The Interview - 'Pilots trained like teachers? I wouldn't fly'

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Eddie Gardner is a former teacher who brought the concept of 'assertive discipline' here from the US. He advises schools on behaviour issues as a classroom management consultant

How did you get into teaching?

In the Seventies I was a keen sportsman and visited St Mary's University College in Twickenham. I loved it and ended up becoming head of PE at a school in Wandsworth but also taking a strong interest in the pastoral side of schooling. I taught for 10 years and enjoyed every moment of it.

Why did you leave?

In the Eighties, before the union action at the end of the decade, teaching was very poorly paid. A fellow teacher invited me to start a business. I was still young and it seemed an attractive proposition. Then the recession of the Nineties dawned and we had to sell up - but it gave me the opportunity to work on my own projects.

Is that when you became involved in assertive discipline?

Yes - I invited Lee Canter over from the US. He had developed the notion of assertive discipline (AD) and was keen to introduce the ideas into the UK. Mr Canter's team looked at hundreds of classroom teachers and set out the characteristics of what he called the master teacher. It was a compelling description of how good teachers manage children. Discipline is really just what good teachers know instinctively - that you have to set out clear rules for children, consistently issue consequences when those rules are broken and reward and recognise the pupils who get it right.

Has it had a big impact in the UK?

It has - its use has been recommended several times by the Government - most recently in Building Schools for the Future. I also think that a large proportion of schools and teachers have recognised that it is the basis of what makes classes work. There's still a long way to go, but it has set out the framework for classroom management.

How was it received?

It was controversial. Mr Canter was a social psychologist and many psychologists in the UK thought the strategy was somewhat Pavlovian. They suggested it was a form of social conditioning that would damage a generation of children. I don't think it ever is introduced in such an authoritarian way that it would have that impact. In fact, by setting out firm and clear guidelines for pupils and teachers, it actually reduces stress and crises and allows learning to take place in a secure environment.

Where does it stand now?

My big worry about assertive discipline was that teachers did not always act upon the training in the way that was intended. So I've been looking for a form of training that would increase this. There has been a lot of research that suggests coaching raises the proportion of their training teachers put into action from 5 per cent to 95 per cent.

How does it do that?

I have been working with (behaviour management expert) John Bayley and Andrew Newell. Mr Newell has invented something called IRIS, a "roving eye" in the classroom that teachers control remotely. It allows the trainer to write observation notes on real-time footage of teachers and children in the classroom. It has transformed training and lesson observation because there is no one in the room changing the dynamic - and it can give irrefutable visual feedback to the teacher. Mr Newell calls it cognitive apprenticeship.

It sounds a bit Big Brother, doesn't it?

I prefer to think of it as a critical friendly eye in the classroom that can help you transform your teaching.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I want the next Education Secretary to rework Blair's "education, education, education" mantra to be "education, training, training". I think that the model of inset in UK schools is old-fashioned, too didactic, low impact and infrequent. A speaker gives a three-hour presentation, collects his cheque and goes away. Training has to be part of the structure of the school; regular - weekly or at least monthly - and focused on the school's aims and needs. If pilots were trained like teachers would you get on a plane? I know I wouldn't.

What is your advice to school leaders?

Take training as seriously as you do uniforms, buildings, league tables, interactive whiteboards - and all and any of the latest fads. It is the single most important way that school standards can be raised in the UK.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I would create a system where all advisers, inspectors, consultants and other members of the army of "experts" who don't teach spend at least half a term teaching in a tough school.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

"Dario couldn't go to school on Monday for the health and safety of the teachers."


2006-date: Principal consultant, Equis Consulting.

2004-2006: Re-trained to teach business and economics.

1994-2004: Managing director, Behaviour Learning Management.

1984-1992: Operations director, Churchill Express Couriers in London.

1974-1984: Head of PE and games, pastoral head of house at John Griffiths Secondary for Boys in Wandsworth.

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