Tom Bennett

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If you build it, they will behave: the great behaviour myth of teaching and learning

‘That lesson was bare differentiated.’

Because I don’t get out much, I have a favourite false (or possibly just invalid) syllogism, and it’s from Yes Minister, the satirical political sit-com precursor to The Thick of It that now seems like a Golden Age of propriety and civic integrity. It goes like this:

P1: We must do something
P2: This is something
C: Therefore we must do this.

I mention this because there seems to be many government ministers and policy formers who apparently see this as the last word in logic. These are interesting times in Education; the Curriculum is being shaken down, sorry, up; Ofsted are being retrained to hunt different prey (presumably using the bloody undergarments of teachers who don’t value Geography as scent-markers). It’s all a bit up in the air again, and education has the atmosphere of the Museum of Baghdad after the liberation of Iraq. No one really knows what’s going on, and schools are feeling sore about the new baccalaureate because everyone looks like they do nothing but teach kids how to fail exams. In many ways it’s a great time to be a teacher.

And in other ways it’s business as usual. The Education Committee of the House of Commons has just reported back the following conclusions:

1. The curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all children

‘The report by the cross-party committee concluded: “Ministers should bear in mind that if the future curriculum is to have a beneficial effect on standards of behaviour in the classroom, it will need to meet the needs of all pupils and contain a mix of academic and vocational subjects, while being differentiated and enjoyable”‘

Says who? Says Graham Stuart, MP and committee chairman. You would hope that, as Mr Stuart has brought the tablets down from the mountain that he would have some kind of solid experience in classrooms to back up these claims. A brief search of his web page reveals…well, a career in publishing, which is nice, and presumably where he learned all that classroom management stuff he’s so good at. Give me strength.

‘Er, sums and Homer and that, innit.’

What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? It’s a topic I’ve visited before, but I’m happy to drop in again: can you imagine the neurosurgeon just about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair, when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge’s gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection? (On second thoughts, I shouldn’t give them any ideas.)

So why does teaching have to routinely endure the armchair wisdom of so many hapless, uninformed desk-jockeys? Because everyone has been to school, I suppose, therefore everyone has an opinion on it, in much the same way that because I’ve got a mobile phone I have an expert opinion on quadrature amplitude modulation.(I do incidentally; apparently they’re taking all our jobs and living twenty five to a flat. I mean I’m not racist, but they’re not like us are they?)

There’s a recurrent theme here: education is an open field; anyone can have a crack at it. I suspect that this is part of the problem with the Free School idea, but only time will tell. What’s obvious is that education wobbles under the weight of the legion values and judgements of battalions of nosey Norahs who have never set foot in a classroom unless they were learning Latin. The teaching ‘profession’ can barely call itself such any more; the juice has been squeezed from our lemons until these days we’re not much more than vending machines for the latest fashionable ideology or dubious international success story.

2. Good teaching causes good behaviour

‘Behaviour is one of the four key areas to be examined by schools inspectors Ofsted under changes announced.
Ofsted’s last annual report found that in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding.’

Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free: devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the (presumably deliberate) mistake in this reasoning?

P1: Some schools have outstanding or good teaching.
P2: Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour.
C: Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour.

‘One can do it like the man’dem, man’dem..’

Does it? Does it really? As Hume would say, this is an invalid deductive argument. It’s barely even an inductive one. Why not just as easily conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching? Because that’s exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If the class won’t behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child, have rewards, have them waving traffic light cards and pumping them with SEAL, but you ain’t got a thing if they won’t behave for you. Good behaviour is prior to good learning. If they don’t want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out, but you might as well try to teach a colony of seals on the beaches of Shapinsay.

That’s not to say that good lesson planning doesn’t help the situation, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren’t part of your behaviour management arsenal- in fact they should be- but the suggestion that what teachers really need to be focusing on is high quality teaching activities isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive.

Why? Because on the TES Behaviour Forum I chair, I deal with complaints every bloody day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this snake oil as the remedy to their classroom woes. When they find it doesn’t work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves.

I learned this the hard way, like many teachers; I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm and ingenuity, but found that to my new classes, I may as well have been talking in Swahili, as they listened in Armenian, because they couldn’t give a monkeys. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be the behaviour first and de Bono’s Learning Hats second (and believe me, it’s a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had tamed them to a satisfactory level, I could restore creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate of course; but the emphasis in the early days needs to be getting the classes under control first. As the control deepens, so too can challenge and intricacy. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

This myth is cultured in other political Petri dishes:

‘Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “An appropriate, relevant and broad curriculum that keeps pupils engaged is absolutely fundamental to good behaviour.’

Again, there is some truth in this, but misplacing the emphasis can lead to teacher training disaster:¬† ‘absolutely fundamental’ means, to me, ‘cannot exist without it’. This is demonstrably untrue: I know scores of experienced teachers who could sit a class down with an open book and tell them to work through 100 maths questions, and not hear a peep for fifty minutes. Not exactly what you might be looking for in a class necessarily, but it proves the point.

I want lessons to be interesting, challenging, fun and inspirational- who doesn’t? I would love it if they were all like that. But just because something is desirable doesn’t mean that it is a necessary component, or even that it is possible. Put simply, much of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve a good education is boring. (Just saying that makes me feel like Ofsted will burst down from the ceiling on static climbing ropes like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.) But it’s true; it’s not all interesting; in fact I’ll go further- a lot of learning is a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That’s not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but a admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. To be frank, that shouldn’t even be a controversial statement, unless you think that the suggestion that ‘building up your quadriceps will require exercise’ is controversial.

Somewhere along the line we picked up the assumption that all learning can be fun. Oh really? A big shout going out right now to every single one of the children I have taught who studied and worked hard even when my lessons weren’t based on quiz shows or involved human pyramids or playing at Rock Stars. Nothing hard ever happens without hard work. If we demand that all lessons engage then we are making an electric rod bristling with broken glass for our backs. What we demand is that all pupils try, that they behave. Then it’s up to us to make it as engaging as possible. But I won’t apologise for some lessons that bore even me. that’s the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. ‘It’s your fault- the lesson didn’t engage,’ the argument goes, which is about as logical as the proposition that people get burgled because their homes aren’t secure enough, or look too affluent.

Free Schools led to unusual sponsors.

The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham doesn’t want to be left out, either. The curriculum revamp is ‘narrow and restrictive’ he says, and could lead to children behaving badly. Oh aye, they’ll all be out on the streets with burning torches and pitchforks when they have to do Geography and French, won’t they? (Presumably Citizenship and BTECs do nothing but soothe the savage breast. Oh that’s right. They don’t.) Andy Burnham is well placed to talk about the effects of the curriculum on education, having spent a few years as a researcher for Tessa Jowell before entering politics, so he knows exactly how these things work. And next week he’ll be redesigning the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, because he saw Horizon once.

While I have my sopabox out, there are a few observations I’d like to make about the new education Bill:

1.Pornography and mobile phones added to the list of items schools can search for.

Fabulous. The power we’ve all been waiting for. Actually, if my biggest worry at school was the possession of a few mouldy Jazz mags, my life would be a lot easier. And frankly I’d be more surprised to not find pornography on the average adolescent’s mobile phone, but there you go, it’s nice to know we can.

2. Schools told they can search for anything they have banned 

Brilliant. So to that list I’ve just mentioned you can add, ‘anything else you can think of.’ Actually this is a rather good idea. I vote for ‘existentialist literature’ and ‘unhappy thoughts.’

‘Nah mate, it’s the fan belt.’

3.Appeals panels are no longer allowed to tell schools to reinstate a pupil who has been expelled, but they can ask them to reconsider their decision.

And we’ll say ‘F*ck off, thanks.’

This is going to Hurt me more than it hurts you…


Gladiators ready! Michael Gove continues to surprise with his reasonableness, by declaring that from now on, teachers will be allowed to use reasonable force in classrooms, and encourages schools to abandon well-meaning but self-defeating ‘no contact’ policies, which were designed to safe guard children (and quite right too) but ended up with teachers standing by as kids got pulverised. Read the BBC report here.

So; another week, another teacher friendly policy. If he’s not careful, the Unions won’t know who to protest against*, given that he’s promised to practically abandon the school Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) and now, streamline the diktats from The Department of Silly Teaching to something digestible.

Hang on, though; this isn’t a new initiative. In April 2010 the DCSF (as the Laughter Factory was known then) issued guidelines that advised teachers they had these powers and rights already; to use ‘reasonable force’ to prevent harm, damage to property, or to maintain good order in lessons and the school at large. This meant that teachers could, say, use an open palm to herd someone out of a room; to hold an attacker in order to prevent a fight; or remove a weapon from someone’s hand without their consent. Obviously, the word ‘reasonable’ still left enough details blurred to allow any number of devils, but at least the guidelines were backed up by the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act (ASCL) 2009, so it had solid legal foundations.

AND, under an initiative spearheaded by that stalwart of Conservatism, er Gordon Brown, Heads already have the power to approve searches of a pupil’s bag or locker without their consent (with reasonable grounds) if there is suspicion of the presence of knives, alcohol, pornography, tobacco, electronic devices, and most importantly here, drugs. In fact, they can even search for and seize legal drugs such as methadone or glue. So Gove’s expansion of this list to include anything ‘prohibited by school rules’ will expand that club to include…what? Waterloo Road DVDs? Tuck?

So; has Gove simply reiterated what already exists? Has he simply announced that, from now on, oxygen will be free to all UK citizens, and that anyone who wants to breathe in and out can do so safe from the fear of incurring charges? It looks like it, and teachers will be watching the content of his speech with an understandable mixture of interest, scrutiny, and low hopes. Given the relationship between the profession and their Whitehall Gradgrinds, I can’t say I blame them.

*unlikely.