The Behaviour Question

Tom Bennett

I had an observation last week and came out with a 'good' rating, but I was told that to turn it into 'outstanding' I needed to bring 'urgency' into my lessons: it took some Year 10 boys about five minutes to start a task. Does anyone have techniques for keeping pupils on task and getting them to show how well they can work?

What you said


In our school all the teachers use stopwatches all the time - there is an online one. Where appropriate, you could introduce an element of competition to your tasks.


The observer has to have something to say. "Urgency" is subjective and not readily measured - and they know this. They have filled in the form, said something meaningless and can move on. You can play the game and modify future plans as appropriate to address this phantom problem, or you can ignore it (which is what I would do).

The expert view

Urgency, eh? I understand (lowers spectacles) that the Department for Education currently frowns on the lash and the elephant goad. So we have to look at other ways of inspiring our fragrant charges.

From the tone of your message, I infer that there is a vital ingredient missing from the lesson: urgency, as defined by the desire not to fall behind due to penalties being incurred by the pupils.

There are two blunt ways to propel and modify a pupil's behaviour to meet what you desire: rewards and sanctions. Both motivate in their own ways, and both have their drawbacks, because both are tools that serve different jobs.

But telling them how disappointed you are simply is not enough. If that is the worst they incur for living in the land of do-as-you-please, then for many of them the mathematics is simple: do as they please because the penalties are so slight as to be ignorable.

Attach some serious consequences to your boundaries. Electrify the fence that surrounds your classroom (metaphorically), the one defined and designed by you, sure in the knowledge that you know what is best for them. In other words, if they fail to complete tasks as set by you within the time limits you have imposed and, crucially, you believe that they could have done much more, then the mantrap of detentions or similar has to snap shut on their tardy ways. Show them that not getting on task, not staying on task and not keeping up will lead to their inconvenience.

And make sure that your sanctions are sufficiently unpleasant that they want to avoid them in future, or else what is a sanction for? Do not make it a cosy chat; give them work to do, even if it numbs the mind. Sanctions, applied rigorously and consistently and fairly, should do the trick for all but the hardest pupils.

It sounds simple because it is. This is not a complicated problem and the solution must not overcomplicate the circumstance. Very good luck to you.

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

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