It can be argued that behaviour more than innate intelligence is the key factor in learning. If we accept that persistence, application, attitude and curiosity is behaviour that can be developed and learnt, then there is no argument at all. — Wilson McCaskill from the article, Behaviour Education.
How do we continue to evolve schools to create a meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable experience for all students? According to Jesse Strommel, “we start by trusting students”. My style of teaching simply does not work without student buy-in and trust. The relationships I develop with students are the only teaching currency I have. Behaviour education is the foundation for learning in our classroom. Is there a more important factor influencing the productivity of teaching and learning? Like many teachers, I commit significant time and energy to developing clear expectations, proactive approaches, reflective and restorative practices, and building an inclusive and collaborative culture. But ultimately, I can’t control student behaviour, and I don’t want to. I rely on students doing the right thing because they recognise it’s the right thing to do.
I recently wrote a blog post about my disdain for the term Behaviour Management because it makes teachers reactive and suggests that children must be controlled for learning to occur. However, very few schools have a Behaviour Education policy because that would first require acknowledging behaviour as a subject worthy of the investment of precious learning time. Behaviour Education isn’t a quick fix, but what it does is shift students away from learning dependency, compliance, and external motivations towards what I consider positive problems, like developing emotional regulation, decision making, self-management, and intrinsic motivation.
If we truly want students who are resilient, flexible, and adaptable, we need to teach these skills explicitly. We can’t expect that all children will arrive at school with these abilities. Executive functioning does not fully develop until a person is in their early 20’s, so children are inherently less capable of self-control than adults. Research shows that improving executive functioning skills leads to higher achievement in learning, yet too many schools and teachers continue to rely upon rewards and punishments. McCaskill continues:
Control, control, control is the default position of many teachers when inappropriate behaviour is the issue. Children are meant to know how to behave properly, and any failure to do so is a conscious act of defiance or an inexcusable slip in standards requiring a consequence to teach them a lesson. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, someone is to blame, and someone’s got to pay.
The focus of this blog post is reflecting on the why and how of my behaviour education beliefs. It is a touchstone. How we develop these skills is very specific to our school and students, and while it would be easy to explain WHAT we do, I think the real value lies in the underlying principles behind it. Wilson McCaskill’s Play is the Way program complements my authentic pedagogy, which is to create a student centred learning environment. I’ve borrowed heavily from notes taken at a professional development day spent with Wilson in 2017 to create this post. It is a touchstone. A resource to refer back to when my reflex response to poor student choices is to use the same positional authority and control I rally against.
You Can’t Make Me!
“No, I can’t make you. In fact, I don’t wish to. My question is, why can’t you make yourself?”
Many schools produce authority dependent learners where learning is teacher driven and directed rather than empowered by personal dispositions. In my experience, students prefer to have control over their own decisions. I hear teachers who say their students can’t do this or aren’t ready to try that, while others believe that young learners can develop self-management capabilities. Both are right. Students can’t and won’t develop these skills unless given the opportunity. As McCaskill describes:
Children must have bravery. Not intelligence, bravery. To step into the unknown you must be brave and the less IQ you have, the braver you need to be. All children have bravery.
But teachers must also be brave. Being willing to cede, release and surrender the reins of control to students is challenging, messy, but ultimately rewarding. Expecting to implement behaviour shifts quickly isn’t realistic, as developing meaningful behavioural change is slow and challenging. Using gradual release to move from a teacher controlled classroom to one that is designed, maintained, and owned by students is by far one of the most positive changes we have made to teaching and learning in our class.
In early 2017, students decided to introduce four distinct learning areas in our room by co-designing spaces featuring areas similar to the diagram below. The learning during this time was incredible, but the behaviour was awful. Because students were no longer herded together and often out of earshot of any adult, many failed to live up to the expectations of their newfound freedoms. I was willing to give them time to learn, reflect, and try to improve, but after a couple of weeks, we voted to return to our traditional classroom setup. The second time, we lasted almost four weeks before we again drew the class back in together. Students loved the idea of being in control of how they used the learning environment; they just weren’t quite ready to accept the responsibility. On our third attempt, they got it, and we never looked back.
What about the class from hell? You know the one. This class doesn’t have just one or two children bouncing off the walls, one-third of these students could be considered Olympic standard trampolinists. The instinct, when faced with this challenge, might be to go full command and control. Lock it down. Limit the damage to small spot fires rather than the inferno of dysfunctional chaos. The problem is, this is not only bad for students, it makes teachers sick.
When children feel out of control with their learning they often try to take over the emotion of the teacher by knowing which buttons to press. One student like this can cause teacher stress, three or more of these children can make a teacher unwell. As McCaskill says, the stress of a complex class can “bring out the evil in us”. In Australia, 50% of teachers quit the profession within the first five years, a great many of those within the first two.
Being in a classroom and wanting to teach and feeling the pressure to achieve benchmarks in learning while being confronted by children who only want to do what they want, when they want to do it and having no training, experience or knowledge that effectively helps; hurts. It hurts a lot (irrespective of how long you have been teaching). It can hurt so much that your health and well-being are adversely affected and your love of teaching eroded to the point that resentment and hostility, for the system that ill-prepared you for such an ordeal, is revealed.
The Critical Mass strategy is about keeping students in the classroom. School leaders who see a constant stream of challenging students rotating through their offices would benefit from supporting teachers to implement such a strategy. It is about building capacity in a core of students as a catalyst for change. Moving from relying on positional authority to harnessing the power and skills of the peer group to create a win/win classroom. Small wins and brief improvements in behaviour can come from a bribery/punishment system of command and control, but few long-term gains can be made.Wilson again ponders change:
Think of quick change as the sudden and rapid stretching of an elastic band. Bursting with potential energy, it impatiently waits for the opportunity to snap back to its original shape, releasing a resounding thwack of kinetic energy as it does so. The idea is to stretch the elastic band so slowly that, over time, it loses its elasticity and becomes so stretched that when let go; it has no potential energy and happily accepts its new form.
I believe this is where responding versus reacting comes into play. As the adult in the room, as the role model, teachers need to be rational and controlled in an irrational situation. This can be tough some days. Most days I am calm, measured, and mostly unflustered by student behaviour. I try to slow down and respond to a behaviour by considering what the child is communicating. But some days this is easier said than down. If I am overly tired, stressed or just feeling unwell, I often catch myself reverting to the role of traffic cop and usually end up chasing my tail all day managing behaviour.
The Myth of Positional Authority
We bathe children in praise. We use the carrot of teacher approval to manipulate and control students. It’s behaviour management 101; look for the positive behaviour and highlight it so others will quickly fall into line and copy. Positional authority remarks disempower children and train them to do things solely to please or avoid disappointing the teacher. Some examples courtesy of the Play Is The Way website include:
– You are all working so hard, and that makes me very happy!
– Can you see how disappointed I am in you?
– You are sitting so beautifully, Mary.
– Look how beautifully Mary is sitting everyone!
Using positional authority inevitably backfires by dividing the class into three distinct groups. The first group are those who seek to please the teacher and gain approval, often through compliance or feigned engagement. The second are those who are more interested in maintaining a sense of power, dignity and status from peers than avoiding teacher anger or disappointment. These students disengage as a form of protest, and who can blame them (not me, I was this student). The third group are the children who spend their time bouncing between pleasing and upsetting the teacher based on whichever gives then them the greatest personal profit.
“If I’m amazing when I get it right, what am I when I get it wrong?”
When we praise intelligence, we raise the fear of failure. Too often students think that doing well at school is about being clever, knowing the answers. Being clever is associated with learning being fast and effortless. School can quickly become a place of learnt; where we reward what children already know. It should be a place of learning, where we value what students don’t know. Where slow thinking, curiosity and application are prized. Acknowledging the effort behind the work is crucial as it requires perseverance and self-esteem. Making mistakes is the greatest teacher we have. Problem is, too often teachers praise the wrong things.
There is nothing wrong with praise when it is used to celebrate as a proportional response to the effort given, but too often praise is unwarranted and excessive. In an article titled False Positive, Wilson McCaskill likens praise and rewards to drugs, addicting children and stripping them of their independence. He asserts that:
Nothing is more important than building, strengthening and maintaining the teacher/student relationship. Nothing erodes that relationship more effectively than the unwarranted and excessive use of praise and rewards does. Nothing weakens a child’s independence more completely than dependence on the drug of praise and rewards. It is not this drug our children need to motivate them in the acquisition of the skills for life and learning. It is connection, based on trust and respect not bribery and threats.
Do you do the right thing because someone praises you or because it is the right thing to do? Children must be able to evaluate their self-worth. Teachers can circumvent attention and praise seeking behaviour from students by placing the evaluation of work or effort back on students. Asking “what do you think” or simply saying “thanks for showing me” rather than lathering students in superlatives reduces the power of the praise drug ‘hit’.
For me, any praise or use of superlatives must include the word because. Coaching cricket taught me the power of because. It is not enough for a coach to offer up a “good shot” when a batsman strikes the ball well, feedback needs to be specific and focused for learning to occur. A better example might be “good shot because you transferred weight through your front leg and kept your balance, did you feel that?” The use of because requires the teacher to back up the praise with warranted evidence.
This approach melds well with the message from Carol Dweck on Growth Mindset that calls for praise to be specific and value effort over outcomes. Dan Haesler suggests that a Growth Mindset — a belief that we can improve our abilities and talents through effort and effective feedback — “should be the number one tool we give to our students and teachers in school.” Students with a Growth Mindset actively seek to improve for the sake of improving, not recognition or rewards. These students seek out challenged rather than expend energy trying to avoid them. Much to my pleasure, Haesler suggests minimising the impact of grades and focusing on feedback to get back to our professional goal — helping kids learn.
It takes a community to raise a child.
According to Wilson McCaskill, “children are raised by their times more than any influencing factor, including parents”. The societal factors that influence our children’s growth and development are complex and many. So as part of our behaviour education program, I believe we need to look outside of the four walls of our classroom to the broader community. Building empathy requires authentic contexts, not worksheets.
I have great admiration for a former colleague, Jarrod Lamshed, who developed a program called #WeStandTall with students at his school. The program aimed at breaking stereotypes associated with male masculinity and respect in an attempt to prevent future domestic violence. Around one in six Australian women (16% or 1.5 million) have experienced physical abuse at the hands of a partner. Domestic violence continues to be a national disgrace and has been described as “an epidemic” by 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty. Boys with little impulse control, who cannot regulate their emotional responses grow into men with the same problems, and so the cycle continues. The power and lasting impact of this learning on students is something to be celebrated and replicated across the country.
Stress and anxiety is another prevalent modern day psychological condition affecting children. Even during the dozen years that I have been teaching, I’ve witnessed an increase in the number of students suffering both. These can be symptoms of family breakdown, trauma or ASD, but a recent study out of Melbourne University suggests that the majority of cases relate to self-image, bullying, and the competition to achieve. The stress of the game of school is affecting students as young as seven and eight. Regardless of the cause, stress and anxiety can be debilitating for students and the families supporting them. Students need a relaxed, alert mind for deep learning to occur. If students don’t voluntarily give learning a go, nothing can tap into refusal. A build-up of stress and anxiety can often lead to an explosion and the removal of that child. Double whammy.
In his book School of Thought, Dan Haesler discusses the need for greater focus on evidence-based wellbeing programs that address social and emotional learning. Countries like Britain and Italy that have implemented such programs have reported youth suicide rates at less than half of that of Australia, which currently stands at about 100 per year. One young life lost every four days. Haesler goes on to say that for every completed suicide, that there are 10 to 20 more attempts. To steal from Sir Ken Robinson, I believe “it is our moral imperative” as educators to look beyond the curriculum and standardised tests at the health, wellbeing and happiness of students in our care. Behaviour education programs give a measure of control to students and in my opinion, help improve self-efficacy, resilience, the ability to rationalise problems, and reduce feelings of hopelessness.
I worry about the proliferation of measuring learning and the competition of achievement, particularly when driven for political gains. NAPLAN, PATR, PISA, the misguided introduction of synthetic reading tests, are all vehicles aimed at quantifying learning. I worry about how we contribute to student stress and anxiety by peddling arbitrary grading systems, homework, testing, deadlines, and the overwhelming need to meet curricular and age-appropriate benchmarks. I’m pushing back on behalf of students by removing as many of these as possible within the framework of my employment.
Finally, I want to reflect on the importance of using behaviour education on our transition towards “gradeless” learning. The two form a symbiotic existence. I think it’s improbable that a teacher who relies on behaviour management strategies could successfully implement a program that minimises the use of grades. Grades are just another power tool in the student control toolbox. Letting go of our dependence on grading means relinquishing power to students, a high-wire balancing act requiring courageous leadership and highly skilled teachers. Grades are an antiquated remnant of an industrial age education system that endeavoured to measure, sort and rank students. They are a poor communicator of achievement. Amber, an eleven-year-old student in our class, had this to say about grades in her end of year reflection.
I believe that grades can bring students down and that grading mostly compares students to each other. Without grades kids still learn, they just don’t have the pressure that their best is not as good as the next student. I think that taking away grades gives students a chance to learn without judgement. Amber,11.
I don’t suggest that teachers should stop their grading practices, they should remain true to their authentic pedagogy. What I would advocate is that teachers take the time and space needed to reflect on how they elicit compliance from students. I don’t think compliance is a dirty word; there are times when I want students to be compliant, like during a fire-drill or in a test situation. But my personal opinion is that educators who solely rely on virulent, compliance-based behaviour management practices, should probably consider a different vocation. So how do we motivate students to do the work when grades are removed?
In a recent reThinkELA article, Aaron Blackwelder described the three things that Daniel Pink, from the book Drive, believes motivates someone to learn.
1) Autonomy — The desire to be self-directed
2) Mastery — The urge to get better at something
3) Purpose — The idea that what is being done has meaning
Aaron goes on to describe the challenge that removing grades has on teaching and learning.
Assigning grades was the easy way out of doing the “actual work” of teaching. They made it easy for me to avoid building relationships and meeting the needs of the individual student. When I eliminated grades it tested my creativity and patience. I was forced to rethink what went on in my class. Students had to take ownership of the class. I had to incorporate individualized learning and lots of voice and choice. I had to replace worksheets, tests, and quizzes with better forms of assessment. I had to make sure that students were engaged and wanted to learn. I had to do the work with them.
I leave you with this quote from Wilson McCaskill, which serves as much as a reminder for me as my students. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I would love for you share your thoughts in the comments section.
“Feelings like nothing more than to take charge of actions. Don’t let them. They are, and are meant to be the servants of thought. As servants they reward our lives with a multitude of experiences. As masters they lead us to ruin.”