teachers were. I pointed out that my real issue was that the initiatives were nonsense. The people who implement initiatives are not any more competent, and certainly not better educated, than ordinary classroom teachers. There are classroom teachers out there with PhDs in psychology being told to implement “expert” ideas that actually contradict everything psychologists know about learning. He suggested academic qualifications were no guarantee of teaching ability. I pointed out that they normally suggest at least some ability to identify bullshit.

Later I met up with a friend who is training to be an accountant and had just been to a training course alongside a number of people who were (or were training to be) “consultants”. He told me that even in business they are expected to start their training with nonsense about learning styles and groupwork. When he looked up some of the ideas he’d encountered online he had noticed that even Wikipedia is wising up to this nonsense. “Learning styles” and the “Belbin Team Inventory” can easily be found to have been widely criticised by those who have researched them. Could it be that school managers might now have no excuse for not simply accepting such fads uncritically?

My friend also told me that a lot of the consultants he met were engaged in work in Further Education. A quick search for “further education consultants uk” on Google reveals that this is indeed a growth industry. Perhaps it’s just me, but when any part of the public sector is spending a fortune on consultants to tell them what to I start to worry that something is going wrong. Perhaps, people who read this who work in FE can reassure me?

Finally, I met up with an old school friend.

He said:

“Stop talking about your work all the time”.

Fair comment really.

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Lessons Not Learned (Or Why Sir Alan Steer Should Still Stick his Report up his Arse)

April 16, 2009

The most odious man in education has now released his latest report on behaviour in schools. It’s not quite as bad as expected. Here are my observations:

The Good:

The tone is very different to what Steer was saying on television a few weeks ago. He actually says in the introductory letter that “much remains to be done to raise standards” and “we must not be afraid to act and to make it plain than bad behaviour will not be tolerated”.

The report recognises that schools which OFSTED says are “satisfactory” for behaviour are still likely to have a behaviour problem that needs dealing with.

Guidelines are set for the removal of pupils from the classroom.

It is recommended that schools are reminded of their powers to deal with behaviour outside of the schoolgates.

It is also recommended that school governing bodies improve their effectiveness at excluding, and that local authorities stop setting targets to reduce exclusions.

It is requested that the DCSF review the amount of unnecessary bureaucratic requirements schools have to deal with. (Just a shame they didn’t ask for an independent review.)

The Bad:

The report still claims that behaviour is good and improving.

As per usual the report implies that it is bad teaching that is the problem, and even makes the ludicrous suggestion that this can be dealt by schools producing more pointless paperwork, sorry, by requiring schools to produce a “written policy on learning and teaching”.

There is still talk of “behaviour needs” and SEN as an excuse for poor behaviour.

The report supports the politically correct dogma that concern about the appalling levels of poor behaviour and youth crime is “demonising the young”.

The strawman of “purely punitive” approaches to behaviour is attacked. I have never yet met any teacher who demanded that all behaviour be dealt with in a “purely punitive” way. The problem is with the widespread use of purely non-punitive approaches.

The report welcomes “the consolidation of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme”, which is at best a ludicrous waste of time.

The Ugly:

The Big Lie from the previous report (“where unsatisfactory behaviour does occur, in the vast majority of cases it involves low level disruption in lessons. Incidents of serious misbehaviour, and especially acts of extreme violence, remain exceptionally rare”) is repeated and supported through selective use of the evidence.

As ever, the only way to explain away The Behaviour Crisis is to pretend that people throughout history have always thought there was a behaviour crisis. This is, of course, not true and so we often see fraudulent evidence to prove this claim. Sure enough, the Steer Report claims Plato said:

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

I’ve pointed out before how, (despite its widespread use) there is no reliable reference to be found for this quotation.  This time I had my Complete Works of Plato to hand and, looking up every reference to “parents” in the index, I found nothing remotely like this quotation. Of course, why would we expect a committee of headteachers and education luminaries operating under the guidance of the DCSF to be able to recognise a fraud, provide references, or do even the most basic of fact checking?

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Self-Esteem: Part 2

April 12, 2009

Last time I discussed Emler (2001)’s review of the research about self-esteem. I observed that it simply did not fit with any of the claims made by those who think that we can improve behaviour through raising self-esteem. However, it is only showing that the empirical research confirms what common sense told us all along. Human beings do not form their opinions of themselves independently of how they think others perceive them. They might be wrong about the judgements of others, but nobody thinks “I’m great, everybody will hate me” or “I’m worthless, but everybody who meets me will really admire me”. If you have low self-esteem you will fear the attention of the crowd not seek it out. Apart from those who misbehave where everyone misbehaves, badly behaved students at the very least think they deserve to be a centre of attention or that they should get their way over others. This is not a sign of low self-esteem, although doesn’t have to show boundless self-confidence. It is often the act of a mediocre character trying to become A Big Deal. If they do not already think they are better or more important than everyone else, then at the very least they believe they are talented enough to convince others that they are. The only common ground between those with low self-esteem and the badly behaved is that they both wish to be approved of by the pack. But there is a world of difference between wanting enough approval to be accepted and wanting enough approval to be the leader of the pack. The former involves trying to fit in, and the latter involves trying to stand out. A badly behaved student might misbehave to get more attention, but not because they feel insignificant in themselves, but because they want to be the most significant person in the room.

If we are in the business of denying human nature we would grasp every opportunity to see poor self-esteem as a motive for wrongdoing. Once we start doing this then it soon becomes easy to collect evidence. Every sign of dissatisfaction a student shows about their place or their achievement will be seen as a sign that they see themselves as inferior rather than that they aspire to be superior. If a disruptive attention-seeking child becomes enthusiastic about the work when they are doing well we will see it as evidence that they are gaining confidence rather than because they have seen another route to attention. If an irritating squib of a child acts like they are the king of the universe we will imagine they are acting that way because they are compensating for their own inadequacies, rather than because they have delusional confidence in their own strengths. Most of the time when a teacher concludes that a badly behaved boy must secretly hate himself what the teacher actually feels that he should hate himself if he has any sense. Attention-seekers are not secretly shy, any more than bullies are actually cowards. Unfortunately, the appeasers find the observation that troublemakers need to be taken down a peg, not built up any further, to be too cruel. They imagine that a swaggering, arrogant child is showing deep insecurity and fear. Like a conspiracy theorist or a Flat-Earther, they would refuse to accept what was in front of them, if it did not fit in with the cosy worldview where every child in the classroom is a victim and nobody (except perhaps the teacher) is a villain.

As ever, approaches to behaviour based on a denial of what human beings are like are spectacularly ineffective. Students whose behaviour is meant to be a result of low self-esteem are never cured by intervention. Praise and attention work only in so far as they appease, and like all appeasement it comes at a price which isn’t worth paying. Worse, if it becomes accepted that a student is behaving badly because of low self-esteem then it is assumed that any teacher they misbehave for must be undermining their confidence. By taking such a position those managers who are most willing to talk about the confidence of students are often the most willing to destroy confidence in teaching staff. Disastrously, teachers will be expected to praise those who are least deserving of it and blamed when those students still don’t behave. Justice takes another step back in the face of cod psychology.

So far I have concentrated mainly on the attempts to raise the self-esteem of the badly behaved. Self-esteem is also often adopted as a more general aim of education. The new National Curriculum lists among its aims the intention of creating “Confident individuals [who] have a sense of self-worth and personal identity”. It has been suggested that attempts to boost self-esteem will create narcissists and prove harmful. While I firmly believe self-esteem is not always a good thing (and that pride is a sin and humility a virtue) I am most certainly not convinced self-esteem is necessarily a bad thing. Just because self-worship is not something to be instilled in the young, I would not want to go to the other extreme of encouraging a lack of self-esteem. Self-hatred can be as incredibly selfish as self-love. So by all means let teachers raise self-esteem in their students, as long as that esteem is deserved as a result of academic achievement or good behaviour. I don’t mind if students feel good as a result of being educated or as being part of a healthy community. What I object to is the belief that “feeling good” takes priority over justice. This is, perhaps, inevitable at a time when trying to get students to feel good is also taking priority over education.

Dilbert.com

References:

Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York

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Self-Esteem: Part 1

April 5, 2009

“I have noticed that students lacking in self esteem can display behavioural problems. I have found that the lower the self esteem the greater the negative effect. Would you agree with this and what can I do to help promote a greater sense of self esteem in my students? Thank you”

Post on the TES forum

The words “self-esteem” are never far from the lips of appeasers. It can be used both directly and indirectly to excuse poor behaviour. In the indirect case where a badly behaved student has an identified problem (such as: poverty; a learning disability; membership of a possibly oppressed social group, or, of course, bad teachers) it is used to explain why their disadvantaged status has affected their behaviour. Disadvantage has lowered their self-esteem, and poor behaviour is merely a reaction to that low self-esteem. Alternatively, in cases where the badly behaved student has no obvious problem that can be used to justify treating them as a victim then, often in defiance of all the available facts, low self-esteem is drafted in to be the problem. In both cases low self-esteem is seen as a clear motive for anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. In extreme cases of appeasement this link is seen as so obvious that low self-esteem can be diagnosed from poor behaviour alone. Once the diagnosis of low self-esteem has been made then attempts to raise self-esteem, through praise, special attention, and other miscellaneous treats which are usually indistinguishable from rewarding them for their bad behaviour, can begin.

The belief that self-esteem can explain all sorts of social ills (particularly those which most obviously stem from human weakness) is widely used as an alternative to realism about human behaviour. Low self-esteem makes people do bad things, but can be cured by, what can only be described as “niceness”. If we just share the love nobody will ever become addicted to drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviour, or commit crimes. Emler (2001) identified countless examples of this sort of thinking. (Oprah Winfrey features prominently.) He also reviewed the research literature, particularly empirical studies of self-esteem (and this forms the factual basis of the rest of this blog entry). He arrives at a conclusion which deserves to be widely known.

What has become common sense in this matter – only people with low self-esteem act in ways that are harmful to themselves or others – turns out as a blanket generalisation not to be a reliable or sound basis for policy initiatives.”

In fact:

“… the pattern indicates the following: people who have, or admit to, negative feelings about themselves also treat themselves badly (and may be badly treated by others). They do not tend to treat others badly.” [original emphasis]

“[T]reating themselves badly” here does not even extend to drug use, smoking or drinking, or pursuits that are simply “risky” rather than harmful. This does not give much grounds for suspecting that low self-esteem is a cause of bad behaviour in schools. He states that:

“Young people with low self-esteem are not more likely as a result to:

• commit crimes, including violent crimes

• use or abuse illegal drugs

• drink alcohol to excess or smoke …

• fail academically.”

This hardly fits in with the lifestyles of the worst behaved students in our schools. It is also noticeable that some behaviour which is mentioned as being more common in young people with high self-esteem such as holding prejudiced attitudes towards ethnic minorities and engaging in “physically risky pursuits” is often seen in badly behaved students.

The one possible connection between low self-esteem and poor behaviour is that young people with low self-esteem are more likely “to fail to respond to social influence”. However, this is less than convincing as evidence of a link between low self-esteem and poor behaviour. It would be more than a little naïve to suggest that the social influences students face are all towards good behaviour. More importantly it turns out that young people with very high self-esteem are also more likely to reject social influence; it is those with middling self-esteem who follow the crowd. Even if we did identify somebody whose self-esteem led them to misbehave in ways that involve rejecting social influences we’d have to deal with the fact that high self-esteem is more common than low self-esteem. Also, it turns out that low self-esteem in children does not seem to correspond to social class or to being a member of an oppressed ethnic minority, so not only does it apparently not directly cause poor behaviour, but it cannot be used to suggest deprivation or social disadvantage might cause poor behaviour.

Of course, even if we can find no general connection between poor behaviour and low self-esteem this still leaves the possibility that there may be a small number of students with poor behaviour and low self-esteem, and that in these cases a change in self-esteem could have an impact on their behaviour. Unfortunately, even in this unlikely case the research does not indicate we could do very much. Observations of self-esteem turn out to very inaccurate, or at the very least they turn out not to correspond to accepted psychological tests, so it is unlikely we’d accurately identify such a case in the first place. Even if we did identify this situation, the sort of “self-esteem building” programs that schools engage in are not terribly effective (in some cases there is no evidence of any effect at all). They are also apparently less effective on students who have been targeted as in need of them, than when they given to students who have been selected randomly. If a student genuinely did need their self-esteem raised it would be far more effective to have an expert administer cognitive-behaviourial therapy than to expect teachers to deal with it in school.

The scientific evidence simply does not support efforts to deal with bad behaviour in schools by raising self-esteem. As ever, we have an approach to education based on the belief that children are natural saints, and a desire to ignore any fact which does not fit with this.

References:

Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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