What’s normal in a school is what matters

March 10, 2018

A lot of descriptions of what happens in schools become confused because what actually matters in a school is what it normal, not whether things happen at all.

So, for instance, debate about teaching through the use of group work is not a debate between some people who always use group work and some people who would never endorse group work in any context. It’s a debate between those who think it is normal to use group work, and those who think group work should be the exception.  What matters is the default. Would you use group work whenever you felt like it, or would you use it only because it served a particular purpose that you could not achieve in a different way. When we are discussing how teachers teach, the measure of a teacher’s teaching style is not a list of how often they teach in a particular way, but what they default to. How would you teach something if it could be taught in a number of different ways? What would you think would work best? When people who always default to one style, claim they have no ideology, no bias, they just “do what works” and so does everybody else, they are being disingenuous. What you believe works, is an ideology. In particular, what you default to, is a bias. Your teaching style is what you do when there is no reason to do something else, not what you do in exceptional circumstances. This is why the set up of a room is important and controversial. Whether you choose to put desks in rows or in groups has a lot to do with what you think you will normally be doing. It tells you far more about a teacher’s priorities than statements about “sometimes I do this, other times I do this”.

When talking about behaviour in a school, it is the defaults that matter. What will students do for a teacher they have never met? What will students do before the teacher tells them what to do. There’s a lot of debate about whether classes should work in silence or not. But that’s never the issue. The default behaviour of the students is what matters. Do students stay silent until told they can speak, or speak continually until told to be silent? Both situations can result in a class that sometimes works in silence and sometimes do things that involve speaking, but the former is a lot easier to manage. You can pretty much judge the behaviour of a school by how long it would take an unfamiliar teacher to get a class to be quiet and listen. Similarly, do students call out answers to questions until a teacher tells them not to, or do they wait their turn until they are told to call out? Too often the worse behaviour is the habit and the good behaviour the exception, rather than the other way around. There is a paradox in behaviour management that stricter rules are often easier to follow, and a lot of that is because schools that ask for certain behaviours (eg. working in silence, putting your hand up to answer questions, forming an orderly queue) almost all the time find it easier to make exceptions when required, whereas schools that only ask for those behaviours some of the time find it difficult to get students to adjust their behaviour when required.

Finally, discussions of what a school should teach and how they should teach it, must be based around what is normal, not what is necessary in exceptional cases. A lot of debate about inclusion and SEN has simply not been about what schools can do to help the exceptional cases: the students who cannot read or write, cannot access the curriculum or cannot sit still for a test. Instead it has been about how schools can lower expectations across the board so that exceptional cases are no longer exceptional. We can call it “inclusive” if students can learn history for three years without ever having to read and comprehend a page of historical writing; if there are calculators available in every maths lessons so nobody ever has to rely on mental arithmetic, or if classes are mixed in ability to the point where writing five words in an hour is acceptable from some, but the effect on the majority in terms of reduced expectations is immense.

In all these contexts, and more, those running schools and classrooms need to ask “what is normal?”. Anything schools allow may become normal, and anything that is normal may soon be seen as something that cannot be changed. Too often teachers come to the idea that a certain level of effort; a certain level of disruption; a certain level of rudeness, is just normal for kids. They also come to think that a certain way of teaching; a certain way of ignoring bad behaviour, a certain attitude to work is normal for teachers. However, too often all those expectations are simply what the school has taught to the kids and to staff and the behaviour could be changed with a bit of thought and a clearer explanation of what is expected and more consistency in expecting it.


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