Blow the whistle on bad behaviour

28th October 2011 at 01:00
Blaming the teacher for not 'engaging' when pupils act up is the thin end of a bad wedge, argues Tom Bennett

Because I don't get out much, I have a favourite false syllogism. It's from Yes Minister and it goes like this:

"We must do something."

"This is something."

"Therefore we must do this."

I mention it because many government ministers and policy makers apparently see this as the last word in logic.

Have you been told that the best way to manage behaviour is with well-planned lessons? I've heard this from ministers, from Ofsted, from senior educational academics and teacher trainers. And also, of course, from a chorus line of MPs.

What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? Can you imagine a neurosurgeon being about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge's gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection?

Ofsted seems to believe that if you build an exciting lesson, they will come; that if your lessons are well designed, brimming with group work and individually tailored challenge, children will swoon with awe and inspiration. Dream on.

Its last annual report found that "in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding". Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free; devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the mistake in this reasoning?

"Some schools have outstanding or good teaching."

"Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour."

"Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour."

Does it? It would be just as easy to conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching. Because that's exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If a class won't behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child and offer rewards, but you ain't got a thing if they won't behave for you. Good behaviour comes before good learning. If children don't want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out but you might as well try to teach a colony of puffins to appear in River Dance.

That's not to say that good lesson planning doesn't help with behaviour, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren't part of your behaviour management arsenal - in fact, they should be. You have to have both. But the suggestion that new teachers should de-prioritise old-fashioned boundaries and behaviour management is not just wrong, it is destructive.

If your classes are lovely, you will not need to bother with much management, and you will wonder why people like me bang on about it. "All they need is a smile and a bit of praise," I can hear you say. But on the TES Behaviour Forum, I deal with complaints every day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this pedagogic snake oil. When they find it does not work with many kids, they often do two things: blame themselves or give up.

I learned the hard way, like many teachers. I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm, but found my new classes didn't care. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be behaviour first and de Bono's Thinking Hats second (and believe me, it's a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had made the space a calm learning zone, I could introduce creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate, of course, but the emphasis in the early days needs to be on establishing the boundaries first. As the control deepens, so too can the challenge. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

Not all learning is fascinating. A lot can be a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That is not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but an admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. That should be no more a controversial statement than "building up your quadriceps requires exercise".

I will not apologise for some lessons that bore even me. That is the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. "It's your fault - the lesson didn't engage." It is time we recognise that argument is as daft as blaming people who get burgled for having homes that look too affluent. We must see past the false syllogisms to a simpler, more believable logic: good behaviour comes before good learning.

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