A report on school behaviour citing very little peer-reviewed research evidence was this week released in England; you know, that place from which Australian governments regularly import education policy ideas despite researchers having already identified their perverse effects?  Yeah, that one.

The bibliography makes for interesting reading. In fact, I found it to be the most illuminating section.

Neo-traditionalist faves, like Doug Lemov’s “Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college” feature large. But recent and highly relevant peer-reviewed studies like this one by Andrew Jenkins and Akiko Ueno, which was published last November in the British Educational Research Journal (the British equivalent to AER), do not.

This is disappointing, given that their study (which used TALIS and PISA data to examine classroom disciplinary climate in English secondary schools) found “only a small proportion – less than a fifth – of the overall variation in classroom climate occurred at the school level” and that “most of the variation was within schools rather than between schools”.

In fact, school level factors (such as clear behaviour policies and their consistent application by school leadership) were only weakly related to classroom climate.  Of more salience were classroom level factors: specifically, classroom composition and teacher characteristics.

Classroom composition

Jenkins and Ueno’s analysis indicates that the higher the proportion of academically gifted students in a class, the lower the level of disruption. Similarly, the higher the proportion of kids with behavioural problems in a class, the higher the level of classroom disruption.

This places a great big spotlight on practices like ability streaming (or “sets”), even though we’ve known for donkey’s years that this is a bad practice and one that disproportionately affects lower-achieving students.

Strangely, the report – authored by England’s Behaviour Tsar, Mr Tom Bennett – makes absolutely no mention of such practices. In fact, the report champions another form of streaming by recommending that schools siphon off disruptive kids to “inclusion units” (a case of special education ventriloquism at its worst!) for some form of re-education.

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Conveniently, evaluation of the evidence in support of such a recommendation is put off to some future date. Probably because the weight of the research evidence does not support the use of such settings, although we already know that some schools are quite happy to ignore the evidence when it comes to improving their position in the league tables…

Teacher characteristics

Not surprisingly, Jenkins and Ueno found that teachers with higher self-efficacy and more years of experience reported fewer disciplinary issues, although readers should bear in mind that this was self-report and tolerance may grow with experience.

Less experienced teachers reported higher levels of disruption in their classes, however, within-school practices such as streaming and lack of adequate induction for early career teachers may be implicated here as well. It is not unknown for early career teachers to be chucked into the lower sets and for more experienced teachers to be reserved for teaching the higher sets, particularly in those high-stakes senior secondary years.

Less experienced teachers certainly stand to benefit from clear behaviour policies and their consistent application by the school leadership, but most school leaders are aware of this and many schools have already adopted whole school frameworks, such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL).

Frameworks and policies are only as good as their implementation though and I’ve observed many a classroom in total chaos within an otherwise well-functioning PBL school! I know this next point won’t be popular, but the difference in many cases is the capability of the individual classroom teacher, which is sometimes stretched beyond capacity by the decisions made by those higher-up.

Should Australians read Tom Bennett’s behaviour report?

If you want but you need to be aware of its limitations. I’m also not sure how Australian principals and teachers will take to stuff like this:

Any behaviour that should be performed identically, most or all of the time, should be made into a routine, for example, which corridor side to walk down, how to queue for lunch. (p. 8)

On reading this advice, I was immediately worried, given that my children attend one of Australia’s largest high schools. So I asked them:

  • How on earth does this hormone driven swill navigate the narrow corridors of your bursting-at-the-seams school?
  • Have you been explicitly taught which side to walk on?
  • No???  Omg, how do you know what to do?  How do you make it to class every day and why doesn’t every change of period end in fisticuffs?

They each looked at me witheringly (in a way that lets you know that you are both stupid and old) and my eldest replied: “We just follow each other and take turns passing, Mum. It’s, like… not hard!”

People can fuss about which side of the corridor students should be told to walk (even though kids are not zombies and seem to be able to deduce this for themselves), but techniques such as this are small beer and won’t work when practices such as streaming, which are consistently shown to have negative effects (including the creation of unmanageable behavioural ghettos), continue unabated.

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What’s missing?

There is NO acknowledgement in the report of the role played by curriculum and pedagogy. Perhaps that is because it is more politically expedient to blame the kids rather than take a good hard look at what is being taught and how well?

According to one teacher-blogger encouraging Australians to heed the advice in this UK Report, the idea that teaching practices might bear some relation to classroom behaviour has “had its day“.  As much as he might like that to be the case, the truth is that disruptive school behaviour is complex and multi-faceted, and it occurs within an ecological context of which teachers are an integral part.

It is both irresponsible and unscientific to ignore factors that shape that ecology, such as curriculum and pedagogy, just because some people would prefer us not to go there. Whilst it is only one study (of many), Jenkins and Ueno’s research suggests that classroom level factors may matter more than the school level factors on which England’s new behaviour report focuses most.

It would be a pity if their work is dismissed because it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative or because they aren’t teachers…

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