Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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Has The Debate Moved On?

October 18, 2014

It’s very easy to think that the education world has been transformed. People who used to tell me to shut up because nobody agreed with me, now claim that I should shut up because nobody disagrees. OFSTED are no longer blatantly pushing the progressive bandwagon (although when you look up the consultancies some of their inspectors work for, it is still terrifying). Opinions, that at one point nobody dared to express openly for fear of pariah status, are now mainstream.

But there have been a couple of blogs recently that made me wonder. It was not that I disagreed with their contents (you can look here for some  things I’ve disagreed with recently) but that the writers didn’t seem to realise that what they were saying was going to be controversial. Perhaps they are unused to the internet, and the idea that if you say publicly something people disagree with you will, at the very least, be asked questions. Or perhaps they didn’t realise that many, many people would strongly disagree. But they were all views that made me think: “Did the writer realise that people would disagree strongly with this?”.

One was “Using Lego StoryStarter to Engage A-Level students with the Hitler Myth” in which a teacher described the great success of getting sixth formers to analyse Hitler’s public persona with the German people by use of Lego. I don’t know if the writer missed the controversy over teaching about the Nazis through the medium of Mr Men, but if they did, they clearly didn’t let it affect their choices. The two biggest objections raised then still apply. Firstly, it is infantalising, even more so in this case as it is sixth formers doing A-level, which is meant to be a step to university level study. Secondly, it is poor taste. These are events that led to genocide, not a children’s story. It’s also noticeable that the work produced is not obviously of A-level standard (unless A-level history has changed drastically since I took it). While this might be understandable so early in the year, and I’m not attempting to criticise the students for their work, it seems to provide very little justification for the effectiveness of the method used. Yet the writer seems to have missed all this. He did write a response and as far as people who had criticised thc blogpost had seized on typos or were rude, it’s fair enough to object. However, the key objections, that this is not what sixthformers should be doing, was only dealt with by the defence of saying other people agreed it was okay, including colleagues and students. Perhaps it is acceptable in this teacher’s school; perhaps in behaving this way he was only following orders. However, it was his choice to publicise it and declare it a great success and one wonders how many parts of the education still give the impression that work that resembles play, even for sixthformers, is the best sort of learning.

The other blogpost,  “When swearing in class was a reason to rejoice #restorativepractice” was one that had me fuming rather than bemused. Written by a senior teacher it described how a disciplinary incident was dealt with. A boy has sworn at some girls in a class and upset them. Instead of being punished (some Twitterers tried to deny the absence of punishment, but in a subsequent post the writer makes it clear they object philosophically to punishing chilren), he was made to apologise. The girls did not accept the apology. The boy then became furiously angry, swearing at the blogwriter as well. Still no sanction was issued, but there was a promise to speak to the girls, and as far as I can tell there was an attempt to persuade them to change their attitude. The teacher appears to be entirely motivated by the fact that the boy has been labelled as having “Aspergers” (they don’t say who by) and that other students should make allowances for this. The girls are described as having “closed minds” for wanting the boy to be punished. Standing their ground at first, one eventually caves and accepts the apology. This girl admits she was angry because she had endured similar abuse in the past, and she is put in touch with a colleague who will helps students “manage their emptions”.

It still shocks me that any teacher could excuse such behaviour from any student. SEN is not an excuse for allowing children to be treated in ways that would generally be considered abusive. The denial of natural justice is infuriating. Treating the victims as if they were in the wrong, for objecting makes it worse. The gender politics makes it all even more disturbing; should girls really be told that when boys treat them badly, then an apology makes it okay? The follow-up post uses the false dichotomy I mentioned last time, of claiming that the alternative to letting kids get away with bad behaviour is “behaviourism” as if B.F. Skinner invented the idea of punishing naughty children. It combines this with a narrative of presenting badly behaved children as victims, an approach that’s dehumanising at the best of times, but particularly inappropriate in a case where the actual victims were treated so badly. But the author’s position is clear, she will not punish children:

If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream.

It’s still one of the most shocking posts I have ever read. If I was a parent at that school I would be looking for somewhere safer for my children. It’s probably the first time I’ve read a blogpost and thought, despite everything, “OFSTED should do something about that”. That a senior teacher in a secondary school could behave like this worries me. That they thought they should share it with the world on a blogpost is just stunning, and does leave me, again, wondering how many schools proudly still have a culture that the right to “inclusion” trumps the right to be treated decently by one’s peers?

I’m sure that there will be no shortage of people who accuse me of misrepresenting the posts, even though I’ve linked to them and would encourage everyone to read them to see if I’m being honest. I’m sure there are those who will advocate the principle of never criticising what somebody else does or writes about, for fear of being negative*, even though debate would be impossible under such a constraint. However, I did think it was important to get these posts out there. They celebrate dumbing down and lenient discipline of a sort that teachers too often claim is only an invention of the Daily Mail and Tory politicians. Most of all they show that there are fundamental differences of value within teaching, that should make us question the idea that any institution, or any oath, or any curriculum, could ever represent the views of all teachers.

 

*Whenever I disagree with her, Sue Cowley usually claims not to be saying what she appeared to be saying no matter how unlikely this actually is. If she claims that in this case, then please just take this as a general point, rather than one specific to her.

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Avoiding the Difficult Choices in Education

October 12, 2014

I wrote this post about a week ago, and it largely follows on from my attempt to attend a large number of education events in a short period of time, described here.  A number of comments I heard about education over that time gave me pause for thought and for similar reasons.

The first was during the Battle of Ideas panel discussion that I was involved in. Emma Knights claimed that there wasn’t a debate over the role of knowledge in education, at least not in schools. (With hindsight, the two of us on the panel who did object were also the only two who are currently employed as teachers).

The second was in reading this article from Academies Week about Nicky Morgan, in which she adds “the fifth priority” of creating well-rounded youngsters “emphasising character, resilience, grit” to the other priorities of her department.

The third was during a “Policymeet” on the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, when Ty Goddard from The Education Foundation, claimed that some of the debates in education should be re-evaluated as “false dichotomies”, and seemed to give many examples, such as knowledge versus skills, academic education versus vocational education. I was not the only person present who was sceptical about this:

I’m not claiming any of this is exceptional. With regard to the “fifth priority”, in education you can set lists of priorities so long that it would be easier to say what isn’t a priority. You can design a curriculum with dozens of aims.  You can give out so many prizes that nobody actually feels rewarded. You can promote almost every teacher in a school without giving them any actual power. When people don’t want to make difficult choices they often find that choosing everything is almost the same as choosing nothing. Like giving a child a 17th final warning, you can create the illusion of making a decision without actually committing yourself to anything.

Similarly, when there are apparently stark choices, (including those relating to knowledge) it is easy to claim that they are “false dichotomies”. Don’t know whether small children are in school to play or to learn? Just claim that they learn best through play. Don’t know whether schools are for education or for socialisation? Just claim children are educated best through socialising. Don’t know whether children should be learning academic subjects or concentrating on hobbies? Just claim that everything is academic. Or nothing. It amounts to the same thing.

There are some genuine false dichotomies in education. There are options that are too vague to be meaningful (like educating the whole child, or encouraging creativity in maths). There are times when certain choices are hidden in order to make an unpalatable position seem the best option. For instance, anyone who wants to let kids get away with bad behaviour is likely to claim the only alternative is a philosophy of “behaviourism”. Or those who want it to be okay for kids to learn nothing, will claim that the alternative is a system driven only by exams. But in cases where we have a choice of what to teach, or what to spend resources on, the choices are unlikely to be false dichotomies. People will have to choose what money is spent on and what is taught in lessons.

All of the examples that I started with, seem to come down to an evasion of difficult choices. And perhaps this is why bureaucracy thrives in English education. For a system to function effectively people do have to decide what they are aiming for. They have to decide what gets priority. They have to commit themselves to their decisions. I am always been sceptical when people claim the NHS faces infinite demand that means resources have to be rationed. But in education, there is always more we can do. We cannot do everything. We cannot prioritise every child and teach every desirable personal quality. Sugar paper, post-it notes and brain-storming might generate lists but they don’t generate decisions. In the system we have, people become unpopular not by making the wrong choices, but by making any choices at all. In systems where nobody chooses what it is that must be done first, nothing gets done, and afterwards people try to find somebody to blame for not doing it.

It is important not to pretend there is no debate to be had. There is debate over everything and there needs to be. There are people we should argue with.

These are real debates, and while I don’t doubt there are those will try to dodge them, telling me that nobody meant what they appeared to be arguing, or that none of the apparent conflicts are actually real. But I cannot accept this. The differences in opinion are real and important. So please: make a decision; choose a side; express an opinion. It’s the only way anything gets done.

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Fluency in Mathematics: Part 2

October 6, 2014

I gave a talk on fluency in mathematics in March at Pedagoo London (my first public appearance) and again the weekend before last at the La Salle Education maths conference. This is based on those talks and so, inevitably, it is one in a series of posts. Part one can be found here.

pedagoohalo

“And this was the greatest number of words I could fit on a single Powerpoint slide”.

At both talks I asked the audience to discuss reasons they may have been wary about giving explanations, using prolonged practice or focusing on fluency in maths. I also asked about reasons others had used to tell them not to teach that way. I then asked whether they came up with the same answers I did. Most of the following featured to some degree:

1) Understanding

The issue of whether students ability to answer questions should take second stage to understanding of some sort is not a new one in mathematics. Tom Lehrer satirised it in the 70s.

The real problem is that understanding is not well-defined. I found four definitions for it and wrote about them here, and for these talks I added another possible definition that it could mean “knowing the connections between topics”. It is only with these multiple definitions of “understanding” to confuse matters that explanation and practice can be sidelined. When “understanding” is tied down to a specific meaning we invariably find that a clear explanation and the building up of fluent knowledge, is the best way to promote understanding.

2)  Problem-Solving

While problems might well have a part to play later on in practising the application of knowledge, it is unclear why anyone would imagine problem-solving is useful for the acquisition of new knowledge. It causes a distraction from what we should be thinking about (the thing we need to know) and is likely to tax working memory unnecessary making retention more difficult. While problem-solving approaches to maths have been continually fashionable, their effectiveness is far from proven. Hattie (2009), who summarised research using effect sizes, where 0.4 showed average effectiveness, found problem-solving learning to have a very poor effect size of 0.15:

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3) Discovery/Inquiry

This is a very similar point, in that in practice it also involves engaging students in activities where new knowledge is meant to result. Again it is very fashionable. And again, the same objections apply: it is likely to distract from what is to be learnt and to limit retention. Again, Hattie found an unimpressive effect size:

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4) Engagement/Enjoyment

It is not always clear what “engagement” means as I discussed here. If it is used to mean enjoyment, then there are serious questions to be asked about the assumption that students learn best when enjoying themselves. There is too much research on that question to reference here, although hopefully I will get round to blogging about it soon, but while anxiety or hysteria won’t be great for learning, there’s strong evidence against the general principle that we learn more effectively the happier we are.

5) Groupwork/Discussion

If I’ve described anything else as “fashionable” then this tops that tree. There’s no clear evidence that groupwork is as ineffective as problem-solving or discovery, but Hattie’s effect size of 0.41 for cooperative learning would indicate it is unexceptional as a method. I would not seek to prevent groupwork, but find its aggressive promotion unwarranted.

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There is a lot of psychology literature on how people work in groups. Different conditions make it more or less effective. Its potential negative effect on motivation, known as “the Ringelmann Effect” is long-established and there are certain types of thinking that are thought to be less effective in groups. The widespread belief that groupwork is an essential part of good teaching seems implausible, and provides little reason to crowd out other methods of teaching.

Update 7/9/2014: It was pointed out to me on Twitter that Hattie also quotes one meta-analysis that takes subject into account and found an effect size of 0.01 for cooperative learning in maths.

6) OFSTED

The first time I gave this talk I could only confirm that OFSTED did seem opposed to developing fluency and this was the one point on which I could not deny the objection. The details are described here and I showed some of this video to underline the point:

When I gave the talk last week, I could be more optimistic. Inspectors should not be requiring a particular way to teach and shouldn’t be grading you individually anyway. The old subject survey guidance that laid out a depressingly trendy vision of how to grade maths lessons is now gone. Hopefully, this demon has been slain.

7) Technology

The idea here is that technological change has changed the nature of schooling or society. I’ve used these before, but in a week where the TES published this, it is worth remember just how long the claims that traditional teaching is doomed have been going on. Here is some of the usual rhetoric:

The idea that our schools should remain content with equipping children with a body of knowledge is absurd and frightening. Tomorrow’s adults will be faced with problems about the nature of which we can today have no conception. They will have to cope with the jobs not yet invented.

 

we find ourselves in a rapidly changing and unpredictable culture. It seems almost impossible to foresee the particular ways in which it will change in the near future or the particular problems which will be paramount in five or ten years.

 

Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools…Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

 

These quotations are actually from 1966, 1956, and 1913, respectively. (Sources for the latter 2 can be found by searching my blog, and for the first from this book).

This does not disprove the argument about technology, but it does seem to shift the burden of proof. A more developed case can be found here,  here and here.

8) Independence

The philosophical arguments about independence and autonomy can be found here. And I would add to it now, that if independence from the teacher was so important, then it is hard to explain the effectiveness of Direct Instruction, a method of teaching very much focused on the role of the teacher:

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9) Research and Training

Probably the biggest reason for the poor view of fluency many maths teachers have is that we’ve often been trained by those who would deny its importance. We’ve also often been told that this is justified by the research. A proper take down of the shambles that is maths education research here and in the US would take a whole blogpost, but you can get a flavour of it by looking at the work of Jo Boaler, the criticisms of it, and the methods she uses to silence critics. This does not resemble scientific research or academic debate in anyway. The field is mainly propaganda for groupwork, mixed ability teaching and the methods of “fuzzy maths”. There does now seem to be the first signs of debate, and I was able to mention a few papers that challenge improve on the research methods and challenge the orthodoxy, but it seems early days and too much of what I have found is by economists and not published in maths education journals despite seeming to be of much higher quality than the studies that do get published:

Continued in part 3

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Why Most Behaviour Management Advice Doesn’t Work

September 9, 2014

This is the fourth and final post in my series of posts on discipline systems, originally inspired by this blogpost from @headguruteacher. The other 3 are:

  1. What Makes A School Discipline System Work?
  2. Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System
  3. The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

I’ve put it in different ways, but most of what I’ve talked about has been the extent to which discipline systems and school culture, not teacher skill, determine behaviour. I’ve worked at a lot of different schools, and learnt that my effectiveness at behaviour management seems to vary massively between the schools. As I argued in the third post above, student expectations, usually acquired from their peers, have more impact than anything the teacher chooses to do. This is why I am outraged about many of those snake oil salesman who offer individual teachers a “magic bullet” solution to behaviour, usually built around platitudes about winning kids over. In particular, ignore anyone who claims to be able to solve behaviour problems by:

  • Adopting a particular attitude;
  • Using a particular style of teaching;
  • Being nice to students;
  • Rejecting punishment/sanctions/discipline;
  • Negotiating with students;
  • Staying calm (I’m not saying this is bad, but it is really unhelpful as advice);
  • Avoiding confrontation;
  • Solving children’s “underlying problems”.

But here I want to be sceptical even about the well-intentioned and more practical advice often given to teachers. If expectations at a school are low than behaviour will become challenging in response to any attempt to improve behaviour. That includes really well-thought out and cleverly planned methods and systems. No classroom strategy will work if kids truly don’t want it to work. Where teacher strategies work it is either because the kids wanted to behave and the teacher made it easy for them to do so, or where teachers have persisted with their strategies, even where they didn’t seem to be working, until the kids lost the will to fight. For this reason I have seen the following strategies have both positive and negative effects (in some cases I’ve seen the same approach both work brilliantly and fail utterly):

  • Warning systems;
  • Telling classes to stand up until they are quiet;
  • Reward systems;
  • Shouting;
  • Calling parents;
  • Lining kids up outside the classroom door;
  • Waiting until students are in the room and quiet before starting the lesson;
  • Counting down to get quiet;
  • Confronting behaviour publicly;
  • Confronting behaviour privately;
  • Praise;
  • Dressing really smartly;
  • Monitoring the amount of work closely and punishing insufficient work harshly;
  • Threats (or promises) to report back to form tutors/SMT;
  • Sitting down at the front of the room for the entire lesson;
  • Taking marking into the classroom and marking during the lesson (I admit I have only seen this work as a behaviour management strategy for cover lessons, but in the first school I worked at taking work with you to cover lessons indicated you were not supply staff and were also confident the kids wouldn’t misbehave);
  • Following the school behaviour policy;
  • Asking students to work in silence.

Sometimes, the strategies succeeded because the kids wanted to behave, and they helped kids comply without losing face. Sometimes they failed because every strategy would fail and any sign that the class was behaving well and working was such a break with expectations that it would upset the kids and they’d act to stop it. In other cases, success or failure was specific to the school, year group, or even class because of what they are used to. A particular rule or sanction that seems fair to one class, because they are used to it, will seem outrageous to another. Some parents will support, some won’t. Some year heads or managers are so feared or loved (frequently both together) that mentioning their name gives a teacher power, while the names of others will result in a derisive chortle. Some classes are happy to stand in the corridor, or behind their chairs indefinitely and, when teachers wait for their compliance, they will wait for the teacher to give up waiting. The triggers for bad behaviour and the cues for good behaviour vary between schools and between classes. The strategies listed above are worth having in reserve, but until you know your school and your classes you won’t know what will work and whether it failed for a specific reason, or because they would have kicked off regardless.

Is there any universally useful behaviour advice? It is very little, but I’ll give what I can to avoid this being a counsel of despair:

  1. Observe other teachers with your students. It is useful to have seen them behave and for them to know you have seen them behave. Or even just for them to see you know a teacher they behave for.
  2. Use a seating plan and have several copies to hand. It is always best to know which student you are dealing with.
  3. Write down anything serious or any detention set immediately including the exact wording of any insults or swearing even if it seems unforgettable. Stress will make you forgetful and undermine your follow up.
  4. Be consistent. Enforce rules even when you regret instituting them, and only change them when you have an excuse to change them, not because they were disobeyed. Be prepared to stick with strategies even when they don’t work; good behaviour management strategies can still be resisted at first. Follow through on punishments.
  5. Don’t put up with the obviously unacceptable, no matter who tells you it is normal. It would be better to drop out of teaching completely and feel a failure for it, than become a human punching bag for a few years and then drop out of teaching because it made you ill.

And remember, particularly if you’ve just started teaching, it all becomes easier with time.

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10 Things To Avoid in INSET

September 5, 2014

At the start of a new year teachers face at least a day of CPD. Here is my attempt to identify the worst possibilities (with thanks to all those who suggested things on Twitter or told me what hadn’t yet died out).

  1. Anti-education videos. In the old days it used to be “Shift Happens“. Now it is more likely to be Ken Robinson’s Animate. Both are quire explicitly arguing that kids should learn less.
  2. Teaching programmes. These are a mix of theories and activities that are meant to indicate a different way to teach. Some are expensive, others largely in the public domain. The ratio of bullshit to insight provided by the methods is remarkably high but they tend to have a cult following that will throw money at them and force them on other teachers. The biggest one is Building Learning Power. Others include TEEP, Kagan Structures and Mantle of the Expert. The most ridiculous programme of the lot, not even deserving the name “teaching”, was the (still not completely dead) Brain Gym.
  3. Taxonomies. This can be a way to subdivide learning. If so this is usually Bloom’s (in either original or revised versions) or its close relative SOLO. The idea is that there is a generic structure to learning that can be applied across disciplines to understand one’s subject better. Perhaps they fit some subjects better than others, but, inevitably, they are no substitute for actually knowing your subject and its structure properly in the first place. Far worse is where it is a way to subdivide thinking, like Thinking Hats (below) or teaching methods (like the learning pyramid/Dale’s Cone of experience). And the absolute worst of the lot is when it is a way to subdivide learners by “learning style” (again, something which is still not dead despite being utterly discredited) or “left and right brain”. 
  4. Pre-determined discussions. Often in groups with somebody senior monitoring each table, this is a way of manufacturing “buy-in”. The idea is to have a discussion where ambitious people just repeat what those in charge wanted to hear. Flip charts and post-it notes feature heavily. The big craze a few years ago was having to write answers about what students should be like around an outline of a person. The correct answers were “independent”, “resilient”, and “motivated”. Any attempt to say “clever” or “good at maths” was considered a joke.
  5. OFSTED training. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they claim that they don’t want to see a particular teaching style, or even that they won’t grade teaching, nobody believes them. So schools are still telling teachers how to game inspection.

    A list of “what OFSTED want”

  6. Sensible things made into gimmicks. I really don’t have a problem with Carol Dweck’s concept of a “Growth Mindset” if it means kids are encouraged to work hard by telling them they will get smarter. I do have a problem with the “weaponised” versions involving stickers and questionnaires. This seems like a rerun of AfL, where perfectly sensible ideas about feedback turned into compulsory mini-whiteboards and insane levels of differentiation.
  7. Objective Mania. I don’t have a problem with learning objectives. I really don’t. A few words clarifying what kids need to know or practice can only help with my planning, and is unlikely to hinder their learning. However, multiple objectives to be copied down are a pain. These include “WALT and WILF”, “All/Most/Some” and “Must/Should/Could”. This is not differentiation, it is obstruction. And the worst of all is having to put levels or grades on objectives.
  8. Behaviour Training that blames teachers. Teachers need to be taught how to use the procedures and where to get help. Also useful to tell them a few tricks appropriate to the school, and warnings about what won’t work. However, too much behaviour INSET, particularly from outsiders, is about making teachers feel they are to blame when they face bad behaviour. Planning well, being nice, making lessons fun, will not sort out behaviour problems. Being told to keep them to yourself (“swallow your own smoke”) will make them worse. And don’t get me started on anything with “restorative” in the name.
  9. Bad SEN. Don’t know why but nothing seems to attract nonsense like SEN. The most common types of nonsense are in the descriptions of the conditions. Claims are made about the causes and characteristics of conditions that have nothing to do with how they are diagnosed (like claiming dyslexics have better spatial awareness, or we know which part of the brain causes ADHD). Worse, is when bogus treatments are publicised, like changing the colour of paper or ink for those who can’t read.
  10. New marking policies. If your marking policy is so complicated people have to be trained in it, then it is too complicated. And I include in this (in fact I make a special effort to include this) those policies that are introduced that will “save everyone time”. They won’t. Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.

I realise that this is, no doubt, terribly negative. But it shouldn’t be difficult to get INSET right. Just do the following:

  • Give teachers plenty of time for their own preparation during the day. Preparation is training.
  • Let departments have time to help those with deficits in subject knowledge.
  • Make some things optional.
  • Concentrate on essential information.
  • Make sure any training on how to teach is evidence-based and relevant to your school.

and most of all

  • Don’t make anybody sit through something you wouldn’t sit through.
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The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

August 29, 2014

Those who work in schools seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like:

  • Why do Mrs Jones’s classes always behave well?
  • Why are students worst behaved in the afternoon?
  • Why does Ryan get into trouble in geography and not in maths?
  • Why is behaviour worse on rainy days?
  • Why does no child do what I ask without the threat of a detention?
  • Why is Tammy-Lee so polite and pleasant one-to-one but awful in  lessons?
  • Why do students act as if it is a surprise that I punished their poor behaviour?

The answers a lot of the worst school managers like to give to these sorts of questions tend to involve two bad assumptions. Firstly, that students are like automata, they respond automatically to certain input (rain, being shouted at, having to work hard) and what follows is an unavoidable reaction to a specific situation not a deliberate choice influenced by the consequences of previous such choices. Secondly, that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers.

I was reminded of this by some of the discussion following my last post. Probably the most controversial part of it was my disdain for schools in which teachers have to run their own detentions. I should probably say that I don’t mind if teachers ask students to stay in for 5 minutes at lunch, break or after school to talk to them, or hear their apology, but I do have a problem with expecting teachers to set and run half hour (or more) detentions. The usual justification for what seems like an unproductive use of time is that it can (in some way) be used to discuss what happened and repair the relationship between  student and teacher. Where these justifications have been made the assumptions I described above have usually come into play. Firstly, it is assumed the student behaved as they did in reaction to a particular situation, and the specific situation has to be addressed rather than the principle that the student should behave in all situations. Secondly, it is assumed that the teacher, and their relationship with the student, is the key to what happened and the student cannot have been set off by factors unrelated to which teacher was present. It is because I think these assumptions are based on an inaccurate model of how students behave that I don’t think detentions set by individual teachers can be the basis of a discipline system.

What is being missed, with regard to the level at which detentions are organised and by anyone asking the questions above, is that students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave. Most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it. Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others. Kids work together when they misbehave. Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others. That is why seemingly insignificant things, like the weather, can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school. That is why some teachers get targeted and others see little poor behaviour. That is why management being seen to be unsupportive over one incident can sabotage a teacher with every class they have.

If the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level, the teacher, behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible. Good managers ensure those teachers don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves and say, “You are doing the right thing, keep following the behaviour policy and they’ll eventually get the message” while also helping to confront the students. Bad managers assume that the teacher must have done something wrong and start trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They’ll even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.

It is true that teachers can make a difference to which teachers get the worst behaviour, but this can happen in good or bad ways. Good classroom management and following up incidents thoroughly can help deter bad behaviour, but so can appeasing ringleaders and making lessons less demanding. If teachers are working to make sure they are not the one that gets the hassle, rather than ensuring that nobody gets the hassle, the school as a whole will not have great discipline. Students will change who they target so individual teachers may feel they are making progress, but they will still act up somewhere. Perhaps for new teachers; perhaps for those that simply don’t have time to set enough detentions; perhaps for certain subjects; perhaps for those that SMT have failed to support. I have seen schools go into an academic nosedive when it becomes the teachers that make kids work hard who get the worst hassle. It’s not that teachers can make no difference to behaviour in their own classroom; it’s that the biggest factor in behaviour is student expectations and these can be set outside the classroom.

The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving. Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. People start imagining that if a student behaves only out of fear of sanctions then it is a bad thing, or that if they behave in lessons where they like the teacher then every teacher should try to win them over. However, in my experience, most poor behaviour has something to do with the expectations of the peer group. There’s no point asking “well why did this student misbehave today?” when the reasons are sitting all around them. Most students behave in the way they think is normal, for somebody of their status, according to the values they have arrived at in collaboration with their peers. Discipline systems that work on a whole school level have a much better chance of changing what is normal across the school than leaving every teacher to compete to be seen by kids as one of the teachers for whom behaving is normal. It also gets the best out of teachers if they know there is a standard to maintain, rather than an ordeal to be avoided. No headteacher should want teachers to be asking before a lesson, “What can I do for a quiet life?” rather than “How can I get my class to learn a lot?” but this is what happens where the workload for dealing with behaviour, and the responsibility for setting expectations, falls mainly on the classroom teacher.

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Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System

August 27, 2014

Last time I talked about what made a school discipline work. I was glad to see a really positive response from a number of headteachers and SMT members about the post, there were really only one or two disappointing ones. A few years back any suggestion that discipline was a management responsibility rather than about classroom relationships was highly controversial. It does feel like there are now just too many schools that have become effective on the back of sorting out discipline properly for that kind of denial to continue to be widespread, particularly among those members of SMT who are active on social media and can be challenged by hundreds if they make the types of excuses for poor discipline that we still often hear in schools such as: “kids like these cannot be expected to listen quietly” or “if lessons were engaging there wouldn’t be any discipline problems”. However, it is not so long ago that a committee of heads (and a few other establishment figures) were asked to look into behaviour in schools and produced a report concluding that there was nothing much wrong, and I do think that this has a lot to do with the idea I mentioned in my last post of a school with “good enough” discipline.

A school with “good enough” discipline is a school where it is possible for those in authority and those who are well-established to have no real difficulties with discipline, particularly in lessons. It is one where OFSTED is more than likely to say behaviour is “good” on the basis of how students behaved for the day and a half when they visited the school. It may even be that less established teachers who have low expectations of effort or concentration may also thrive, never really needing to confront behaviour. However, at the same time, it is a school where a certain proportion of staff are going to faces classes which do not expect to work or learn. The most obvious people in these categories will be new staff and supply staff. But it might also be teachers who are newer to the school, or younger teachers. In some schools it may be teachers of particular subjects. Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Sometimes it may just be teachers who have got on the wrong side of a particular ringleader or clique among the students. In the worst cases it may be those who have been undermined by SMT, as if one student is let off for treating you terribly, others will usually try. Tom Bennett refers to this situation as the “two schools“, the one with the good behaviour inhabited by the powerful and the lucky, and the one with the poor behaviour inhabited by the marginalised and the unlucky. I think of it as the “good enough” school. It tends neither to be a school with a really challenging intake (they would collapse into anarchy without a decent discipline system) nor a school whose intake have really high expectations (they can implement even quite complex discipline systems without too much effort) but one that is somewhere in the middle. It is one where there are enough challenging students to terrorise some staff, but not so many that those who are powerful or influential within the school cannot protect themselves from the worst of it and consider behaviour to be “good enough”. There is neither too much risk of immediate disaster, nor ambition to stand out for being excellent.

The basic feature of the school with “good enough” discipline is seen in the direction of travel of the workload relating to behaviour. Responsibility is always pushed downwards to those who are less senior and have less power. If you want to spot the signs of a “good enough” school discipline system, you are best looking to see if most, but not necessarily all, of the following apply:

1) The headteacher (and other SMT members) would not consider discipline their top priority. It would probably not be in the top three. They simply don’t seem to be part of the system either in terms of leadership (telling staff what is expected of them) or management (actually making sure things happen). In schools with decent discipline systems, even those with a very well-behaved intake, SMT are really keen on telling staff to enforce the rules and to raise their expectations. They feel that if there is a classroom in the school where the teacher cannot or will not enforce the rules then it is a problem for everybody and they will exhort teachers to punish more, ask for support and to refer incidents upwards. Managers also have a very clear role in the discipline system dealing directly with the worst offenders and a strong presence around the school site

2) There are two discipline systems. I wrote about this here. Reflecting the “two schools” there is a paper discipline system that will be shown to governors and inspectors that seems very thorough and supportive and there is what staff are actually expected to do, which will often involving lowering expectations and leaving struggling colleagues to sink. Often discipline is very informal, and sanctions are highly arbitrary. Students know that what they do is less important than who they do it to. Teachers who follow the letter of the system are seen as “inflexible” and lacking in behaviour management skills. If you could end up being complained about, or told off by managers, for following the behaviour system then you are most likely to be in a school with “good enough” discipline.

3) Departments have a major responsibility in the discipline system. The capacity of school departments to deal with behaviour varies massively. They differ in size; they differ in experience; they differ in available time. One department might consist of two part-timers, another might consist mainly of full-time staff who have been at the school for two decades.  One department might include two members of SMT and three year heads, another might be mainly NQTs. One department might teach every child in the school, another might mainly have sixth-formers. No school can ever hope to have a consistent discipline system if departments are heavily involved. Even delegating too much to year heads can create inconsistency, but at least year heads have a clear jurisdiction. Detention systems run by departments struggle because the same student can be in detentions in more than one department. Systems of removing students based on departments can be worse than useless if everyone is teaching at once, or you have multiple challenging classes in the department at the same time.

4) Teachers have to administer most sanctions themselves. What goes for inconsistency between departments is multiplied many times for teachers. Leaving it to teachers to supervise their own detentions, or call parents, guarantees that some staff will be unable to comply with the system. Schools might have a policy where you put every student who doesn’t do their homework in detention, but it is not a serious policy if in the first week of term a teacher finds that they have fifty students who haven’t done their homework. Asking teachers who have suffered verbal abuse or physical assault to call parents is idiotic, it just makes the whole experience even more stressful. Even the most dedicated staff will have to limit themselves to enforcing only those rules that they know they can enforce without running out of time in the week.

5) Inadequate sanctions. There are certain policies that will never work. I can give multiple examples but here I will mention a few of the most obvious ones. One is a policy of “telling them to put it away” in response to use of mobile phones in lessons. It has to be at least a detention, where practical it should be confiscation of the phone as well, although that will need an effective behaviour system to enforce. Anything less will ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and students will invariably have their phones to hand. Another place where sanctions are often inadequate are those for being sent out of the classroom. It has to be significantly more than a detention (particularly if detentions are hit and miss). The gains in terms of establishing a reputation and getting out of work from being removed from a lesson are such that a detention is not enough of a deterrent. Also, problems exist where the discipline system allows for multiple warnings without a punishment. There seem to be a remarkable amount of schools that have adopted systems in which punishments are administered on the third warning, that have also decided that every warning should be given only for prolonged and repeated misbehaviour rather than low level disruption. Warning systems work where behaviour management involves multiple students misbehaving and you need to ask them individually to comply. They do not work when a warning is considered a sanction rather than a sign that a sanction will be coming without immediate cooperation. They do not work where they simply make it harder for teachers to punish wilful and persistent misbehaviour.

6) The existence of “outlaws”. Outlaws are students who exist outside of the normal constraints of the discipline system. Some exist simply through how much of their behaviour is ignored because there is no capacity to deal with it. They will never attend the detentions that they have earned because there is nobody to chase them up or schedule them. They are the sort of student who owes forty detentions which are then written off when they attend just one. They have tested every system to the limit, have found the gaps, and now walk through them knowing precisely who to act up for, which days to be absent, and which detentions to run away from. The other sort of outlaws are those created directly by well-meaning intervention. Often on the SEN register, it has been decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions and teachers are deterred or prevented from enforcing normal discipline with them. Any attempt to enforce normal classroom rules will result in protest, such as walking out or swearing at the teacher, and teachers will be blamed for having provoked them. These students already know their rights and privileges and will often tell you they have “anger management” in order to intimidate you before you ever try to enforce a rule.

7) Behaviour INSET is not about using the discipline system. If you want to have effective behaviour management then everyone needs to know exactly what they are meant to be doing and how the behaviour system works. It is not a good sign, then, if INSET on behaviour management is not aligned to that aim. While new teachers might need more training than that, it is never a good sign if whole school behaviour training is not about rules and sanctions. If managers hire somebody who will tell teachers that if they were just nicer to the kids, or made their lessons more engaging, then their problems will go away, then you can guarantee SMT has lost the plot on behaviour and are looking to ensure that those they are not supporting will blame themselves. The consultants who spread this message, some who actually make a living from this sort of nonsense, are no help at all and nothing would delight me more than seeing schools have the sense to put them out of business by concentrating on raising expectations not spreading blame.

Behaviour is about expectations. Students behave in the way they think is normal. Over time effective teachers (particularly in smaller schools) can raise those expectations. That is why, even in some of the worst schools, you will find veteran teachers who everybody behaves for. Sometimes a single department in a school manages the same thing and the students just know that is the subject they must behave in. But for a whole school to be effective then the expectations are part of a culture which has to be set across the board and consistency is what matters most. This is dependent on leadership setting a high standard, but also on well-managed systems that ensure everyone can easily maintain those standards even in the most trying circumstances. Judging by the reputations gained by those schools that collapse into chaos and those schools which crack discipline, most secondary teachers face schools with “good enough” discipline, where plenty of lessons are disrupted but there is enough order to protect key staff and to pull the wool over the eyes of inspectors. Though many schools seem to maintain this situation indefinitely, allowing this situation to continue risks spiralling into decline. Those schools that don’t settle for this, that push for better behaviour than the conventional wisdom accepts, and do so on principle rather than as a response to failure, usually become celebrated examples of high achievement.

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