All good reviews are, of course, wise and fair, and this review of my book The Behaviour Guru, is very wise and fair indeed. Jenny Turner the reviewer is, in my opinion, possessed of discernment and poise, and probably extremely good company to boot. May fragrance follow her, and rose petals anticipate her every tread.
|Warning: contents may vary.|
I’ll be running some training seminars for teachers who want to learn the fundamentals of getting their classes to behave, and running a disciplined class. I nearly said basics, but fundamentals makes it sound much more like some kind of ancient, arcane wisdom, as opposed to something anyone can learn. Which they can, incidentally
It’s being run and hosted by the Times Educational Supplement, and I’m the lucky guy taking the classes. The thing I think is great about these is that it’s a half day seminar, so instead of losing a day out of your life in an agreeable mid-budget hotel writing on sugar paper and telling the person next to you something nobody else knows (and wondering if you can hold your breath until you pass out), I’ll just get straight to stuff I think people need to know to tame a class. And believe me, it isn’t nuclear physics.
Better still, because it’s hosted by the TES, the costs are kept as as low as possible so it’s within most budgets. Seriously; we’re giving it away.* If you’re struggling with whole classes, one mentalist in particular, or burdened with line managers more akin to concrete lifebelts, I promise to give practical advice, and strategies that teachers can actually use, as opposed to well-meant sentiments that reflect current fashionable theory or administrative expedience. Oh yes, and I’m still a teacher, incidentally.
I am so looking forward to it. Not sure about the biscuit situation; I’ll get back to you.
If you fancy it, or just want to give a present to a friend with particularly thick skin and an understanding nature towards unusual gifts, click here to book.
|Do you want to be this guy?|
Date: Saturday the 29th January
Time: 10am-1pm OR 2pm-5pm
Venue: Holborn, London (TES Offices)
I look forward to seeing you.
*Not strictly true
|No you’re not. You’re called Dave.|
An excellent article in this week’s New Scientist called Power Up, by MacGregor Campbell, about an increasingly ubiquitious phenomena in teaching and even the real world : Gamification, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. the process of introducing game play elements into real life interactions. Turning life into a game might sound implausible, but as a social phenomena it’s well documented, especially as wireless technology becomes so miniaturised and pervasive as to allow our real life functions to be tracked and evaluated in game-like ways
How is this achieved? By imagining that your life is an enormous arcade game; only, instead of achieving new levels by demolishing pixelated obstacles, eating power pills or shooting invader sprites, you do so by performing more mundane, every day actions like brushing your teeth, doing the ironing, or similar. A sensor such as your mobile phone, or even just your own input could collect the data you need, and provide the interface between the real and the virtual world. As Campbell points out, such activities aren’t restricted to the realm of the high-tech: ever since coupons were given out with purchases, encouraging consumers to redeem them for prizes. And these days it’s a common experience for people to collect vouchers, or passwords from the backs of soft drink cans, and use them on the internet as currency to download songs, etc. In other words, virtual commodities have started to achieve actual value.
The scope for technology to increase the pervasiveness of this act is staggering: location tracking software on your phone can be wirelessly linked to central databases that then allocate you points for, for example, visiting a pub so that you build up loyalty points redeemable against further purchases. Your jog to the park can be monitored by your pedometer and turned into a number, encouraging you to beat your high score. And Wii fitness games most obviously blur the boundaries between the game and the activity until, presumably, you’re power-golfing yourself into a size 8 dress, or something (I don’t know golf very well. Is it high impact?).
How does this relate to the classroom? Because it intersects neatly with another phenomena that is increasingly popular: virtual rewards. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself? Superficially they’re simply a more sophisticated way of recording a Gold Star, or a Tick: instead of giving the rewardee either, you instead give them a sticker with a code printed on it. The children then take these codes, log on to an appropriate website with a personal user name, enter the reward code, and then get the ability to, for example, customise an avatar or play on online game. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I mean, I was surprised to find that people can actually pay to buy power-ups on most online games, and even my beloved Angry Birds app for the iPhone has a cheeky ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ option for a bargain 59p. Er, which is cheating, isn’t it?
But I digress. The link between fiscal and virtual currency has been achivieved; which is cute, because at its heart, money, of course, doesn’t exist- or rather value is a concept rather than an object. So I suppose it’s appropriate that if we can trade speculatively in a futures market, we can buy and sell electronic assets. Don’t you pine for the days people took pigs to markets and swapped them for bales of hay? Now it’s all Magic Beans.
Do they work in the classroom? Speaking from experience they certainly can do: the younger children are big fans, and actively seek to be rewarded, often loudly indicating that they’re performing the desired behaviour in order to get their Mario Gold. The older ones mostly eschew it, realising with age that the opportunity to clad their tiny online avatar with a pirate’s scarf isn’t exactly the white-knuckle thrill ride it used to be, especially if it involves any actual effort. But that’s the same effect you find with actual gold stars and the like, so no great problem there.
|Never do this.|
No, the problem lies in something far more basic: namely the problem of motivating children using external rewards itself. When we are very young, and socially acceptable value systems are unknowns to us, just as most empirical knowledge is absent from the Blank Slates of our mind, we need to be taught right and wrong (or, if you’re a moral non-realist, accepted from non-accepted values). This process is considerably accelerated by the use of incentives: positive ones (like carrots, if you’re a donkey) or negative ones (the goad, the reprimand, the sanction). Children come to associate discouraged behaviour with punitive experiences, and more agreeable behaviour with comfort and acceptance. It’s not exactly nuclear physics; every animal with a decent cognitive ability can master it.
The problem lies in that we use these reward systems as a means to an end: that the child should become habituated into seeing certain courses of actions as desirable, and others undesirable. The purpose of the activity is not to emphasise the desirability of the reward, but the desirability of the behaviour associated with the reward. In other words, if I give a kid a Smartie for tidying his room, I’m hoping that he’ll eventually learn to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because he’s a Smartie addict. In other words, the reward for the action itself, which initially is extrinsic to the action, becomes intrinsic. And this, according to the Categorical Imperative, is what we might call duty.
|Teacher: ‘Is that my head?’|
Duty is considered by deontologists to be the only perfectly moral motive. Why? Because it is the only motive that excludes self interest and consequential gain. If I teach a child that every time he hands in his homework he’ll get a lollipop, the question I must ask myself is, is he doing it because he’s conscientious and dedicated, or because lollipops float his boat? The only way to find out is to take the lollipops away and find out. You might not like the answer.
Self interest has always been one of the the world’s most ancient and powerful motivators: Adam Smith took it as one of his central assumptions in the Wealth of Nations: that competition was the engine of human psychology. Darwin too took it to be a foundational truth: when resources are scarce we compete. Shaw called it the Life Force, and Kant claimed that we all instinctively had the love of our own lives uppermost in our basic desires. What’s in it for me? is such a universally acknowledged motivator that it scarcely needs to be expressed in the creation of any contract, tacit or formal. But the answer we should be seeking, if we are to consider ourselves in any way enlightened beings, is sometimes ‘Nothing: there’s nothing in it for me.’
If you help an old lady across the road for a fiver, you might be doing a good thing for a bad reason: because it suggests you wouldn’t do it without the reward. If however you do it because you believe it’s the right thing to do, regardless of your benefit, then you’ll be reliably inspired to do so in the absence of reward. Altruism, while not the exclusive litmus of goodness, is probably more reliable an barometer than naked self interest. Egoism, even of the enlightened variety, will only support moral conduct as long as the participants visibly, perceptibly benefit. Which means the system collapses when our interests are perceived to be at risk. Even societies based entirely on this structure (the ‘social contact’ beloved of Hobbes, Locke,and other legislative forefathers) contain this weakness: that morality can never be based entirely on self-interest, no matter how cleverly constructed it is to be mutual. In other words, kindness can never be conceived as entirely a rational enterprise, because it’s a value, and not reducible to articles of fact or quantity. It can only be conveyed, by parenting and education.
|‘I’m worried my life lacks meaning.’|
And because moral action is a value rather than a fact, we have to be careful how we reward students. If we make the link between good conduct and palpable benefits too direct, we risk encouraging good conduct only when rewards are available. The reverse of this is a frightening acceptance of bad conduct in the absence of reward. So any system of treats, stars, codes or gamified assets has to be treated carefully, otherwise we might just find that we’re teaching our students laziness, selfishness and egocentricity.
If you’re a good teacher, you don’t bust your backside trying to help your students because there’s a bonus, or a power-up; you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Any benefit to you should be incidental- although recognition and a warm rosy glow are nice of course. Alasdair MacIntyre would draw a distinction between external and internal goods: in his book Beyond Virtue, he discussed how the value of an activity should reside in the activity itself; Aristotle thought that the Good Life was, amongst other things, people pursuing actions that were ends in themselves rather than means to an end.
I agree. Rewards, if overdone, lead to vice, not virtue; when they are achieved, they should be for actions that merit them, not actions that are merely expected, not at the post adolescent stage. To do otherwise is to devalue the currency of reward, and to imply that all normal conduct should be accompanied by reward. Well, life isn’t like that. I don’t want to teach children to be complacent; I want them to appreciate self-sacrifice and restraint as well as hedonism: the former are vital to understanding the latter, and no reward system should teach children that life is an enormous chocolate box of increasing levels of diversity and sensuality, without also informing them that somewhere inside every box, there, too, lurks the horrors of the ginger, or the macaroon.
|Your new line manager.|
Jesse Schell, a video game designer, uses the term ‘Gamespocalypse’ to describe the way the world might be if gamification is used to exploit and corrupt people, perhaps in an effort to make them more obedient consumers, or by attaching exploitative values coded into the reward algorithms of the gaming process. We can see this effect on a much more subtle level in the way we reward our pupils.
Less is more. There are no Level Bosses to bash in life. I suspect it’s a good deal more complex than that.
|‘Restorative Justice my ass’.|
I just answered a question on the TES behaviour forum; it made me hopping mad, so I thought I’d repost my answer to it here. Basically, a teacher wrote in with an interesting problem. They’ve got great relationships, behaviour management, etc…but because the SLT want to introduce some whole school standards of classroom conduct, they’re in a dilemma- change what works, or submit to the spur and the lash of the almighty teaching cookie-cutter. This is my response…..
‘Only in the Wacky-Races world of education would we even have to consider such a farcical situation; you have great relations with your students; you have great behaviour in a school where that isn’t the absolute norm (which means you’re beating the curve), you love your job, you’re delighted to help out and you’re keen to work with the team. And you’re being encouraged to upset this fantastic balance.
It reminds me of the Simon Pegg character (Nick Angel, I believe) in Hot Fuzz; he’s a pioneer, ace cop who gets sidelined to the sticks because his track record is too good; he makes everyone else look bad. It also reminds me of a time in a previous school where one of the best behaviour managers I ever knew (fierce, almost terrifying; but his kids loved him and they worked hard for five years straight to do well) was given a satisfactory for his behaviour during an observation. When he queried this inexplicable grade, he was told that he ‘wasn’t using the whole school system enough’. I facepalmed myself so hard I spent a weekend in Holby City when I heard that.
What you have to do now is a delicate balancing act: on one hand you need to change your actual teaching style as little as possible, because the primary recipients of education (I shudder at the term ‘consumer’) are the students; they benefit from your expertise, your relationships, your ardour and your vigour. Your responsibility is to them; NOT the middle leaders; NOT the SLT; NOT the ‘team’; secondly, your responsibility is to your integrity, your dignity. Do you want to go home and sleep soundly, knowing that you’ve executed your duty to the best of your ability? Or do you want to try to please everyone? That’s a rhetorical question (I asked an English teacher).
Also, teachers have been increasingly neutered in the last three decades by a succession of well-meaning but essentially clerical administrations who confuse uniformity, regularity, and quantitative scrutiny with rigour and professionalism. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if surgeons were subject to the same level of pedantry and direction as classroom teachers, they’d all be stitching people with their elbows. Using liquorice shoelaces. That’s why teachers are the best judges of teaching practise, and people in offices are better at counting paperclips, or whatever the Hell it is they do. Jenga, perhaps.
And yet, and yet…their arguments aren’t entirely made of water; there is something to be said for an element of whole-school predictability. If pupils expect to, eg line up outside every lesson, then they become habituated to it. If the school standard is to salute the Head as he passes, or whatever, then at least they learn to follow a standard until it becomes routine. In industry, I heard it called ‘Flagpoling’ (or some other piece of alien jibber-jabber). But you know what? I’m not getting the impression that you’re a crazy extremist who teaches while hanging from the lightbulb; I bet you already have loads of structures in place in your classroom that are perfectly in line with whole school policy. Perhaps if you took a step back and looked at the proposals then you might be able to adopt a few of them relatively painlessly, without disrupting your existing routine. That way you can’t be accused of trying to buck the school, and your conscience might be salved slightly.
But if there’s anything they’ve proposed that you feel will actively spoil the good relationships and good teaching that you enjoy, then I would simply say can them. Seriously. Who cares? If other teachers are having problems in their classrooms, then they need to be more like YOU, not the other way around. Or perhaps I can be more precise and say that they need to be more like themselves, or the best versions of themsleves they can be. The greatest mistake an educational administrator can make is to assume that there is one ideal way of teaching; there isn’t. We all have our own styles, which we learn over time. While there are undoubtedly many things in common with most good teachers (like high expectations, tough, fair, etc) there isn’t a universal cookie-cutter for teachers yet. That’s because we’re professionals. And helping to create people, not bake scones. Everyone’s oven works differently.
If the SLT are approachable, you might want to take your concerns to them; they may after all be open to suggestions. If they are not, then keep your marvellous classes to yourself. And for God’s sake, when you get observed, make sure you’re doing everything they love. Then go back to being good again.
Good luck to you. You should be doing INSET for everyone else!
|‘I didn’t know!’ ‘You know NOW….’|
PS If anyone tries to flannel you with the ‘but if you don’t make them do it, they won’t do it in other classes’ flim-flam, then scoff at them. Pupils tend to behave for teachers they respect, who usually have rigour, clear boundaries, reliable sanctions and an adult demeanour. If the pupils don’t behave in other’s classes, it’s not because of anything YOU’RE doing, or not. It’s primarily because of their own indiscipline. My God, it’s bad enough to claim that kids misbehave because of the teacher; it’s worse to claim it’s because of a teacher in another room…’
I might add that this isn’t one of those teachers who lets them base jump from the chandelier, chew gum and plan anarchy- this is a teacher, who, by the sounds of it, has good behaviour and gets them to work hard. If a teacher wants to do his/ her own thing because they’re just lazy asses, or because it’s easier to get the kids to like you than to get them to learn well, then there’s an icy Hell waiting for them in the basement levels of Dante’s Inferno. There’s a reason why we have some structure and routine to our schools, of course, but most of the reasons are aimed at supporting weaker teachers. Until they work out and get a bit stronger, and know how to tame their charges. But routines shouldn’t be a collar that chafes; they should be a skeleton; a climbing frame. And when they can assist your ascent no longer, you need to take off.