Ofsted’s recent report raising concerns about “low-level disruptive behaviour” in schools may prompt nostalgia for an age when order was maintained by students’ innate deference to their elders, backed up by corporal punishment, detention and writing lines. Stand by for historians’ anecdotes of unruly students from ancient Greek to Edwardian times, followed by calls for a focus on nurturing “emotional literacy” – the ability to manage feelings and subsequent behaviour.
In the face of polarised debates on how to manage children’s behaviour in the classroom, it is important to consider the evidence. There is a widespread acceptance that the most effective teachers are those that appear to spend the least amount of time actively managing behaviour. These teachers focus on creating an environment in which students feel positive about learning rather than battling disruptive behaviour.
As well as teaching stimulating lessons matched to the learning needs of their students, they focus on the wider classroom environment. By developing positive relationships and establishing clear expectations for behaviour, they spend less time micro-managing disruptive incidents.
How good teachers cope with disruption
Managing behaviour through skillful teaching is hardly a new idea – the textbook market is awash with advice. Some of these evaluate theoretical models such as “choice theory”, which advocates allowing students to consider and plan for the conditions they want to study in.
Another theory is “transactional analysis”, which employs psychotherapeutic principles to help teachers manage their interactions with students more effectively. Others are more practical (and better-selling) “how-to” manuals. The latter are almost universally derided by the royalty-starved authors of the former as peddling simplistic “tips for teachers”.
When stripped down to their essentials, these textbooks are remarkably consistent about what constitutes effective classroom management, namely:
- Engage students early on in the lesson
- Help them see the relevance of the learning by making connections to the real world
- Make the purpose of the lesson clear, including sharing learning objectives
- Cater for a range of learning styles
- Encourage active participation
- Ask students questions and get them to evaluate their own learning
- Maintain pace and momentum throughout the lesson
- Recap on the purpose of the lesson and give positive feedback
Sanctions and rewards
This is not to say there is no place in the classroom for behaviourist conditioning, such as rewarding positive behaviour and discouraging negative behaviour through sanctions. Effective teachers establish expectations and procedures from the outset and apply them consistently. They reinforce these by praising positive behaviour or offering more tangible rewards.
Parents of primary-aged children will be familiar with the task of removing “great work!” stickers from uniforms at the end of the day. Many secondary schools now use online games platforms, such as Vivo Class, to incentivise good behaviour. But these rewards are generally viewed as being of secondary importance – what matters is getting the teaching right.
This is not to say that these expert teachers will maintain perfect behaviour from all their students at all times – this would be unrealistic. What they do is ensure that the environment does not deteriorate and so prevent potential disruptive incidents impacting on the “flow” of the lesson.
What is Ofsted playing at?
Given that a generation of teachers have been trained in learner-centred, interactive approaches, and school leaders and Ofsted have combined to promote these in schools, its findings might seem surprising.
The report’s headline that a “failure of leadership in tackling poor behaviour” is “costing pupils up to an hour of learning a day” will, of course, worry parents. But, even a cursory reading of the survey data invites scepticism.
Teachers clearly do recognise that low-level disruptive behaviour impacts on learning. But it is hard to see how the figure of “an hour of learning a day” figure is arrived at when 64% report losing less than five minutes per hour and only 7% reporting losing more than ten minutes. On top of this, 93% of the teachers felt “confident or very confident” in handling disruptive behaviour and rated their schools’ learning culture extremely positively.
The report also draws upon 95 Ofsted school inspections and it is this data that leads to the headlines of “poor leadership”. Senior leaders, apparently, are indecisive and inconsistent in dealing with behaviour in “over a third” of schools.
But these reports are drawn exclusively from inspections where overall effectiveness of a school was judged to be either grade three (requires improvement) or grade four (inadequate). Given that currently only around 20% of inspections result in grades three or four, the critical findings are hardly surprising, and certainly unrepresentative.
Given the skewed nature of the evidence presented in this report, perhaps its real significance lies in its sideswipe at school leaders. It will no doubt exacerbate the longstanding tensions between Ofsted and the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the agency responsible for both teacher quality and school leadership. Wilshaw will be satisfied with the points scored, but yet again the cost will be measured in parental anxiety and teacher morale.