Lay down the law by asking pupils to police themselves

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Students must learn the rewards of self-discipline, expert says

Teachers should stop relying on punishment and rewards to improve pupil behaviour and instead teach young people to discipline themselves, according to an academic expert on teacher authority.

Traditional behavioural management may be effective in ensuring a quiet classroom, but it has limited educational value and fails to develop children's characters, argues James MacAllister of the University of Stirling.

"Discipline becomes something that teachers need to do for pupils," he said. "Pupils are quite passive in the process. But they can actually develop personal qualities of discipline themselves, rather than being reliant on the teachers and the schools to develop discipline for them."

In a paper presented at the recent British Educational Research Association conference in London, Dr MacAllister says that the act of learning requires significant commitment and discipline.

"I find the vocabulary of behaviour management quite problematic," he told TESS. "If teachers are encouraged to think and speak in a managerial way, using the language of rewards and sanctions, it implies that the students are unruly and in need of management.

"The assumption is that pupils need this, otherwise they couldn't be engaged in learning. It's quite an unfortunate starting point."

Dr MacAllister is as critical of positive reinforcement as he is of punishment. Instead, he recommends that discipline should be a collaborative process between teachers and pupils.

"Rewards and sanctions make it harder to have a more pupil-centric process," he said. "The idea of behaviour management almost creates a divide between the teacher and the pupil. It's quite an impersonal vocabulary, and teaching is, at its heart, a very personal thing."

The paper notes that adults have productive and less-productive days at work, and it is therefore not unrealistic to allow the same leeway to pupils. "Acknowledge that the intention is there, but there are maybe some days when you don't get a lot done," Dr MacAllister said. "Treat them as people who can take responsibility for their conduct."

Shirley Clarke, who runs courses to help teachers develop collaborative classroom environments, agrees. She discourages even basic rewards, such as stickers and stars - or, indeed, grades. Instead, she recommends that teachers provide pupils with detailed learning objectives and regular feedback.

"Children appear to be delighted to get a sticker or whatever," she said. "But it's a very superficial thing. And what they don't say is, `Actually, I feel demoralised and a bit thick because I didn't get one.' Those children don't think, `I'll work harder next time', they think, `I'm not good enough'."

Sue Cowley, author of the behaviour management manual Getting the Buggers to Behave (see our review on page 39), accepts that internalised discipline has value but believes it is only part of the story.

"It would be absolutely lovely, wouldn't it, if all children were intrinsically motivated to learn their times tables and to write neatly," she said. "But that's not the reality, is it?

"That doesn't just happen. You need to find a way of moving towards it. A house point doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it's a symbolic way for adults to say well done. It's about what the reward represents: that the student has achieved and that the adult acknowledges it."

Dr MacAllister, who lectures on his university's initial teacher training course, accepts that a school without any rewards or punishments is an unrealistic ideal, as there will always be some pupils who misbehave and need to be punished for it.

"Clearly there need to be consequences for particular types of behaviour," he said. "It's just that there needs to be much more focus on encouraging discipline in pupils themselves."

`This wheel doesn't need reinventing'

"This approach, although golden in intention, is essentially a work of optimism," says TESS behaviour expert Tom Bennett (pictured).

"Children are brilliant creatures, as angelic and diabolic as the rest of us, but many of them haven't got a sense of self-regulation.

"Even in an almost perfectly behaved classroom, you'll have a few characters - and that's enough to require the room to be run on rules and boundaries. And boundaries need to be patrolled by consequences for them to be effective.

"I've seen the damage this kind of approach does to new teachers, who try to run a room this way and get pulverised for their efforts. And I have seen the damage it can do to kids.

"This is one wheel that doesn't need reinventing - when we try to, the ones who lose out are children, who need to learn what boundaries are before they can internalise them."

Tom's column is on page 21

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