Solutions for behaviour – ITT and searching for Bigfoot

Sixty second summary

Behaviour of children in school is a continuing worry. One significant cause of the problem has been isolated – it’s the inadequate initial training (ITT) of teachers.

The concepts that training is built on are not under scrutiny. For example it’s commonsense to use rewards and punishments to control children’s behaviour. There is no need to look for better alternatives. A check on published school behaviour policies provides evidence that the concept is applied almost universally. The fact that this approach segregates children purely on the basis of their response to conditioning and leads them down a separate and impoverished educational path is not in question, although it should be.

However the dogmatic adherence to it as the only approach to be taught to teachers and the idea of loading more detail of how to exert extrinsic control into ITT is worthy of challenge. Transforming behaviour in the classroom involves changes in what both teachers and students do.

As teachers build their knowledge base, they must first be exposed to the threshold concepts that will support and drive their learning and their practice. Ideas about how children come to behave in the way they do should draw on evidence from educational, neuroscientific and psychological research, to reveal the footprints in the snow in the search for Bigfoot.* The relevance of these ideas to classroom practice should be the starting point for developments in ITT, not just stuffing more factual knowledge into the curriculum. The danger is if we do the same we’ll get the same and can look forward to the next expert inquiry in a few years’ time.

The problem

What is it about the training of teachers to manage behaviour that we need yet another inquiry led by yet another behaviour expert to track down the failure and put it right?

The whole thing should be done and dusted by now, given the 1989 Elton Report and Steer’s 2005 inquiry and the voluminous advice on behaviour management from Bill Rogers, Charlie Taylor, Sue Cowley, Lee and Marlene Canter, Tom Bennett, Doug Lemov and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But behaviour’s still there, a perpetual worry for everyone concerned, from insignificant children and their families and carers at the bottom of the hill to the important people at the very top. Children are being excluded from school in ever increasing numbers because they won’t behave, moving into segregated provision if they’re lucky, only to be offered a stripped-out curriculum at an extraordinarily high cost, all of which would have been be quite unacceptable in the mainstream schools they were ejected from. An impoverished offer staffed by people who struggle to get any kind of specialist training to do such a specialist job. I know, I did it, I struggled too. Or the educational wilderness and no offer at all.

So here we go again with a fresh-faced panel of experts ready to sort it out for us once and for all.

Maybe it’s a Good Thing to grab this bull by the horns but what comes next, once it’s been grabbed? My worry is that nothing new will come out of all the puffing and blowing and the writing of reports because experience tells us that nothing ever changes in this oddly static field.

How have we got into this bind?

The creative thinking about behaviour as one of many vital aspects of children’s overall growth and development was developing quite well in the last century, until it hit a wall.

Everyone was working on it, sociologists, educationalists, psychologists and working teachers. The first groups had the luxury of being able work at their own pace, thinking about the problem, coming up with ideas and testing them out within a community of thinkers.

But not us teachers, operating in the classroom in the moment with real children in the room and the ever present need to do something, now.

Gradually the psychologists began to move ahead of the rest of the field. Sociologists were thinking about the varied realities of the social world, post-structural and critical realist ideas included. Educationalists were talking across a wide range, in fuzzy terms about self-actualisation, student agency and soft outcomes across to the hard-edged, hard-outcome alternatives. In this shifting landscape the experimental psychologists had the rock of science to stand on, method and numbers, everyone knew about science, that it tells the truth. As teachers we didn’t get to know about the rich technical detail of the academic psychological project, we were offered an overly simplistic explanation and intuitively misunderstood it.

The first of the inquiries, ‘Discipline in schools’ led by Lord Elton in the late 1980s looked for evidence of what was available and it was forthcoming only from the psychologists, because they were university based and produced reports as a matter of course. There was little else to go on, the report of the inquiry was skewed towards psychological methods but no-one knew it. The split was underway and intuitively conditioning children as if they were experimental animals began to feel right and goodf.

However making intuitive guesses about what’s right and what’s wrong in how we work with behaviour is a bad idea. It’s complicated by the fact that when the split happened people started taking sides. The productive argument between people with different views turned into a competition, with the hard-centred scientific psychologists and their followers in schools deriding the soft-centred the educationalists for lack of rigour, of discipline even.

In the classroom a hollowed-out psychology of reward and punishment came to rule supreme. Teachers’ pedagogical and pastoral work that we do all the time to include children, without segregating them on the grounds of their genetics, their wellness or their achievement, became marginalised.

But we’re teachers aren’t we, we always have to something we can’t just walk out of the classroom, so what can we do now to help solve this knotty problem of finding Bigfoot? Let’s set about it by taking a first small step.

The solution: Step 1

Twenty years ago I was working on my M.A. reading about Science Education and puzzling over the question ‘What makes science hard to learn?’

I found out something very interesting.

Too many facts!

If I tell people I’m a scientist I often hear ‘I never could do science, it’s too hard.’ I’ve heard similar comments from students in my science classes. Many people just don’t get it.

My M.A. reading revealed that a major reason students found science hard to learn was to do with their failure to master the key scientific concepts early enough.

The way I was taught science in school way back in the 1960s was to be presented with a mass of knowledge, lesson by lesson. I did chemistry, physics and biology A levels, so it was a weekly descent to the science mines to hack out enough knowledge to force the concepts to spontaneously reveal themselves, as if by magic. At least that was the idea.

It’s possible to learn the elements that make up the periodic table, in the right order, by heart but it doesn’t tell you anything if you don’t already know about atomic orbits.

Lithium, potassium, sodium, rubidium, caesium, francium. So what?

No, that wasn’t what made it hard. It turned out that if students could get hold of the theory first and then you taught them the facts, they could use the theory to assemble the facts into useful patterns.

If you taught the facts first the student would organise them in their own idiosyncratic way and when they came to the organizing theory they were supposed to be working towards, it didn’t make sense. Not only that but it was hard and unpleasant because you’d commit to one explanation only to find out you were wrong and had to unlearn it.

Academic teachers often approach their task by stuffing their curriculum with content, accepting that the have to transmit vast amounts of factual knowledge and their students have to internalize it and reproduce it on demand. Hard work for the teacher too, but it doesn’t give the learners the key to the door.

When I moved on to study Zoology and Botany for my first degree, things in University teaching were changing. The functional approach was replacing taxonomics. We were taught the key concepts first, before we go into the mass of detail and it worked. Learning science was easy!

A similar shift should be undertaken in teaching teachers about behaviour. Forget the mass of superficial detail, get the fundamentals straight and teachers can use their resourcefulness to fill in the gaps as they reflect on their classroom experiences individually and with others.

 Step 2

It turns out that what applies in science applies everywhere else too. If you want to teach someone in a way that leads them to mastery there are some essential concepts around that can make the incomprehensible understandable.

Standing on the threshold

 All concepts aren’t equal. Some of them are central to achieving mastery and they can be thought of as threshold concepts. They will give us the key to the door and invite us into understanding. Others make up the chorus.

This is what a threshold concept is like.

  • It’s powerful because as well as changing the way you think it’ll change the way you see the world. It causes an ontological and a conceptual shift, to put it formally.
  • Once you’ve got it it’s irreversible, once you understand it you won’t forget it. It’s one reason teachers don’t teach it – they find it hard to recall not knowing it and the time before their realty changed so they overlook its significance.
  • Once you’ve got it you’ll see connections that were previously hidden from your view.
  • All concepts naturally have boundaries as they relate to discrete parts of the overall universe. In coming to understand a threshold concept there’s a risk that you might close down your efforts to understand other subsidiary concepts that butt up against it. For this reason it’s important to take the research-minded approach to mastery and keep on asking questions about the threshold concept itself. It’s good but like everything it’s no more than the best approximation.

Gaining mastery of a threshold concept is going to involve getting to grips with knowledge that seems counterintuitive, incoherent, coming from places that seem alien to the field you’re standing in. You’re going to have to abandon what intuitively seemed to be right before this threshold concept came along and you might find it uncomfortable, painful even getting to your new position.

Standing on both sides of the fence at once

When you’re working on achieving mastery of a threshold concept, or to put it more simply when you’re learning about something tricky but essential, you’re living on both sides of a fence. You’re not one thing or the other, you’ve got what you know and makes you feel safe, but it’s not right and what’s new and makes you feel unsafe feels like it might be right. Everything seems vague and uncertain but there is direction in what you’re doing, the move towards mastery.

The idea that you can be in this on-off, safe-unsafe state when you’re in the initial stage of the learning process, points up the fact that there’s more to this than the purity of thinking. You get engaged as a person, your identity is wrapped up in the change which intrudes on your identity. It’s hard to let go and harder to stay where you are, until you get it.

‘I get it!’

And then you can’t get rid of it.

Copycat or change maker?

On the way, through the uncomfortable times, it might feel much safer to mimic what it would be like to have made the change, to camouflage yourself and avoid the pain of taking a new perspective. It’s common enough, people can get through their lives by pretending to be someone else. And it might feel better to defend a unsustainalble position than get involved in the possibly painful process of getting familiar with a threshold concept.


So what is the missing link that can transform the understanding and practice of teachers in their responses to the problem of behaviour?

I spotted it out there, near the horizon, fifteen years ago as I worked on my Ph.D. It’s a threshold concept that relates to problem-solving itself*; you can reach solutions for behaviour by working with children without investigating the problem about them.

Once you get this, it opens up new ways of working and destabilizes the concept of experimental conditioning as the only way of managing behaviour. It puts children back in the centre of the stage and holds mechanical science in its rightful place, in support, in the wings.


* New book ‘Transforming classroom behaviour – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ Dr. Geoffrey James; Sage – publishing February 2016

Note: The idea of threshold concepts was developed in a UK national research project into the characteristics of strong teaching and learning environments in undergraduate education (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses – the process

For this article I have drawn on with grateful thanks to the author


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