Behaviour management: the science behind Slant

The Slant classroom management policy – which demands that children sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod and track the teacher – has been widely adopted. But does forcing pupils to focus on their posture hinder learning, asks John Morgan
25th September 2020, 12:01am
Slant Behaviour Management Technique
John Morgan


Behaviour management: the science behind Slant

Towards the end of the summer holidays, just as schools were solidifying plans for September, news came from the US that will have caused many senior leaders to nervously re-examine their behaviour policies. One of the US chains of charter schools that had pioneered the Slant technique of classroom management - where children have to sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod and track the speaker with their eyes - had decided to ditch it.

Uncommon Schools explained the decision in a statement on 14 August, saying that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, it had reviewed its policies and had decided that it would no longer use the Slant protocol in classrooms.

"To become an increasingly anti-racist organisation, we must consider how our disciplinary processes, student culture and academic approach can lead to stronger student-teacher relationships and more equitable outcomes, particularly for black and Latinx students," stated the organisation's CEO and president.

For those schools around the world that have adopted the Slant technique, the move raised serious ethical questions: Uncommon was essentially arguing that the technique was disadvantaging those who were already disadvantaged.

But should questions have already been asked about the use of Slant for a different reason - namely that it possibly hampers learning for all?

There is certainly evidence that suggests more interrogation of it is needed.

Slant was one of the "first and most enduring creations" of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the US' largest network of charter schools (forerunners to England's free schools). The method reached a wider audience, though, via Doug Lemov, of Uncommon Schools, through his influential book Teach Like A Champion. It's now a staple of many school policies in the UK, particularly those that advocate a "no excuses" approach.

Slant has been described by Lemov as a way of supporting "key behaviours that maximise students' ability to pay attention". The idea is that children are less distracted and so they focus more - and thus they learn more.

But is that actually true? It hasn't been extensively interrogated in the research, but from other research fields it seems there is certainly cause to look into the issue further.

For example, cognitive load theory, developed by Australian educational psychologist John Sweller, tells us that our working memories are limited and thus, if teachers want pupils to focus on the core learning task, they must limit "extraneous cognitive load" caused by the instructional design of learning material. Could concentrating on maintaining Slant postures amount to extraneous cognitive load that distracts pupils from learning?

It's not something Sweller has looked at, but Nilli Lavie, professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London, has previously worked on studies that investigated whether maintaining posture or bodily orientation is "demanding on cognitive control functions".

Subjects in one study had to keep their balance on a force platform (which had some sway in it) while doing a simple task like repeating a number, and then again while carrying out an activity with a heavier cognitive load, like counting backwards from a three-digit number in multiples of seven.

Across several studies, the researchers found that there was "bi-directional interference": subjects had reduced ability to control balance or their body orientation when carrying out a mental task, and their mental arithmetic performance was reduced when the monitoring of the bodily orientation was more demanding.

So there may be some negative impact on task completion if combined with high-demand physical tasks, but we're only talking about sitting up with Slant - even the toughest US charter schools don't make their pupils balance on a swaying force platform while counting backwards in multiples of seven.

Lavie says that with the Slant method, it all comes down to whether the postures involved are natural for pupils or not. Some pupils might have a natural inclination to sit up straight or lean towards the teacher. But those children who do not are likely to see an additional burden on their cognitive load imposed as they try to maintain posture, unless they manage to "automatise" those positions, she says.

If a position is not natural, "you need to put some effort into maintaining it", she observes. "Our research has shown that if you need to make an effort to maintain posture then you are actually interfering with the mental task, too."

There's also the problem that slouching or not looking at the teacher doesn't necessarily denote a failure to pay attention. Lavie says: "If the cognitive load of the message, of the teaching, is relatively high and the pupil is attentive - but not as indicated by the posture component of the Slant - it would definitely be harmful to ask them to sit in a different manner."

Meanwhile, guidance for teachers on working memory co-authored by Susan Gathercole, unit director at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and a professor at the University of Cambridge, cautions that "examples of activities with working memory demands that are likely to exceed the capacities of a child with working memory deficits" include "remembering and successfully following lengthy instructions (for example, put your sheets on the green table, arrow cards in the packet, put your pencil away, and come and sit on the carpet)".

Could Slant amount to a lengthy instruction, or is it simple enough to be "automatised"? The answer may differ for different pupils.

Finally, there's also the question of what impact Slant's requirement to sit still might have, given that research suggests that movement could be part of information processing for at least some pupils. A paper published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researchers in Nature Neuroscience last year said that the neural activity of mice indicated that they seemed to fidget while making decisions. This led one of the researchers to hypothesise that "movements are part of the process of thinking and deciding" for humans, too. Another study found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were more likely to focus on a task and answer correctly if the test coincided with their fidgeting.

And yet, is Slant really that demanding? It's what many adults would do in a meeting to show they were paying attention to the colleague speaking. We would be deliberately insulting a colleague if we adopted the contrasting behaviour known as SLUMP (slouched, lolling, uninterested, muttering under your breath, picking your nose).

Some researchers agree with Lemov that Slant gets pupils paying attention. In 2013, academics from Northeastern University in Boston carried out a study across two seventh-grade (equivalent to Year 8 in England) general education classes at an urban charter school in the US, looking at the method as an example of a class-wide intervention to improve student engagement, with engagement defined as things like talking to the teacher about work or silent reading. They found increased engagement across both classes after Slant was introduced, with a particularly "strong effect" in one of the classes.

Amy Briesch, associate professor of school psychology at Northeastern University and lead author on the paper, says: "I think so often teachers assume that kids understand what they mean when they say 'pay attention', but the reality is it's not true. The Slant acronym breaks it down so that students can do a mental self-check to see whether they are engaging in the behaviours that are likely to promote attention."

Backing for Slant might come from a study by San Francisco State University researchers, too, which asked slouched and sitting-straight students to complete a maths exercise. Students rated the test "significantly more difficult while sitting slouched".

Meanwhile, Lavie says that there is "one very clear positive message" on Slant when it comes to the "tracking the teacher" element. "In attention research, we know that attention tends to go along with the eye. That is the most likely helpful component" to Slant, she explains.

Interestingly, the father of cognitive load theory is unaware of Slant. Asked about the method, Sweller, emeritus professor of educational psychology at UNSW Sydney, says: "If there are no randomised, controlled trials investigating the effectiveness of the technique … my advice is to ignore it until such trials are run".

And asked if he thinks that the impact of physical posture on cognitive load is an area worth exploring, he replies: "Frankly, I doubt it is an area worth pursuing."

But, if huge numbers of schoolchildren are Slanting on a daily basis, and we are unsure of the evidence base for doing that, maybe it's time for educational researchers to sit up and track Slant, and to find out what is actually going on. Are pupils learning more? Does it make a difference? Or are students actually being cognitively distracted by the very thing aimed at helping them to pay attention?

John Morgan is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 25 September 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Slant"

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