The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour. Part 2

June 3, 2018

Last time I discussed how discipline is seen by progressives, and looked in detail at the view that children needed to be liberated from adult authority.

However, I also touched on another aspect of discipline:

We are responsible for our actions. While there must be exceptions to this principle, they are exceptional. Schools are not psychiatric hospitals; children are not insane and discipline is not therapy. Refusing to hold children responsible for their actions can only stunt their moral development. We all need to know we can make the right choices, and we all need the structures that encourage those right choices.

This part, is perhaps the most disputed aspect of discipline. Again, in the progressive tradition, denying personal responsibility goes back at least as far as Dewey. In Experience And Education, right after the passages I quoted last time about how the right sort of activities could reduce the need for discipline, he describes the limits of this approach in this way:

I am not romantic enough about the young to suppose that every pupil will respond or that any child of normally strong impulses will respond on every occasion. There are likely to be some who, when they come to school, are already victims of injurious conditions outside of the school and who have become so passive and unduly docile that they fail to contribute. There will be others who, because of previous experience, are bumptious and unruly and perhaps downright rebellious. But it is certain that the general principle of social control cannot be predicated upon such cases. It is also true that no general rule can be laid down for dealing with such cases. The teacher has to deal with them individually. They fall into general classes, but no two are exactly alike. The educator has to discover as best he or she can the causes for the recalcitrant attitudes. He or she cannot, if the educational process is to go on, make it a question of pitting one will against another in order to see which is strongest, nor yet allow the unruly and nonparticipating pupils to stand permanently in the way of the educative activities of others. Exclusion perhaps is the only available measure at a given juncture, but it is no solution. For it may strengthen the very causes which have brought about the undesirable antisocial attitude, such as desire for attention or to show off.

He then goes on to argue that while progressive schools have often struggled with these students, the right sort of planning would address the problem (something that I will look at in a future post) . This passage illustrates two key progressive beliefs.

  1. Bad behaviour, or lack of motivation, is considered the exception in children.
  2. Where it occurs, it has a cause that can be addressed on an individual basis.

Dealing with the first point, in reality we are all capable of doing wrong and we all do wrong for no good reason other than we felt like it. Moreover, children, particularly teenagers, are social animals. Most will behave badly if it is normal to behave badly. The problem in our schools is not that a small number of children are caused, by circumstances, to behave badly, but that behaviour which obstructs learning is often normal and most children are part of it. We often talk about “low level disruption” to describe behaviour that, far from being “low level”, is massively harmful but extremely common. You cannot deal with bad behaviour if you assume that it is exceptional, rather than something that our systems and methods have to address every day in every lesson.

The second point is probably the most contentious there is in current education debates. Teachers are frequently encouraged to treat behaviour problems as having a cause that can be treated that goes beyond the fact that children had an opportunity to misbehave, and not being natural saints, they took it. This perspective is so unhelpful to running a classroom, that it is mainly advanced in the form of slogans. There are two key slogans I see used most often. The first is “all behaviour is communication”, encouraging teachers to find some message behind the behaviour which will uncover the causes that can then be addressed. The other slogan is “unmet needs” which refers to causes which are specific to a child and something that can be addressed in order to “cure” the behaviour. These two slogans are used to deny human nature and in particular the facts that a) we all feel the temptation to do wrong and b) we adapt our behaviour to match those around us. Instead, bad behaviour is to be located in the child but treated as not under the control of the child.There are several flaws with this approach.

Firstly, with the possible exception of the very youngest children, if a child was genuinely unable to restrain themselves from misbehaviour, regardless of the consequences, that child would be insane. If  you cannot stop yourself from doing something, not for any reward or in response to any threat, you would have gone mad. This is not a pejorative term for mental illness, this is what insanity has always meant. It is what we mean by “diminished responsibility” in criminal trials. It is clear that this is not the normal situation for children. What it is even more clear, is that while such a condition might absolve a child of responsibility for their actions, it would not be something that schools could reasonably address or treat. The argument for specialist provision outside of a mainstream school would be unarguable in the case of a genuinely insane child. To do anything else would be unfair both on the child, and to anyone who could be harmed by their behaviour.

Secondly, if a child isn’t insane then it is likely that their behaviour is best addressed by holding them responsible for it and no “cause” can actually be found. What is particularly problematic for teachers is that the fruitless quest for causes has become almost an industry. There is a widespread belief that bad behaviour can be explained by a special educational need, which can then be addressed. We end up with children being labelled as having a special need because they are badly behaved, and their bad behaviour is then excused because they have a special need. We also end up writing off children with special needs (even special needs that have nothing to do with behaviour) as basically incapable of behaving. You will find people in education who simply cannot separate the concept of having a special need, from the concept of being badly behaved. This is absolutely toxic and entirely dehumanising for children with special needs who can only be disadvantaged further by being written off in terms of behaviour. You also have a proliferation of “theories” to explain bad behaviour. When I started teaching I encountered those who thought all or most bad behaviour was caused by low self-esteem (it isn’t). Nowadays you will find people who think all or most bad behaviour is caused by attachment difficulties (it isn’t). One of the founding fathers of British progressivism, A.S.Neill thought that sexual repression was a key cause of bad behaviour, and claimed that arsonists could be cured by encouraging them to masturbate.

Finally, if bad behaviour is caused by “unmet needs” not bad choices, we then have a tendency to avoid punishment and instead find some other way of addressing bad behaviour. Inevitably this results in pressure to simply let children get away with it, and where necessary, elicit good behaviour through appeasement. If a child kicks off when made to work hard, then their “need” is addressed by not expecting them to work hard. Standards are repeatedly lowered where this ideology is accepted. If a hypothetical child with hypothetical unmet needs could not live up to certain expectations, then the answer is to lower expectations for everyone. Instead of setting rules that almost everyone could follow, and treating the exceptions to that as exceptional, schools are encouraged to set standards so low that we would never even be able to tell the exceptions from the kids that simply couldn’t be bothered to behave better because the school expects so little from them.

The progressive beliefs about behaviour I’ve outlined here are very often just assumed. Teachers are encouraged to believe that they are simply how things are, and that any teacher who does not accept this must be lacking in compassion or sanity. We need to challenge them. We need to argue for realism and honesty about behaviour.



  1. Perhaps the most difficult problems we face are pragmatic rather than ideological. Considering the mental resources needed to restrain one disruptive pupil, few teachers appreciate that the effort entailed in establishing control of a school is repaid many times over. They don’t appreciate that the tensions which they take for granted–such as the effort needed to contain low-level disruption–disappear once your pupils understand that grown-ups are in control. Nor do they understand that all children–including the most defiant ones–enthusiastically welcome the chance to learn in cooperative and orderly classrooms.

    There is one caveat: teachers have to deliver their side of the bargain–they have to teach. The essential glue that holds all this together is a knowledge-based curriculum–one that enables even the least-clever children to make good progress. It also entails a fairly hefty dose of direct instruction and little if any collaborative learning.

    It’s easy to understand why progressive educators did all they could to force Michaela to suspend their open-door policy–their ideology rests upon the myth that strict standards can only be maintained by rigid repression. Anyone who visits the school with an open mind will quickly realise that nothing could be further from the truth.

    • > The essential glue that holds all this together is a knowledge-based curriculum–one that enables even the least-clever children to make good progress

      Agreed. One aspect of behaviour encountered frequently, is the (minority) of a class that _want_ to learn and may even demand that the teacher abandon those un-interested in learning. The teacher wants to teach content, some (both high and low abilities) want to learn that content, but are prevented.

      Any ideas how to surpass this conflict, ultimately with the concept “every child matters”? (Preferably without exclusion and in accordance with “restorative justice”)

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