Archive for November, 2011



November 18, 2011

Now that decades have passed since the abolition of corporal punishment it has become very difficult for educational progressives to assert their moral superiority simply by saying they oppose it. Sure, they can lay it on thick about how much they oppose it, they can call it “child abuse” and demand that every teacher who doesn’t oppose it be immediately sacked, but they can’t actually mark themselves out from the crowd with their disapproval. Not only that, but a policy of forcing out people who had happily used corporal punishment in their teaching career would mean a mass exodus of recent immigrants from countries in the developing world where corporal punishment is normal, at the hands of white, middle class English people, something which would be hard to paint as a victory for social justice or political correctness.

So for this reason, there has to be a new way to declare one’s boundless compassion and, if a teacher, condemn the moral degeneracy of one’s peers. There has to be a new moral dividing line between the goody teachers and the baddy teachers. There has to be a new basis for the self-righteous superiority of middle class liberals. In recent years it seems to have become shouting. For as long as I remember anyone arguing for teacher authority, the importance of obedience, or the need to end the chaos in the classrooms, could expect a straw man attack along the lines of “well, you think teachers should always be shouting at children”. It was always a ridiculous attack as order in the classroom and well established teacher authority takes away the need to shout. The truly terrifying teachers often shouted the least (although they sometimes shouted the loudest). The schools with the best discipline often had an explicit or implicit “no shouting” policy as classrooms were quiet enough for teachers to be heard and there were plenty of sanctions that were easily available and could be calmly applied. Not only that, but when direct instruction was the government approved method of teaching (in the late nineties and the early part of this century) then every teacher was required to get attention in class, and it was hard to condemn shouting when you knew that you might have an observation where getting the class to hear you would be expected. Indeed, I have lost count of how many “shouted” plenaries I have observed over the years resulting from belief in a three part lesson and the normal tendency of classes to get louder over time if they are allowed to speak.

However, the move away from teaching, and towards activities, in the last few years has led to a new breed of “punishment puritans” who disapprove of the raised voice. Often it is simple self-aggrandisement. I have heard aspiring members of SMT insist to NQTs and student teachers that they never, ever, shout even though their bellowing is often heard through the corridors. Similarly, I have heard teachers condemned for shouting because they confront bad behaviour in their lessons (regardless of the volume at which they do so); because they have become upset or angry, or because they will shout back when students shout at them rather than letting the students take verbal control of the classroom.

Recently, I have seen the disapproval of shouting take the same tone as the opponents of corporal punishment took, that of complete and unquestioning disapproval from a position of moral superiority, unsupported by a rational argument. It’s put me in a bit of a dilemma. I have worked in both “shouting schools” and “no shouting schools” and have preferred the latter. I trained in a school with an explicit no shouting policy and actually rather enjoyed it. When I worked at the Metropolitan School the students were savvy enough to know that forcing a teacher to shout at the class would be a sure sign that they had got to them, and, therefore, raising your voice in class would just make kids laugh at you. The discipline system there had clear sanctions which did not include taking a kid out and shouting at them. Therefore, there was very little point to shouting at all. Even when I have worked in a “shouting school”, I would try hard to avoid shouting at classes; it was a high risk strategy and I was experienced enough at managing classes to know how to deal with noise in a more structured and careful way. Therefore, I have no particular support for shouting, and little reason to advocate it as a form of behaviour management.

However, the moral indignation and hypocrisy have got to me. I simply cannot abide some of the attempts to demonise teachers for shouting that I have heard recently. And in particular, I cannot tolerate the trend I have noticed in managers suggesting that teachers who shout at students are to blame for the students’ poor behaviour, as if children had no free will, and their behaviour simply reflected the moral deficiencies of their teachers.

So let’s be clear about a few simple points. Teachers shout for three reasons.

1) To get attention.

It is a fact of cognitive psychology that if we are not listening to someone then our attention cannot be grabbed by the content of what they say, but will be grabbed by its volume.

…unattended speech is not analyzed to a semantic level, that is it is not analyzed for meaning. Instead it is analyzed for physical characteristics such as pitch and loudness … all stimuli are analyzed for their physical characteristics, but only a limited number (those to which you attend ) are analyzed for their semantic content. .. unattended stimuli must be processed in case something important requires your attention. If you are in a crowd and someone shouts “Fire!”, the loudness of the unattended message will make you shift your attention to the source of the sound…But presumably if someone merely said “Fire,” you wouldn’t hear it because the word doesn’t stand out from any other stimuli

(Willingham, 2007)

In a relatively quiet room you might be able to get attention by becoming quieter. In a room where all the noise is of one pitch you might be able to get attention through the pitch of your voice. If you have a whistle you could certainly go without shouting. However, in a noisy classroom, teachers often have little hope of gaining initial attention from a class if they don’t raise their voices. There are ways around this, slower methods that involve getting attention one student at a time, or making students scared to let their attention drift, and in a tough school you will have to pursue these methods or you will wear your voice out. But there are always going to be situations where it would be irresponsible not to shout in order to gain attention. If a kid you don’t know is behaving in a dangerous manner then it would be better to yell “Oi!” and be considered rude than to let someone come to harm while you agonise over a more polite way to intervene. There is no way of making the act of shouting beyond the moral pale here, even if, like myself, you prefer to avoid it.

2) Out of Anger.

It has to be said there exist schools and classes where losing your temper and shouting has a clear positive impact on the behaviour of the class by giving them a bit of a scare. However, the effect diminishes with the age of the students and with the frequency with which they experience it, and with tough classes it can have a negative impact (imagine being furiously angry and then once you show it having thirty kids laughing at you, it is not going to end well), so I would not recommend this as a behaviour management technique. However, there are two reasons why I will not condemn anyone who does use it. Firstly, if it is normal to use it as a technique in your school, then a refusal to raise your voice will undermine you by making you appear weak or unconcerned about poor behaviour. In those situations it can barely be avoided. Secondly, in those situations where shouting is having no positive effect then it is entirely possible that the shouting teacher has become upset and lost control. This is not a good thing and teachers should try to avoid letting it happen. However, as I argued before it makes absolutely no sense to condemn teachers for being upset. That is simply to blame the victim, and to make teaching the exclusive preserve of those who don’t care about their classes or their own dignity. Again, neither of these cases seem to suggest a moral transgression on the part of the teacher. In one case they have done what is necessary, in the other they have acted like somebody who cares.

 3) As a punishment.

This is the one that I personally am most guilty of. If you are in a school where the sanctions are inadequate to deal with the behaviour then you have little choice but to look for sanctions that can be delivered on the spot and require no follow up. I wouldn’t ever recommend shouting within a classroom, or in front of other students, (it can backfire badly if a student has eye contact with another student when they are being shouted at) but one of the few instant punishments we have left is to ask a student to stand outside and then go and shout at them. Now, I am the first to argue that other sanctions would be preferable. I prefer sanctions that are recorded and public. I prefer sanctions that will mean something to every kid not just the weaker characters. I prefer sanctions that are less stressful for the teacher. I prefer sanctions that defuse a situation rather than risk escalation. However, there are plenty of schools where the behaviour policy is not adequate and the use of a good old-fashioned bollocking is a matter of necessity rather than principle.  A puritan could self-righteously disapprove of it for being unpleasant, but that is because either they disapprove of all punishment, or because they haven’t grasped the basic idea that punishment is meant to be unpleasant. What they cannot do is argue against shouting as a punishment without accepting that teachers in those schools should, because of the circumstances of the school, tolerate bad behaviour in their classrooms because they’d rather kids lost their education and lived in fear of their peers, than teachers got their hands dirty in the pursuit of restoring order.


Now, I suspect that a lot of the punishment puritans will reject these arguments on the basis of the usual lies about behaviour. While hiding in their offices they will pretend that there is no need to grab attention, pressure classes into behaving, or punish the guilty. If you have good enough lessons then no child will ever misbehave and if they do it was obviously your fault – after all you shouted and that shows you are a bad person – and there is simply no need to raise expectations or challenge disruption. If you are upset by children then it simply shows you are incompetent and if they were still teaching a full timetable then they’d show you how to remain calm under pressure.

However, back on the frontline, teachers are put in positions every day where they have little choice but to raise their voices. I do not like that situation, and much prefer an environment where it is not necessary, but I can’t stomach the attempt to blame the victims by the very class of people who have created the situation in the first place. When blaming teachers is used to pretend that there is no Behaviour Crisis, and that the level of disobedience and abuse teachers endure is simply down to weak teachers letting the side down, then the self-righteousness has merged into sheer callousness. I can only hope and pray that one day those who consider their condemnation of their colleagues to be evidence of their own unbounded compassion come to see themselves as those around them see them, not as a beacon of decency but as opponents of teacher authority who fail children, again, and again, and again.


Willingham, Daniel T., Cognition, 2007



November 3, 2011

I have been working my way through all the various aims of education that are apparently academic, but, nevertheless, manage to devalue subject content.

The last of these is the idea that education should inspire. This seems to be another case of confusing virtues and purposes. The best teaching is inspirational, but teaching that doesn’t inspire has not necessarily failed. It can be that the students were not capable of being inspired. It could be that knowledge that is useful and valuable is not always inspirational. It could be that in order to learn something inspiring in the future, it is necessary to learn something drier and technical now. It is far from obvious that inspiration should be a regular occurrence in lessons. There may be only a certain amount of inspiring lessons a person can take before even the inspiring becomes normal, and the normal becomes tedious.

Of course, that still leaves open the idea that education as a whole should be inspirational. I really don’t want to reject this idea outright, as I do feel that something may have been missed in an education that, while apparently successful, leaves one bored by the prospect of future learning. However, I think there are better and worse ways to address this. I would hope that the best way to become inspired by learning is by feeling the satisfaction of learning a lot. If learning becomes a habit, then it should be something that continues. Inspiration should be a by-product of good education, achieved without actually explicitly aiming to inspire.

The destructive version of inspiration, however, is the one that seeks to create motivation to learn in the absence of actual learning. At heart it is another variant of education aimed at improving the emotional well-being of children rather than educating them, the only difference is that in this case the concept of emotional health includes the disposition to learn.  Inevitably we have all the same issues outlined before when talking about emotional well-being. It distorts the relationship between teacher and student. In effect the teacher ceases to be a teacher and becomes a motivational speaker concerned more with feelings than learning. It is intrusive and patronising, making children’s feelings  a matter of public property and is likely to be based on superficial pop psychology. It makes the manipulation of emotions acceptable and even desirable and enforces an “emotional orthodoxy” on children. It will undermine actual academic learning by suggesting that a requirement for hard work, pressure to achieve, or an awareness of one’s own ignorance might create negative attitudes to learning. It will encourage an emphasis on engagement and pleasure in learning that will inevitably result in a focus on the superficially interesting, or worse, the supposedly “relevant” rather than the best of what has been thought or known and an emphasis on “fun” teaching methods rather than effective ones. Finally, it will buy into the destructive contemporary idea that feeling positive is, in itself, a means to achieving ends, which undermines the need to work to bring about change.

To really see the harm that focusing on inspiration does though, you need to look at what is considered to be an “inspiring lesson” to managers. It is always the gimmick lesson, the lesson based on stunts and games and a memorable performance by teachers. It is being made to laugh or gasp or get over-excited; it is not being made to learn or to think. Ask to see “an inspiring teacher” and you be presented with an amateur comedian or conjurer. You will get to see the science teacher who sets things on fire, or the maths teacher who plays games. You will get to see the illusionist who has established “great relationships” with a difficult class by indulging them and never pushing them to work hard. You will get to see new toys and, no doubt, new software for the interactive whiteboard. You will not get to see the passionate academic who loves their subject and gets children from deprived backgrounds to go to university to study it. You will not get to see the bottom set teacher who turns around classes who have never learnt much in the subject before. You will not get to see the teachers whose students always make progress.

It should be a great compliment to be told you have inspired a student, but it is never good to be called an inspirational teacher. Because when it comes down to it, there are no short cuts and success is more about perspiration than inspiration. If you get your classes to work hard, inspiration will strike when it needs to. Those who seek to inspire all the time, have usually lost sight of what it is that needs to be inspired.

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