Good schools help children behave

Schools need to teach behaviour, or the most disadvantaged suffer twice

This is a tale of two students. The first student is lucky. She comes from a close extended family, two affluent parents with spare income and time to invest in their child. She is read to on a daily basis, and reads to her parents and other family members. Because her family has time (and the inclination to do so), she is carefully taught millions of micro-behaviours that comprise the messy field of positive social interactions- she is taught how to speak confidently to adults, how to resolve disputes without aggression, how interact with her peers, and so on. When she misbehaves, she is patiently retaught what she should have done. By the time she gets to school she has already acquired a huge amount of cultural and social capital. She is already in the top quarter of the class for reading, writing, comprehension, arithmetic, and so on. She rarely gets into trouble because she understands the habits of formal group settings. 

The second child is not fortunate. She comes from a home where one or both parents are rarely present. Her principle carers demonstrate unreliable levels of affection, and she experiences various levels of physical and emotional neglect or abuse. No one reads to her. She never plays with an adult. She is supervised more by a television set or tablet than by an adult. By the time she starts school, she is a hundred miles behind her peers academically. She has not learned to share because no one has shown her what it means. Desperate for attention, she finds it by shouting and acting out. Frustrated by her relative inability to access lessons, she withdraws from any form of academic effort. Having never been taught to focus or concentrate, she struggles with the most basic of tasks set in class. The disadvantage gap has begun in earnest. 

I was interviewed by the Telegraph recently, which came out as this interview. I’d like to offer a little commentary on some of the misconceptions that people have made about it- some of them reasonable, some of them less so. 

I think the first, and most significant one is the headline: ‘Progressive teaching methods have fuelled rise in poor discipline.’ One of my axioms is that behaviour has often been sidelined in teacher training for several decades. Many teachers receive little formal training in the very serious business of running a room. It might be a short lecture, or less, but very often the assumption is that teachers will pick it up on the job as they go along. I’ve long insisted this is a dreadfully haphazard process where the lucky learn and the unlucky do not. That’s a terrible waste of a lot of time and learning. When asked why, I suggested that here are many reasons- one of which is the predominant ideology in education, progressivism. 

This is not some contentious new word I just invented. It is an educational philosophy over a century old, with a long and well-established tradition. Progressives have (until recently it seems) been very happy to describe themselves as progressives. One of its principle tenets is that it is a child-centred approach to education, and that children are naturally disposed to learning, and curiosity. This maps on to several classroom processes- for example pedagogy, teaching methods that emphasise enquiry learning, child led projects and so on. It also maps onto behavioural methods, such as the need to avoid sanctions, and to allow children to follow their own ‘natural’ inclination to learn what they wish. 

Which isn’t to say that these approaches will never be used by a teacher who doesn’t self-identify as progressive, nor that they are only reserved for progressive teachers. But there is a clear tradition. Some people have, oddly claimed that progressivism is not these things, or is not a coherent philosophy, but I am at a loss to explain their perverse ignorance of educational history. 

But anyone who claims that children are naturally inclined to learn e.g. trigonometry without some level of adult coercion, has obviously been working with some very lovely children. Some will of course. But we didn’t get to just teach the super keen children. We have to teach them all- the reluctant, the disaffected, the fearful. Which is where we return to child one and two.

The fortunate child enters the classroom with high levels of self-regulation, carefully formed habits of self-reliance, sociability, and the ability to interact with adults and peers without dispute. The unfortunate one lacks these. Of course, this is no simple binary- children will possess a spectrum of such abilities and habits. But which child will flourish more readily in a classroom? If you said the second child, then I have some real estate on the Moon I would like to sell you. These children start the race with lead boots and their hands tied behind their back. It is the tragedy of inequality, and gruesomely obvious in any classroom. 

Of course, these circumstances don’t map easily onto something so crude (and nebulous) as class. Middle class children can be abused, neglected, raised in laboratories of cruelty and lack. Working class children can thrive in atmospheres of civility, ambition and cultural richness. Which is just one reason I don’t find it useful to refer to class when discussing children in these circumstances. For example, I didn’t use it in my interview (although the article paraphrased it as such). But, but. There is a very strong correlation between economic disadvantage and other forms of disadvantage, health patterns, co-parenting, free time, capacity to explore reading, and a thousand other aspects affected by affluence. This is beyond dispute. To be poor is to be exposed to multiple factors of risk. The relationship is absolutely not a clear or causal one, but to deny the correlation is odd. 

Schools that look after more children of such circumstances frequently have to contend with magnified levels of absenteeism, poor behaviour, lateness, primary caring issues, mental health issues and so on. Again, this is beyond dispute. This is why schools like this deserve more support than those who serve demographics more akin to the Cotswolds. 

Which is where schools become more important than they already were. The most successful schools I have seen that serve challenging demographics, that manage to createinclusive, vital, positive cultures where all children thrive, behave, learn and flourish, actively teach children what good behaviour looks like. Because they understand that children often- through no fault of their own- have not been exposed to good habits, or taught as well as they might have been, how to operate in the complex world of society. No child is born aware of the mores of the community. They must be taught at some point. And if they have not been socialised thoroughly into habits that help them flourish, who can blame them for defaulting to sub-optimal habits that might make sense to them, but will hurt their chances of thriving? If we abandon children to the habits they bring with them, then we abandon them to greater disadvantage as they grow up, just as we must not abandon them to the limited horizons of their existing interests academically.

I refuse this awful social determinism. I believe every child, no matter what their circumstances, deserves the opportunity to learn not just an academic curriculum, but one that will help them unlock their potential, and compete equally with their more advantaged peers. I have been lucky enough to see many schools that understand this, and break their backs to support children to become the best versions of themselves. It maddens me to see, sadly, people from fortunate circumstances deny that disadvantaged children often need this kind of support, simply because (presumably) they cannot imagine circumstances less fortunate than the ones they or their children have enjoyed.

It’s too easy to rush to simplistic interpretations of attention-grabbing headlines, or article framing devices. I don’t believe that group work causes misbehaviour- which is why I didn’t say anything as daft as that, any more than I would claim that chanting times tables made children behave. But I do believe that assuming all children want to learn without much direction or correction, is naïve. There are many reasons why children misbehave- natural disinclination towards effort, poor prior attainment, boredom, dislike of subjects, mental health issues etc. 

I merely suggested that one reason why behaviour management had been de-emphasised in educational trainingwas because the dominant educational paradigm of the last few decades- progressivism- suggests that children will eventually behave positively if lessons are well planned around child-centred principles, and that consequence systems, sanctions etc are largely unnecessary, as are extensive programs of behaviour instruction. Not ‘group work causes misbehaviour’, Lord help me. I get why people thought the article said this, given the way it was constructed, but I certainly didn’t. 

In a way the confusion people expressed about this topic is very much a sign of the times. Having lacked a mature discussion about behaviour and culture and socialisation for decades, it is easy for such discussions to devolve to simplistic boo/ hooray arguments. That’s why it’s time for us to start to have a healthier discussion about such matters. For students (and staff) working in tough conditions, it can’t happen quickly enough. 


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