Marching to the sound of a distant drum – Behaviour, behaviour, Behaviour, obedience, dis-obedience

Marching to the sound of a distant drum


I am cautious about blog discussions on about the behaviour of students in schools.

Tim Taylor  has the same sense of caution;

“I, rather regretfully now, joined in: regretfully, because behaviour is an emotive subject amongst teachers and one of the few that is truly divisive. I wrote a blog once about behaviour on the Guardian Network and got dog’s abuse from the commentators, one called me a Judas, as a consequence I generally keep my views on the subject to myself.”

Like Tim, I am not that interested in the recycling of old arguments by a small group of bloggers, but I am deeply interested in the subject of what has come to be known as Behaviour.  

I’ll pick up some thoughts from Tim’s blog and the comments to it, and comment on them.

‘If they were trying to say that they intend to generate a school where disruption to others’ learning will not be allowed, then there were other ways to say it.’ Chemistrypoet

‘… where disruption of others’ learning will not be allowed….’ But what if we viewed disruption as evidence of the need of the disruptors to learn something new. Is there some way of facilitating that learning as teachers rather than managing the disruption by punishment and control, as …… what? Managers, court officials, match referees? And why attempt it when we know, as educators, that punishment does not lead to new learning? Not allowing disruption id like saying we will not allow mistakes in maths, or athletics – it’s the wrong language.

‘However, It is really quite odd to state that obedience versus disobedience is a false choice. Clearly, in any given situation, a student may choose whether to obey the instruction of a teacher or to disobey it. There is no grey there. The grey comes in the extent that we seek obedience or to which we make rules or the manner in which these rules are made. There are plenty of alternatives here.’ Harry Webb

‘Clearly, in any given situation, a student may choose whether to obey the instruction of a teacher or to disobey it. There is no grey there.’ This would be true only if the instruction of a teacher is received by the student in exactly the same form, with exactly the same meaning, that it had when it was dispatched. Receiving, or perceiving, information from the environment depends on attention, and attention cannot be controlled by rules. In which case obedience to rules cannot be absolute it is context related; the Gorilla Experiment illustrates this  ( )

Tim Taylor says ; ‘We shouldn’t start out assuming our students are just waiting to tear the place apart and the only thing standing between school order and total chaos is a thin tweed line of teacher authority.’

This is the key, to question the assumptions that drive our responses to Behaviour. It’s an assumption that Behaviour is not the same as Learning, in the same way that it is assumed that we can separate the Behaviour from the Person, as a distinct entity – as in ‘I like you, I do not like your Behaviour.’

Tim Taylor continues; ‘It is problematic to make a virtue of obedience. Of course children must behave in ways that allow themselves and others to learn, and for teachers to teach. We all want that. But schools are places of learning, places for thinking, questioning, acquiring and applying knowledge, places for developing new skills, places for finding out about the world and for meeting people outside of our own families.’

Schools are places for children and young people to learn about everything, this is clear and all behaviour is an expression of learning. So what do we specifically intend students to learn from our Behaviour Curriculum? That as a member of a community all members experience limit to their freedom, in the interests of others. It’s expressed in the communities’ rules and the idea of external discipline. That within the rules, community members are free to express themselves, to the extent that this does not limit the freedom of others? This is exercised through self-discipline.

So if students learn about both discipline and self-discipline, and produce the behaviour springing from this learning, the community is going to flourish. Where does obedience come in? It’s in the discipline bit, necessary but not sufficient.

As Tim Taylor says’ ‘Obedience is not an end, it is not something we want to foster and develop, it is a final resort. To be used when all else fails, a kind of defcon 1: “If you want to stay here then you have to let others learn and your teachers teach.” Sadly, this happens. No one wants it, but it does happen.’

However, when it comes to; ‘Let me make clear, I’m not saying things don’t go wrong or that there should be no repercussions for anti-social behaviour. To argue this would be mad. I’m saying we should start by building classroom communities on the basis of trust and mutual respect, not unquestioning obedience to adult authority.’

I think this is wrong; ‘I’m not saying that ….. there should be no repercussions for anti-social behaviour. To argue this would be mad…..’  I’m not mad and I know that there should NOT  be repercussions for anti-social behaviour. How come? A repercussion is an unintended consequence of an event or action. In place of repercussions, there should be a planned response intended to faciitate new learning. If it’s true that children just want to be treated with respect, to be heard, to have a say in their own  lives, then what is called anti-social behaviour is not an intentional act of badness, it’s a sign, an opportunity for new learning.

Which brings me to the reason I have got involved in this current discussion. I quoted Tim Taylor at the head of this piece; ‘Behaviour is an emotive subject amongst teachers and one of the few that is truly divisive.’ I agree, it does seem to be like that. But why?

“Behaviour has got an unique place amongst all the areas of learning in schools. It’s taught by people who know nothing about it.” Well you might not agree with that as a general statement. I’ll try again.

“Behaviour has got an unique place amongst all the areas of learning in schools. It is dominated by general assumptions, generated in fields of expertise other than education and applied inappropriately by teachers.”

I’ll try again.

As teachers we are doing our best to make sense of something, Behaviour, that only exists in the imaginations of people who are not teachers. Out stock in trade is Learning and when we treat Behaviour as we do any other aspect of learning, it ceases to be emotive and divisive. As teachers we do not separate out writing behaviour, mathematical behaviour or musical behaviour, and worry about them separately. We respond to learning needs, with not too much worrying. Social behaviour is no different in kind. Social success in the class and school community is directly related to a student’s sense of self-efficacy. As teachers we know all about this. If you think you can do it, you probably can do it. Self-efficacy is directly related to a student’s capacity to express their agency, within the constraints of their communities’ rules. Self-efficacy is the best predictor of a student’s future success, including their academic success.

When we take Behaviour back, as behaviour and do what we are already doing in other areas, providing students with opportunities to feel competent, we can stop worrying. It means doing something different to Traffic Lights, Assertive Discipline, Red Cards and exclusion. But we’re doing this anyway – we just need to do more of what works.













3 responses to “Marching to the sound of a distant drum – Behaviour, behaviour, Behaviour, obedience, dis-obedience”

  1. Chemistrypoet says:

    You talk about a planned response intended to facilitate new learning….in place of repercussions for disruptive behaviour. I’m curious as to what that looks like in real life. So, let’s say that a child is being disruptive…they are chatting with their mates, or throwing rolled up bits of paper at others…and that it is stopping others getting on with their work….What response would you advocate?

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for reading my article and for your question. I’m writing a book for Sage due out next year which will explain this fully. Briefly, as you’ll know from my website I take a solution focused approach to behaviour change. With the chatty paper thrower, when there’s a chance to talk to her it might go like this:
    “There’s something I’d like to ask you about, it’ll just take a few minutes. What’s going well for you in this lesson?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Well….. suppose you did know, and you could tell me something that is going well.What might you say?”
    “Chatting to my mates?”
    “OK, chatting to your mates. How is that good for you in this lesson?”
    “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing and I wanted to ask them about it.”
    “Could they help you.”
    “Not really.”
    “So you’re a bit stuck, is that right?”
    “So what might you do a bit differently for things to go better in this lesson?”
    “I could ask you to tell me what to do?”
    “Sure. I’ve got some written notes here to help you out, read them through and if you’re still stuck ask me again, OK? I’ll come over to you in a few minutes anyway, just in case you need anything else.”
    By approaching the student as a hopeful, resourceful, successful learner and setting up an inquiry with her,the change is brought about through her agency.
    Of course, there’s a lot more to say about classroom rules, and how the solution focused approach integrates with the other work going on in class. But as a starting point, she is sitting on her seat, she has other students modelling how to ‘be’ and she’s a rational being – she does things for a reason, known to her (more or less) and she already knows the classroom rules. Focusing on her success supports her self-efficacy. The “What’s going well” question sets the tone of the inquiry, in place of the more usual “What’s the problem?” starter. “How is that good for you?” is a serious question which treats her as being rational and invites her to be reflective. In my experience the “Suppose you did know?” question always gets a serious reply; it still surprises me having just been told “I don’t know.” The summing up and checking question “So you’re a bit stuck, is that right?” provide support whilst respecting her agency. “So what might you do differently?” is a curious request to hear her solution – which she gives.
    In my work I’ve been using this approach in the most difficult and stuck situations – it works!
    I hope that answers your question, or at least goes a little way towards it.

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