The Behaviour Question

Tom Bennett

I work in FE and have a group of students who are resitting GCSE English with the aim of gaining C grades. They have politely informed me that they have nothing against me personally, but they intend to put in minimal effort for the course and fail. As this is the aim, they behave appallingly and mess about in lessons. I've been battling since September, explaining the necessity of GCSEs for university, employment and so on, but to no avail. They've been hauled in front of management, shouted at and threatened, but still no improvement. The sad thing is, I would really like them to succeed. What can I do?

What you said


Although these students behave appallingly in your class, they have been respectful enough towards you as their teacher to articulate their strategy. There is method behind this messing around. They are, week after week, coming to your class. So these learners are motivated (enough to turn up) and they like you. Seems like a good starting point. Can you find something else that appeals to them about having a GCSE, even if they are not persuaded by university or employment?


Is it possible that there is a ringleader who believes he or she will fail and is covering this up by persuading all the others what a great game it will be if everyone fails? That sort of thing was relatively common in the days of "shame" being attached to poor literacy.

The expert view

The definition of a thankless task. If it's FE, surely this isn't a compulsory course, so why are they there? If it's optional, and they don't want to do it and have essentially promised you they will take a dive in the exams, why doesn't the college show them the door? "There it is," they should say. "Don't let it hit you in the ass on the way out."

Of course you want them to succeed; you're a professional and a human being. But we cannot make people act in a way that they do not wish. Free will resides in the individual. This isn't an intellectual problem of them not understanding; this is an emotional decision. Issues of motivation often are. If they're not feeling the course, you can't make them.

The other approach is a behaviourist one. Motivate them extrinsically if you can't get them to want to learn. Attach a series of sanctions and rewards to undesired and desired behaviours, such as detentions and treats. The ultimate sanction is expulsion. Perhaps losing one of them would show the others you mean business. Of course, that assumes they want to be there in the first place for some reason, and they may well not.

Do you have the ability to insist they stay after class and work? The threat that their ambivalence will actually lead to some form of consequence should have the motivating effect you seek. Otherwise, why should they give a hoot for your requests? Being shouted at barely registers with some as a behaviour modifier. Actions speak louder than ... well, you know.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher.

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Tom Bennett

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