Don't ask students to quit mucking about - tell them

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Direct instructions stop pupils answering back, `superhead' says

In his latest annual report, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw again admonishes schools for failing to get to grips with low-level disruption in the classroom. But a member of the UK's first generation of "superheads" insists that the solution is simple: do not give pupils the chance to answer back.

Trevor Averre-Beeson, founder of the Lilac Sky Schools chain of academies, told TES that a characteristically British method of asking questions to tackle poor behaviour had become ingrained and problematic in many schools.

He said the majority of teachers did not understand that asking questions such as "Why are you swinging on the back of your chair?" and "What time do you call this?" was more likely to lead to clashes and time-wasting than peaceful classrooms.

The problem was particularly pronounced in the UK because of a strong linguistic culture of avoiding direct instructions, Mr Averre-Beeson said. Teachers should switch to a far more direct way of demanding good behaviour, he added.

The former headteacher of Islington Green School in North London, who has acted as a consultant to dozens of other schools, cited an incident he had observed in a classroom. "A pupil had his hand under his left buttock," Mr Averre-Beeson said. "The teacher asked him, `What are you doing?', and the pupil said, `I'm scratching my arse, Sir.' And you can probably write the script of what happened after that.

"The teacher says, `Don't speak to me like that.'

" `Arse?'

" `You said it again, get out.'

"And there's a whole kerfuffle, when what the teacher needed to say at the beginning was simply `Put your hands on the desk'."

Writing in TES last month, Don Skinner, author of Effective Teaching and Learning in Practice, also called on teachers to ask fewer questions, arguing that it would improve learning.

"Teaching by questioning rests on three assumptions: that questions are the best way to make people think; that it's hard to encourage participation and engagement without them; and that you need questions to assess understanding," Mr Skinner wrote. "All three assumptions are unsafe."

Mr Averre-Beeson, who oversees the operation of 12 academies, said that more teachers needed individual coaching to help them iron out bad habits that led to poor behaviour.

He added that trying to manage behaviour through questions was likely to backfire even at high-performing schools. "Clever kids will answer you back, naughty kids will answer you back, kids that are trying to cause you difficulty will answer you back," he said in an interview to mark the publication of his memoir and education manifesto, We Don't Need No Education.

Submissive questions such as "Can we make a start now, please?" or sarcastic ones such as "Where's your brain cell, boy?" were equally ineffective, he said. "Teachers need to speak in more positive and directional language: not aggressive, not hostile, but basically giving directions in a pleasant and reaffirming way. That's transformational, because it changes the atmosphere in schools."

Mr Averre-Beeson added that he found it "excruciating" to watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Tough Young Teachers, because staff were depicted making exactly those kinds of mistakes.

Teacher and TES behaviour guru Tom Bennett said: "Managing behaviour involves a lot of things. Managing questions is one of them. It's absolutely right not to get into pointless discussions with pupils; it distracts from the lesson and gives the class a show. Keep discussions for when there's no audience."

We Don't Need No Education: 101 ways to transform a school by Trevor Averre-Beeson is published by PG Press

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