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Power of positive teaching;Last Word

OUR eldest has been studying for his GCSEs, but not in any way discernible to the naked eye. Study leave has been late breakfast, television, computer, phone friends, play solo ping-pong, go out, come back, phone more friends, moan about work, and then, and only then, the slam of the bedroom door and the wail of Radiohead, which may or may not indicate revision.

Under such circumstances, the mother who works from home accepts with alacrity an invitation to drive 178 miles to hear a speaker who promises new insights into pupil motivation.

Dr Michael Bernard's concern is underachievement at all levels. His message is so simple that some might mistakenly see it as simplistic, yet it hits the nail so squarely on the head that you suddenly get one of those rare ah-hah moments - ah-hah, so that's why all the time, effort and money we throw at education so often seems to come to nothing.

What, he asks, makes one child succeed when another doesn't. Is it innate ability? Family income? Gender? Where they live? The school they go to?

No. Obviously, all these things help or hinder, but more important is the mindset a student brings to learning. With the right one, a disadvantaged child will overcome any number of obstacles; with the wrong one the most privileged children will never achieve their full potential.

And trying to tackle underachievement by rejigging the curriculum, introducing literacy drives, or doing any of the 101 things educators are forever coming up with, without addressing this is, in his book, like trying to build Rome without digging the foundations.

Bernard is an Australian educational psychologist now based at California State University. Decades of work on home-school collaboration - his materials are in 40 per cent of schools in Australia and New Zealand - and with children with emotional, behavioural and learning difficulties, have led him to focus on four habits of mind which, he says, will bring every child greater success.

These are confidence, perseverance, organisation and the ability to get along with others. And schools which set out to explain to pupils why they need to acquire these, then help them to do so, will see results right across the board - as studies in Australia, Canada and the United States have proved.

So far, so good. But then comes the tricky part. How do you do it?

Bernard's package is an upfront mix of blunt behaviourist reinforcement ("I like the way you keep your backpack so clean and neat": "You really had a confident voice when you spoke in class"), and emotional literacy exercises designed to help students harness the power of their thoughts and feelings. It's called "You Can Do It" and as he runs though it, some among his British audience mutter that this is really only the hidden curriculum; they do it all the time, anyway.

But Bernard won't have it. No, he says. You think you do, but you don't. In fact, study after study has shown that class teachers focus far more on bad behaviour than good, and that when they do offer praise, it is almost always in a way that is far too general to be useful. "We need to take the implicit and make it very explicit. And we have to do far more of it than we do now. When we all start talking the same language, that's when we start to make a difference".

One of the great attractions of his thinking is that it sets to one side all those things schools can't influence - parents, poverty - and offers practical mental tools for the here and now.

What it doesn't offer is any of the woolly west coast self-esteem thinking which he believes has undermined a generation of children, both by encouraging them to feel great about themselves without teaching them that they need to do things worth feeling great about, and by giving schools too easy a get-out for academic failure.

Perhaps his ideas are merely a reworking of the old puritan notion that diligence, discipline and restraint bring their own rewards. But, whatever they are, if we don't have the internal capacity to achieve what we want, none of us gets anywhere.

This is the message that has led several schools here to start experimenting with Michael Bernard's materials, and the one that I carry back down 178 miles of motorway.

But the bedroom door is still shut, Radiohead are still wailing away. Could this possibly be persistence? Organisation? Or is it just sleep? August will tell.

Details of "You Can Do It!" from Saltwells EDC, Bowling Green Road, Dudley DY2 9LY. Tel: 01384 813769

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