This post is in response to the article Almost half of Australian school students bored or struggling, says Grattan Institute, published in The Guardian today.

“Ultimately, the report strongly recommended essential policy reform. This included recommendations for overhauling early teacher training, ensuring teachers are trained in dealing with difficult student behaviour.”

The argument is that we should respond to the boredom of children with better behaviour management? Rubbish! Kids are poorly behaved when they’re bored or disengaged; they’re not bored because they’re poorly behaved, and better behaviour management won’t increase their engagement.

We can increase students’ engagement with a more flexible curriculum and constructivist pedagogies, not more behaviour management.

“The most prevalent explanations for student disengagement were boredom, finding the work too difficult, finding the work not challenging enough, poor-quality teaching and problems at home.” Yet, not once in this article are pedagogy nor curriculum mentioned.

The first four explanations – boredom, finding work too difficult, finding work not challenging, and poor quality teaching (whatever that is) – may be addressed by the promotion of constructive approaches to pedagogy, and a flexible and adaptable ideas-based (and intellectually engaging) curriculum.

At the moment, we have a rigid, “fact”-based curriculum, which is best taught using didactic pedagogies: chalk and talk, listen, take notes, copy this, repeat that. No wonder kids are bored. No wonder the work is too hard for some, and too easy for others. The curriculum, and the pedagogies that best enact it, are not intellectually engaging, except in the hands of experienced and proficient teachers, many of whom have fled the classroom because they cannot work within the constraints of so many mandates.

Teachers’ decisions are constrained by mandates from people who have no idea what they’re talking about, but do talk a pretty rhetoric about “discipline” and “back to basics”. Teachers’ time is wasted preparing for and administering tests, filling in forms to meet demands for accountability, and attending meetings to discuss data (not students, data). Oh, and managing the behaviour of disengaged children, as well as those children who have other issues in their lives, none of which can be “fixed” by behaviour management strategies. In whatever time is left, then they can build relationships with students, something which will help not only to engage students, but to better make decisions on what, when, and how to teach them.

So preservice teachers should spend their time learning micromanagement techniques for responding to student behaviour?

In Australia, we have initial teacher education, not training. Preservice teachers spend four years (at least) exploring a range of pedagogies, discussing theories, evaluating frameworks, and everything else they will need to make productive decisions about their teaching and their students’ learning, are then sent into an environment that won’t allow them to make those decisions, but instead threatens not to employ them if they won’t stick to the script. No wonder they feel “unprepared”.

Further, EVERY course included in an ITE program, as well as the program itself, must be accredited with no less than three administrative bodies, and hence meets several prescriptive lists of criteria and standards, including the teaching of positive behaviour management strategies and the psychological and social frameworks that underpin these. Finally, it is only a small minority of teachers who have recently completed their ITE.

Perhaps we should move to initial teacher training, and just transmit to preservice teachers whatever “knowledge” and “skills” the government says they need to do what they’re told in the classroom, because it seems that teachers are expected to be automatons and enforcers of the state, rather than professionals with the capacity to make their own decisions.

But, as I firmly believe: “It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticise, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. [S]He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; [s]he must be an intelligent medium of action.”

Addendum, 7 February 2017

Apparently my arguments were not clear. This has been indicated to me by the way they have been twisted and misrepresented by those who believe in the magical notion that intellectual engagement would increase if only we all adopted better behaviour management policies and strategies.

What I have written is not an argument against behaviour management. Behaviour management is necessary. But it is important to understand that behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. Teachers’ pedagogical choices, the curriculum, the student cohort dynamics and interactions with peers, the physical environment, and home factors all contribute to children’s behaviour. To assert that these factors are not highly interrelated is ridiculous in the extreme. Context matters, as it does for so many other facets of education, and what works for one school or teacher won’t work for another. Knowing students’ motivations, values, and behaviour, and the theories and frameworks that we have for understanding these, is vital. Positive and respectful student-teacher relationships are essential to good behaviour management. Theories and frameworks that inform decisions regarding behaviour management strategies and techniques are already a focus of teaching and learning during ITE (as required by two of our three accrediting bodies). Behaviour management in schools is often well supported by excellent research-based programs such as PBL (Positive Behaviour for Learning) and PBS (Positive Behaviour Support). Ongoing professional development in these programs, policies, and strategies is delivered by experts across schools and school networks.

The assertion that behaviour management is a solution to low intellectual engagement is illogical. While inappropriate behaviour indicates low behavioural and intellectual engagement, appropriate behaviour is not an indicator of high intellectual engagement. As I have suggested in a comment below, there is plenty of research on the different types of engagement, and how they are related. See for example Fredericks et al., Dunleavy & Milton, and Pianta et al. 

The responsibility for supporting good behaviour management, and teaching the microstrategies useful for this (such as the Microskills, used within PBL), rests as much, if not more, with schools and employing bodies as it does with ITE.