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Getting creative about inclusion.

Ok, this is bad. It’s time for the hard hats. The exclusion rate is rocketing skywards, ground control has lost communication with Major Tom and everyone’s running for the shelters.

A headline from BBC News recently;

“Barnsley and Middlesbrough see pupil exclusion rises of 300%”

 “The number of pupils expelled from schools in some parts of England has risen by more than 300% in three years.

There were 5,800 permanent exclusions in 2014-15 compared with 4,630 three years ago, government figures show.

Fixed term or temporary exclusions rose from 267,520 to 302,980 in the same period.

Some councils where large rises have been recorded said the increase reflected a greater willingness to tackle “poor behaviour”.”

What causes what? Local authority resources like school support teams have been cut to the bone, traded services have replaced free-at-the-point-of-use specialist provision. Maybe it’s coincidence that these numbers have shot up at the same time. Maybe schools under pressure to perform are basing their selection of students on children’s ability to conform. What is clear is that there’s something here that needs sorting out, punishment in the form of exclusion is being used as the universal remedy and inclusion for its own sake is unethical and maybe unlawful.

Is exclusion working?

But hang on, if exclusion were the sure-fire way to guarantee inclusion by converting ‘poor behaviour’ into ‘good behaviour’, leaving out the issue of the health and happiness of children and their families caught up in this storm, then surely the numbers ought to be going down not up? At the very least permanent exclusions, coming as they do further down the road from temporary exclusions, should be showing a marked decline not a substantial rise in numbers? There’s a clue in the numbers – exclusion isn’t working as it’s supposed to, to teach children how to join in.

Middlesbrough saw the largest increase in fixed term exclusions, up 357% from 750 in 2012-13 to 2,080 in 2014-15. Barnsley saw a rise of 303% and North Lincolnshire 110% during the same period.”

You can see this as evidence of schools doing their best to get the best out of their students by the only means they know, the Government approved method of punishing children with the intention of reforming them. Here we have it, in clear terms;

“The council says the rise reflects efforts by head teachers to tackle poor behaviour.

 Exclusion – the measure of last resort. Really?

 “Exclusions are a measure of last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, and are designed to change behaviour and improve life chances,” a spokesman for Middlesbrough Borough Council said.

All other avenues exhausted? Sure about that? If exclusion really is the only resource we have and we don’t exclude does that mean giving up, allowing these disruptive and verbally abusive children a free hand to cause chaos in classrooms?

We can all agree with this sentiment; “Poor behavioural standards by students damages not only their own chances but the prospects of those around them.”

But exclusion as an educational ‘measure of last resort’ to teach children how to behave differently, better, in the long-term? The originators of behaviourism warned against it’s use in the real-life situation of school, far away from the laboratory precision of rats running in mazes and pressing buttons for food or electric shocks.  They were clear about its potential to interrupt temporarily existing behaviour and its failure to establish ‘what to do instead’, i.e. generate new learning. And its potential to cause worse behaviour, escalating the problems.

Teaching – art and science in perfect harmony

New learning? That looks like the job of teachers rather than psychologists, it’s what we do – develop knowledge, look for explanations, explore options, construct solutions, correct errors. Teaching, unlike psychology, is not an experimental science, it’s based in the uncertainty of practical knowledge, possibility and relationship, characteristics specifically excluded by the psychological/experimental method of behaviourism.

The article continued; “The Department for Education was approached for comment three weeks ago. In a statement released on Tuesday, a spokesman said: “Every child should be able to learn without disruption – that’s why we’ve given head teachers more powers to tackle poor behaviour.

Permanent exclusion is still very rare and should only be used as a last resort.”


What does that mean? Every child? ‘Power to tackle’ sounds more like rugby than schooling. ‘Very rare’? Percentages don’t mean much to the individual excluded child and their family. Used for what? A last resort? It’s a clear sign of a failure to educate children to be full members of their community – their community, and using exclusion as a punitive lever to correct children’s errors is not our true work as educators, to my mind.

 “We have also announced plans to make schools responsible for securing alternative provision for excluded pupils.”

 Well that’s OK then, if we all agree with the Government that passing the parcel is good enough for these children lumped together for the one thing they have in common, that the grown-ups have passed them on because they’ve run out of ideas on how to include them in the fullest way. A group made up of those who have experienced family breakdown in their young lives, often repeatedly. Those who find learning hard for reasons of their own, those who look a bit different on the surface or see the world in their own unique ways.

And more stats.

Back to percentages. Most educators, including me, look for the best in children and treat them with kindness and if only there were a creatively knid way to replace exclusion with something better we’d take it. The simplicity of reward and punishment is seductive and in its gentlest forms seems fairly harmless. But we have no idea if it’s really necessary in teaching children to internalize and comply with rules and regulations, because most children are very biddable and it doesn’t take much to get them standing in line, wearing the right kind of shoes, at the right time and place.

But. When things get serious, when some children don’t fall into line, we have the clear evidence of consequent anxiety, mental distress and loss of entitlement, of harm being done. This tells that we should be more creative in how we view children and the ways they behave, as they meet challenges. More creative in how we build relationships and join with children in their struggles to become their best selves.

Hey …… over here!

So where can we look for a creative lead? Certainly not in the restating of the old lines, behaviour management by rote, ‘10 top tips’, all those lists of don’ts. And not in the support for any old type of schooling on the Darwinian grounds that only the strong should survive, misapplied.

The great hope lies in what’s already working, in those schools and their supporters, the children and their families and those who care for them, who have found inclusive and fully educational alternatives to punishment and exclusion.  We’re beginning to know what works. For me being creative means being Solutions Focused. It’s certainly one good idea, but we don’t know enough about who is doing creative work and what exactly they’re doing – that’s why we’re both joining the dots and taking action in Lincolnshire to make inclusion work. And wherever you are, doing what it is that you do.

Action on Behaviour as Learning – it’s a great project, let’s join hands. Practice and research and practice.








Bad behaviour? All you need is ……..

My first full-time teaching job was at a private 5 to 16 residential special school for children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. The year was 1995, I was 45 and taken on to teach Key Stage 3 and 4 science. When I first read the job advert I didn’t know this type of school existed but I soon found out. ‘EBD’ meant ‘too difficult for mainstream school to manage’, with all the children statemented for their special needs. ‘Private’ meant no unions or national rates of pay and run as a profit centre. ‘Residential’ meant the children lived there, a home from their home which might be hundreds of miles away. ‘Special’, as a teacher, meant you turned up and did what you could. As a child ‘Special’ meant getting much the same as you’d got in school before, but in smaller classes with tighter control and no running home to tell Mum.

The man who owned and ran the school told me that he’d trained as a teacher but given it up when he discovered that it would take him years to get paid a decent whack. So he gave up teaching and turned to selling second-hand cars instead. He bought land and also got hold of a big old rectory where he put his new business, a special school. After a few years the school had outgrown the rectory and he applied for planning permission on forty acres of his farmland and built what was designed to be developed as a village, with terraced housing for the school and luxury detached houses for staff. It has a grand opening by a member of the Royal family. I saw her photo on the wall, prominently displayed in the foyer, when I turned up for my interview.

I asked him one day what gave him the most satisfaction about his school. He said ‘Getting planning permission on forty acres of agricultural land’, with a knowing smile. I remember it like it was yesterday. No mention of children or happiness.

….. experience?

I was surprised to find that there was no specialist training for me on how best to teach these needy and noisy children and how to interact with them. A lot of the owner’s family worked there because they were …. family. Teaching staff had their everyday experience to guide them and that was that. The children were coerced and controlled by the staff, who were doing the best they could.
I moved on to another job. Later I saw in the press that managers of the school were being investigated for historical child abuse that had been alleged to be going on at the old rectory. With all their experience to go on the school leaders had figured out ways to manage the behaviour of their students. They went down the route of reward and punishment and lost their moral compass on the way. Making a child stand outside at night on an upturned bucket if he wet his bed should help him to learn, apparently. The boss was found guilty but died of a heart attack the day before he was due to go to prison.

My new post was for a local authority, 50% teaching science in a 11-16 pupil referral unit (PRU) and 50% behaviour outreach for schools as a specialist support teacher. When I took the job I asked the same old question; ‘What’s the induction?’

There wasn’t any, I was just supposed to get on with the job, like the owner/managers of the special school had done I suppose.

In my research I traced the history of the PRU and found people doing their best with little to go on but their own experience with the notable exception of onetime head of the PRU Dr. Tom Logan who had worked in Laurence Stenhouse’s progressive Centre for Applied Research in Education at UEA and combined knowledge with wisdom.

……. love?

Cruelty or kindness? It’s up to you. But should it be? Should some institutions be encouraged to be intentionally cruel in the interests of the broad market we’re supposed to want? There is a moral dimension here.

The G4 report on the Medway centre yesterday. The recent report of a school using punishment of children to enforce financial discipline on parents. Thousands of children permanently excluded every year. They reveal nothing new, it’s the result of common practice, varying only in degree. The recently and quietly released findings of the 2016 working group on Initial Teacher Training for managing behaviour offers nothing new. Same old, same old. The juggernaut of behaviour modification rolls on in the face of the evidence of sustained failure.


It’s not good enough to expect people to do this work without training and it’s not good enough to look at the delivery of training as the endpoint, the marker of success. It takes time and sustained support for training to emerge as improved performance and what matters are the educational outcomes produced by performance. Most current behaviour management training is no more than the recapitulation of a limited approach that ultimately ends in failure – a process that specifically selects children with additional needs and when it runs out of steam knocks them off the assembly line as imperfect rejects.

’What are the intended learning outcomes of teaching children how to be at their best?’ Easy answer – engagement, resilience, focus, an inquiring mind, kindness, self-knowledge ……. It’s not a management question. It’s a key educational question that gives structure to good teaching across the whole range of the curriculum and keeps our attention as educators focused on the prime educational purpose of what we do. But we don’t demand it of what we call behaviour management.

We need to broaden the way we view behaviour.

Looking through the lens of kindness is an excellent start and some of us already on the move, aren’t we?


Solutions Focused coaching in schools – Impact16

Closing the gap in behaviour, engagement and achievement.



The first green shoots of spring were showing when I was contacted by the ‘Teach First Impact16’ conference organiser to be asked if I could run four workshops on Behaviour in summertime Leeds.

On Monday this week I was late getting to the main arena for the keynote speakers – I’d had a problem setting up the IT in my session room – and entered a space with 4000 enthusiastic people tiered to the roof, loud music, Twitter feed and live speaker video on a huge screen. ‘TFImpact 16’ in action!

The keynotes overran a bit and then I was just one of a torrent of educators making for ‘The Rosebowl’ building. I was a minute late, the room already filling up fast, lots of glass and heat.

‘Behaviour? Relax. You can do more by doing less.’

The name’s on the door. The room’s full, everyone’s settled. I ask my very welcome crowd of student and beginning teachers an open question to begin the Solutions Focused conversation; ‘What’s your best hope for our time together? When you walk out at the end what would tell you it’s been worthwhile staying in the room?’ People in the room have two broad best hopes; one is to hear more about conventional behaviour management, how to start off with a new class, how to put a stop to low level disruption; the other is to find out if what they can do in place punishment as a means of control, as one puts it ‘to be nice in a structured way’. Perfectly positioned questions, as they would be of course coming from engaged professionals. They’ve come to the right place. So let’s get started.

To connect what we’re going to be doing with what they’ve got already so I ask them; ‘Do you know what the solutions focused approach is?’ One person says he’s heard of it but doesn’t know any details.
‘OK then. By the end of this session you’ll be on the pathway to Solutions Focused coaching.’

Success and solutions instead of failure and problems.

‘The Solutions Focused approach is a slim and elegant way of working compared to the problem focused way of solving behaviour problems. I emphasised the fact that all teachers and support staff have a dual role, as a referee controlling the boundaries set by essential school rules and a coach developing their empathetic relationship with students as the basis for engagement in learning and performance. When behaviour is a problem the teacher as the Solutions Focused coach needs to know only the few elements of the Solutions Focused approach to promote a student’s strengths and resources in generating change. In contrast the problem focused behaviour manager has be the expert, analysing the student’s problem, matching it to diagnoses and disorders, to defects and deficits and delivering a psychological theory. One approach develops Dweck’s Growth mindset, the other fixes the fixed mindset. One sees a behaviour difficulty as a challenge to get working on and the other sees it as a sign of failure, of deficit.

Putting ‘behaviour’ next to ‘relax’ was my hint to people looking for a session to attend that there’s another way of working other than being the universal expert with a head full of advice on children’s failure and how to remedy it, and the room was packed. The idea of looking positively for strengths and resources in teaching and supporting children and young people facing challenges has come of age, after a period of slow and steady growth. Ten years ago the Department for Education’s National Strategies included ‘Focusing on solutions – a positive approach to managing behaviour’. That was a first step, but to judge from people in my room at Impact16 and professionals I am working with in Lincolnshire it hasn’t generated a general change in practice.

‘That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy’ (a line from ‘Yes, Minister’)

My project over the last twenty years has been to find and put into practice an educational approach to ‘behaviour’ as an alternative to the dominant non-educational practice of reward, punishment and extrinsic control. I’ve got at it by putting my research and practice together, working and studying full-time. What’s driven me on is the knowledge there has always been something wrong with the use of punishment, control and coercion to try to make children behave the way we want them to and incidentally modelling the unbridled use of unbalanced power. But there’s never been a well-worked, properly structured, more effective and kinder alternative until now – and now the Solutions Focused approach has emerged into the full light of day it’s irrepressible, happily confident and here. In education we’re always seeking structure and that explains why we stick to old routines even when we know they don’t work, and adopt new ones before we know they do. Behaviourism is well-structured and works for things that don’t matter much, like exactly how high the heels on girls’ shoes should be. It’s handy for setting arbitrary boundaries – school rules.

‘It’s structured niceness!’

We know conditioning doesn’t work for things that do matter for children whose needs show clearly that we must take a different approach, because thousands are excluded from school every year, removed because punishment has failed them. But kindness, empathy and inquiry? Too easily disrespected as just being soft and the road to anarchy and chaos. That’s where the Solutions Focused approach finds its place, with structure, practical action and theory underpinned by the values of respect, inclusion, cooperation and and the assumption of resourcefulness, success and hopefulness of all students in all schools.

I’m not joining in battle with the profligate punishers. I’m Solutions Focused, being mindful, calm and reflective, holding up a strong alternative and knowing people have the resources they need to change their own minds. Thoreau observed that when a man’s only got a hammer, everything he sees is a nail.

But when we take a person’s his hand in kindness and compassion, they may put down the hammer and put on the mantle of the teacher without even noticing it.


Why focusing on strengths in schools is a good idea

As teachers we promote the flourishing of children as an integral part of the job. Children’s health and wellbeing is expressed in many ways; physical, social, intellectual, imaginative, creative ….  this list seems to have taken root and be growing itself ….. dietary, reflective, sexual, mathematical, mindful, environmental. Mental health and wellbeing is on the list too, evident in the robust, confident, funny, sad, aura of ‘me in the world’ that most children have.

Of course sometimes children are unwell and as teachers we have special antenna that tell us about it and we react to what we sense. Mostly it’s sniffs and passing aches and pains, we know what to do and if it’s more serious we take appropriate action, let the office know, call home, call the ambulance, keep them safe and feeling safe.

It’s clear that we are not in the business of diagnosis and treatment of illness. That’s the preserve of medics, not teachers. And when it’s mental health we’re thinking about, there are some things that teachers can get involved in and others that bring out our uncertainty.

The question here in thinking particularly about mental health is, are we sure that what we do in schools promotes health and prevents distress and illness and how do we change our thinking from what ought they to be doing about children’s health and wellbeing to what can we do about it educators?

The new President of the British Psychological Society, Professor Peter Kinderman, supports this shift in thinking that puts health and positivity at the forefront and diagnosis and illness further down the line. In schools we’re first responders with the ability to promote wellbeing.

As well as sniffs and sneezes, children have the low-level kind of worries and fears that can catch any of us out from time to time. We know what to do here too, we encourage and empathise with their take on what’s going on or going wrong. With our support the child manages their distress and in so doing learns a bit more about how to cope with suffering, learning about stress and tension as challenges rather than barriers.

But sometimes the levels rise and we see the effects materialising in school as defiance, disengagement, disruption, underachievement.

And then something very odd happens.

If you look at any Behaviour Policy online, you’ll see that we switch off the empathy and stop listening in small ways at first, to the extreme of zero-tolerance towards difference and distress in some schools. The very children who need an authentic, trusting relationship most are denied it as they are incrementally pushed away and out.

Which ones are over-represented in the lists of those not to be tolerated? Looked-after children, children with additional educational needs, children with disabilities that might affect their achievement. Do they deal with their failure with a phlegmatic shrug of their shoulders and so doing relieve us of our responsibility? Does the loss of their community cause them no sadness and distress? Is anything they might suffer balanced out in terms of the greater goo? These are children remember, many of whom have experienced repeated losses and failures already and all of whom are subject to the gnawing effects of uncertainty.

It’s happened because no thought-out and practical alternative to standardised behaviour management has presented itself, based on strengths rather than deficits, until now that is. Being kind to misbehaving children gets written off by some advisers as fluffiness and without a guiding structure it may well be. Of course children need clarity about community rules and reminders when they break them, but there’s more to teaching community values than that. Education has got stuck in the past while the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not nice. I’ve been in the position of the behaviour expert with only the tired old routines that had already failed children in need, and their schools too to be honest, fearful that I’m misleading people who were looking up to me as the guru, someone to wave the magic wand and do something different – and kind –  for the children they love. You can either work to change things for the better or toughen up. I’ve seen plenty of the latter but I went for the former and I’m happy I did that.


My mission over the last twenty years has been to develop my practice as a teacher supporting children struggling in school with a pedagogy that I can explain to others. With good luck, time and effort, always in the cycle of theory and practice, I found a way of working that focuses on the strengths and successes that children carry around with them and into school. Now I know what I’m doing and work together with others following the same track. It’s called the solution-focused approach, a practical way for teachers to help students in difficulty in the here and now.


Today is day three of the UK mental health awareness week with an emphasis on relationship. Awareness of relationship means we need to critically examine what we do to make sure that our relationship is based on honesty and generosity. As adults with children we have a duty to both guide and to educate. Both, and.


Let’s think about relationship and mental health today and see if we’re going in the right direction.






Rambling in the brambles

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew claim today that there are 390,900 species of plants on Earth with 2,034 new species being discovered in 2015. The total number excludes algae, mosses, liverworts and hornworts and includes 369,400 flowering plants. 21% of known plants are at risk of extinction and the unknown will become extinct in private.

What do you make of that? The BBC’s written report actually says that there are 390,900 plants now known to science, but I had to correct that being a stickler for accuracy; one big field of wheat could contain that many plants, but only one species. Over two thousand new species discovered last year? Isn’t that amazing? My scientific brain clicks in again. Distinct species arise through the process of natural selection (the report doesn’t include genetically modified species) and given that the flowering plant group emerged at least 160 million years ago most species could not be described as new. Why are the so-called lower plants excluded from the total? Is it a fit  of pique among the Kew community or have they got a good reason, like they’re only uncluding vascular plants? Never mind, let’s move on, most people overlook liverworts anyway.

Lists and tidy minds

Putting things into groups is a fundamental human activity. At home it’s called sorting out the spices and condiments cupboard in the kitchen (am I showing my 1960s roots here?) and in biology it’s called taxonomy. In assembling their totals the people at Kew found that some plants had been separately described and listed more than once. That’s like putting cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon on different shelves, not good. I studied taxonomy as an undergraduate botanist at a time when biology was levitating up and away from its fascination with lists and reinventing itself as the science of what organisms do and how they do it, the functional approach. We were lucky enough (remembering we were scientists and knowing that I studied joint hons. Botany and Zoology would be useful here) to have recently deceased exhibits from the Regents Park Zoo to examine; a penguin, the head of a hippo, a lion cub and a three-toed sloth all turned up to our surprise and delight. We looked for clues about functionality. Did you know that the hair on most mammals parts at the midline of the back and points downwards to throw off water, whereas the sloth which spends it life dangling upside down from trees has its parting in the midline of its belly? I didn’t until I saw it in front of me. That took a few wet summers to evolve, I bet.

Since the dawn of time putting things in groups has been the main achievement of humankind and with the Enlightenment it became the proud ambition of the new science to list everything. Even today it makes the world more manageable to have a list of only 390,900 items rather than the billions of individal plants that cover much of the world’s surface, still.

In case you’re wondering where this story about science and education is going, I’d be honoured to introduce my next character, well known to our friends at Kew and to you, Sir David Attenborough.

A man of his time

He went to Cambridge to study natural sciences in 1945 with the taxonomic approach still alive and well and undergraduates being taught that things were either this or that, not both at the same time. In those days science was a process of piling up factual evidence in order to write proper lists. If you didn’t already know that our great TV explainer was a trained scientist you do now and I would guess that it makes you respect him even more. But I bet you didn’t know that in the hippy 60s he took himself off his work schedule to study social anthropology at LSE. Social anthropology! That’s not science! If you’ve now got your head in your hands, I know where you’re coming from.

That’s where all this flying out to discover new tribes of people comes from, only we and he knew and know that they weren’t new to themselves, they’d been doing quite nicely until the film crew arrived. And things did look strange to them too, even with the film-maker in a sarong, just as they looked strange to us, seeing people who lived happily in the heat without the use of a single fridge between them. This scientist/social anthopologist commissioned The Ascent of Man’ with all that social anthropology and hours of films on the TV to gawp at and then went back to search out every nook and cranny of this wonderful world to watch things never before seen by anyone without a highspeed camera and a wet suit.

We watched and are still watching. Watching what? A mockup in a lab, like the woodland sequence in ‘The Life of Plants’, a film of a humpback whale feeding on herrings, a cave full of bats and their enormous pile of dung? Is it evidence? Is it science. Is telling stories on film merely anecdotal voyeurism?

The Ascent of Attenborough is a story of transcendence. Science has broadened and expanded to offer us evidence of different types, always with the same scientific mission, to reduce uncertainty. Different strands of science investigate different realities through different approaches to evidence, what is is and what it means. It’s obvious that social science explores a different reality to those fielded by genetics or robotics or physics or psychology. Evidence can be numerical, descriptive, analytical, narrative, constructivist, even imaginary in the quantum world and it’s characterised by the type of reality it emerges from. And to make things more precise and more complex scientific philosophies themselves vary, cause-effect science in the concrete world of things, stratified critical realism in the world of social mechanisms.

Brass tacks. Getting down to.

It’s one thing to slump on the sofa watching a school of killer whales surge across the screen as a spectacle and quite another to maintain a critical relationship with the evidence in front of you. That takes some degree of scientific literacy, knowledge and balanced judgement. Killer whales aren’t whales, they’re dolphins and they’re predators, like spiders and bats, not killers for a start.

In education there seem to be people with a lot to say about research and evidence but no good grounds for saying it.  I think this is because some cover up illiteracy with stridency, others are playing a political game and a few do both. Yes, randomised controlled trials are a useful tool for reducing uncertainty in the concrete world of things. No, this doesn’t mean that descriptive, narrative science in the world of socially constructed reality is rubbish, no more than slight anecdotes. Yes, in some cases it makes sense to guess how physical things work, hypothesise, test your hunch and build a theory out of the findings. No, that doesn’t mean that carrying out a social action like teaching and writing a descriptive account of it, with the reader being invited to make their own contextualised interpretation of its meaning is a waste of valuable time, just idle chat over coffee till the bell goes.

As a scientist I know the importance of discussing ontology and epistemology, as a realist I know if I mention it here some people will accuse me of talking down to them, talking through my ivory hat. As a relativist I know that blood is thicker than water and as an anthropologist I know I can choose my friends but not my relations. And in the end all this might be no more than finding a way to spend a wet morning in Wales before I go to see the dentist.


To have a realistic hope of improving education, learning, teaching, schooling, we do need to share a common language and understanding and the current arguments about testing, assessment, zero-tolerance, mental illness, the magic of academies, bad grit and good stress, are all set within their own ontological contexts and spoken in their own epistemological terms. We need to know that and feel at ease in talking to each other about it.

So my message is this; For those who get it, keep on keeping on. For those who don’t, keep an open mind, keep asking the questions, we’ll help you get to the solutions. And then we can all relax and enjoy the sunshine together, fridge or no fridge.



Relationships? Talk to the elephant

What’s Debate? Debate is all about winning an argument. It’s war and as we all know, all’s fair in love and war. We know what Debate means, the toffs learn how to do it at nanny’s knee. It’s a blood spattered battle of words, with crowned winners and cowed losers. It’s PMQs.

How about Discourse? That’s one of those words that drips off the balcony of the ivory tower and lands, plop, on the busy pavement below. Discourse is about throwing good ideas around in order to test them out and get even better ones, a fleeting shadow to most and the life-blood of invention to a few. Good Discourse doesn’t lead out and away to the podium, it just leads back up the tower to more Discourse, a Möbius strip of a stairway. I’ll leave it where it is in its interminably muted inexplicability and take you to where the music’s playing.

Bare Bait and Debate

Dominic Cummings is working at the edge of the Flat Earth, thrashing his way through the jungle of misunderstanding about how to get people to change their minds on something they hold dear. His approach is evidence-based.

You may have responded to the first few words with a slight emotional flutter when you read ‘Flat Earth’, making yourself an under-your-breath promise to read no further. The rest of the sentence was boring anyway, a weak attempt to drag in the image of the jungle, verdant density and darkness, all dripping humidity and biting insects, when the chances are the closest experience you’ve had of real jungle is Disney’s version. But having said it, having put it on the table, the possibility of the Earth being flat is there, just a niggly, metaphorical bit more than it was. I straightened the paragraph up by letting you know Mr. Cummings is at the cutting, not to say hacking, edge; yes folks, he’s evidence-based! Now you feel a bit more certain you can trust him, don’t you? Evidence-based eh? Can’t be bad.

Mr. Cummings, no relation to the horse painter as far as I know but I stand to be corrected, was Mr. Gove’s adviser when he, the aforementioned, was the boss at Education. In case you don’t have the faintest clue what I’m talking about, the two characters I’ve named are Conservatives. In case you don’t have a clue as to what that means either, they are members of a political party whose very successful stand at the last UK general election was entirely down to the stage management skills of the recently elevated Lynton Keith Crosby (born 23 August 1956). He has a clear and daring approach to winning elections that has stood him in great stead. He’s evidence-based too. Good man, an undoubted intellectual. So why did he say, during the UK elections; “How Would You Feel if a Bloke on Early Release Attacked Your Daughter?”

And why did Mr. Cummings say under interrogation by a House of Commons select committee last week; ‘Accuracy is for snake oil pussies’? a comment reported in a  Guardian article?

Mr. Cummings, adviser to the Vote Leave campaign apparently prompted this exchange;

“I don’t think it’s Vote Leave’s job to provide figures,” Cummings announced triumphantly, his eyes swivelling manically.

“But Vote Leave quotes numerous figures on its website,” said Tyrie (the committee chair), “Most of them misleading or inaccurate.”

“Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies,” Cummings hissed under his breath. “And besides, I’ve got a really bad memory.”

It’s rather a weird phrase isn’ t it? Having read it I’m not sure what sort of image I should have in my head to represent a snake-oil pussy. A rather beady-eyed and bedraggled small cat? A ….. no, I can’t go further into his parallel world. I just know how I feel about it. I hate it. I’ve been brought up to know that numbers have some factual equivalent in the real world, that even when the supermarket gives me a price-per-123gm.-portion I can recalculate this as a per-kilo price to compare it to a competing price-per-227gm.-portion, given a smart-phone (why do you think they’re called smart?), to find out which one is cheaper. With certainty built in. Mr.Cummings cuts across this by telling us that numbers are something different in his world.

They are symbols of power, transporters of emotion, no more no less.

But is that all there is to it, loud-mouthed bullying? Or is it (lowered eyes, reverential tone) evidence-based?

Because the evidence (no references, see? That’s how I’ll treat you, hanging on my word as if it were some kind of truth lodestone) says that if you want someone to do as you tell them, to change their mind or their voting habits even, the first thing you must do is to put on the table a big emotional jelly, wobbling about and looking like it might jump off the plate and down your throat any time soon. It’s even better if it’s a bit weird, morphing into the shape of an alien camel with three jelly humps on its head at one moment and into a snake-oil pussy at the next. That’s because it makes it even better at catching your flittering attention and holding it in its sticky jelly paws.

Whatever you put on the table stays in the head of the observer, doing it’s creative work. It’s an act of imagination, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a jelly of lies or of truths, it’s job is to splatter you emotionally. Because emotionally loaded information tunes your attention, narrows your gaze to that part of the world that is to be subject of the next part of the learning process, rational thinking. Without it you’d have no idea where you were going.

Talking to the Elephant

I was riding an elephant in Nong Nooch garden one afternoon, up wide pathway between two low hedges. The elephant trainer walked ahead. It was obvious to me as the rider where we were going, up the path to the top of the hill, in clear view from my vertiginous vantage point. Then I felt the elephant take a sudden, swinging left turn below me, walk breast high into the hedge and selected a juicy nosegay of greens. The trainer addressed it sharply in Thai, the elephant ignored him, munched the first bunch  and was carefully searching for another trunkful. As the rider, my only option was to keep calm and wait to see what happened next, looking beyond the hedge. The trainer laughed, touched the elephant’s ear and we all swung back onto the path, the elephant chewing the veg, the trainer chatting to the elephant and me sweating elegantly. My elephant was forty six years old and she was bigger than me in many ways.

Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book ‘The Righteous Mind’ develops the elephant and rider metaphor in thinking about how to teach monkeys new tricks, to make learning happen. He says; Talk to the elephant, not to the rider, because the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant is intuitive, emotionally sensitive, non-reflective, it responds to information from the world as if it’s life depended on it, which of course it does. It is always looking ahead, a gustatory optimist, and if it steps to the left, the rider must pay attention to what the future looks like over that way, to search out the hazards and the possibility of life beyond the hedge. The rider is a reflective intellectual and serves the elephant well if she pays undivided attention to where the elephant is going, but there’s no point in trying to get the elephant to take another route by winning an argument with the rider. She’s the servant, not the boss and the elephant is just plain big. You have to talk to the elephant.

A light bulb moment

So that’s why relationship is always top of the pops when we look for what leads to successful learning and what the teacher can do about it. Relationship is elephant talk.

And that’s why debates/arguments between tweeting riders go on for ever and the big roll bloggers/advisers go for your guts with their pointy phrases.

And that’s why we – that is people like you and me who know that schools are not supermarkets, with executive directors looking at everything on the distant shelves though their number binoculars – keep on telling stories that make you laugh and make you weep, that the elephants, big and small, understand, and why we keep on and keep on. We do it because we trust intuition, we’re elephants too, with our own clear-sighted riders serving our every step and turn.

And that’s why we have to keep all the little pachyderms with us, and know about their strengths, their hopes and their dreams to make sure they’re in their best space and why we play out real stories in imagined worlds with them. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. And only when we’ve got the elephant-talk flowing freely do we get the riders to switch on the headlights and show the life ahead, whatever it might be, for the best.

It’s relationship folks.


Asthma and behaviour – a modern parable

Asthma’s in the news at the moment because of an odd problem about something with an odd name. The problem is that it’s being overdiagnosed, diagnosis often leads to medication and too many people, many of them children, are using puffers when they don’t need to because they don’t actually have asthma, a dangerous condition in its most severe form.

From a lay perspective diagnosis might seem like an open and shut process. Medical professionals have a huge amount of knowledge in their heads and match what they see in a patient, the symptoms, with what they know could cause them.

A bit of reflection and Hey Presto, they make a diagnosis and come up with a strategy to fix the problem. We see the most positive type of diagnosis in action when we go to the doctor with a physical injury, cause and effect clearly linked and the treatment connected to both. The car door traps the finger that you show to the doctor who asks you how it happened. She judges it’s not broken but only bruised, sends you for an x-ray to be certain, gives you a once over and sends you home for tea and sympathy.

But even doctors can’t know everything, so they use reference guidelines especially when it looks likely someone has a condition for which there’s no definitive test to prove the diagnosis as is the case with asthma. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence regulates health care and has new draft guidelines for England that say doctors should use more clinical, objective tests to back up their judgement and avoid the misdiagnosis of asthma.

The charity Asthma UK are saying that more funding is needed for research and the development of a definitive test, to eliminate the diagnostic subjectivity. Dr Samantha Walker of Asthma UK summed it up recently: “It is astonishing in the 21st century that there isn’t a test your child can take to tell if they definitely have asthma.”

Without doubt one specific objective test for asthma would be good, but certainly would be astonishing because asthma is a global term covering many different conditions with many different causes, triggered by different factors at different ages. To complicate things further symptoms that might indicate asthma change from day to day in a sufferer’s life and this overall complexity leads to it being both over- and under-diagnosed.

Off to school

As I was reading the article about asthma, it struck me that the position with regard to behaviour is similar in the way we in education attempt to diagnose and treat it as a single disorder.

Interestingly I can cut and paste from the paragraph above; “(behaviour) is a global term covering many different conditions with many different causes, triggered by different factors at different ages. Added to this the symptoms that might indicate (behaviour disorders) change from day to day in a sufferer’s life and this overall complexity leads to it being both over and under-diagnosed.”

But surely this is going too far, isn’t it? We’re educators not medics and we don’t diagnose disorders in school, we’re teachers interested in the best ways to promote learning aren’t we?

I’m not so sure. In the same way that current diagnostic methods used in the case of asthma are an uneasy mixture of subjective and objective assessments, the way we approach behaviour is a mixture of the two. We use our behaviour policy as a kind of diagnostic and treatment schedule, giving us reference guidelines. We certainly categorise bad behaviour as a disorder, a part of a child that’s is dysfunctional. School behaviour policy sets out the symptoms klthat indicate the level of severity of the disorder. We collect diagnostic data by means of unsystematic observation, but this is well-known to be unreliable and prone to observer bias. For example, badly behaved children come under more scrutiny than their well-behaved peers so their files listing symptoms grow proportionately thicker, faster. The data set is then matched to the intervention schedule in the behaviour policy and the appropriate level of punishment applied, as the treatment for the behaviour disorder.

We do seem to have medicalised what we term ‘behaviour’ as a problematic disorder of many children in schools. Even given the diffuse and fuzzy relationship between causes and effects, we stick to one-size-fits-all medical-type interventions. Where the treatment fails to cure the illness, we transfer children out of mainstream school to more specialised treatment facilities, where we assume they can be cured by specialist treatment. Maybe they’ll go to a Pupil Referral Unit where the treatment they get is intended to normalise their behaviour and enable them to return to mainstream school in a few months. When I taught in a PRU it was called ‘the revolving door’, although in practice it tended to stay closed. Or maybe they’ll get a formal diagnosis of behaviour disorder and this will be their ticket to special school, where the aim is to cure their disorder over a longer term and educate them at the same time. Or maybe we’ll shift them sideways, manage-move them to another school where they don’t know anyone and that might be the cure they need, to be a stranger in a new community – social disorientation or a fresh start? Depends how you look at it.

What questions does this raise?

Taking the essentially medical approach to behaviour and focusing on deficits, diagnosis and treatment raises some structural questions.

Is it right to cast what might be developmental issues as disorders and disabilities when they could equally well be seen as transitory phases connected with growing up and learning how to be?

The children who get swept together with the behaviour brush are likely to have additional educational needs, to be living in care, or disadvantaged in other ways and are heavily over-represented in exclusion data. Are we saying that the type of behaviour that triggers permanent exclusion is a fixed characteristic of these children and not likely to change and this justifies their ejection from their community and their school? If so why are we funding and expanding alternative provision whose intended outcome is to change them? If not why do we set such a high barrier to their transfer to high quality specialist schooling? If we don’t see bad behaviour as a fixed characteristic then are we only excluding these children because we don’t have any way of teaching them that results in their behaving differently – in other words we’re stuck so they have to go?

Are we saying that mainstream schooling is only fit to meet the needs of children at the centre of a normal distribution for a wide range of characteristics and that children who do not match up should be identified as soon as possible and directed elsewhere, to home schooling or specialist provision?

And the big questions: What’s the alternative?

There are alternatives to focusing on deficits and taking a deficit-focused diagnostic approach to the changing and often unpredictable needs of children as they grow up – and of their teachers and other adults in school for that matter.

From outside education, taking a broad view clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman proposes a shift towards a psychosocial approach to wellbeing and mental health. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have developed the idea of positive psychology, focusing away from the general preoccupation of psychology with dysfunction and towards positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, well-being and flourishing and human strengths such as hopefulness, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility.

As a teacher/researcher I’ve been working with the solution-focused approach to pastoral support, centred on behaviour but with the much wider application of a non-specific strengths focused approach to any hoped-for change.

There are numerous examples of committed educational professionals challenging the prevailing conventions, Nancy Gedge, Tom Sherrington, Tim Taylor for example all thinking and writing about their ideas and communicating on the web.

I believe it’s in a teacher’s nature to gravitate towards kindness and compassion as a counter-balance to the necessary control and regulation that we as adults model for growing children. I believe the shift towards the recognition of strengths and all this brings in supporting children’s healthy image of themselves and their wellbeing has come of age.

Now we need to join hands in doing more of it, more of the time, to the benefit of all.



1500 words



Punished to exclusion ….. or

People find it very difficult to judge the power of their response to a challenge.

However gentle the first tap, the replying hit would be harder, more painful. And the next harder still, and the next, ratcheting up. Somehow, mysteriously and even if they were doing their level best to give as good as they got, they couldn’t do it. An eye for an eye is rarely achievable, escalation seems to be unavoidable, it’s human nature, it’s road rage. You scratch my paintwork and I’ll kill you.

We’ve seen many cases of children suffering violence in places like secure units, residential homes and special schools set up with the specific purpose of educating and caring for children who behaviour pushes the patience of others to its limits. People who staff places like these know know what’s in the air, the children who get sent there are likely to be difficult, in your face, uncooperative, likely to fall out with each other, difficult to engage, hard to reach. They’re like all children can be, they can all be annoying at times, but with more intensity and focus and the need to push harder against boundaries to see if they really are what they seem to be, the guarantors of safety and care. Where education gives way to control and children are seen as being incapable of engaging their own resources to bring about new learning, where education is abandoned in favour of management, children suffer. And without doubt, adults suffer too, given no other option than relating to children in ways that impair rather than strengthen human relationships.

Organisations running these facilities quote their values when things get out of hand, remind us that they are bound by their ethos. They tell us that they’re shocked by what they themselves are doing, that it goes against their principles and that abuse will be rooted out. Staff are made to carry the can.

There’s something dreadfully cyclical here, a circle of insult. We seem to accept as a fact that when children are categorised at an early age as offenders, badly behaved and harmful, what happens to them is somehow their fault. We don’t seem sufficiently struck by the painful irony of adults modelling the one-sided use of power, control and violence being the accepted way to teach children to be gentle and forgiving.

Is there any way of breaking into the cycle of punishment, segregation and exclusion?

The procedures commonly enshrined in school behaviour policies is in line with official directives and the guidance of most behaviour experts. There is always a brief mention of values and rewards and a much longer, detailed description of how penalties and punishments are to be applied to mis-behaving children. The escalation is planned, in response to recalcitrance or lack of remorse, a ‘continuum of exclusion’ as one school describes it. It provides simplicity and stability in dealing with the complexity of children and their behaviour, a steady deck in a troubled sea. It’s so well established it’s taken for granted even though the huge field trial of its use across the educational board over decades show it to be inadequate to the task. If it really was the full and final answer inclusion rather than exclusion of children would be the outcome. As it is thousands of children are excluded from schools, abused in secure units and go on to reoffend – this is hard evidence of the need to do something different.

So far, doing more of the same has trumped innovation.

Several years ago a new behaviour tsar, Charles Taylor, was appointed by new Education minister Michael Gove in response to the sustained demand for better behaviour management in schools. Taylor was firmly committed to the status quo, all misbehaving children and their slack-jawed teachers needed was a lot more parade-ground drill. Make children learn the rules by rote and punish those who break them. Admittedly it didn’t come from his own experience of being at school at Eton or in the special school of which he was head teacher – he resorted to chats over tea and toast in his study apparently, but that’s another story.

There was no broad consultation leading up to this. Something a surgeon had written intended to prevent scissors being left inside patients Taylor cut and pasted to produce his version of the list. As an official expert he exhorted teachers to get their classes to chant it twice a day in every classroom in every school. Job done, he was promoted away and upwards to become Chief Executive of the teaching agency, having solved the behaviour problem. Now he is in charge of solving the reoffending problem for the minister of justice, the same Michael Gove. Maybe we’ll see the lists again, on the walls of secure units.

Meanwhile, he was replaced as behaviour tsar by Thomas Bennett, chosen by Nicola Morgan who replaced Michael Gove at the education ministry. Bennett too seems to be confident that the old ways are the best, children will become good citizens when we punish them. He does not seem to be unsettled by the fact that we abandon the teaching approach which is a good enough to get children to learn about everything else but not apparently about how to grow into their best cooperative, comfortable and kind selves. Again without proper consultation it has been decided that new teachers aren’t being properly trained in how to exert control, to regulate the good’uns and throw out the bad apples to more special schools, more PRUs and secure units, staffed by new and even more highly-trained behaviour managers, wherever they might be found.

Maybe. Is that really all we’ve got? A long-term exclusionary strategy to solve an immediate problem over the failure of inclusion? A strategy that has clearly failed in the past is to be relied on to bring success in the future?

There are people who are proposing radical alternatives to what is happening at the moment to bring the way we teach behaviour up to date. Things have moved on over the last hundred years and current social, educational, psychological and medical thinking at the very least cast doubt on whether reward and punishment is sufficient to meet the learning and mental health needs of growing children. In my own work, the solution-focused approach offers something new and hopeful for children punished to exclusion as a new pastoral pathway. In Wales the solution-focused approach forms the foundation of primary mental health care and it structures the NSPCC’s work nationally.

Positive psychology, led by Dr. Martin Seligman in combination with Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow is breaking new ground and providing an alternative from that direction. The positive effects of exercise, relaxation and meditation on healthy academic, social and emotional development are being examined and talked about. From Australia we’re hearing about psychologist Dr. Sue Roffey’s work with the Wellbeing Institute and social worker Dr. Andrew Turnell’s ‘Signs of Safety’ solution-focused alternative to risk-centred planning for children in or approaching the care system is moving strongly into the U.K.

Meanwhile, quietly and confidently, there are numerous examples of developed professionals taking a reflective stance to develop ways of working that strengthen children’s health and inclusion. Headteacher John Tomsett’s approach to teaching older students by foregrounding their mental health needs is a good example.

If we were to look further, there would be many examples of good practice.

I think we should put them all together to build our communal voice in calling for change, starting today.


Behaviour management: myth or monster?



Children’s behaviour must be externally managed by one psychological approach – reward them when they get it right, punish them when they get it wrong. Behaviour has to be managed from the outside, children can’t be trusted to make their own futures and they have to be pushed, extrinsically motivated.

The worse the behaviour, the more forceful and unpleasant the punishment required.

Children themselves aren’t the target of the punishment of course and it’s not necessary to engage the child as a person, it’s the behaviour not the child that we want to change.

If punishment does not alter the child’s behaviour this is clear evidence of a deficit within the child, there’s something wrong with them.

The child’s inability to change is a symptom of some kind of mental disorder, justifying their exclusion and removal to a different form of provision, usually with a collapsed curriculum.

There is no alternative to the strategy of reward and punishment. We’ve got what we’ve got and have to make the best of it.


Strength-focused teaching and coaching are essential skills of that professional teachers use routinely in their academic and pastoral work.

Children are innately cooperative. Regardless of whether things go right or wrong, what we do next after any behaviour event depends on children’s resourcefulness and cooperation. We can and do depend on it.

When we conceptualise children as resourceful, successful and hopeful and treat them appropriately, we can focus together on strengths and solutions instead of on deficits and problems.

People are the best experts in themselves, regardless of their age.

Children are always in a state of change and build resources to deal with it. Harnessing their strengths and focusing on productive goals that are intrinsically motivating leads to further strengthening of their resources.

Children and their behaviour are inextricably intertwined. Treating them as doing their best even when the challenge almost overcome their resources protects their self-image as resilient people in a community of kindness.

Treating the problem as what it is, something to be solved rather than as a sign of something deeper and disordered makes it manageable. Problems always contain their  own solutions – our job is to look for them.

A practical alternative to psychological conditioning is inquiry-based teaching, cooperatively and creatively finding clues to the solution to a problem, doing more of what works until the problem evaporates. The child remains securely in school – no disorder, no collapsed curriculum.

The outcome of this process is children’s inclusion and success in their own community in school in place of exclusion.


Punish-and-reward, push-and-pull, is a multi-headed monster, it pops up everywhere, in school behaviour policies, government guidelines, expert advice, from the mouths of the kindest people and the strictest disciplinarians alike.

At its fiercest it causes thousands of children to become cast adrift from their friends and familiar surroundings, to lose their access to the full curriculum in their home community that is theirs by right. At its mildest it shows children the boundaries and reminds them they’re there, mild penalties for minor infringements.

But to stand in awe of this monster is wrong. It’s time we looked carefully at other options, at things that teachers and others who support children are doing day-to-day in other ways, out of fierce kindness and properly thought out care.

My own approach is solution-focused and I’m sure that there are other strengths-focused ways of working that teachers have developed that parallel it, maybe unspoken, maybe unformalised.

Let’s go looking for them, talk, spread the practice to balance up the power that the punishment focused monster wields. Or maybe to make it go away.

It’s time.


New book:  Geoffrey James (2016) “Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers” SAGE  available on Amazon as Kindle/paper editions


















The bust


Teaching, relationship and children’s mental health

The problem

Are good teacher/student relationships important in promoting children’s mental health?

When the subject of children’s behaviour comes up, teacher/student relationship is always mentioned as an important factor in the development of good behaviour. Good relationships engender good behaviour, good learning and good memories of school too.

When we talk about behaviour it’s not usually good behaviour that’s the main topic.

Good behaviour gets treated as if we can take it for granted, there might be the odd sticker or treat but we don’t really shout about it.

The good relationships between teachers and students and the good behaviour and success in school that goes with it are the norm, unremarkable, largely unnoticed.

The hot topic is bad behaviour. Then, under instruction from the behaviourist psychologists it is pursued, single- mindedly.

“I like you, I don’t like your behaviour” we say to baffled students, as we give them another reason to feel uncomfortable. We wouldn’t say “It’s not you who’s getting another Saturday detention, it’s your behaviour” because that sounds too odd, but that’s what we intend them to comprehend.

Although we might have the mental agility to square that particular circle, children don’t and punishment is a significant factor in leading a student to dislike a teacher. It spoils their relationship. School can turn into a place where a student who makes mistakes can get labelled, isolated, rejected and feels the same in return.

Do they feel it in their heart or can they rationalize it as something impersonal, their behaviour not them? It’s an uncomfortable fact that many students who get tagged with the ‘bad behaviour’ label have additional learning needs or are looked-after children. Do we really expect them to survive the experience of loss, punishment and segregation cheerily unmarked?

We know all this but we persist in doing things to children who make mistakes, to make them change their ways, to force them to comply.

By now you might be thinking that I’ve gone too far. What I’m writing here is a parody, many teachers care deeply about their students, the more needy no less than the more robust. I’d say you’re right and I’d go further, most teachers care deeply.


The current process by which badly-behaved children (whatever we take that to mean) are managed by control and coercion is pretty well universal and teachers have no alternative but to follow the trodden path, no matter what their heart says.


There is an alternative that strengthens relationship and develops change at the same time. It’s called solution-focused support. It has built in to it the promotion of children’s mental wellness because it focuses on their resourceful, resilient, autonomous, self-actualising self.

The one we all want to see shining through.

The solution.


New book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ Geoffrey James (2016) Sage


Solutions for behaviour – No white lines, fewer crashes

Removing the white lines on roads results in drivers taking more responsibility for keeping themselves safe. More safety, fewer crashes.

That’s an odd idea isn’t it? But I must say that it often strikes me that when I’ve got so many signs, lines and instructions to pay attention to it’s almost impossible to watch the clock that tells me how fast I’m going.

As Simon Jenkins writes in today’s Guardian, in the 1990’s a Dutch engineer, Hans Monderman, took a leap of imagination. He thought of streets as ‘shared spaces’ and that they’d be safer if road users were trusted to share, to be self-policing. He ran some trials and they showed his idea worked. Now in 400 towns across Europe they’ve turned off the traffic lights and scrubbed off the paint.

The Automobile Association isn’t keen. In fact they want more road markings and tell us that the safety technology on some cars relies on them so removing them would be a bad thing.

Here’s a thing. The research shows clear roads and self-regulating drivers are safer. There is no research to back up the AA’s claims of doom and gloom if we start to trust each other to not run us over instead of just following the rules and going as fast as we can. True, it’ll be inconvenient if the car builders have to rethink self-driving cars and we can’t sit in the back seat eating our breakfast on the way to work. Well, maybe not that inconvenient. A survey carried out at traffic lights showed that when the lights were switched off, people in cars and crossing the road looked at each other to check when it was safe to go and safer to stop. The result was traffic moved more smoothly and no-one got hurt. Odd, that.

Now I’d not go as far as to say we could just cut and paste this idea into schools without some thought. There have to be boundaries to behaviour, like if you want to drive a racing car you go to a race track, not a Tesco car park.

But hold on a minute. Some schools are doing this already, they do seem to survive without so many road markings. When a school is a shared space, as Monderman put it, people pay attention to each rather than to the technology of regulation.

The education equivalent of the AA rises up in anger when they hear of a school breaking the rules by not painting them on every available surface. The outgone Behaviour Guru, Charlie Taylor’s sole legacy to schools is a list of rules and regulations, that he said we must write on the walls of every classroom and recite twice a day. Of course we didn’t do as we were told. More traffic lights.

Rules and regulations or personal responsibility? More paint or more paying attention to each other?

Oh, better be off, the lights have changed.


Solutions for behaviour – Behaviour and Snake Oil


                             Sixty second summary

If we were designing our approach to helping children behave well in school today, we wouldn’t start from where we are now. The reward and punishment approach has been subjected to a long field-trial, a natural experiment, which shows up its limitations. It produces segregation of a large minority of children and promotes exclusion. It’s largely unchallenged and is vociferously supported by its proponents, but may be no more than an undesirable habit. It’s under-researched and poorly described theoretically at classroom level.

It’s a good time to go back to first principles and to take a look at what we could do better, to escape the loop we’re in now. There is an alternative to this approach that acknowledges recent developments in diverse scientific fields and it should be trialled, researched and assessed for it’s value as an additional practice in schools. What we have now is problem-focused problem-solving, very valuable in its right place. What we might add is solution-focused problem-solving, a powerful new force for learning and change.


                             Ten minute read

A welcome to you

I’m writing this for you, as you set off on your adventure into teaching today and tomorrow.

It might be you first year in harness or your fifteenth, duration is irrelevant.

What is highly relevant is your perspective on teaching.

If you’re like me and come into the work with an open mind, susceptible to the energy of new ideas and knowingly vulnerable to change in the interest of transforming your practice towards the best it can be, then we’re talking.

If my naming this piece ‘Behaviour and Snake oil’ caused a little flare of interest and you’re still reading, because you think behaviour and how we approach it is something worth questioning, then you’re very welcome to stay and reflect on some issues with me.

But if you thought this piece was going to be the promotion of one perspective, The Truth, over what’s written on the a bottle of Snake Oil, if you’re perfectly at ease with the status quo and A/E/G then you may as well pick up your Fender Strat and leave.

If that sounds a bit discriminatory – well, it is. We seem to have arrived at a place where those determined characters who declare The Truth to be One Thing hold the centre ground and respond to those who offer Another Thing by shouting at them in the hope they’ll go away. This has the effect of keeping things as they are. It doesn’t matter how reasonably an alternative is presented, it’s clearly rubbish and not even to be nodded at, so there! they say.

So thanks for coming along to all of you, goodbye and good luck if you’re leaving. You can pick up a leaflet as you go, no charge. Or not.

Rockin’ all over the world

It’ll take a few moments for things to settle down and we can go from there once we have a quiet space. I’ll just note this on the board;

The threshold concept: Changing behaviour – from the inside or the outside?

If we started thinking from scratch about children’s learning, the kind of behaviour we hope for, it’s likely that we’d come up with lots of ways we could go about growing children into happy co-operators making the most of school. Taking a bold approach we wouldn’t be in awe of other professional groups but stand confidently on our own ground as educators.

 What have we got now?

There are two main approaches; (1) centred on the use of unequal power and authority by the adult to bring about behaviour change from the outside, (2) centred on the resourcefulness or agency of the child to navigate change from the inside.

(1) Behaviour in schools at present is dominated by the Rossi-Parfitt approach to rock and roll. The argument goes like this; we’ve got reward and punishment, it’s simple, it doesn’t need much thought to do it because it’s habitual and it’s popular. So we’ll keep on rockin’, no change.

It’s so well established that it seems like a natural truth, whereas it’s actually no more than an accident of history. A century ago behaviourist psychology seemed to offer firmer ground than mentalism when it came to the inscrutable nature of the mind and it appealed to school managers and their managers. Rats running around mazes could stand in for children in schools. Corporal punishment was legal and in use until 1987 and transferring to other forms of punishment, shocks for rats, could be seen as liberal treatment for offensive children.

With little grasp of its theoretical foundations but their own experiences of school in mind, reward and punishment was advocated by ministers of state and their civil servants. These were the levers that teachers must use to regulate children in schools of all types and phases, referral and secure units, approved schools (until 1969), borstals (until 1982) and special schools, all the way up to mainstream schools.

The educational effects of the behaviourist approach, whether intended and desired or not, were sidelined because the focus of the treatment was on behaviour change by conditioning as had been demonstrated in the experimental psychologists’ trials on animals. Most animals don’t have the kind of personalities that lead them to refuse to cooperate, living in a cage and given electric shocks when they press a food button. Maslow’s hierarchy is unknown in the rat’s universe.

Complicating this apparent simplicity a good relationship between teacher and pupil was recognised as essential by the earliest inquirers, Lord Elton and his panel of experts, into what engenders good behaviour. The effects of rewards and punishments on the quality of the relationship were not considered and were and are largely unknown1. Certain characteristics were desirable as learning outcomes for the main part of the curriculum, such as engagement, self-regulation, self-discipline and resilience. For children who behaved badly these were put aside. They were not to be the intended aims of behaviour management from this perspective, focused on external discipline and extrinsic motivation.

The outside-in approach also explains the odd fact that schools have been pushed to treat children’s growing and maturing as people as something that can be scripted and taught, with the social and emotional curriculum, delivered to children in massed ranks.

And when things have got too difficult for schools to manage, cognitive behaviour therapy might be available; this requires the child to develop insight on the connection between their bad behaviour and their distorted thinking, to accept that their thinking is in fact distorted and to be willing to cooperate and change, to develop more positive cognitive processes. If the patient does not express their motivation they won’t be taken on.

Do you think this will work with children you know?

(2) Despite the widespread use of external control and discipline there has been another note to be heard, when you listen carefully. It’s embedded in what most teachers actually do with all children and only depart from when led away by unwanted behaviour into taking all the power into adult hands.

They’re both well-organised and kind at the same time, keeping the child at the centre of their work.

In the 20th century, Carl Rogers developed the idea of person-centred psychology and its application to education. Rogers died in 1987. Martin Seligman, born in 1942 and 35 years old when Rogers died has carried the baton to the present, with his development of positive psychology. At the core is a refocusing away from children’s deficits and towards their strengths.

When a school is identified as attempting to manage behaviour without punishment it makes the deficit-focused behaviour experts jump up and down with fury, because this represents a rejection of the Truth. It’s a paradigm shift and such a big realignment in thinking can cause a nasty headache. Opponents of this shift tend to characterise it as no more than an acceptance of blind optimism and a ruling out of failure and negativity but as well as being a cartoon representation this misses the point as far as education is concerned.

As children grow and develop they are bound to make errors. My own practice and research2 has shown that by treating what is called bad behaviour as a learning error and paying attention to the child’s resourcefulness and natural tendency towards what Rogers called self-actualisation, change happens from the inside. The learner’s agency brings it about, reinforcing their desired strengths such as autonomy, resilience and self-discipline. In my work this has led to the prevention of exclusion of children at high risk.

It’s time to stretch our legs and walk into the world again.

What might we do next? Starting from scratch as we are, we could try jumping paradigms. When child gets one thing wrong in their behaviour, it doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing right. Find out what it is. When we think of children as resourceful, successful and hopeful we can go looking for growth and change knowing we’ll find them.

We’ll be Solution Detectives, searching for clues to success.

And if the child needs a higher magnification glass?

They might move on to solution-focused brief therapy. Which means doing more of the same, more of what works, based on the same three beliefs.

Simple. But more than Rossi-Parfitt.


Next steps

Be solution-focused and do the research – extend Payne’s (2015) investigation. Use the solution-focused approach in schools and evaluating the outcomes from multiple perspectives, including students and their carers/parents, teachers and other staff.




(About 1650 words)


1) Ruth Payne (2015) Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: pupils’

perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies, Educational

Review, 67:4, 483-504, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1008407

To link to this article:


2) Geoffrey James (2016) ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ London: Sage

Available on Amazon


Solutions for behaviour – skating on thin ice

Sixty second summary

Behaviour management in schools is made up of two parts.

One part is fairly uncontroversial, aimed at making the classroom a manageable and productive space and to encourage children to cooperate and comply. It’s about the rules and regulations and how they’re selected and applied. Classroom management is a necessary part of a teacher’s job and when is done well is positive and productive.

The other part is what we do with children who misbehave, disrupt, offend, their behaviour couched in different language to that which we use to describe error-making in the rest of the school curriculum. It is the highly coercive way in which we use punishment as we set about attempting to control children who don’t spontaneously fall into line. This second aspect has become a habit, strongly supported by some in an unreflective way, causing discomfort to others who see it at being at best anachronisitic and at worst intentionally cruel and segregationist, but nonetheless habitual with no real alternative in view.

In this article I propose a possible means of bringing this habit under the microscope and suggest an alternative way of working that supports ideals of education and social justice. It also offers a way of collecting resources and building a community of interest.

Are you interested in joining in?

Ten minute read

Where are we today?

We have a one-size-fits-all behaviour management system, unchanged for generations, which we use to handle every child going through school. It was set up long before the developments in social and natural sciences which give us new and exciting insights into the learning process and the way the learning brain operates as a dynamic, changeable biological powerhouse. It was set up when ideas about criminal justice were clear-cut and those about social justice lagged far behind.

The existing behaviour management system has twin aims;

1) To regulate and shape the natural behaviour of children so that groups are moved as smoothly as possible through the experience of schooling. What we do varies from school to school and class to class and is largely undisclosed and unexamined, but it does a good enough job for millions of children in school every year.

2) To identify and control the significant minority of children who do not conform to behavioural standards and school rules and regulations. It is designed as a process leading through increasingly harsh punishment to permanent ejection as the ultimate deterrent and is typically written into school behaviour policies as such. The children at highest risk of entering the punishment/exclusion track are those with a disability, living in Care, with special educational needs, who are are mentally unwell, or experiencing trauma or the effects of trauma. The adverse effects of exclusion are well known in limiting the life chances of children, but while some individual schools have adopted alternative inclusionary practices, in general there is no substantiated challenge to the ruling dogma that says punishment is an aid to learning.

What are teachers already doing to keep so many children working and behaving well in school?

Across the broad sweep of the curriculum it is not the hard-edged reward and punishment systems of behaviour management that keep children securely and productively in school. In my experience as specialist behaviour support teacher and a researcher I have not come across a single teacher applying reinforcement schedules according to a strict protocol firmly based on behaviourist experimental findings.

The classroom does not have the features of an experimental laboratory that allows for the proper control of experimental variables. This is recognized by psychologists and evidenced by the reproducibility problems that are being identified across the broad field of positivist scientific research. In the complexity of the classroom it is teachers’ skills of relationship, their empathy and flexibility and their professional drive that leads to the full inclusion of children.

Teachers respond to children’s individual learning needs by identifying the gaps in knowledge and understanding and then teaching to bridge the gap. If a child is struggling in maths and pesters the teacher for help, the teacher responds by teaching them maths, with a clear intended educational outcome of their work. For teachers, managers, parents/carers and the children themselves this is seen as good practice.

So why, when most children remain more or less happily in school, are tens or hundreds of thousands excluded for a day or more and around five thousand permanently excluded every year?

Across the academic curriculum when a learner makes an error we teach them. That’s our job as teachers.

When a child disrupts a class or misbehaves according to predefined standards they are making an error, they are not matching up with the pattern we have ascribed as being good. We expect a child to make errors in everything they’re learning and in the deep complexity of learning how to be a person, to behave in an what is seen as an acceptable way, they’ll make a lot of errors.

When we go about error correction as teachers we may well have diagnostic methods specific to the subject we’re teaching but we don’t slip into an analytical routine, asking why the child is making errors in say maths, what’s in her background, her family tree, her upbringing that made her into a miscalculator. It’s not seen as relevant in causing her error in maths or science or literacy. We put it down to a gap in her basic knowledge or in how she applies that knowledge and teach her appropriately. Interestingly we don’t subject the student to a punishment routine as our way of correcting her errors.

But when a student misbehaves in school that’s exactly what we do. We use our skills of amateur diagnosis to justify taking control of a child’s life for their own benefit, with an under-the-breath ‘this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.’ We are likely to assert that the bad behaviour is an expression of a internal fault and label the child as ADHD, ASD, MLD, BESD, etc.– a disordered person.

When a child misbehaves and sets off down the exclusionary path, we intentionally hurt them because they are the doer of the behaviour, even as we recite the mysterious mantra ‘I like you but I don’t like your behaviour.’

It’s what the theory tells us to do – punishment must be unpleasant to have an effect and it will interrupt existing behaviour. The unwanted behaviour will temporarily disappear and when it reappears as we know it will, the behaviour policy instructs us to punish again and more cruelly.It’s psychological not pedagogical theory but it’s there as pedagogical practice.

Except that in our kind, reflective teachers’ hearts we know this isn’t right and true. Not all of us maybe – but many of us.

Why do we keep on doing it?

Two reasons spring to mind.

One is that we’re gripped by a long-standing habit. Habits are hard to break and self-righting, like lifeboats. There is a great deal of evidence to show that using reward and punishment to attempt to cause new learning and consequent behaviour change is inappropriate to the intended learning outcomes of the approach. Coersive methods produce compliance, when we publically aspire to develop something different in students; their independence, resilience and self-motivation, Dweck’s growth mindset if you want to use her terminology.

This particular habit is very powerful and shrugs off challenges. It’s a very simple to operate a habit, just allow it to switch on and let it run, no thinking needed.

A second reason is that people tend to attribute their own errors in behaviour to factors outside themselves, but the errors that someone else makes to a fault or inadequacy within that person, discounting external factors. This is known by social scientists as the attribution error and we hear it in everyday talk when a child says ‘It’s not my fault!’

If you get in someone’s way when you’re in a busy shop, you know you weren’t meaning to be awkward. It was just too many people in a small space and you’ve got two children to keep hold of; not your fault. But when someone blocks your path, you know they’re just selfish or not looking where they’re going or a bad parent for not controlling their children properly. If you wanted to sort the problem out, you’d be better off speaking to them than just standing there fuming; asking if they need help or could just shift a bit so you could pass by. Because of course they make the same error looking at you, it’s your personal fault not theirs, it’s the business of the shop or the height of the shelf.

How we solve the problem effectively is to put everything together; whether we have the nerve to speak to them, what we notice about their height relative to the shelf, how much of a hurry we’re in, how hungry we are, how hard it is to keep children in sight, in fact using our expertise about ourself in our life as it is to come up with a plan of action, a solution.

That’s all very well when we’re talking about grown-up people in shops.

What has it got to do with children and their behaviour in school?

As teachers we might not be aware of the attribution error in a formal way, but we know that children’s learning is affected by internal and external factors. When a student makes an error we don’t necessarily put it down to a deficit in the child. It has been well demonstrated that as children get hungry they behave worse and their learning can suffer too.

We might allow for that in the last half-hour before lunch and not put it down to a willful intention to muck about or deliberate refusal to pay attention to the task in hand. At the same time we don’t give up – ‘I know it’s nearly lunchtime and we have just enough time to get this right’ – knowing that the student is the only one who can balance their hunger pangs with their drive to be successful and with your hope that they can keep going.

You’ve framed the task in a particular way by acknowledging their low blood-sugar levels are real and by time-limiting the effort needed. ‘A bit more work and then you’re there.’

But there is also the possibility that the behaviour, messing about and losing focus, catches us and we get drawn into the control and punishment routine. If the child gets labelled as a repeat offender, it becomes more likely they’ll be seen that way and good teaching goes out of the window, along with their attention. And they might only have been hungry all along.

What can we do to improve things?

A habit can be interrupted by consciously questioning it as it starts to swing into action. It’s more likely to give way if there is another clear group of ideas and actions to use instead and keeping the focus on solutions rather than on problems offers a distinct alternative.
Build a resource base of the evidence demonstrating the strengths and limitations of both the reward/punishment approach and the solution-focused approach and where they are most effective in community and educational terms. I am setting up a new website for ‘Solutions for behaviour’ to host the evidence base.
Keep it simple. The idea is not to abandon classroom management as a structured and learnable aspect of behaviour management but rather to recognise its scope as a teacher-centred process and combine it with practical and pragmatic student-centred work. Overall don’t try to push the whole existing structure over, go one step at a time where change is useful and most likely to stick.
Build a community of practioners and academic thinkers to communicate, apply and evaluate this new resource. The ‘Solutions for behaviour’ website will provide the village street where we can meet to exchange ideas.
Are you interested?

It’s my best hope that you are. Let’s get going.


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


2212 words


Waving, not drowning

You know that feeling you get when you think you know what you’re doing and then someone points out that you don’t and it’ll end in disaster?

One minute you’re up.

‘This is a great idea, I’m so clever, it’s hard to do but I’m making it work!’ your inner voice whispers.

The next minute you’re down.

‘Oh no, I’ve got it all wrong, now what can I do, I’m so stupid I can’t even get the simplest things right.’

Like life really, ups and downs.


We paddle about in the shallows quite happily and then a big wave rolls in, nearly washes us off our feet, all excitement, falling down, getting up, losing your feet, finding them.

Then energy dissipates in foam and rolling shingle, leaves a few bright shells, bits of seaweed, smoother sea for paddlers.

Until the next big wave.

We had one recently, it was thrilling, knocked us all over place but we bobbed up and turned to watch it crashing onto the beach, all that power ending up in a swoosh and swash.

Beachcombing. Finding for free.

Press an ear to the big pink shell

‘Teach children their brain is muscle, exercise will make it grow,’ it whispers, ‘do this and all will be well’.

‘oh and …..,’ it whispers a bit more, ‘… if they’re rubbish at maths don’t say ok you’ve done your best and you’re good at other things, tell them they’re not any good at maths yet, but maybe they will be one day.’

‘Oh, sorry, and ….,’ your arm is beginning to ache now because it is actually quite a heavy shell, ‘remember to focus praise on the process not the product and … all will be well’.

This is a bit weird because we know that when you listen to a shell you hear the sea. Maybe this is Cymopoleia, goddess of giant waves, speaking to us about teaching? About teaching! That would be even more weird.

Mooch back home, pink shell in one hand seaweed in the other to think this through.

A nice cup of tea.

OK, it wasn’t Cymopoleia whispering in the shell, it was Carol Dweck. It’s her wave that nearly knocked us down. But the energy has mostly gone, caught and absorbed by us as we do, the voice stilling though echoes remain.

Listen to the shell,

‘You’ve got one mind, two mindsets and a flabby brain. Use one dump the other, grow brain muscle or be stupid.’ Ache.

‘Oh …. And all will be well…’


Dweck moves on, using her trumpet to blow other seas into different waves, talking to mothers of fresh new material who should get on with growing their babies’ giant thinking muscles too. When these babies arrive in school they’ll have to wear extra big hats to shield them from the sun.

Then us teachers can get back to mooching about in the shallows, growing children into people, laughing and drinking tea.

Solutions for behaviour – Treadmills and tracks

You’re a teacher.

It’s a new year and the old routines from last term are there, waiting for you like comfortable slippers.

The routines to get children ready for learning every day and the ones for behaviour, ready to make life and learning in your classroom buzz with energy and enjoyment. Behaviour is good, stress is low.


There’s one student, you don’t know what it is, she seems so….. awkward. What worked for everyone else just didn’t work with her and she’s there too, ready and waiting.

As for advice? There’s a galaxy of management advice out there, all designed to get you ahead of behaviour, to maintain the rules and rotes and the learning.

You’re a student.

It’s a new week, the room looks the same except the decorations have gone, the teacher has done the same old things, shown you the same old list of rules on the wall, told you the same old story, we’re here to learn and to enjoy the learning and all that. It’s great to see you friends, hard not to chat and catch up, but not too hard. We can do it in the gaps. Our teacher says we’re the best, so I suppose he must be right. I’ve got egg on my shirt. I wonder what we’ve got for lunch. I’m hungry.

You’re a student.

It’s another day in school and the old routines from last term are there waiting for you like stones in your shoes.

Things went wrong last term, the first term in high school after all the years of comfortable familiarity in your four primary schools and it’s already gone wrong here.

It started in the classroom, you got it wrong and your teacher told you what would happen if you messed up other children’s work. Your teacher did his best, he kept telling you the rules and showing you where they were written up in class. He told you when you were getting it right but it didn’t seem to help. There were the warnings, the sharp look, by half term you were in detention, boring, sitting with teachers thinking about your mum while you were supposed to be thinking about what you did wrong and feeling sorry about it. Life for mum isn’t easy, she’s not well and it’s hard to forget about her in school. You worry about her all the time really.

As for advice? You’ve been given plenty, too much to remember, but you’ve done it again, got it wrong and it’s another breaktime sitting in here with him looking at you.

He’s tried talking to you.

‘It’s not hard to understand is it? It’s a fair rule, disrupting other students in class is not acceptable. It’s your responsibility, a consequence of your actions and if you don’t sort it out soon  you’ll be out of this school. It’s a detention then and you’d better be there, thirty minutes at the end of school today.’

Blah, blah, blah. I hope mum’s feeling.

Who’s your guru?

You’re a teacher. You build your own routine, knowledge into practice, try it out, shape it, automatic, optimistic.

Books on the bookshelf, blogs online, chats in the staffroom and everything’s fine.

From the basics of Bill Rogers, evergreen advice, fair rules and wait time, consequences, ignoring and owning the class.

Or knit businessman Doug Lemov’s sixty two dance moves into your intricate control and performance art, look, step, turn, touch.

Echoes of the seventies, the quaint ideas of the Canter’s Assertive Discipline, the public shaming of children by writing their names up on the board, punishment for the sharpening of pencils not minds.

All the time there’s the flowing stream of advice, this week’s top tips from the current crop of behaviour experts, nothing new, ploughing the familiar field.

Pick and choose, mix and match, reward and punish, worry about that awkward girl, follow the rules.

Twenty nine happy crew, only one lost overboard yet you’re feeling like a failure when you have time you look at her, if you can’t remember to forget. Or not to worry.

All this advice and nobody can tell you what to do to prevent her climbing the hill to exclusion when punishment doesn’t work.

But nobody said ‘Step off and smile.’

Until now.

Step off the treadmill and onto a different track. There’s another way of approaching this and her and it’s so counterintuitive it might make you smile. It does me.

Focus on this;

It might not seem like it, but she’s a hopeful, successful and resourceful person. You can depend on it.

She’s only eleven but she’s got a lot of experience, of being her in her life. She brings it with her every day, it’s her gift to you.

When she wakes up hoping for a good day, it’s into a life known to her, unknown to you, things to cope with outside of your reckoning. Yet she turns up in your class in her uniform, nearly, sits down, more or less and hopes things will go better, at least here, with you, safe and warm for a few moments, minutes, hours.

Focus on the solution and not on the problem

She’s hoping for something in this moment, in your class. You could ask her what it is. “What’s your best hope for this lesson?”

She’s being successful. “What’s gone well so far?” You could ask her that.

What would tell her the lesson’s gone OK, if it was over and she was looking back at it? Now that’s an interesting question.

She’s resourceful. You could give her a job to do, just for her. “Look out for things going well and I’ll ask you about it when we get to the end. Let’s get started.”

What’s different?

She’s engaged, interested, active in building her own future, trusted, motivated by what she’s hoping for getting real. You’re pulling together, not pushing apart. She’s resourceful, an agent in her own success. You’re talking clearly, briefly, asking questions you could ask of anyone in his class, nothing different, respecting her, listening to her voice, hanging on her words.

Do things go well? Of course they do, there’s kindness in the air, she’s working towards his hoped-for future in her successful now and she doesn’t need you to push her, she’s self-propelled.

This is solution-focused teaching. You can do it. You’re a teacher, a teaching assistant, a head of year, a human, the best person in the right place.

(If you want to know more about this approach, solution-support, you’re welcome at as a first stop.)


Coming soon: New book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom; a solution-focused guide’ Sage

Behaviour Report Card – 2016 week 1

Section 1: What’s been happening this week with behaviour as we set out into the new term?

  • A behaviour expert, who asked not to be quoted and who shall therefore remain anonymous, has told us that in his personal experience of working in a secondary school, 95% misbehaviour is opportunistic. Children are poised and waiting for the opportunity to muck about unless he can get in there first. These children are just firing up randomly and all the careful preventative teaching and reinforcement of rules hasn’t worked to control their impetuosity. Consequently the best preventative action is to warn them they’re being watched and if the student still makes a break for the gap they’ve been warned so they’ll understand that it’s a fair cop. This is for non-serious behaviour. If this doesn’t work and behaviour is serious it’s time to get the big guns out, we’re told. This means handing the student and the problem over to someone else so they can do the nasty but necessary follow-on work.
  • In Lincolnshire a study gathering the views of lead teachers on behaviour found that TA support for behaviour was more effective than any other intervention. The brief report didn’t mention what the other interventions were or how the teaching assistants were trained, what approach they used and so on. But the claim warrants further investigation as TAs take a major support role with children most greatly in need. This flags up the need for research, training and development around the TA role in behaviour support, in addition to the highly publicised need for high quality initial training for teachers in behaviour.
  • The headteacher of the Sands school in England is in line for a major award, in a school where the pupils have a voice in deciding what rules are useful and how they should be taught and learned. The school has taken this approach for many years, foregrounding student autonomy. A behaviour expert commented that in his view ‘sadly educational experiments like this rarely work outside of tiny privileged communities.’ This was countered by another commentator who has carried out and published research into the issue, who said he had surveyed students in schools in very disadvantaged areas and found that practices that enhanced autonomy and respect are key success factors for students. A third commentator said that she knew of many examples of this approach being successful in schools.
  • Children who are found guilty of an offence are sent to secure training centres. The Medway STC holds up to 78 children from 12 to 18. Seven staff including training centre assistants, team leaders and two duty operation managers at a G4S-run young offender institution were suspended on the 30th December after allegations were made that they used unnecessary force, including claims that staff punched and slapped children and squeezed their necks to restrain them. The Youth Justice Board, under Michael Gove the minister for justice who is advised on re-offending by the ex-Behaviour Guru Charles Taylor, has temporarily stopped placing children at the centre, which can hold up to 76 young offenders aged 12-18. This follows the recent removal of another training centre from G4S control for similar reasons, evidence of another kind of reoffending. What kind of training and supervision do G4S staff have to behave in this way in delivering training to these children and what does it reveal about this private companies’ ethos?


Section 2: Comment

There might be more to bad behaviour than just random opportunism. Maybe it’s often true enough and maybe some students need more than a quiet word and a tap on the shoulder. Maybe they are giving us the nod that they need attention of a different kind than the big gun if they struggle to comply.

What’s your view?

Teaching assistants are part of the team and need great support and the opportunity to develop as much as teachers do. If the problems with behaviour ars related to the quality and type of intial training of teachers this must be true for teaching assistants too. What’s missing is familiarity with the fundamental ideas that support different approaches to support. It might be argued that reward and punishment get results in some cases, but what effective teaching assistants actually do when they support a student will be broader than this, involving human qualities like empathy and the ability to make a productive professional relationship.

What’s your view?

Student autonomy or teacher control? Either/or or both/and? The question here is what is the educational purpose of behaviour support and the teaching of rule-following behaviour? If an overall purpose is to enable children to grow and flourish as active citizens, then in the crucial area of learning to behave an understanding of the importance of autonomy and personal agency is vital and not to be sidelined for ideological reasons. It’s a straightforward educational issue.

What’s your view?

Children permanently excluded from school are heavily over-represented in penal institutions. Ostensibly they are there to be educated but it looks more like punishment is allowable for their being children who made serious mistakes. The use of punishment as a behaviour management strategy comes into question when staff at all levels threaten the safety of children through their actions. But should they be punishing at all.

Note: it costs us £160,000 per year to keep one child in a secure training centre in the UK.

Money well spent?

What’s your view?


Section 3: Making changes

Is there any fairer and more effective alternative to the present use of punishment and control to support children who behave badly? Have a look around this website and see what catches your attention. Be solution-focused.

Look out for Behaviour Report Cardweek 2





Restorative Justice in schools – what? and why?

1) What is Restorative Justice?


2) Why it should not be used in schools

Proof of guilt

When someone is found guilty of committing an offence the justice system attempts to ensure that perpetrator suffers a suitable punishment for having committed the offence and makes restitution or compensation to the victim as evidence of their remorse. In the face of rising youth crime in the UK and the failure of punishment to prevent reoffending, restorative justice has been trialed as an alternative to summary justice.

The basic tenet of Restorative Justice is that people are categorised as offenders and victims and a guilty offender has caused harm to an innocent victim. Together with suffering punishment the offender must make amends, demonstrate remorse and provide compensation for harm done in order for justice to be done and Restorative Justice has been designed to fulfill this role.

Restoration for a harmful act is usually done at arms length, the victim may never come into direct contact with the offender who has harmed them.

Restorative Justice puts the offender face to face with their victim in a scripted dialogue with preset goals.

A new approach to crime and restitution

This approach was first tried out in Canada and came to the UK in the late 1980s. Four pilot victim-offender mediation projects were funded by the Home office and evaluated. The four projects spanned from the diversion of cases before court to post-conviction intervention. It was found that the majority of victims said they would like to meet the perpetrator and thought the meeting worthwhile. It was also found that some programmes applied pressure to victims to take part although their participation was supposed to be voluntary. Funding was withdrawn at the end of the pilot project although some local services like the probation service continued the practice in their areas.

Quite separately an approach to resolving complex problems was developed by New Zealand Maoris in the late 1980s. They were dissatisfied with the official child protection and youth justice system and adapted their existing village governance approach to these situations. Family members were empowered to make decisions about their own children, under the guidance of a community elder and subject to the review of the court.

I first came across this approach in my own work in the early 2000s when I was as a behaviour specialist teacher in a local authority school support team. I had a role in providing solution-focused supervision for colleagues in the Family Group Conferencing team. They used an adapted form of this Maori initiative as a means of preventing family breakdown and the movement of children into care. In 1990 the Family Rights Group, a UK national voluntary organisation promoted FGC for child kwelfare issues. A national pilot began in 1992 and expanded through the 90s with successful outcomes being reported nationally. In 2013 following an evaluation which demonstrated successful outcomes the team was disbanded in order to save money in the LA.

Mission creep

Family Group Conferencing was claimed by the Restorative Justice proponents as a form of restorative justice but it is difficult to see how this is justified as the work of the family conference was not initiated by the proven doing of harm by an offender to a victim. In fact in my experience the conference specifically avoided attributing deficits such as the intentional doing of harm to family and group members, looking instead for strengths and agreed solutions. Power was intentionally shared rather then being in the hands of professionals who defined others’ deficits and shortcomings – and strengths. However it is claimed that it is ‘In the same spirit as victim-offender mediation’.

The restorative justice movement, now incorporating a widening diversity of activities within it, was strengthened with the large scale involvement of police forces in the introduction of the Restorative Conference developed in Australia as another version of the Maori initiative. In this configuration the conference facilitator asks conference members a scripted set of questions intended to objectify the process. Out of this experience arose the Reintegrative Shaming Experiment (RISE) which has found international support of police forces.

In the UK it was taken up a small number of police officers who developed their own conferencing practice largely ignoring the basic tenets of restorative justice as originally conceived.

Family group conferencing in its turn was adapted for use in schools and the criminal justice system and has proved successful in dealing with young offenders guilty of serious offences.

If you want to know read this dispassionate history.

2) Why it should not be used in schools.

The restorative approach comes under criticism from several directions. Where the restorative conference approach is used to deal with bullying in schools, those who mistakenly believe that punishment is appropriate as a teaching approach and insist that bullies should always be punished characterise the restorative approach as ‘too soft’ because the bully gets away with their offence and the victim does not have the satisfaction of seeing the bully suffer punishment. These people ignore the likelihood that punishing children who bully others makes it more likely they will continue to bully, and may well pick on children who speak out against them. They also ignore the fact that punishment does not promote learning.

A second criticism is that for restorative justice to be initiated there has to be proven harm; the perpetrator has to be proven guilty or their guilt established to agreed levels of proof . This is always very difficult to achieve in schools because it relies on competing stories recalled and told by children to adults in a situation where there is an imbalance of power. School rules are not the same as statute law. Children accused of harming other children often refer to harm having been done to them and the responsibility chains outwards and away from the clear and simple initial bullying action. To put it more simply there is a real danger of victim blaming. This is one reason that providing pastoral support in schools is a tricky act to carry though with a balance of fairness and firmness.

My major criticism is that as educators we have to be able to specify the educational purpose of what we do in school with all students. In general we characterise children coming to us in school as hopeful, diligent people doing their best to be successful at whatever their stage of life and development. It is inevitable that they make mistakes as they try out all kinds of new things and we need the creativity and imagination to lead them past their mistakes to find success, no less in their behaviour as members of the community than in their spelling and maths and all the other areas of learning. We hope they will see mistakes as opportunities rather than barriers and as a focus for work rather than a magnet for punishment. We should aim for students to be motivated by the intrigue of a challenge not by fear of retribution. An overall aim of education is to enable children to grow in self-confidence and become independent thinkers and self-motivated. Coercive practices which depend on external motivation, where something has to be done to a child rather than with them militates against this kind of growth, it shifts responsibility away from a child whom we hope will become self-correcting.

So what do we intend children to learn through experiencing restorative justice? I will leave that question for you to answer, knowing what you know now.

We also know, with evidence coming from research on the placebo effect, that if one person’s confidence or lack of trust transfers to another even if it’s not spoken about. There is no educational justification for calling children intentional harm-doers and putting them into a process that depends on this characterisation. I have seen the wall posters in a school that uses RJ and they clearly state that it is all about harm, the doing of harm and restitution, in language primary aged children might understand. I have challenged the RJ trainer on this. She was adamant that RJ is not about calloing children harmful and then pursuing this theme, that RJ had moved beyond that whith Circle Time and classroom activities. Until I pointed out the wall posters, when she conceded that the process is built on characterising children in this way, knowing a child is harmful before the full process begins, resting the assignment of guilt on the evidence of children and bystanders.

The Center for Restorative Process in the USA says ‘Restorative Practices are a framework for building community and for responding to challenging behavior through authentic dialogue, coming to understanding, and making things right.’ This sounds worthy but the circle time proposed as the medium for restorative justice in school is based on the same closed understanding of deficit and the harmful child as before. It is not an authentic conversation because it’s not an open inquiry – it starts from a position of knowing that the offender is offensive. It claims to be a major innovation because it deflects punishment, but it is still retributive.


There’s a common theme to intervention programmes that have been introduced to schools from other contexts – they are rarely true replications of previous trials, being substantially modified for use with a different target group in a different context, in this case drawing a parallel between guilty criminals and school children making mistakes in their behaviour. The high level of training and support required to implement and evaluate intiatives is rarely sustained and what starts off as an integrated programme often ends as ‘tips and tricks’. This allows principles to be left behind and pragmatics to take over. In the case of restorative justice it can become no more than an adjunct to punishment rather than what is claimed, as a new paradigm. And there’s always the common argument that coercion is all we’ve got to manage behaviour so if we don’t do that what do we do?

Fair point. And the answer? Be solution-focused, not problem-focused. That really is a paradigm shift and it leaves extrinsic motivation in the dust and goes straight for self-motivated students as the intended educational outcome.


Is Restorative Justice an appropriate teaching approach for use in schools?

How do you justify your answer to this?

What would you like to see in your school to support children’s learning about behaviour?






Stop working so hard and dream for a while



Interesting suggestion Number 1

Our brains are never asleep but always active and scanning for information. Neuroscientists are renaming what used to be known as the ‘resting state’ as the ‘default mode network’.

Sounds good doesn’t it? ‘I wasn’t asleep I was activating my default mode network’. 3000 scientific papers have been published on this topic.

Interesting suggestion Number 2

Dreams seem to play a part in sorting out our memories. Here in the West we used to think that dreaming happened when the brain was resting when we were asleep because the scientists told us that. Arnie Mindell (Process Work Institute) ex-theoretical physicist turned psychotherapist knew about this a long time ago and wrote about it in ‘Dreaming while awake’ (2000). Australian aboriginal people have known about dreamtime even longer. Neuroscience is catching up, with evidence coming from animal studies, rats again.


We even have an everyday word for it.

‘Stop daydreaming,’ we tell our students, ‘Get on with your work’.

We also know that when our mind is unoccupied with the proper serious work it should be doing it tends to slip into future-focused thinking as we daydream about next weekend or the summer holidays to come.

The scientists who would rather talk about brains than minds can see all of the chief areas of the brain involved in imagining the future firing up as part of the default mode network. This is all mapping out quite nicely.

From the BBC article1, Moshe Bar from Harvard Medical School2thinks there might be a very good reason for that. He believes daydreaming essentially creates memories of events that haven’t happened and this gives us a strange set of “prior experiences” we can draw on to help us decide how to act if the daydreams ever do come to pass.’ Bar thinks that the memories of daydreams come into play and help the people decide how to behave in a situation that seems new.


Prepare yourself.

Focus on your breathing and relax.

Suppose you intentionally brought a daydream into existence in conversation with a child who was very near to exclusion because of a big problem, their seemingly irresistable and awful behaviour.

The daydream story would be about what they are good at, what they are hoping for in the future and how things will be with the problem gone, with the solution in place and all through their own strengths and resources.

With the daydream becoming a memory, they’d know how to behave the next time by referring back to it. All they have to do is remember the story and run it again. Bad behaviour forgotten, good behaviour remembered.

Nothing coming from the outside, no punishment and push but self-motivated change.

Interesting suggestion Number 3

Seems like a dream? Pie in the sky?

Well it’s not, it’s what solution-focused folk are doing worldwide. I’ve been doing it for years and it works like a dream. The good news is you can do it too!

And relax.




2 The proactive brain: memory for predictions Moshe Bar (March 2009.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0310)

And my Ph.D thesis here on /resources

Behaviour’s 3 Rs – Part 2; Reward

Part 2; Reward

Starting work as a specialist behaviour support teacher in 1998 I could see that punishment and reward were the twin pillars of behaviour management in my numerous schools.

I could see the awards and the children’s work displayed in the corridors, the school council members and the school’s values displayed in reception. ‘Every day is a new start’.

And yet some individuals, children from five to eighteen, had somehow outdistanced the rewards system and got caught up in punishment. The children I was called in to support seemed to be immune to the effects of rewards and most of them had worked their way to the cliff edge of permanent exclusion. If rewarding good behaviour worked disruptive behaviour would be prevented and there wouldn’t be the nedd to stamp it out. But disruptive behaviour has been a persistent worry over the decades so what’s going wrong?

Of all the big ideas flooding into the schooling system behaviourist psychology, which provides the basis for behaviour modification, can claim to be among the few firmly based on research evidence, it’s must be a problem of replication and our failure to apply it properly that produces the poor results. So what should we be doing to get the results we want?

I’m drawing on Walker (2014) in ‘Consequences of behaviour’ in this article which explains that ‘behavioral consequences (results) have a direct influence on the behavior a child exhibits. Behavior can be modified, that is, increased, initiated, or extinguished, by systematic manipulation of its consequences. The possible consequences of human behavior are classified as positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement, and punishment.’ Psychologists tend to talk of consequences to behaviour rather than reward and punishment in relation to the behavioural modification of children so let’s follow that trail.

There is plenty of advice including Mosier’s freely available on how to use consequences in the classroom. Let’s recap the basics on how it’s supposed to work. In the context of early years teaching from the Childcare quarterly cited above;

‘When appropriate, allow natural and logical consequences to redirect inappropriate or disruptive behavior. This will encourage self-direction and intrinsic motivation without inflicting the cognitive, social, and emotional damage caused by punishment. Supporting a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development requires well-honed communication skills. When talking to young children about behavior, differentiate between the child and the behavior. It’s the behavior that’s good or bad, not the child. A critical factor for successfully implementing developmentally appropriate child guidance is consistency.’

Is that clear to you? It’s doesn’t make sense to me; you have to talk to the behaviour not to the child and that way you’ll encourage intrinsic motivation in the person of the child who you are not addressing. It can’t be intrinsic to the behaviour because that’s not sentient. Let’s go on with Meiers.

‘You need to enforce rules consistently, even when it may be easier to look the other way. Children need to know what is expected of them. They have difficulty adjusting to unexpected change. When they display disruptive behavior, keep in mind that it may have been conditioned into them since toddlerhood. It’s unrealistic to assume that it will be extinguished in just one day. Behavior reinforced prior to the child’s being exposed to your classroom will take time to reshape. Don’t expect an overnight change.’

Disruptive behaviour is the result of established distorted thinking then and we’re in for the long haul in trying to extinguish it. As a general statement children are thrown by changes. Does that ring true? Walking and talking? Should we think about disruptive children as damaged goods?

Never mind, onward and upward. Let’s go looking for rewards.

‘Developing self-control is a process. Throughout the process early childhood educators must demonstrate considerable patience and be consistent in reinforcing productive, socially competent behavior.You can change disruptive behavior by using a consistent, systematic process, such as the 12 levels of intervention.

1 Give no direct attention to the unacceptable behaviour

2 Arrange the environment to minimize disruptive behavoiur

3 Use neutral time to discuss alternative behaviour to the disruptive act with the entire class

4 Scan the room for children engaging in prosocial behaviour and use an ‘I’ message to commend the behaviour.

5 Start walking towards the child who is displaying disruptive behaviour while pointing out an acceptable behaviour by another child.

6 Stand by the child for a short period.

7 Stay next to the disruptive child for an extended period.

8 Apply gentle, appropriate touch.

9 While applying touch use a verbal cue to redirect the child.

10 Manually guide the child to undo the unacceptable act and redo the desired behaviour.

11 Keep the child by your side for the entire activity, use the three-part ‘I’ message to explain why you are limiting their access to to other activity.

12 Keep the child by your side for multiple activities as long as is necessary to faclitate self-control.’

Not easy to see where the reward is here. Some children have been commended for doing well and been pointed out as examples of good behaviour as a the means of manipulating the disrupter.

This 1-12 programme is for young children and for older children it may need to be revised as teaching a subject in secondary school while standing beside an actively disrupting student for the whole lesson may not be productive, or wise. Nevertheless buried within this programme are the 4 keys to behaviour modification; positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement and punishment, explained like this in Walker (2014);

Positive reinforcement, the reinforcer or consequence of behavior, tends to increase or sustain the frequency or duration with which the behavior is exhibited in the future. It is only effective when it’s appropriate and meaningful to the individual, if it is perceived as reinforcing by the individual.’

Here it is! Reward = positive reinforcement. Of course there is no way of knowing how it’s perceived by the child or what it means a the time, but this is experimental psychology were talking about here so you’ll be able to tell by looking at the results. If the child doesn’t change it’s either that we got it wrong or there’s something wrong with the child.

Let’s skim over the other reinforcers.

Extinction is the removal of a reinforcer that is sustaining or increasing a behavior, unwanted behaviour attracting the attention of significant adults for example. The ineffectiveness of ignoring as an unplanned intervention is a result of the inconsistency of its application rather than its inadequacy as a behavior change technique. The inconsistency on the part of a teacher or parent tends to confuse children and reinforce the unacceptable behavior. In the classroom setting, the target behavior will be extinguished once the reinforcer has been withdrawn for a sufficient period of time.

 Negative reinforcement in the classroom setting is the student performing a behavior and the teacher removing something the student dislikes, the removal of an already operating aversive stimulus. As a consequence of the removal of the aversive stimulus, the target behavior is strengthened.

In contrast, punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus or the subtraction (taking away) of a pleasurable item or activity in an effort to change the frequency of a behavior.’

Punishment is the most frequently used of the behavior change techniques and is a group of behavioral reduction procedures including from the least to the most intrusive and restrictive differential reinforcement, extinction, verbal aversives, response cost, time-out, overcorrection, and physical aversive. Although frequently used with children punishment is the least effective of the behavior management interventions. Those using punishment have been reinforced by its immediate result but the long-term effects of punishment are limited. Punishment suppresses the undesirable behavior rather than extinguishing it, suppression is of short duration, and the behavior recurs in the absence of the punisher.

Examples are beating, electric shock (Note: that’s what it says in the text!), additional homework and the taking away of a pleasurable item or activity like extracurricular activities and playtimes. Punishment is not to be confused with extinction (see earlier section). Some punishments will remove some unacceptable behaviors but when a punished behavior recurs, it usually does so at a rate higher than before the punishment was originally imposed. Another concern associated with punishment is its potential and actual effect on the physical and emotional health of the child. In some cases, punishment may cause emotional problems.’

Writing about reward is more tricky. Anyone can see that punishment could be harmful and some people don’t seem to care, but rewards? Can there be a downside to telling children they are clever and funny and brave? I know I’m stepping into a patch of nettles. When my boy comes home with his ‘Star of the week’ badge pinned to his little jumper he is happy about it. Who am I to take it away?

If you skipped through this last section because it’s all there in your memory from your teacher training days, I apologise for the tedium. I can vaguely remember trawling through the theory of what should work too. What is striking in the application of this theory that the advice does not include the giving of stars and stickers and celebrations of achievment to get poorly behaving children to change and it’s all about external, extrinsic push. The carrot seems weak compared to the stick and punishment has got a lot a baggage attached to it. So where do we go from here?

Punished by rewards?

Twenty years ago Alfie Kohn, author of the 1993 book ‘Punished by Rewards’ commented that both rewards and punishments are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning.

At the time Kohn’s book caused quite a stir. What evidence did he have for his claims? Was it true that there might be something wrong with rewarding and praising children as often as we could.

The behaviour experts at the time were telling us to aim for a 5 to 1 ratio of reward to punishment in school. Were they right? Most children were behaving well, then as now, and those who weren’t were beyond the power of praise and reward to make them change. Certainly behaviour policies throughout history have not demanded that persistent seriously bad behaviour be met with increasingly serious rewards, but in the time when behaviour is less than serious, does reward have a place?

So what’s new in the rewards cupboard?

Nothing much has changed. Kohn’s (1993) book didn’t precipitate a revolution and he was pigeon-holed by some with those other progressives allegedly advocating free-for-all classrooms and teachers’ abdication of responsibility. These days while there may be some feelings of uneasiness about using punishment to stamp out children’s bad behaviour particularly when they both get too extreme surely there’s nothing wrong with rewards to make them perform even better when they are already doing well, is there?

Kohn in the early 90s was interested in how external control affected students’ motivation and how this in turn affected their learning and to me this is crucial aspect of behaviour management. Is our intended educational outcome that children should become increasingly dependent on controlling adults or that they should develop the strengths of independent thought and action?

He said ‘One of the central myths we carry around in our heads is that there is this single entity called “motivation” that one can have more or less of. And of course we want kids to have more of it, so we offer them A’s, praise, and pizza. The truth is that there are qualitatively different kinds of motivation. We need to stop asking “How motivated are my students?” and start asking “How are my students motivated?” The kind of motivation elicited by extrinsic inducements isn’t just less effective than intrinsic motivation; it threatens to erode that intrinsic motivation, that excitement about what one is doing.’

This question of the meaning of motivation is at the heart of Daniel Pink’s 2009 book ‘Drive’ and he turned to Kohn for inspiration. His suggests that motivation can be best thought of as;

  • First Drive – biological need for survival; food, shelter, safety from attack, etc.
  • Second Drive – extrinsic motivators; praise, punishment, peer pressure, etc.
  • Third Drive – intrinsic motivators – purpose, mastery, autonomy

When we bring this analysis to bear on the question of the behaviour of students in school, we can relate it to the intended educational outcomes of our action. Are we engaging Third Drive? As Bill Rogers (Stop using the word ‘punishment’ if you want to improve behaviour TES Professional 27th November 2014) has emphasised our work focused on behaviour must always have an educational purpose and it’s hard to argue against that although some might. In general in whatever we do specifically about behaviour there is the overarching aim of enabling children to fulfill their full potential through education; we help children to develop a sense of autonomy, resilience and self-motivation to succeed. Behaviour work should have the same aims and clearly match the same standards.

But if what we’re doing and are advised to do it’s all about manipulation and we are going to keep on doing it, at least we should know the safe limits of reward and punishment.

And if Kohn and Pink are right we should think the unthinkable and do something different.

Coming next;


Part 3; Something Different  

#behaviourinquiry #kindbehaviour


Consequences of behaviour (2014) Walker J., Shea T., Bauer A.; Bacon Prentice Hall


Behaviour’s Three Rs – punishment, reward and something different. Part 1

Part 1; Punishment

 Looking at behaviour in detail

A websearch of primary and secondary school behaviour policies highlights the global dominance of the behaviourist reward/punishment approach currently being taken in schools. As misdemeanours grow into more seriously bad behaviour punishment becomes the main agent of change, together with the involvement of senior staff who will hold meetings with the student, including family members later on.

The script of the conversation in a meeting between the persistently badly behaving student and the adult is never specified, but with the focus being on the problem in practice the talking is about out what has gone wrong and on what the student must do to put it right. The opening gambit is often to look through the pile of incident reports on the table and to go from there. As behaviour worsens the strategy is maintained. Behaviour policies outline schools’ inclusive values and the aspiration that all children are valued, but in the end if the punishment regime does not produce the required change in behaviour the student will be more or less reluctantly excluded.

A policy setup to develop and maintain the good behaviour of all children appears to serve some children well but those who fail to make the required corrections from bad to good are progressively and intentionally pressured towards exclusion from their community. If that seems too harsh a judgement of school leaders doing their best to clarify their plans on what to do when children behave badly, the 5000 permanent exclusions point up the bluntness of the instrument. It is an intentional act because a policy based on punishment offers no alternative for those who do not or can not comply. Even though behavior policies might mention positive action and the active inclusion of children they also talk about the necessity of exclusion at some point, raising the question necessary for whom and on what grounds?

This paradoxical situation of schools developing a policy leading to exclusion in order to ensure inclusion has come about for two reasons.

The first is that the limitation of punishment as an agent of behaviour change is poorly understood by teachers and their managers.

The second is that schools as organisations and school staff commonly believe they have no alternative to punishment and reward as the sole strategy to rely on in managing behaviour.

Through my own teaching and research I have developed a different approach in supporting students at high risk of exclusion with great success in maintaining their inclusion. This approach does not include the use of punishment of extrinsic reward and at first sight is counterintuitive – maybe it makes sense to limit punishment but not using reward seems perverse until you get clearly in mind that they are both integral to behaviourism. When school staff experience it they are surprised that it is not better known and are enthusiastic about bringing it into practice in their schools.

I am hopeful and pragmatic about change. It is highly unlikely that the established way of managing behaviour will be overturned at a stroke, it is deeply embedded in schools and the behaviour experts we defer to are heavily invested in the advice-giving, detailed strategizing that is part and parcel of the behaviourist deficit-focused programme. Busy teachers and their managers pick and choose from theoretically incompatible approaches in a way that is modeled by experts doing the same in the name of eclecticism.

This is unsatisfactory, because the practice that students experience becomes a blur of mixed messages and practice becomes detached from theory making systematic critique and development unlikely.

In this article I will focus on the possibility of retaining elements of existing practice and adding something to it by looking below the surface at what drives the use of punishment and its limitations as a driver of behaviour change.

I will question the declared and hidden agendas that produce very different practices in schools.

I will propose that we adopt an honest clarity about why we do what we do.

Finally I will take a first look at what we can do when punishment fails to support children in school, guaranteeing their inclusion.

Looking closely at policies

A secondary head teacher recently posted his thoughts on his school’s ‘Behaviour for learning’ work programme called ‘Towards impeccable behaviour’ and its development over the last year.




He commented;

‘There’s always been a tension between our mission to challenge behaviour that is below expectations whilst maintaining the warm, friendly, relaxed atmosphere that many students, teachers and families value.  No-one wants the school to feel oppressive.  Whilst we may think we’ve done a reasonable job with this, it’s not been quite right.’

This highlights the tension created by relying on a punishment to provide the push necessary to bring about new learning and the need for a warm and friendly working relationship between those applying the regime and those experiencing punishment at first or second hand. If ‘no-one wants the school to feel oppressive’ why put in place a control system designed to be incrementally oppressive up to the final strategy of external exclusion? Because it could affect the good relationship and inevitably will do so as the severity of punishment increases. The key question; we don’t use punishment in any other curriculum area in school so is there any alternative in helping children in learning to behave well and if so what is it?

‘The neatness of a one-size-fits-all central detention has increasingly felt too unsophisticated.  A hard-working well-disciplined student who had a shirt hanging out sitting next to a student who had disrupted learning in a lesson sitting side by side in the hall? It’s been too crudely black and white. It’s not a binary world.’

Improving the punishment system relies on categorising students as either making genuine and minor errors or being intentionally bad. As the author says the real world is not an either/or place and but as long as it’s up to the teacher to diagnose the problem, assign the child to the correct category and the appropriate punishment, detention-lite or detention-max, that’s how it is being conceptualized, as a binary.

‘The next-day consequence has been problematic.  Very often, with so many separate issues leading to a C3, students would sit in the hall unable to identify exactly why they had been given that particular detention. Of course we’d have told them and their parents but, too often, for the repeat offenders it was all a blur.  In addition, they have had too much protest time.  For some students a default response to getting an in-class C3 has been to try to negotiate out of it.’

This comment exposes a difficulty in using punitive measures intended to stamp out a specific behaviour – punishment has to be specifically linked to a behaviour phenomenon and immediate in order for the link to be made between the unwanted behaviour phenomenon and the unpleasant consequence. When the rat touches the bar it has learned to press to get its favourite food and gets an electric shock instead, severe enough to hurt it but not enough to kill it, it might work to disrupt earlier conditioning. This electric model may be a good way to think about the use of punishment in school; enough to hurt but not enough to be fatal unless it’s necessary. Any lapse in time between the behaviour and the shock communicates to the student that this is a negotiable rule when what we are trying to make them learn is that it is non-negotiable. The difficulty in establishing an exact cause-effect fit between the specific unwanted behaviour and the consequent punishment is insurmountable. We can do all the telling in the world to students, the repeat offenders and their family members to no effect.

We can attempt to show that a rule is a non-negotiable either by the use of maximum force through punishment via the steps of increasingly unpleasant detention with permanent exclusion as the ultimate weapon or we can turn to dialogue, following the students’ lead. ‘Protest time’ is evidence that the student as a person is prepared to engage in dialogue and the ‘It’s not you it’s your behaviour’ behaviourist rule has been swept aside.

The student is engaging as a person with agency in hoping that change will happen. Maybe it is because capable students feel they have something to useful say and are prepared to work in the spirit of cooperation. Many badly behaved students have additional educational needs and have experienced a serious amount of disruption in their lives and are living in some form of care, institutional or otherwise and there are those who are distressed and have what are termed mental health problems; maybe they could join in a conversation too, as it is well known that talking helps.

‘The C4 Isolation.  This will now be reserved for much more serious issues. A six hour day in the Isolation room is gruelling and we need to be sure that this is given only when the behaviour warrants it: defiance, aggressive behaviour and so on.’  

Now we’re getting down to it. Things have got heavy and the next step in punishment is supposed to be grueling. The sharp shock has been replaced by a rucksack full of bricks. Six hours up and down the hill is intended to put a stop to disruptive, aggressive, defiant behaviour, a serious response to serious issues. And if all that happens is the offenders get fitter –

‘Our Behaviour Support Centre has been very successful in providing a buffer zone before permanent exclusion’, six weeks away from the mainstream on an alternative curriculum, the student diagnosed as having some kind of learning diffuculty that requires a modified curriculum to can fully correct it in half a term.

And if it that doesn’t work? The ultimate inclusive act, refractive students will be jettisoned, joining the five thousand permanently excluded every year.

A primary purpose of the behaviour management system is to combat low level disruption by establishing non-negotiable boundaries. Once boundaries are established they generate automatic compliant responses by all children, establishing better behaviour in general.

‘We’re prepared for quite a lot of students to be Exited every lesson in the first phase of the new system as they learn where the boundaries lie.  I want staff to set the bar very high.  We need the warnings to be given very clearly but no teacher should tolerate low level disruption at any point.  It’s in the classroom where impeccable behaviour is the most crucial.  Time will tell how it works out but I’m much more confident that this system will address the issues we face fairly, proportionately and effectively.’

This points up the sole dependence on punishment to correct the behaviour of disruptive students. This is boundary-setting, a mild response to non-serious behaviour where the student has constrained choice – behave conventionally, be unnoticed of suffer an inconvenience.

Why has punishment gained such a strong position in schools in the UK?

The idea of Impeccable Behaviour demands the highest level of vigilance and rapid correction of errors when they occur being done by someone.

Who is best-placed to do this? The teacher?

They have other tasks in class so how can they be sufficiently vigilant to guarantee full monitoring of all students at all times, even when they are only thinking of crossing boundaries.

The students themselves?

The ones who do best are self-monitoring and self-correcting, self-motivated to succeed. For the others, the few who cause all the problems, how do you get them to pay attention to their own success in learning and to provide their own feedback on success and error in the process of behaving well?

If we cannot come up with an answer we can only fall back on external motivation, reward and punishment.

Luckily I have an answer and you can read about it in my book, ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom’, published by Sage next February. If you scroll to the end of this article you will find something about the idea.

Have you got to be cruel to be kind?

In pre-scientific times the teacher was mistress or master and regulated the pupil with little or no oversight. There was a moral and religious drive in much of education and the use of punishment including physical chastisement sought justification on these grounds. The tradition of punishment became established in schooling and allowed the scientifically based behaviourist framework of punishment and reward an easy entry – it structured the existing practices based on the belief that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. The challenge thrown out by the person-centred educationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries in suggesting that children have agency and an innate drive to self-actualisation was deflected by Piaget’s rigid phased explanation of child-development and the growing influence of experimental psychology on education. Cause effect science reigned supreme then and still does, heedless and apparently largely ignorant of its own limitations in the field of education, a place where it sits uncomfortably as the means of explaining changeable, unstable and non-physical phenomena.

At the same time psychiatry blossomed, reconceptualising personal variations in behaviour as insanity and seeking to separate malingerers from the truly insane, providing scientific answers to philosophical and moral questions. With no organic cause for the vast majority of mental illnesses to provide a basis for diagnosis, differential diagnosis was invented and is in current use following Sherlock Holmes’ principle that “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.”

What we have now is the result of this, where as educationalists we defer to positivist science and to the medical and psychological professions even when we know these explanations are inadequate. The whole process is problem-focused, which means we pay attention to wrong-doing in order to eliminate it and expect right-doing to magically take its place.

Most behaviour experts’ advice about what to do with badly behaved children is centred on what has gone wrong on the grounds that it makes scientific sense and anything altrnative is written off as pseudoscience. The use of reward as a propellant of good behavoiur fits within this problem-focused paradigm and the superficially different restorative justice approach starts with the concept that a child has done incontrovertible harm to another. It is said that we have to know what has gone wrong to be able to put it right, to establish causality, to act as experimental scientists not as teachers.

But if we keep the idea of teaching and behaviour support being elements of practice based on educational theory as I have done in developing my own work, we widen the scope of our inquiry into what is possible and we come up with an interesting alternative.

Questioning the declared and hidden agendas that produce very different practices in schools. Adopting an honest clarity in explaining why we do what we do.

Schooling socially conditions children and educates them in the wider sense.

Where is the behaviour policy of a school intended to lie within these purposes of schooling?

If schooling is principally for the socialization of children then modelling behaviour management and the behaviour policy statement on the legal system might be appropriate. Children behaving badly are to be seen as offenders and forced to compensate their victims and the school community for the harm they have done and suffer due punishment for their crime. The twin purposes of the criminal system are punishment and rehabilitation and offenders who must acknowledge and accept the consequences of their choices and decisions and this can be seen paralleled in schools.

If this is the prime purpose of a school’s behaviour policy then it should be clearly stated, something like this:

‘Behaviour management and restorative justice is used in our school to ensure the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders. Harmful behaviour includes disrupting the education of other students, bullying, violence and name calling. Students who do harm to others must acknowledge and accept the consequences of their choices and decisions. Those who fail to do so will be subjected to further punishment and in the event they still fail to make an acceptable response they will be excluded.’

Alternatively if a broad education is the aim, then the purpose of the behaviour policy and teachers’ responses to identified needs is to enable children to learn more about themselves and their behaviour as a part of the overall curriculum in line with all the rest of their learning. It could be written like this:

‘In seeing behaviour as integral aspect of learning, the school’s behaviour policy focuses on students’ strengths and resources and their inborn drive to be successful and useful members of the school community. We take care to ensure that all students know and observe the Five Rules* and if they need additional guidance to stay within boundaries we provide this by fully explained penalties for infringement. If a student experiences continuing difficulty in adjusting their behaviour to match the community needs they will be able to take part in our individualized Behaviour Support Programme (BSP) as part of overall pastoral care in school.

If a student has additional needs which cannot be met within our BSP we will identify these and with parental/carer agreement call for additional external support.

If a student’s behaviour threatens their own of others’ safety they will be excluded from school once the behaviour support process has been completed and plans for their continued education drawn up and fully communicated.’

*or a number less than eight; the non-negotiable rules of the school community

Finally I will look at a practical approach to take when punishment fails to support children in school.

This won’t take long. It’s solution-support, the solution focused approach to behaviour change in schools. Fast and effective change without punishment or reward.

 Coming next;

Part 2; Rewards




Mindsets and set minds

Mindsets have been around for a while. I heard about them when I studied psychology in the late 1960s and was told about the lost stair effect; you’re walking downstairs in the dark, you lose track of the steps and think there is still one to go when you have actually already arrived at the bottom and you experience that jarring thump as your body attempts to step through the level floor to somewhere eight inches below it. The bodily memory is called a learning set. But it’s fixable. The next time if you remember to count the steps correctly you’ll have a smooth landing. If you don’t you won’t, it’s habit.

Set minds have been around even longer – probably as long as there have been minds to set. It’s an amazing feature of being human that we make assumptions and then stick to them as if they were truths, through thick and thin, even in the face of a great deal of falsifying evidence. It’s a huge step towards efficiency to be able to treat most of the world as if it’s entirely predictable – this-causes-that – and forgettable in the sense that there are fewer active problems to use valuable thinking power in solving minute to minute.

Dweck via Beck and hard work

Mindsets are very useful and very famous now that Dweck’s assembly of ideas has brought them cult status. Schools are going flat out to make sure they are GM organisations, the other kind of GMO, so they can put the GM Quality mark alongside their Investors in People and other campaign badges. Deep in Dweck’s model is the key to their current popularity – we used to call it hope. It’s the teachers’ touchstone, the hope that we can switch on students’ creativity to enable them to climb ever higher up the evolutionary ladder. All it takes is character and the Victorian virtues of perspiration and aspiration to force change on a fixed nearly-broke-my-leg-coming-down-my-own-stairs mindset to be able to move from the comfortable world ruled by assumptions where nothing new and exciting happens to the uncomfortable world where everything is open to change and anything can be achieved.

One view of the brain is that it exists in splendid isolation, a massive information processor controlling the body machine. Feedback from faulty components leads to error correction, sufficient feedback drives changes to the central core processor itself as it acts to eliminate the fault, or cut out the malfunctioning component altogether.

A mindset is a programmed operation carried out by the processor and once established it runs automatically in response to information input. Because the processor is mechanical it can be mechanically altered, provided that the correct spanner is used to adjust the correct nut and has a long enough handle to provide enough leverage. Dweck talks about this from her own experience, about how much force she has to apply to her own automatic fixed mindset to reconfigure it. She calls it hard work. I don’t see it as being hard, it’s just work.

So here we have it; the brain is a processor with established programmes automatically handling the huge flow of information coming in from the brain’s environment, the inside world of the body and the outside world detected by the five or six senses and interpreted by means of the fixed programmes. Adaptability is a core driver of individual and species survival and the brain can adapt to change and change itself, given sufficient energy being applied, enough hard work being put in to the project. Mindsets can be modified or even terminated and replaced by others.

Born to be wild

Is this just a re-run of the nature/nuture contest?

It seems to me more like a compromise argument; the makeup of the brain is genetically determined, some automatic routines are present at birth and others are learnt and established through experience. The whole assembly develops to run automatically and efficiently, leaving enough free processing capacity to deal with the changeables, the new information coming in, that has to be assigned to its correct operational path. While the whole system is very stable and resistant to change, it can be altered given a sufficiently strong push and having been altered will return to full automaticity in its new configuration. In this way new ideas only briefly tie up the free processing capacity, until they themselves are assigned to a set and drop off the radar.

Plastics and gymnastics

But there is another way of looking at this, that the brain/body complex is fully integrated and adaptive. It’s a wet, living biological organism always fully responsive to the information surrounding and flowing into it and to what will give it the best chance of survival. Via its senses it is continuously scanning its environment for information, and the information representing regular events is handled by distributed neural nets that are constantly checking and confirming. In the absence of anything new they remain unchanged. The potential of the brain is encoded in the genome, which also acts in the most efficient least engaged way by checking information coming in and it is adaptive in that protein synthesis, the output of the genome, can be switched on and off in response to input information.

This is a surprising and relatively recent discovery, that the expression of the genome which was thought to be fixed and to give rise to fixed characteristics like IQ and EQ, academic and emotional intelligence, is in fact highly plastic, meaning it can take a new shape and retain it. The evolution of flowering plants gives direct evidence of this mechanism, called epigenetics, where adaptive change or evolution happens instantaneously in individual organisms and can be passed to subsequent generations. Most modern flowering plants are polyploids with multiple genomes and this multiplying function can be switched on in response to environmental stress and it confers adaptive advantage. Evidence from animals is coming along too. Maybe Lamarck did have the glimmerings of a good idea, in the case of the blacksmith’s arms. Darwinian theory specifies the passage of geological time for evolutionary change to take place, but in epigentics change is instantaneous. It’s interesting to note that cutting edge cancer treatment is based on epigenetic thinking, intentionally switching gene expression on and off.

So here’s a conundrum. Some educationalists have taken on Dweck’s mindset ideas based on thinking about brain structure and function as plastic and in the knowledge that we can change our behaviour by changing our thinking. At the same time other educationalists support the setting up of new grammar schools basing their thinking on the idea that IQ, an imaginary concept that has no scientific basis, is fixed and measurable. The scientific evidence is showing us that the brain/body complex is plastic and yet we are in danger of delivering growth mindset teaching from a fixed mindset position.

We have a behaviour management system that treats student brains as fixed objects that have to be removed from school, usually together with their associated body, if they cannot be mechanically reconditioned. We don’t grant agency to the person of the student. And at the same time we say that respect and care are essentials in making children good, we call it the importance of relationship and expect the student to respond to our caring as an active agent with the ability to make choices .

Silence in court

The jury has come back into the room.

The automaticity of habits is possible and advantageous and we need to break these bad children’s habits by force and if we can’t we have to exclude them.

Finding: The Brain is fixed.

The genome/environmental communication means that the system is plastic and adaptive and as educators we can always promote change. All ways.

Finding: The brain/body complex is plastic.

The verdict; it is both/and and not either/or.

Oh. Dear. Both/and eh?

What are we supposed to do with that knowledge?

Know that there’s more than one kind of science I suppose, either/or science that we all know about and both/and science that people with a thinking habit won’t and don’t acknowledge.





Why cruelty should be excluded from school

#kindbehaviour – a message in a bottle


It is obvious that we should punish children who don’t behave isn’t it?

Behaviour expert Mr. Bennett said in his Top Ten Behaviour Tips (TES June 21 2015) ‘The idea of sanctioning against behaviour we’re seeking to discourage, and rewarding that which is good, would appear to be uncontroversial. But the chattering classes can find offence in the smile of a kitten.’

That’s how things are.


Twenty years ago my first fulltime teaching post was at a residential EBD special school. This kind of setup was new to me then as it might be to you now. EBD meant emotional and behaviour difficulties and the children were the ones who had burst out of mainstream school. The children were statemented for so they were at the top of the pile of the children we call challenging when we what really we mean is ‘I can’t stand any more of this. Get out of my classroom!’ pupils.

Sanctioning certainly wasn’t controversial there but personally I found it useless in my classroom and rather weakly resorted to detailed classroom management to prevent rioting and focusing on keeping calm rather than getting even. Nearly all the senior jobs were held by men, most of the class teachers were women. The management was top-down ‘get on with your job or fuck off’ style. That’s what the owner told me when I asked him if he’d forgotten the pay rise he’d promised me the year before.

Uncontroversial? I felt chattering coming on when I witnessed the principal wind a boy’s arm so far up behind his back he screamed. Other chatterers investigated the school for historical abuse soon after I escaped and several of the senior behaviour experts sentenced to prison.

Why? Because in the view of the court making a child who had wet his bed during the night stand on an upturned bucked in his wet pyjamas and in view of other children was wrong.

How could they get away with it? Because it was no big deal, that’s the way to act against behaviour, isn’t it? Because I showed moral weakness in not reporting what I’d seen to the police. It was only sanctioning that went a bit too far. It was a private business set up in the middle of a field, the boss was the boss and the chattering classes couldn’t be offended because they didn’t know. Well not until the police turned up. And most of all, there’s no alternative is there? If you don’t punish you’ve got no weapons to use.


We can assume that punishment and reward is the only and best tool we have against bad behaviour because that’s what the experts tell us. But should we check the assumption?

I’m not sure whether all teachers are classed as chatterers but as a teacher I’m skeptical and when an expert tells me that they have the true answer to a knotty problem I raise an eyebrow.


Starting work in the special school I imagined that all the rest of the staff were trained behaviour experts, in and out of the classroom. They weren’t, in fact some were not trained in anything at all. When I looked across the school and talked to other staff I couldn’t see what I was supposed to do about the behaviour side of my teaching. I needed to find out and I asked the boss if he’d fund an Open University master’s for me. ‘Fuck off’, he said with his usual assertive charm.

Since then

The MA was great, I did modules on special needs, science teaching and educational research methods. But the detail of what went on inside the classroom to deal with behaviour was still controversial to me at least. I did a Ph.D. to find out a bit more. I worked all the time, research to practice, practice to research.

I kept my raised eyebrow in place and tested what I found to destruction. But it didn’t go up in a cloud of smoke, it survived every test and here it is.


 The odd thing is, it’s something you are doing already if you’re a human. You do the management things that all the experts recommend to make your classes run smoothly, with humour and patience and the gift of being a trusted adult among children. It only seems to break down with the few children whose behaviour breaks through and the experts recommend reward and punishment or special school as the only way forward. But that’s controversial, because I found out that there is a previously hidden alternative.


When we’re at our best we can see through the superficial disorder of a busy classroom to the children themselves in a kind and respectful way, friendly, generous and considerate.

Not as a friend, but friendly.

Kind enough to let children know where the non-negotiable boundaries are and giving them time to practice keeping within them

Kind enough to tell them when they have made an error and teaching them how to avoid it next time.

Kind enough to ask them to produce work that more accurately reflects their potential rather than their enthusiasm to get home on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Kind enough to notice their everyday good humour and workrate and compliment them on it.

Thinking this way what other kindnesses can you spot in your day at work?

But when the steady and structured kindness that is experienced by the well-behaved majority seems to fail do we only have punishment, detention, loss of privileges, isolation, public humiliation and exclusion for the badly-behaved others?

No. Do more of what is already working, without splitting behaviour from learning. we don’t have to be cruel to be kind. We can just be kind.

Remember all the kind things you do every day, based on knowing that children are packed with resources, they are always capable of doing well and they come into your classroom hoping to have a good day and do even better, just like you do. Remember the relationship you have with them and how you stay true to it. When a child makes an error you teach them through it, don’t you? You look carefully for what’s working well and do more of it. You make sure a student knows where they are going, what things will look like when they get there. You ensure that they get realtime feedback on process and progress. You make sure they spent time reflecting on their own work and thinking about their thinking.

The name of this big idea is solution-support and I’ll give you a potted version* of it in my next blog for free.

Why not look out for #kindbehaviour and join in?

Thanks for your kind attention, keep the eyebrow raised.

* You will find the full version in my new book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution focused guide for new teachers’ 2016 in press; Sage





Introducing #kindbehaviour and #behaviourinquiry

In 2001 I first met Tim Taylor (#imagineinquiry) across a table in the NEC Bimingham, when we attended a seminar as participants in the Teacher Research and Learning Programme. Tim was interested in the use of inquiry in teaching the academic curriculum in his primary classrrom and I was looking into an inquiry approach to my job as a behaviour support teacher in all phases. It emerged over a pre-start cuppa that we occupied different ends in the same building in Norwich but had not previously met.

That began a conversation which we are still engaged in. Out of it has come a clearer understanding of inquiry itself and of the possibility of doing things differently in our two areas of teaching and learning.

It has been almost painful to me to be writing about behaviour in the terms which have come to represent it in public discourse. I have a deep conviction that doing so makes things worse, but it is hard to escape falling into the trap. The dominant language is very imprecise but words do carry meanings and produce effects, so when we adopt behaviour management language we are implying that it, behaviour, is subject to management principles and routines. We talk about sanctions when we mean punishment and consequences when we mean social feedback. Children who are engaged in the learning of new ways of behaving we call challenging, internal inclusion means social exclusion and controlled isolation and so on.

The leaders of the field are deeply immersed in this very conventional world of behaviour, to the extent that they are unable to see that other worlds are even possible. They defend their territory fiercely as a place where only the tough can survive and any suggestion otherwise is a sign of weakness. Assumptions can lie unchallenged in the presence of dogmatic belief. Teachers need to exude authority, exert external discipline and control, use coercion and punishment against children, traditionalism good, progressivism bad.

Behaviour and learning have become separated. Where a student makes learning error there is one set of approved responses. We call it teaching. When they make a behaviour error there is the other set that we call behaviour management.

When Tim and I talked on the drive back down the A14, we began to realize that while our practical work was different the principles that underpinned it were in common. How children are positioned in relationship to the curriculum and to their teachers is always a significant factor to be taken into account in teaching, that is nothing new. Different teaching approaches require different positioning and there has to be a match for learning to happen as we intend it to.

What was new was that all aspects of the curriculum could be approached through inquiry. This meant that behaviour could be reconnected to learning. It meant teachers did not have to follow the path of control and discipline in an unreflective way, that it could be appropriate in some contexts and inappropriate in others, where inquiry could offer a productive alternative.

So why #kindbehaviour? You receive what you give. If you give kindness, that’s what you get. Being kind is a disciplined way of being, it means matching our teaching approach to the learning task, understanding what positioning means and how we can build it into our work for improved learning outcomes – and making it explicit. The idea of being cruel to be kind is meaningless here.

It is kind to treat people who make mistakes as people doing their best and making an error which they could correct given kind teaching. That applies to people formally positioned above us too. Kind listening brings about a change in us as we do it, starting without preconceptions and paying full attention to the speaker as she speaks, staying in the moment as we accept the invitation into another person’s world. Kind action means being the adult in the room when it is necessary to ensure children feel safe and secure and walking alongside as they spread their wings and fly towards independence.

Look out for #kindbehaviour and join in the #behaviourinquiry – asking the fundamental questions. Because the best is always possible .

Dr. Geoff James ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ 2016 in press; Sage

An open letter to Nancy Gedge on inclusion

Dear Nancy,

I’m writing to you with your article on exclusion (TES of October 9 2015) in front of me. It’s good to have a light shone into this dark corner. To put it in journalistic terms this is collateral damage happening right here at home with full official approval. Now it’s time to capitalize on your efforts and get into action. I’m writing to you in the form of an open letter because others share our commitment and may take your article and this letter in reply as an invitation to act. I hope you approve!

Your final two sections ‘When ‘no excuses’ is an excuse’ and ‘Progress not attainment’ provide a succinct summary of the problem and open the door to the solution.

There is a powerful force driving exclusion and you bring into the open with your first statement in ‘When ‘no excuses’ is an excuse’.

‘We don’t adapt to SEND children.’

What is an SEND child? They are they more than their disability, they are the same as all the other children, different from each other. But instead of focusing on their strengths, their hopes and their successes we trap them in the system of diagnosis and intervention that separates them from the other non-SEND children and then we send them on their way and often away.

Everyone from the Minister of Education downwards accepts that this is the correct procedure. Well not everyone. You can see the consequences of renaming difference as illness but you are fenced in by a system that catches many of us in its net. We are told that the small minority of children who cause all the problems must have something wrong with them because they are so different to the healthy others. As you rightly say records of behavioural incidents are used as rap sheets, but, and this is a big but, to use them as a basis for diagnosis of deficit and subsequent intervention as you mention would only be doing more of the same, keeping their difference and their illness at the centre of our thinking. Julie Dixon, the primary pupil referral unit head you quote, says that schools struggling to avoid excluding children cannot get the help of educational psychologists when they need it most. Why do we need a psychologist? Because if only we can get a diagnosis of deficit by a professional who does that kind of work, we’ll know what to do. Try to get specialist input in school. Send them away to special school maybe with all the other ill children.

So here’s the problem. We know that no two children are identical and a significant minority of children seem to be more than usually different to the others. We know that they are not physically ill but they have something wrong with them that makes them behave in ways we don’t like. In a very few cases we can tell by a blood test that a person is different but mostly we look at what they do, how they behave, and use that to fit them into a category of illness. We can put all of this different minority into a catch-all group, and label it SEND. Some people would say that we could put all children into the SEND category at some time in their lives but let’s keep it narrower than that. Within the big group we have smaller subgroups which are defined by specific behaviour. If we collect enough data we can assign children to their correct subgroup and may be able to suggest corrective strategies including medication, if we believe that change is possible. This presupposes that SEND is a fixed deficit of an individual child and we can design services to address the deficit.

To sum this up; the SEND child is fixed, they are what they are so services must adapt.

In ‘Progress, not attainment’ you write that Dixon gives advice to heads and SEND coordinators as an expert in behaviour and this is effective in reducing exclusions. That is a good thing. We recognise that some of these children with SEND do need highly specialized teaching and this may be in a specialized setting, not via exclusion but by planned action. It’s important to remember that the system of diagnosis of SEND and its subcategories of deficit is highly uncertain and many children are poorly understood at the same time as they are clearly struggling in school. You quote Sam Baars as saying that schools should look beyond the behaviour to its cause, the undiagnosed need that is driving it. This is asking a lot, for teachers as frontline professionals to be highly developed experts in all aspects of behaviour and mental illness. In practice the cause is usually to be guessed at by teachers, doing their best as always.

If all teachers cannot become behaviour experts this creates another problem, but at least it is a consistent problem and results in the most available categories of deficit, like ASD and ADHD and increasingly Attachment Disorder are the most likely to be assigned to children who are different. The current diagnostic system concludes that these children are mentally unwell and an adaptive service will do its best by giving them different treatment to their friends in school and we can call this inclusion.

All this exists, the diagnostic deficit focused process, the lack of training of teachers and the shortage of specialists like educational psychologists who might be in a better position to make more informed guesses.

And now at last we come to the point of this letter.

You quote Baars as saying that there is an opportunity to create a new system, valuing childrens’ progress rather than attainment and you add that ‘we stand a chance of creating a better future, a truly inclusive one, in which children who have SEND are understood and helped not shown the door.’ I might just edit this slightly by removing the label to say that we can create an inclusive future in which children are treated equally, understood and helped and not shown the door.

You draw this together in your last paragraph, a turnkey, where you do the same dreaming as you’ve always done.

I’ll quote you, with my emphasis;

‘It can be done and teachers know this from experience. We’ve turned kids around countless times before, we’ve gone off timetable, we’ve listened to them. We know what to do, we just need someone to give us permission.’

We’re teachers, we already have permission to stay with children’s needs, to be imaginative and kind. Indeed if we asked the parents and carers of children they would probably say they expect it of us and we certainly have their permission.

We need to be able to say ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it’.

What need to share our successes, to develop a clear voice to say that the future starts here, today with a structured way of working to create inclusion and allow exclusion to wither on the vine.

What kind of structure could possibly produce this result? The solution-focused approach can certainly make a strong contribution.

I can help with that.

We’ve made a great start, now let’s do more of what works.

With very best wishes,



Why hearing isn’t the same as listening

In the doctor’s surgery

I took my five year old son to hospital yesterday. He sat on my knee. In the room were a doctor, two medical students, two parents, a little brother and the patient himself. We talked about him, over his head. After a while the doctor said to him;

‘I’m going to ask you something, because I think you know about this better than we do. I know you’re a very clever boy and I think you could tell me about …….’

And he did, in the special tiny voice that children reserve for speaking to very important adults. He gave us the inside story, the one that only he knew and the rest of us could only guess at. It was a good meeting and he’s OK now so we’ll leave that place behind and go somewhere else.

On stage

I’ve just finished reading Alan Alda’s autobiography, ‘Never have your dog stuffed’, the story of a man who had lived a life on stage trying to be someone else without pretending. He realised that acting is not pretending, it is about being someone you are not with another person who is also being someone who they are not in an authentic, real way. How is that possible? He could laugh when the other actor spoke a line, but it didn’t come from a real place, he wasn’t emotionally connected. That’s what he felt inside, maybe to the audience it looked genuine but he knew he wasn’t acting, he was pretending. He puzzled over it and he puts it like this;

‘On M*A*S*H I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It’s always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently that the other person brings about a change in you that makes you say it and informs the way you say it.’

Of course, he is talking about acting where there is a script to follow but he was also very interested in improvisation where both what you say and how you say it are unscripted, like most teaching. He goes on;

‘The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of duelling monologues.’

Alan Alda found what he was looking for, so let’s leave him under a palm tree and go somewhere else.

Talking in class

One role we play as a teacher is of someone who talks in a way that is intended to make other people change and we expect the students to be doing real listening, to be willing to change. We teachers are experts and we know an awful lot of stuff. A danger is that sometimes we only pretend to listen and get stuck in the ‘I’ve got something in my head and you’ve got to guess what it is’ role. It goes something like this;

‘Give me the name of a marine mammal.’

‘A sea otter.’

‘No that’s not what I call a marine mammal, it’s a mammal that happens to live by the sea. Try again.’

‘A dugong.’

‘A what? I’ve never heard of it. Try again.’

‘But a dugong is a marine mammal.’

‘Forget your dugong, try again.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’ll give you a clue, it’s got a nose on top of its head.’

‘Your mum.’

‘There’s no need to be rude. Try again.’

You might be able to avoid this pitfall effortlessly and we’re all trained to know the difference between open and closed questions aren’t we? First we have to prepare the student with enough factual knowledge to be able to answer the question and secondly we have to be standing on the firm ground of our knowledge to ensure our question is unambiguous. After a great session on the rise and fall of whaling we might ask;

‘Give me an example of an endangered cetacean.’

‘Minke whale.’

‘No. It’s not endangered.’

‘Blue whale.’


There are externally checkable correct answers to any number of questions we might ask and situations where we are looking for the student to change and for us to stand still, with directly instructed maths and synthetic phonics for example. But there are situations where the student knows something that the teacher doesn’t and the only way to move forward is to swap roles.

Who is the expert here?

So why did a consultant paediatrician, presumably full of knowledge, ask a five kyear old boy an open question to help her make a diagnosis? Why did an actor come up with the idea that real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you?

Because other people know things that we don’t. People are experts in and about themselves in ways that another person can never be and we have to pay close attention when they are telling us things that exist in their world, where they are the expert, because we don’t have a clue until they speak.

Medical students these days cover ‘the expert patient’ as a study topic. Teacher training doesn’t include ‘the expert student’ yet, but it should. Why? Because the concept of student mastery isn’t about you it’s about them. It’s time we caught up. And now to go to another place, the final stop today.

Talking out of turn

When a student does something we don’t want them to do, let’s call it bad behaviour for now, we fit it into a category because that’s how our brains work. He keeps shouting, screaming at and hitting other children in the playground. He goes red in the face and you can’t talk to him. We’ve seen it happen, we don’t need to ask him to explain it.

Category? Anger.

Response? Take him through all the steps listed in the school’s behaviour policy. Sanctions should do the trick. Still no change? Exclude him for a few days and then for a few more days. Other children’s parents and carers are kicking up a fuss. Have him assessed for SEBD* and hope he gets anger management training. And if that doesn’t work, which it probably won’t, he’ll have to be permanently excluded. We’ve done everything humanly possible and there’s nothing else we can do.

But. We haven’t remembered to treat him as an expert student and that real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.

Forget about being a behaviour expert, don’t try to fit his behaviour into a neat category. Don’t make your mind up about what’s gone wrong before you listen and start closing down the options. Work at not knowing because sometimes it is the best knowing.

Ask him where he’s hoping to get to in his life in school, what he’s already doing to get there and what he might do a bit more of to make it even more likely he’ll succeed. Be prepared to change.

No don’t talk, listen. Remember, you can’t know your next question until you’ve heard the answer to the one still hanging in the air.

Taking a stand

It’s what I do this in a situation like this and the amazing thing is the child will tell me, they answer me as if they were the expert in themself and the solution appears as if by magic. So maybe it wasn’t bad behaviour in the first place. Maybe it was just about change, as is all learning.

It’s not the guru’s glance or the shaman’s dance, it’s just a kind way of forging change through inquiry. It’s teaching and it’s what I call solution-support, the solution-focused approach to a better future.

(Please note; in case you think I’m over impressed by Alan Alda and his nice way of writing (I confess I love M*A*S*H) I talked about this ten years ago in my thesis and I’m talking about it again here because a decade is a reasonable time to wait, the idea is important and its time has come.)



*SEBD: Social, emotional and behaviour disability






What you give you get back

#kindbehaviour – a message in a bottle


It is obvious that we should punish children who don’t behave isn’t it? We call it by different names but sanctioning is punishment is intended to be unpleasant otherwise it won’t work.

Behaviour expert Mr. Bennett said in his Top Ten Behaviour Tips (TES June 21 2015) ‘The idea of sanctioning against behaviour we’re seeking to discourage, and rewarding that which is good, would appear to be uncontroversial. But the chattering classes can find offence in the smile of a kitten.’

That’s how things are.


Twenty years ago my first fulltime teaching post was at a residential EBD special school. This kind of setup was new to me then as it might be to you now. EBD is emotional and behaviour difficulties and the children were the ones who had burst out of mainstream school. The children were statemented for EBD so they were at the top of the pile of the ‘I can’t stand any more of this. Get out of my classroom/school/county/sight!’ children. They travelled from all over country to get to this special place.

Sanctioning certainly wasn’t controversial, as in most schools it was seen as necessary and even more given the special natures of the children. Personally I found it useless in my classroom and rather weakly resorted to being reliably fair and detailed classroom management to prevent rioting and focusing on keeping calm rather than getting even. Nearly all the senior jobs were held by men, most of the class teachers were women. The management was top-down ‘get on with your job or fuck off’ style. I’m not meaning to be rude, that’s what the owner told me when I asked him if he’d forgotten about the pay rise he’d promised me the year before.

Uncontroversial? I felt chattering coming on when I witnessed the principal wind a boy’s arm so far up behind his back he screamed. Other chatterers investigated the school for historical abuse soon after I escaped and several of the senior behaviour experts were sentenced to prison.

Why? Because in the view of the court making a child who had wet his bed during the stand on an upturned bucked through the night in his wet pyjamas and in view of other children was cruel.

How could they get away with it? Because it was no big deal, that’s the way to act against behaviour, isn’t it? If a bit of punishment doesn’t do the trick, step it up, onto the bucket you go. It was only sanctioning after all. It was a private business set up in the middle of a field, the boss was the boss and the chattering classes couldn’t be offended because they didn’t know. Well not until the police turned up. And most of all, there’s no alternative is there? If you don’t punish you’ve got no weapons to use.


We can assume that punishment-and-reward is the only tool we have against bad behaviour because that’s what the experts tell us. But should we check the assumption?

I’m not sure whether all teachers are classed as chatterers but as a teacher I’m sceptical and when an expert tells me that they have the true answer to a knotty problem I raise an eyebrow.


In special school I assumed that all the rest of the staff were trained behaviour experts, in and out of the classroom. They weren’t, in fact some were not trained in anything at all. Looking across the school and talking to other staff I couldn’t see what I was supposed to do about the behaviour side of my teaching. I needed to find out and I asked the boss if he’d fund an Open University master’s for me. ‘Fuck off’, he said with his usual charm.

Since then

The MA was great, I did modules on special needs, science teaching and educational research methods over three years. But the detail of what went on inside the classroom to deal with behaviour was still controversial to me at least. I did a Ph.D. over eight years to find out a bit more. I asked my new employer if they would fund it. ‘No’ they said, politely. I worked all the time, research to practice, practice to research, a teacher researcher.

I kept my raised eyebrow in place and what I found I tested to destruction. But it didn’t go up in a cloud of smoke, it survived and this is what I’ve learnt through over 20 years of preactice, reflection and research. It’s not about ‘managing’ behaviour, it’s about learning. It’s not about telling children what to do and not to do, it is aobut teaching themselves to look towards their own skills of self-management, to uncover and strengthen their own resources and to recognise themselves as agents of their own change. .


 Oddly, it’s something you are doing already if you’re a human. You do the management things that all the experts recommend to make your classes run smoothly, with humour and patience and the gift of being a trusted adult among children. All this only seems to fail with the few children whose behaviour bursts through and the experts recommend reward and punishment or exclusion and special school as the only ways forward. But that’s controversial, because I found out that there is a previously hidden alternative.


When we’re at our best we can see through the superficial disorder of a busy classroom to the children themselves in a respectful, friendly, generous and considerate way. Practicing kindness.

Not a silly, indulgent, ‘bunny hugging’ kindness, but a kindness that respects children for what they are – young people finding their way in the world.

Kind enough to let children know where the non-negotiable boundaries are and giving them enough time and guidance to practice keeping within them.

Kind enough to tell them when they have made an error and teaching them how to avoid it next time.

Kind enough to ask them to produce work that more accurately reflects their potential rather than their enthusiasm to get home on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Kind enough to notice their everyday good humour and fine work and compliment them on them.

Looking in the mirror.

What kindnesses can you spot in your own day at work?

When the steady and structured kindness that is experienced by the well-behaved majority seems to fail, do we only have punishment, detention, loss of privileges, isolation, public humiliation and exclusion for the badly-behaved others? Do we really need to do these things to children, for their own benefit?

No. Do more of what is already working, without splitting behaviour from learning. We don’t have to be cruel to be kind. We can just be kind to be kind.

Remember all the kind things you do every day, based on your knowing that children are packed with resources, they are always capable of doing well and they come into your classroom hoping to have a good day and do even better, just like you do. Remember the honest relationship you have with them and how you stay true to it. When a child makes an error you teach them through it, don’t you? You look carefully for what’s working well and do more of it. You make sure a student knows where they are going and what things will look like when they get there. You ensure that they get feedback on process and progress in the moment of action. You make sure they spent time reflecting on their own work and thinking about their own thinking.

And if you need to provide more structure to your teaching children of how to be, you could turn to solution-support, the solution-focused approach to changing behaviour.

And in case all this talk of kindness gets misinterpreted I’d just like to say that I’m no pushover, I can chew nails with the best of them, and intentional cruelty to children is something that drives me to …… to ask questions and to write.

(You can find a brief guide to solution support here. You will find a fuller version in ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution focused guide’ published by Sage early next year)



When is enough enough?

How can I tell if I am writing a blog or tweet or an essay or…You see once I get writing I seem to get carried away with it and it tends to go on and on and. (160 characters – a tweet)

My friend and guide Tim Taylor told me a blog I’m writing is too long at 1600 words. ‘It’s a blog!’ he said. So I set off to abbreviate it. Now there’s nothing wrong with being concise but as a child I became speechless because of a worsening stutter when I was ten and not only did I overcome it but I haven’t stopped to draw a breath since then. My remaining friends would confirm that. Staffrm asks for 500 words for a blog. To me that’s a macrotweet. My book, coming out in the New Year, was aimed at 60,000. My friend has one chapter in his book-in-progress of 30,000 words. When I reply to a tweet I feel it’s impossible to have a conversation and if you can’t draw up a chair and pour the tea what’s the point in trying.

What do you think as a writer? Can a blog be anything from a macrotweet to an essay or even a book chapter?

What do you think as a reader? Do you get bored after three seconds/160 characters so everything that comes after is just a waste of time? Are some writers entitled to write longer pieces because of who they are? Do you always read what is written all the way to the end out of respect for the author (or not)?

I’d be very interested to know what you think but how will I know?

In 160 characters or in your next book, up to you. (299 words)







Getting behaviour under control 2


Getting behaviour under control

I wonder who thought this one up?

You’ve got a thirteen year old boy in your class who thinks he’s the teenaged Alan Alda. His class is his audience and he knows how to catch their attention with a throwaway line. You like him, he’s clever and funny but he messes up your best-laid plans, he’s irrepressible and in your lessons there are so many opportunities for improvised fun.

Things have got to the point of no return. He has been entertaining all over the place, he’s been warned and sanctioned, detained and internally included. All his teachers have stuck to the official programme of warnings and sanctions, zero-tolerance and Saturday detentions. Strict discipline and no exceptions.

What’s next? Give him a day off school, that will teach him not to disrupt the show being given by the professional entertainer in the classrooms. Give him a five-day weekend so he can think about things and come back to school chastened. His mum will have to take time off work so that will help him to learn what to do differently when he is choosing whether to play or work in class.

No change? Give him a week or two off school, a few worksheets to dawdle and doodle over and the chance to have a well-deserved rest from the regular matinee appearances. That’ll teach him not to treat school as a joke.

If it doesn’t?

Call his mum into school again, tell her that if he doesn’t pull his socks up he’ll have to go, leave school, be permanently excluded.

She tells him, he does the well-loved alternative routine in English with the Head of Department trying to compete with his own polished ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ performance and being drowned out by the laughter in the room, and the next thing the entertainer knows he’s out on his ear, ‘resting’ as they say in the trade. End of story.

But we’re not quite at the punch line yet. It’s been explained to his mum that the best option, for his benefit of course, is for her to get him on roll as quickly as possible in another school. That way there will be no stain on his record to put off future employers, he can have a fresh start and that will take all the worries away.

She does. He steps into a new world, a new audience, refreshed and ready to perform.

The funny thing is, the problems disappear.

How did that happen? Good question. And no clever answers please, you at the back.

Fact: Children of between 12 to 14 years of age are at greatest risk of being excluded from school. At this age the brain undergoes a greater degree of plastic change and cellular reorganization than at any other time in life – that’s why adolescents sometimes seem to act like they’re somebody else. They are.


Getting Behaviour under Control 1: Deporting disruptive students – the new guidelines.

 The newly established Office for Population Control (Opcon) has announced the publication of guidelines for schools and education authorities in England on the deportation of permanently excluded students (academy chains are encouraged to continue using their own internal security services which can buy into the scheme). This is part of the government’s initiative ‘Cracking down on bad behaviour in schools’. Des
tinations have been secured in the beautiful rural regions of Poland, Bulgaria and Romania and discussions with other national governments are well advanced. These destinations will be operated by Government approved UK education and leisure providers and staffed by specially trained experts.7892099782_bf392eddf9_n

Provision is being made for low-cost travel and accommodation for the families of our international students who wish to visit, using established and secure UK agents.

The guide, entitled ‘Making exclusion work’, builds on the well-established principle of the ‘Fresh Start’. While there is no reliable evidence for the educational justification for managed moves, which enable disruptive and other badly behaved students to leave their school without signifying a permanent exclusion in the school’s records, this behaviour management strategy has been used for a sufficiently long period of time for the reasonable assumption to be made that it is effective on several measures.

The parents or carers of disruptive students, having failed to ensure the appropriate behaviour of their children in school, are likely to be uncooperative and oppose any forced move of their children from school, in which case coercion is recommended as the most suitable strategy. Good evidence indicates that permanently excluded students are more likely than their peers remaining in school to abuse drugs and to be sentenced to a custodial prison sentence. Parents and carers should be informed of these risks, the adverse affects on their own health, income and welfare of 13976397978_92c6752da4_mhaving an excluded child permanently at home, and the benefits of accepting the considerable investment the Government is prepared to make to the benefit of their poorly behaved children. An additional argument is that it removes the responsibility entirely from demonstrably inadequate parents and carers for ensuring suitable educational and financial provision for their children.

To avoid these and other undesirable consequences, parents and carers are to be advised that the transfer of children at risk to secure, residential, educational accommodation overseas is in their best interest. As an additional inducement parents and carers will be offered free travel and accommodation for a two-week vacation close to their child’s placement in the first and year of such placement.

4115722342_e50a9fbd3b_nShools are recommended to enable removed students to transfer during school term-time, to enable the authorities to take advantage of the lower travel costs at this time and a cash bonus is to be offered to schools to promote this. Monitoring and assessment of overseas provision will be carried out by Government appointed custodial providers and overseen by a new section of Ofsted, Opconsted based in Sofia and Prague.

Eight facts:

  1. In 2013/14 there were on average around 26 permanent exclusions per day, compared to 24 permanent exclusions per day in 2012/13
  2. Exclusion rates for special schools are second only to those for mainstream secondary schools.
  3. Pupils with statements of SEN have the highest fixed period exclusion rate and are around 9 times more likely to receive a fixed period exclusion than pupils with no SEN.
  4. Pupils known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals (FSM) are around four times more likely to receive a permanent or fixed period exclusion than those who are not eligible; this is similar to previous years.
  5. No records are available on the number of students who fail to re-enter education after being permanently excluded from mainstream and special school
  6. Persistent disruptive behaviour is the most common reason for permanent exclusion.
  7. The number of permanent exclusions has increased from 4,630 in 2012/13 to 4,950 in 2013/14.
  8. Around 25% of all permanent exclusions are for pupils aged 14 and over 60% permanent exclusions are given to those aged between 12 and 14. 14 year olds also have the highest rate of fixed period exclusion, and the highest rate of pupils receiving one or more fixed period exclusions.



A flipping academic

know works imageThis graphic from was posted on twitter recently by Mr. Bennett, the new behaviour tsar.

Mr Bennett’s comment? ‘Oh God, the future’s run by an idiot’

I asked him via Twitter; ‘Is that a balanced critique of the knowledgeworks programme over the last fifteen years in Ohio? Evidence informed?’

He promptly replied; ‘No, it’s a criticism of witless speculative futurism and faux prognostication.’

Fine words. What do they mean?

I have written earlier about Mr. Bennett’s claim that there is no evidence to show that communications technology aids learning. This is inaccurate, as there is a great deal of research evidence to show this, in specific contexts. I am beginning to worry that someone in such a powerful position as a government adviser has such a loose grasp on the purpose and potential of educational inquiry. The purpose of all research is to reduce uncertainty, to make prediction of what might the future might look like so we can plan for it in an informed way. Some outcomes are practical and some theoretical as in the knowledgeworks material.

I am particularly worried about behaviour as an area of learning in schools that ignores evidence and clings to the ancient routines of control and punishment, an approach to teaching and learning that has been edged out of the other areas of learning in schools worldwide. If this seems too broad a claim, I recognise that a high level of teacher control is sometimes recommended, as in Direct Instruction for example, but even here punishment is not used for error correction.

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ is a core belief at the department of education and its partner, OFSTED. But for inquiry into behaviour to be ethical and useful it is essential that the inquirer is open-minded, prejudice put to one side for the moment. The language of Tim Ross, writing about smartphones in schools and the behaviour tsar’s quoted response demonstrates prejudice, in today’s Sunday Telegraph (

‘Mr Bennett has already begun working on reforms to teacher training courses so that new school staff are better able to enforce discipline in the classroom. His remit will now be expanded to examine all causes of bad behaviour.

Mr Bennett said: “Technology is transforming society and even classrooms – but all too often we hear of lessons being disrupted by the temptation of the smartphone. Learning is hard-work and children are all too aware of this. So when they have a smartphone in their pocket that offers instant entertainment and reward, they can be easily distracted from their work.

“This is a 21st century problem and the majority of schools are dealing with it effectively. But I will now probe deeper into this issue, and behaviour challenges more broadly, to uncover the real extent of the problem and see what we can do to ensure all children focus on their learning.”’

The language of enforced discipline and temptation foreshadows a narrow view of the field.

There are alternatives to control and punishment and a more nuanced view of punishment as a social regulator being possible, as a means to engage students’ motivation to succeed in school, as I describe in my forthcoming book ‘Transforming classroom behaviour.’ (SAGE)

We are told that ‘all too often we hear of disruption being caused by smartphones…, yet the majority of schools are dealing with it effectively’. In this case, given the evidence to back up the assertions, the smartphone problem does not need deep probing, it does need what the majority of schools are already doing to be known by the others and replicated. It is reinforces the need for good classroom management and doing more of what already works in an ethical way to support learning.

On the issue of the place and potential of communication technology in education, the world is always changing on one hand and in the need for lawful behaviour in growing the change on the other. That is not a new idea. Flipped classrooms are here, critical reading of publications appearing in the cloud is essential and has to be taught, open-access learning is developing new non-institutional opportunities worldwide. Capitalising on the creativity of of young people to maximise the potential rather than attempting to stem the food may be another route worth exploring.

I just hope that Mr. Bennett’s forthcoming deep probing does not preclude some good old fashioned speculative futurism, as today’s students and their teachers make sense of the world as it is and as it will be.

Luddites beware!


Teacher research – making a start

The concept of research in education is very open with a wide spectrum of activity and an equally wide range of areas of inquiry. This openness encourages multiple perspectives and helps us to reflect on our own position. But it can and does lead to misunderstandings when it comes to the detailed work of doing research.

I think that teaching and research in are inseparable partners, because it is impossible to be doing the work and not be thinking about how to do it better, or at least how to keep going when times are tough.

But what kind of research are teachers doing, out of all the available ‘research’ options?

The purpose of research is to reduce uncertainty by constructing knowledge. But ‘knowledge’ is another open concept, carrying with it the risk of misunderstanding its meaning within the educational research and the teaching community.

Teachers develop useful knowledge of different types in the lead-up to their first day in class and they build on it as they teach.

One type of such knowledge is the stable, communicable, factual type; know-what. It is the sort of knowledge that you could write in a handbook and pass on to a temporary teacher taking over your class for a day. It includes areas such as subject and curriculum knowledge, classroom management and procedures.

Teachers also construct another type of knowledge as they integrate their know-what and their ethical, moral and professional beliefs into their performance. This is know-how, constructed in the moment of performance by the teacher, in the context of the classroom. You can see it in action in another teacher’s room but if you asked tried to write it down you would find it practically impossible, because it is only expressed in performance. The same goes for your own performance; you can show it to someone on a video but a written report would be inadequate. If you visited the other teacher’s class again, working on the same subject and the same teacher and students so you could check your findings, you would be guaranteed to see something different because know-how is always changing. There’s no possibility of replication and any conclusions you might draw are interpretative and tentative.

Thinking about what teacher research means and what gives it its own identity it might be useful to keep in mind this idea of knowledge as know-what and know-how. An external researcher can investigate and build on know-what without the teacher being directly involved. But the only person who has full access to know-how is the person who generates it – the teacher.

So while a teacher could research know-what, given the resources and methodological training, the natural work of the teacher researcher is to investigate know-how. It’s a form of research that you are doing already.

Looked at this way we can begin to see teacher research standing in its own light rather than in the shadow of its bigger and older siblings.

Doing Research – what does it mean for teachers?

Traditionally educational research has placed university researchers as the knowers and teachers as the doers, with the knowers studying the doers. Lay users, teachers and policy makers, can then take the products of research as findings and recommendations, to improve schools and schooling. Research conferences, research journals and libraries are filled with educational research studies of this type but it seems that few practitioners read them and apply them in their work.

As an alternative approach the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) was established at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the mid-20th century, repositioning teachers as researchers. Lawrence Stenhouse, a teacher educator who was a main driving force behind the setting up of CARE, argued that teachers were highly competent professionals who should be in charge of their own practice. A team member John Elliott called CARE’s perspective a radical departure from the traditional view of educational research as a specialist activity, the results of which teachers apply rather than create. Elliott soon became heavily involved in the development of action research at CARE with the large scale Ford project.

In parallel in the USA Donald Schon (1983), a professor of urban studies and education at MIT, was asking questions about the kind of knowledge production and use that competent practitioners engage in and how professional knowing differs from the kinds of knowledge presented in academic textbooks, scientific papers, and research journals. Schon pointed out that for teachers real-world problems do not arise as well-formed structures but as messy and indeterminate situations encouraging reflective practice, improvisation, invention and the testing of strategies in the actual context in which they arise, in a form of teacher research. He was making a distinction between the relatively fixed and easily communicable know-what form and the uncertain, transitory and context-dependent know-how form that is produced in the act of performance of expert work.

Action research and teacher research

The terms action research, teacher research, and practitioner inquiry (or practitioner research) are often used interchangeably.

Action research in its strict sense refers to research activities that use a cyclical, action/reflection model to investigate and attempt to make changes in an organization, for example, a whole school and usually carried out by a team of researchers. Action research emerged in the 1940s from the work of anthropologist John Collier and social psychologist Kurt Lewin. The spiral process of successive cycles of planning, inquiry, action, and fact finding about the result of the action is a defining element of action research.

The term participatory action research emphasises the involvement of those who might be termed research subjects, but are repositioned as co-researchers who take part in conceptualisation, implementation, and interpretation of the research project.

Teacher research is intentional, systematic, public, voluntary, ethical, and contextual inquiry in a school/classroom conducted by practitioners. It deploys methodologies which have been developed to investigate the messy and indeterminate situations that Schon mentioned.

Teacher research differs from action research in that:

  1. It is not necessarily cyclic.
  2. It does not necessarily require a team element — a teacher can conduct practitioner inquiry in their own classroom, for their own benefit.
  3. It does not necessarily require a specific action or improvement as an outcome. It may produce a change in a teacher’s perceptions, attitudes, or thinking that will eventually result in particular changes, but the immediate result of a practitioner inquiry project need not be a set of specific action. It is this knowledge dimension that teacher researchers often cite as its most powerful, transformative benefit and broadens the meaning of research by including description and story-telling, a narrative process, in addition to the more usual products of research, conclusions, findings and recommendations. I will expand this idea in my next blog.

All action research carried out by practitioners can be called teacher research, but not all teacher research can properly be labelled action research.

A strength of teacher research is that it can help to address some of the weaknesses inherent in traditional educational research. It is designed to change the conceptualisation and activity of practice by working from within that context outwards, helping to close the theory/practice divide.

A limitation is that reporting of results is usually confined to the local community, restricting their potential usefulness. This communication aspect is something we can take on as the teacher research community by the many means now available to us, face to face and online.

Next blog: What counts as research?


The Research Quality Myth

For research to be taken up by teachers it has to be of high quality. In assessing the quality of research, lay users, notably policymakers and practitioners, face two problems;

1) How to assess research findings in the way they are presented, in the specific language and beliefs of a field of research.

2) How to relate these findings to what they already know, in the way they normally judge the validity of claims to truth made in everyday life.

Lay people may act as if in awe of research and the research process on the one hand or dismiss research findings if they conflict with their existing knowledge on the other. Lacking the background knowledge, skill and experience of professional researchers in their specific fields, lay users may see external quality criteria as their only hope in assessing quality. (Hammersley, M. pp. 289-291, 2013)

The three established quality criteria for quantitative research are;

1) Reliability – Can it be accurately reproduced or replicated?

2) Validity – Has it achieved what it set out to do? Has a causal relationship been demonstrated between the experimental variable and its hypothesized effect? Have the findings really be accurately interpreted and alternative explanations offered?

3) Generalisability – Are the findings applicable in other research settings? Can a theory be developed that can apply the findings to other non-research situations?

In quantitative research methodology, including the quality criteria, is rarely mentioned in research reports. It is assumed that readers already know about it in detail and attention is paid instead to method, i.e. how things were set up in the laboratory, and data collection and analytical procedures.

In contrast quantitative researchers often describe their methodology in detail. This is defensive to some extent, in the face of the critical assault made on by some in the quantitative researchers community who feel free to talk and write about qualitative research as if it were no more than pseudo-science, a poor relation. In doing so they are missing the point that it is operating in a fundamentally different reality.

It is commonly assumed that all research evidence should ideally match the established quantitative quality criteria – the so-called Gold Standard – and there is sustained pressure for the adoption of qualitative criteria to parallel them. This pressure comes principally from lay users of research aligned with the evidence-based practice movement, which is rooted firmly in quantitative science. A central theme is ‘transparency’, which demands that the basis of research professionals’ work should be made explicit, so that the lay people who use their services can judge the quality of what is provided.

Social and educational research is caught up in this current push for quality criteria because lay users see it as being capable of supplying the evidence on which more effective policy can be based and professional practice can be judged. Transparency is seen as the means by which lay users, lacking the specialist knowledge and understanding of the professional research community, can assess which research findings they can rely upon.

Hammersley (2013) states that the idea that research can be fully transparent is a mirage. It is not possible for researchers to make their judgements transparent and fully intelligible to anyone, irrespective of background knowledge and experience. Lay people cannot consistently make judgements about the quality of particular research studies that are as good as those of researchers who work in the relevant field. Indeed there are limits to the extent to which these judgments can be made intelligible even to fellow researchers, as judgment is made within a context, which is by definition uncertain. The judgement made by quantitative researchers of qualitative research is equally likely to be open to question. 

‘Intelligibility is an achievement, it is not automatic.’ Hammersley (2013)

There is no exact correspondence between research and the report that seeks to represent it. The researcher must lay out as clearly as they can the reasons they have for making their judgments. The reader must be able to infer what is meant in the report on the basis of their background resources in order for accurate assessment to be made. Interpretation is going on throughout the process. In highly specialised fields of work these resources include an extensive knowledge of the history of the field, its language and its methodology and methods; in short what reality it occupies, its ontology and epistemology. This leads back to the demands for external research guidelines and quality criteria.

Hammersley concludes; ‘The greater the experiential distance between speaker and hearer, the larger this problem of communication will be.’ ….‘Because the use of guidelines always depends upon background knowledge and judgement, they cannot solve this problem even if they can serve as a useful resource in dealing with it.’

Teachers in this sense are lay users of educational research carried out by university based academics and as such it produces a very narrow definition of what is meant by ‘research’. The experiential gap and the limitations in what guidelines can do, go some way in explaining why over many years so little of such research has brought about sustained change in classrooms. Can we do better?

My next blog; Doing Research – what does it mean for teachers?





It’s not rocket science

The ‘O’ word.

I am following up Tim Taylor’s reflective piece this week about the relationship between research and teaching.(1) Taylor makes the point that ‘research in the social sciences is different to research in the natural sciences. Ontologically different, meaning they involve fundamentally different phenomena,’ different phenomena existing in different realities. The Ofsted Chief Inspector knows this and says that dealing with disruptive behaviour in schools is not rocket science and indeed it is not; human behaviour and rocketry are phenomena existing in the very different realities of the social and the physical worlds.

I’ve thought about the ontological question, written and talked about it for years without making much progress. It’s important but it’s not a pressing issue, or maybe not a comprehensible one, for most people. On the edge of yet another conference designed to expose to examination the level of ontological ignorance underlying the fierce discussion about educational research and its relevance to teachers, it’s a good time to look at this problem another way.

Careful, quiet and respectful talking has largely failed in the attempt to get the ontological argument heard.

To take a current example, Mr. T Bennett, adviser on behaviour and related teacher training to the Minister of State for education and director of a conference series aimed at improving the so-called research literacy of teachers and bombing pseudo-science into rubble, is making some serious public claims this week in the fields of communications technology, education and social science. He claims (2) that there is no evidence to show that technology helps pupils learn and that students only use ipads for looking at dubious images on the web and hurling insults at each other. He claims that ‘devices are used as ‘pacifiers’ by teachers to control unruly classes’ and that ‘parents (are) allowing children to stay up late using gadgets.’

As reported in the ‘The Daily Mail’ (2)  Mr. Bennett states that there is ‘absolutely no need’ for children to have access to the Internet, on the grounds that ‘kids are kids – they will see things you don’t want them to see.’

Mr. Bennett criticizes teachers who tell children to use search engines to complete homework, describing it as being like ‘guiding them to a library without a librarian’ and concludes that it is a teacher’s duty to point out mistakes on the web.

Ok, so where’s the reliable evidence for Mr. Bennett’s claims?

Are the claims made here based on high-quality positivist research? Or on other forms of research appropriate to the realms of the social sciences? What form of research inquiry is best fitted to produced and analyse the evidence?

The process of publication and peer review requires a researcher to be named and accessible and the work to be open to critique. The critique itself is in turn itself open to critique. It’s recognized to be an imperfect process and to give a current example p-level gaming (3) and the difficulties of replication in psychological research (4) are currently under the microscope as the system seeks to self-correct.

As blogging in our world of education and educational research matures into something more than shouting at a laptop it’s the time to encourage and welcome critique, for claims to be justified or withdrawn, as happens in the rest of the research world.

Put up or shut up, eh?











G D James 2 Sept 2015it’s

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.













Being effectual is better than being right


Some children and young people are hard to teach. If we could put this group of students to one side and just keep the ones who are easy to teach, it would make teaching much more simple. Some schools have strict selection processes to ensure the entry of the ‘easy and clever’ ones and regularly assess students’ performance so they can advise the parents or carers of any who have slipped the net to take them away. Other schools don’t select whom they really want at entry but make sure that they have systems to identify the ‘hard to teach’ ones and exclude them at the earliest opportunity. If teaching is to be seen as an ethical pursuit, this form of soft segregation is unacceptable, as ‘hard-to-teach’ often turns into ‘permanently excluded’ and this is associated with a number of disadvantages like higher risk of offending, substance misuse and poorer life prospects. From a cost/benefit perspective, students excluded from school are expensive and likely to be less productive than their ‘easy’ peers. 

Teachers have taken a back seat in getting to grips with this problem. It’s been the psychologists who have done some thinking about it and come up with the ideas, within their paradigm. Psychologists are interested in what goes on inside the heads of humans and other animals. From the start, about 100 years ago, psychology was introspective, a subjective account of human consciousness and mental activity.

E L Thorndike is usually considered the first educational psychologist. In his book Educational Psychology (1903), Thorndike claimed to report only scientific and quantifiable research. In 1913-14 he published three volumes of material containing reports of virtually all the scientific studies in psychology that had relevance to education.

In 1913 J B Watson published ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ which brought about a paradigm shift, behaviour becoming the object of research adopting the experimental method of natural science.

Also in 1913 the first educational psychologist was appointed.

The scientific study of teaching is a relatively new development; until the 1950s, little systematic observation and experimentation took place.

A paradigm shift

In 1959 Noam Chomsky ‘s critique of the behaviourist B F Skinner’s ‘Verbal behaviour’ initiated the second paradigm shift, which lead back to mentalism and the study of consciousness. At the same time computer science and neuroscience were developing, giving rise to the brain-as-computer model which is dominant today, and to direct imaging of the brain where blood flow is used as an indicator of changes in metabolic activity and by association of thinking. It’s important to recognise that the ontology, epistemology and methodology of objective science is being used to investigate subjective experience, linking back to the earlier behaviourist paradigm. From the start psychology modeled itself on physical medicine, where illness and deficiency were the objects of study.

By 1986 Albert Bandura had developed and defined a social cognitive theory which proposed that people are neither driven by inner forces nor automatically shaped and controlled by external stimuli. His model of human functioning has the form of an equilateral triangle; behaviour; cognitive and other personal factors; and environmental events that interact to define a person’s nature.  Because people possess self directive capablilities they are able to exercise significant control over their thoughts, feelings and actions. This self-regulatory function forms an important part of social cognitive theory. There is a continuous interplay between the self-generated and the external sources of influence. People create guides for their behaviour, self-motivators for courses of action and then respond to their behaviours in a self-evaluative way. Very often the standards used for judging behaviour are based on the reactions of significant others to this behaviour.

In the 1990s some psychologists turned to look at wellness and flourishing as an alternative to the long established concentration on deficit and illness. In 1998 Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said;  “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.” This is still framed in the positivist paradigm and uses the medical concept of intervention.

Positive psychologists seek “to find and nurture genius and talent” and “to make normal life more fulfilling”, rather than merely treating mental illness. Positive psychology is primarily concerned with using the psychological theory, research and intervention techniques to understand the positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behavior.’


Mindset mindset

This change framed the research and writing of Carol Dweck, which has recently caused a stir of interest amongst bloggers despite her book ‘Mindset: the new psychology of success’ being published 9 years ago. Dweck said that she had discovered the existence of the ‘growth mindset’ through her work. Dweck claimed that her ‘growth versus fixed mindset’ model provided a universal explanation of why some students are hard to teach and this explanation could form the basis of ‘what to do about it’.

However the findings of psychologists do not directly transfer to the context in which teachers operate because the paradigms are different. ‘Most recently Dweck herself was unable to say how her thinking could translate into teachers’ action. How do you systematically transform your school so that a Growth Mindset attitude runs through it likes the words in a stick of seaside rock? Carol Dweck was asked this at about 10.50 am on 4 June 2013 at the Metropolitan Hotel in Leeds and she didn’t really have an answer. Her theory is spot on; the challenge for school leaders is to make real what Dweck (convincingly) theorises about attitudinal culture in schools.’

( )

It’s common knowledge that even when someone is an expert in their field they don’t always produce masterly perfomances. As Dweck recognises from her personal experience, developing the growth mindset in place of the fixed mindset does not guarantee success. For example:

‘Wes, a dad with a fixed mindset, was at his wit’s end. He’d come home exhausted from work every evening and his son Mickey would refuse to cooperate. Wes wanted quiet, but Mickey was noisy. Wes would warn him but Mickey would continue what he was doing. Wes found him stubborn, unruly, and not respectful of Wes’s rights as a father. The whole scene would disintegrate into a shouting match and Mickey would end up being punished.

Finally feeling he had nothing to lose, Wes tried some growth oriented strategies. He showed respect for Mickey’s efforts and praised his strategies when he was empathetic or helpful. The turnaround in Mickey’s behaviour was dramatic.

But as soon as the turnaround took place, Wes stopped using the strategies. He had what he wanted and expected it to just continue. When it didn’t he became even angrier and more punitive than before. Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to.’ ( ‘Mindset’ p.243)

Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to. Dweck mentions that the schools where the growth mindset idea seemed to work were ones that were able and willing to devote considerable resources to student support – unlike the hard-pressed Wes. Reading Dweck closely, the power relationship between the unsuccessful student/athlete/business woman and the expert adult/psychologist emerges. Wes is in control in an unstable kind of way, whether he’s showing respect and praising,  or shouting and punishing Mickey. And the psychologists are in control, where teachers were not included in the growth mindset interventions and can merely deliver the  ‘Brainology’ online cartoon with its ‘slightly mad’ presenter.

This is significant because it seems that it’s people’s belief in their own capability as active agents, in being in control and able to change their environment, their perceived self-efficacy, that determines their actual success or failure. This is what Bandura realised in the 1980s and what Dweck apparently missed 20 years later.

Self-efficacy, teachers and students.

The Mickey and Wes story provides a glimpse of what agency means in real life. Dad wants quiet because he’s tired out, but he can’t get it because Mickey wants to play. Wes feels Mickey is infringing his rights, and tells Mickey that. But Mickey wants to play and does so. They shout at each other as they try to get control. But Wes is the adult with ultimate power so he punishes Mickey. Then someone else with power comes along and tells Wes to show some respect for Mickey and praise him for being empathetic. Now Wes has the quiet life he wanted, so he settles down to watch the football…… and Mickey gets back to playing. Mickey had made a mistake – now Dad knew he could behave and was choosing to upset him, so Wes got even more angry and punitive.

Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to. He didn’t make the effort. Does this sound familiar? If Mickey were in school and his teacher replaced Wes, what might come next? People getting angry? Punishment? All students’ have to do is to make an effort, work hard. But what if they won’t? We need teachers and students with a high enough level of belief in their self-efficacy to make the effort, that seems to be clear enough.

What kind of pedagogy develops belief in self-efficacy? That comes next.


Self Efficacy

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.


Factors affecting self-efficacy. Bandura identifies four factors affecting self-efficacy.

1. Experience, or “Enactive Attainment”

The experience of mastery is the most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy. Success raises self-efficacy, while failure lowers it.

“Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but what I call their accruing ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their culture.” (Erik Erikson)

2. Modeling, or “Vicarious Experience”

Modeling is experienced as, “If they can do it, I can do it as well.” When we see someone succeeding, our own self-efficacy increases; where we see people failing, our self-efficacy decreases. This process is most effectual when we see ourselves as similar to the model. Although not as influential as direct experience, modeling is particularly useful for people who are particularly unsure of themselves.

3. Social Persuasion

Social persuasion generally manifests as direct encouragement or discouragement from another person. Discouragement is generally more effective at decreasing a person’s self-efficacy than encouragement is at increasing it.

4. Physiological Factors

In stressful situations, people commonly exhibit signs of distress: shakes, aches and pains, fatigue, fear, nausea, etc. Perceptions of these responses in oneself can markedly alter self-efficacy. Getting ‘butterflies in the stomach‘ before public speaking will be interpreted by someone with low self-efficacy as a sign of inability, thus decreasing self-efficacy further, where high self-efficacy would lead to interpreting such physiological signs as normal and unrelated to ability. It is one’s belief in the implications of physiological response that alters self-efficacy, rather than the physiological response itself.






Why are some students hard to teach?

Two questions: Why are some students hard to teach? Does it matter? 

Working with children and making a difference in their lives are two major factors in drawing people towards school teaching as a career. Student indiscipline and teacher stress and burnout are consistently reported as factors pushing teachers away from teaching. Teachers report that the burden of paperwork, performance management, long working hours contribute to the stress.

The large majority of teachers cope with all this and don’t give up. Same hard-to-teach students, same paper mountains. Week by week and year by year they judge whether they can do the job or not, putting everything on the balance and coming up with the answer ‘I can do this.’ Is their survival a matter of judgement?

The large majority of students cope with school rules, teachers, growing up, getting things wrong and putting them right. Philip Wexler in is book ‘Becoming somebody – toward a social psychology of school’ (Publication Date: May 3, 1992 | ISBN-10: 0750700262 | ISBN-13: 978-0750700269) found that the work that children valued most in three New York high schools was that of growing up and becoming somebody. Despite all the distractions of  schooling, the hard work and the homework.  And yet given the same demands and rewards there are the ones who don’t thrive, who get into trouble but still don’t cooperate and often are removed from school. What’s the difference between a student who’s easy to teach and a student who is hard to teach? Are students making a judgement in balancing ‘being good’ with ‘becoming somebody’ and some finding it too difficult to do.

Recently (see Sept 14 2013 blog Frank Furedi talking about ‘teachers’ real work’ “spoke about how there is an art to teaching, and said that ‘teaching is meaning work’ – that we each must seek to make meaning in our individual contexts. As such, pedagogical research should be organic. ‘What works for some does not work for others. Straight up lectures by some people can set the room on fire. All an RCT can do is tell us the difference between 2 groups after say a year. It doesn’t take into account contextual differences.’ He ended by saying that ‘the aim shouldn’t be research and evidence – it should be how to cultivate professional judgment.’

I’ll be the judge of that 

When I’m interacting with a student I am making judgments continuously, taking into account a whole range of factors and influences. You could call these pedagogical judgments. Similarly although I can’t know what the students are thinking, I can see the action they are producing, in cooperating, working hard and contributing or not. Each action represents a decision arrived at through matching what they are being asked to do with their values and beliefs – making a judgment in the moment. This unavoidably leads to the idea that both teacher and student are active agents in the learning process. Information as raw data might be neutral in value terms, but once it becomes classroom material both its distribution and reception are subject to the agency of the teacher and the learner. The seven times table didn’t project itself into my head when I was six, despite the fact we recited it as a class every day.  I was looking out of the window – the view was better.

In making a judgment we view the things being judged through the lens of our values and beliefs, whether we are judging something distinct like the geometrical similarity of two patterns or something indistinct like whether or not to pay attention to learning the seven times table. When Frank Furedi talked about the purpose of pedagogical research being to cultivate professional judgment, with technical, aesthetic, ethical, and virtue dimensions, in my opinion he is suggesting that the reflective teacher can be the researcher of their own practice. If this is true, it’s not good enough for a teacher to say, for example; ‘I’m an empiricist, I believe in objective truth and the positivist scientific method as the only way to arrive at it’, if they don’t open up their beliefs and values to critique. Holding to epistemic virtues* demands it, whether the critique comes from within or without.

Does it matter?

If as the results of some students being hard to teach ( or in others’ language; disruptive, disengaged, challenging, uncooperative or worse) is that teachers leave the profession and students suffer segregation and the harmful effects on their life course of exclusion from school, then it does matter. For individual school or academy chain managers it might seem to be productive to eliminate the hard-to-teach students, for the superficially fair and socially just reason that they adversely affect the learning of others, but the job of the epistemically virtuous teacher is to look beyond this structural excuse, at what to change to make a difference for all students, not just the easier ones.

What can we do about it?

It’s the subject of my next article: ‘Being effectual is better than being right.’


*Note: see

The epistemic virtues, as identified by virtue epistemologists, reflect their contention that belief is an ethical process, and thus susceptible to the intellectual virtue or vice of one’s own life and personal experiences. Being an epistemically virtuous person is often equated with being a critical thinker.

Note that in this context curiosity bears the modern connotation of inquisitiveness, in contrast to the medieval connotation of attraction to unwholesome things.

These can be contrasted to the epistemic vices such as:







Critical thinking and critical values


I’m returning to this topic, long after the Twitter heat is off and maybe too late to be of much use to fast moving bloggers.

It all seemed to start with Willingham’s article; somebody read it and told The Education Secretary Mr. Gove about it.

He said; ‘Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and think critically – require extensive factual knowledge.” ( …. ) As Daniel Willingham demonstrates brilliantly in his book, memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.’

The best way to build memory, Willingham said, is by the investment of thought and effort which Mr. Gove told us means the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.

Mr. Gove explained that because tests require students to show they have absorbed and retained knowledge – and can reproduce at will – they require teachers to develop the techniques which hold students’ attention and fix concepts in their minds. That will mean deploying entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths. Tests drive creativity at every level.

He then went step further to say that tests they drive equality. The seventh reason we need exams is to ensure our society is ordered on the basis of fairness. And merit.’

Mr. Gove is a journalist. The way he built his argument is interesting. He cites the evidence and interprets it for us. Learning is a linear process, memorisation of facts comes before understanding, because it gives us ‘mental equipment’ for ‘performing advanced functions’. Testing memorisation not only demonstrates what facts the student has stored but also drives creativity it ensures social equality built on fairness and merit. This is how I’d summarise his argument:

‘Facts and concepts are the same thing. Critical thinking requires extensive factual knowledge. The first task of teachers is to ensure that students memorise facts as unprocessed data. The second task is to test the accuracy of memorisation. Tests require students to reproduce the facts they have learned. Tests drive creativity and social equality and both understanding and knowledge are expressions of remembered facts. Consequently the school teacher’s job is to hold students’ attention in order to fix concepts in their minds by the use of specific techniques such as entertaining narratives, striking practicals and the unveiling of hidden patterns.’

In ‘Critical thinking – why is it so hard to teach?’ Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, said that the ability to think critically depends on domain knowledge and practice. He calls critical thinking ‘doing what the metacognitive strategies call for’. He says critical thinking is not a skill nor is it a set of  skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

A journalist and a psychologist giving firm advice here on education, the occupation of teachers. Why is that? Is teaching subsidiary to other professions and only understandable from within their paradigms?

As a teacher I might put the question the other way round; ‘What makes critical thinking hard to learn?’ We’re all agreed, Gove, Willingham and me, that critical thinking exists. The Cognitive Psychologist says ‘critical thinking can’t really be taught because the processes of thinking are intertwined with content.’ The ‘intertwining’ metaphor refers to a very physical model of the brain and its workings. This paradigm is based on the positivist view of reality, where something must be a concrete thing for it to be analysed and verified. The fact that the objects of study of psychology are non-physical, like thoughts and memories, makes their research more complicated because things that are not measurable have to be represented by things that are, or might be. Whatever, The Journalist accepts the paradigmatic truths of The Psychologist and believes that the amount and quality of the information in the brain’s physical memory store, facts and concepts being the same thing, are represented by the answers in the examination booklet.

Willingham, in speaking about teachers, said; ‘People who have sought to teach critical thinking (CT) assume it’s a skill like riding a bicycle and it is generalisable – once you’ve learned it you can apply it in any situation.’ This implies that CT is fixed, not related to context , reproducible in exactly the same form at different times, stable information. This is the definition of information, raw data; therefore form this perspective, a skill is raw data. However, Willingham has a more nuanced view, which has got lost in Mr. Gove’s interpretation. What Willingham says about thinking processes and information content being ‘intertwined’ rings true to me as a teacher. Managing the relationship between know-what and know-how and using the appropriate pedagogical approach to use their intertwined nature as an aid to learning is the job of teachers. In the classroom it’s both content and thinking that matter and they seem to happen simultaneously.

Willingham also says that if you remind a student to Look At A Problem From Multiple Perspectives often enough, she’ll store an LAAPFMP information chunk which will be available in context, but she will probably not implement the advice without background knowledge and practice.

This means that it’s possible to teach information sets relating to physical action that can be assessed in the form of the skills the learner can do – like bike riding – the reproduction of raw data in an information set. Information sets can also be learned which apply to mental action, thinking critically.

All this is about Know-What, raw information. However if the raw information (background knowledge in Willingham’s terms, Know-What in my terms) is to be brought into use in a non-physical action, like thinking, it requires practice. This is thinking practice, or rehearsal. It’s information, not knowledge which is produced in context in the moment of expert performance, what I call Know-How (K-W).

Why should we as teachers be critical of conclusions arrived at through work carried out in a non-teacher paradigm? Willingham’s positivist paradigm is based on the ontology/epistemology/methodology structure. As an experienced researcher and writer in cognitive psychology he stays true to his paradigm. Looking across his paper he focuses on information and the storage  and organisation of information. The ‘subject’ is no more than a site at which the processes under investigation are located.  The student as a person, with hopes, likes and dislikes – with values – is not a valid object of study in this paradigm.

That’s what is missing in his explanation and in Mr. Gove’s analysis. As I’ve argued before, the teacher’s paradigm comprises ontology/epistemology/axiology/pedagogy. Axiology is what is missing in Willingham’s account because his paradigm excludes the person as an uncontrollable variable, in the positivist scientific tradition.

So what does this mean when we are thinking, as teachers, critically about critical thinking? Values are expressed through the actions of the person in shaping the world as they would like it to be, as an effect of their agency.

‘Transfer (of critical thinking skills) does occur’ notes Willingham and ‘is relevant for educators: transfer depends on student’s familiarity with deep structure and knowing she should look for in deep structure’. It also depends on whether or not she’s bothered. ‘Looking out for deep structures helps but it only takes you so far – the second factor that aids in transfer – despite distracting (of attention?) differences in surface structure – is knowing to look for a deep structure.’ Is she bothered?

Part of the fuss about direct instruction, drilling and rote memorizing of facts in order to construct the information store, has been the worry that some students and teachers  don’t buy into this approach. It’s all very well for Mr.Gove to talk about entertaining narratives and unveiling surprises like a classroom magician, but in the middle of the either/or debate about ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’ there are people with agency. Unlike the glassware on the laboratory bench or the experimental rats in a cage they can always walk out, or at least not pay attention. This is where the discussion has gone wrong. Willingham treats the critical thinker as a mechanical object. Teachers don’t operate in this reality – a classroom is a community of people, all of whom have values. And Mr. Gove has missed the point.

I’m going to end this with an invitation to have a look at two pieces of writing. The first is a 2011 literature review of ‘Critical Thinking’. Initially I included it in this blog, but it runs to 20 pages so I’ve put a link to it.

I think it’s a useful and balanced review that raises some interesting questions. Not least is this question of values in the teacher paradigm. In the section on ‘Dispositions’ Lai notes; ‘However, a small minority of experts also argued that critical thinking must fulfill ethical standards to be truly critical. According to this argument, a defense attorney using critical thinking abilities and dispositions to get her guilty client acquitted would not be a critical thinker (Facione, 1990).’ And in the section on ‘Importance of background knowledge’ Lai says ‘Too much of value is lost if critical thinking is conceived of simply as a list of logical operations and domain-specific knowledge is conceived of simply as an aggregation of information.’

Also read Brian Edmiston’s excellent article on teaching and values ( )

Axiology – The Elephant in the Room

Observation: It’s science. It’s obvious. It’s observable.

What are teachers? Well, they’re teachers, obviously.

What do they do? Hmm. That’s a bit more tricky. Work in schools? Spend a long time in classrooms? Do the best they can? Meet lots of different people, most of them from the future. Talk. Listen. Make plans. Have a life. Spend too much time worrying. Have long holidays. Blog a bit. I don’t know………

How do they do it? Which bit?

Well how about the when they’re at work? Ah. Well, mostly by just doing it I reckon. Maybe learn a bit at the very start, try it out, keep the things that work and forget the rest. Survive the first year. And then just keep going till the summer holidays. After that it’s like swimming lengths in a very long pool …. Dive in; swim till half term; get out and have a rest; dive in; swim till Christmas; have a break… like that.

How about the technical part of teaching? Oh I see. Well that’s about having a good watch, a great memory for names …. and spotting what works when you’re in the classroom so you can do more of it.

When you’ve spotted something that works can you say exactly what it was that made it work? Oh no it’s all far too complex for that. With experience of teaching you can begin to understand what you’re doing for yourself, what produces good effects in terms of students’  learning. But explain it all to someone else? No, I think that’s not really possible. It’s too personal.

What is a teacher? If I’m talking about myself, it’s someone trying to make sense of a continuously changing social situation in order to change it for the better. It’s  changing and changeable, uncertain and complex. On my first day of teaching in a special school, as we were all lining up in the playground waiting for the doors to be unlocked, the person in charge of the line of students next to me said; “Whatever else you do, don’t have a day off. It’ll take you weeks to get them settled again. They won’t trust you.” No  pressure then. I was a trained and experienced scientist teaching scieince to children. I could do the subject stuff standing on my head. It was the other bit that was going to be harder. It was.

Noticing something, investigating and finding out about it is the work of scientists. The ‘something’ might be a thing you could hold in your hand, like the numerical results of the end-of-term science test; or it could be a intangible thing like the behaviour of the students when they have a task to do which involves them working in teams. A teacher has to do both kinds of investigation; we are required to be both a quantitative and a qualitative scientist.

The Key Issues 

Professor Robert Coe in his blog ‘Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think’ ( arrives well equipped, has a rootle about in his toolbag and comes out with the right tools to hit the proverbial nail square on its proverbial head. After a very brief introduction he moves on to: ‘Research Evidence; can observers spot good teaching?’. He says there are two key issues here.

The first concerns the question of reliability. He gives us evidence to show that classroom observation is highly unreliable as a means of getting evidence about classroom action.

The second issue is validity. Does a high rating from observation tell you the teacher is ‘effective’. No. It would be better to use a list of teachers’ names, a blindfold and a pin to rate effectiveness.

Coe moves on to give some reasons why Observers have made such a big mistake in coming to believe that it’s possible ‘to know good teaching when you see it’. In brief these are:

Doing an Observation produces a strong emotional response; ‘I know what I like ….’

Learning is invisible but ‘If I focus on children, rather than the teacher, and what they are doing,  I will see learning happening’

‘If I can do it then I can spot it’

‘I know exactly what universal ‘good practice’ is and that’s what I’m looking for.’

I agree with Coe. But I think there’s another more fundamental reason for the mistake. I would go back to his identification of reliability and validity as the two key issues, because there’s something wrong about the science of observation which he’s correctly identified.

Horses for courses

Finding out about things is the business of scientists. As I suggested earlier teachers are entitled to be seen as scientists and they do both quantitative and qualitative investigations. So what comes next will be easy to understand.

Quantitative, positivist science is extremely important and useful. However it’s also become so dominant as a form of investigation that ‘science’ is generally taken to mean ‘quantitative, positivist science’ in the street. Or classroom.

Quantitative researchers look for cause-effect relationships, prediction and generalisation of findings. Teaching and testing for example; ‘When I do this I get that, with all the students in the class.’ I call it Shallow and Wide.

Qualitative researchers are looking for illumination, understanding, and possible extrapolation to similar situations; ‘What’s happening when we …..  with this class group at this time?’

In qualitative research, the aim is to “engage in research that probes for deeper understanding rather than examining surface features.”  I call it Narrow and Deep.

‘The quality of a study in each paradigm should be judged by its own paradigm’s terms. For example, while the terms Reliability and Validity are essential criteria for quality in the quantitative paradigm, in the qualitative paradigm the terms Credibility, Neutrality or Confirmability, Consistency or Dependability and Applicability or Transferability are to be the essential criteria for quality.’

and back to the classroom

Why talk about scientific paradigms when the subject is ‘observation’?

Both the reflective teacher-scientist and the classroom observer-scientist are collectors of evidence and both sorts are valuable. But apparently Observers have been doing quantitative looking for qualitative evidence.

As far as we are concerned here quantitative evidence is in the form of factual information, it’s independent of the context in which it’s found, its analysis  can produce certainty about things and explanations of how they work. It sounds like ‘know-what’ doesn’t it?

Qualitative evidence which is produced only in the context under examination, it’s uncertain and does not lead to firm conclusions and generalisation. This sounds like ‘know-how’ to me. And I’ve used the same epistemological lens to examine the skills/knowledge issue in another blog here.

If this confusion were cleared up it might all become clearer. Information is not the same as knowledge, know-what is not the same as know-how, quantitative science is not the same as qualitative science.

Classroom observation – it’s not so hard if you think about it.

I no therefore I can. Or knot.

There’s an old country joke that you probably know. A Lost Driver stops to ask the way from a gentleman walking along the narrow lane. The Walker has the knees of his moleskins tied with baler twine and the band of his battered felt hat decorated with two cock pheasant tail feathers. The Lost Driver pulls up beside the Walker and opens his window. ‘Good morning”, he says, “can you tell me how to get to Manuden?’ The Walker stops, turns to look at the Lost Driver and takes the straw out of his mouth, he clasps his hands behind his back and answers, ‘Hmm. Get to Manuden eh… Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

On January 10, 2014, the TES published a feature article by their behaviour expert, Tom Bennett, entitled, ‘I know Therefore I Can’. ( In the article, Tom makes the argument for schools privileging the teaching of knowledge (by which he means know-what or facts) over time spent developing (by which he means know-how or knowledge). He maintains there is no false dichotomy in categorising these two separately things and the impact of losing time on developing knowledge (he calls doing skill acquisition tasks) He states that this disproportionately affects the poor, magnifies the disadvantages they already suffer and is unhelpful in the fight against inequality. A solid core of Knowledge (meaning know-what), he maintains, attracts other pieces of knowledge, by a process similar to gravity. Knowing stuff can be represented as physical mass. The existing mass of knowledge captures and drags in what he terms ‘other fragments of wisdom’, further increasing its own mass gravitational influence; its own power to capture more matter.

This is a beguiling argument. It offers an interesting and uncomplicated analogy and cloaks itself in the language of empowerment. Teaching children facts, it seems, is a virtuous cause, practiced by those on the side of the good. It is a moral and social crusade that will educate and emancipate the poor, freeing them from their ignorance and gaining them access to social mobility.  Who could argue against that?

Social responsibility is certainly a fine cause and one we would all agree is worth supporting. But is Tom’s suggested route the best way to get there? Before we set off it would be a very good idea to make sure the suggested path is, in fact, the road to Manuden.

We should start by ignoring the argument that one path is morally superior to the other. Tom implies that some people in education, notably those supporting the idea of developing students’ know-how are advocating keeping children ignorant or denying them access to know-what, facts or information. That is clearly a false argument, misrepresenting one side of the argument and then arguing against it. It’s easier than dealing with the substantive issues, because the misrepresenter retains control without doing any hard work.

But what about this idea that schools should privilege the teaching of know-what (facts) over  the development of know-how (skills)? There is after all only a very limited amount of time that children spend in school and shouldn’t schools spend as much of that time as possible doing what is most effective? Again, who would argue against this?

It is, after all, the central business of education to teach children in the best way possible. So, let’s take a closer look at Tom’s argument and see if it tells us the best path to take.

Getting directions 

Tom’s article is about knowing and knowledge. He uses his central term ‘knowledge’ to mean a fact, a piece of information; and also a collection of facts, a store of information. (‘information’ meaning raw data, not acted upon by the receiver). He attributes some attractive, gravitational property to the discrete pieces of information, such that they tend to accumulate.

He also uses ‘knowledge’ in a different way to mean a process in which context related information is deployed, what might be called a skill.

He uses ‘expertise’ in the same way, as both an object (a fixed body of interlocked facts) and a process (given sufficient practice, the facts appear in the world as expert action).

He asserts that skills are based entirely on knowledge. He also refers to skill as habit but does not expand on this.

He supports his argument against the teaching of skills by stating that; skills cannot be easily obtained by doing tasks centred on skill acquisition. in other words skills aren’t generalisable. He also states that children can be taught to apply learned skills in unfamiliar areas through the use of inductive inference. In other words skills are generalisable. This is getting a bit confusing.

Tom’s argument is weakened by his use of the term ‘knowledge’ to mean both a thing and a process. Here he’s introducing the concept of a dual state. This is a difficult concept to understand, it’s similar to the idea of the wave-particle duality of light and electrons.

This isn’t getting any easier. It’s a big muddle. Where exactly are we going? What does Manuden mean?

Maybe we need to agree some terms so we can hear what we are saying to each other. Here’s my suggestion: 

Community:  I am member of the community of educators, which I take to include teachers, academic educationalists, psychologists, sociologists and anyone who feels themselves to be entitled to membership because of their commitment to learning and flourishing.

Know-how: As a community we use the more every-day term ‘Know-how’ in place of the cognitive psychologists term procedural knowledge, what the behaviorist psychologist Bloom called intellectual skills in the early 1950s.

Know-what: In place of the term declarative knowledge, what Bloom termed knowledge and is also variously termed descriptive or propositional knowledge I suggest we use the term know-what. Information or data are examples of know-what.

Know-how is a process, an activity, it’s the graceful, artistic and balanced skater, there, in front of you on the ice. Know-how is knowledge; it is unique in its context, is difficult to communicate, is impermanent and known only to the performer inasmuch as it can be known.

Know-what is the store of information that is drawn on by the skater to make her beautiful performance. Know-what is information, it persists over time, it is communicable, it can be known and understood by both the performer and a person they are talking to.

Know-how = process = knowledge

Know-what = store of facts = information



There’s ‘The Yew Tree’. We’re getting close.

Ah. Manuden.


Behaviour and Tough Young Teachers – the other way of looking at it

Part 2 of the new BBC Three documentary series ‘Tough Young Teachers’ was shown last week, its production supported by Teach First. Their mission is to ‘end inequality in schools’, the aim of the series ‘to show the sometimes gruelling, often life-changing journey of a new teacher on screen for the very first time.’

Part 2 was all about behaviour.

Is ‘Tough Young Teachers’ a documentary, or a Docu/Drama? The subject of behaviour in schools always makes for a good bit of dramatic tension after all. The Docu part might be giving us a deep insight into the reality of Education in the 2000s. But in my mind’s eye I keep glimpsing the camera crew in the classroom, together with thirty students and a teacher or two. Does the presence of the observer affect the observation? Probably. No matter, this is also a Drama, with a caste of characters.

So how should it be reviewed, as Docu or Drama? Schools are such mysterious places to most of us once we go out through the school gates for the last time. Mind you they were pretty mysterious when we were there as students too, when clearly the most important reason to us for going to school was to Grow Up and Find a Few Friends. The teachers had their own agenda, but it didn’t really get in the way of what we knew we were there for.  We just had to comply enough. Getting a glimpse of what goes on, on your flat panel, from the comfort of your own chair, is one way to get to Know About Education. And the best way to get to know what the series really means is to read the reviews.

The TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett, as ascerbic as usual, let us know in no uncertain terms where his sympathies lay: 

He was taking evidence on the teacher Meryl.

“There was indeed trouble in River City,” he wrote in his latest TV review, “Meryl’s GCSE class enjoyed using her as a piñata, especially, it appeared, when she was being observed, the little sods. Did I hear one of them shout “Morning Meryl!” at her? I nearly reached through the telly to end the little Jaspar.”

Sit up and pay attention! This passage from Bennett deserves some scrutiny. Just to make things clear a Piñata is a decorated figure of an animal containing sweets that is suspended from a height and broken open by blindfolded children as part of a celebration (Oxford Dictionary).

The term ‘Little sods’ means “little fools, idiots or bastards”.

And ‘Jaspar’ might be an obscure reference to the Bible.

So in translation this passage reads, “The young teacher was bashed around by the children for entertainment, the little bastards, and I would like to have been there to punish them.” This is interesting.

Then Bennett gives some advice in his role as the Behaviour Guru. Firstly, he tells us, it is a myth that when students are engaged in their learning they behave well; secondly, if the class is badly behaved, he reassures us this is not the teacher’s fault, it’s because some children are just bad. He says “There’s an odd dislocation between the way we treat students and the way we treat new teachers. The former are feted; the latter learn to love the lash.” Tom seems to be suggesting this is the wrong way round and even though we can’t use the lash on bad children these days,  we might be able to get him to come along and ‘end’ them for us.

Over at the Telegraph, Sarah Rainey having seen Episode 1 starts her series review, “If there’s a tenth circle of hell, being a new teacher in an inner city school might well be it. And if Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire has shown us how satisfying and rewarding the profession can be, Tough Young Teachers was a terrifying insight into the other end of the spectrum.” She ends: “Just as Educating Yorkshire has proved an unlikely success, this has the potential to portray the real problems of the education system – and how teachers like these are our best hope to address them.” Both Drama and Docu there, I think. And a bit of language that could have come from the TES.

Meanwhile, here at the Guardian, reviewer Laura McInerney saw the first programme and started her review with the Docu or Drama question. She thought the cast of six “were sitcom-like in manner. They were the ‘quirkies’”. “How realistic was the portrayal of their first day? Judging by the reaction on Twitter, even die-hard cynics praised its accuracy.” So it’s Docu then. She moved on to the serious part by asking: “So what did we learn from the first episode?” Her first three points were about the need for organisation and motivation. Her fourth was “Difficult students are difficult in detention too”  commenting “Every new (teacher) student thinks that detention is the answer, and then they discover that getting students to attend requires the cunning of a diamond thief, and that once they are in the class you are now facing the most difficult student – again!”.

Clearly this series is a Real Look at Real Education and how it ought to be done. The reliability of the evidence is confirmed by the Tweets.


Laura McInerney’s final thought was this: “Among all the focus on teachers and badly behaving children, it was easy to overlook the fleeting but extraordinary kindness of Honour, a young Asian girl desperately trying to  help a new pupil who spoke no English. In every challenging school there are students like Honour who are regularly forgotten, but who help their teachers and fellow students and make an enormous difference.” So taking her lead, here’s another perspective:

Part 2 of Tough Young Teachers was set in three schools with a total student population of  around 3000 or so. The programme focused on a very small number of students selected form this large group. Bad Behaviour makes for good TV; that’s the way to choose who should star in this programme. The head teacher of one school has criticised the programme makers for focusing on difficult pupils. After all the series is called Tough Young Teachers, not Tough Young Students. Whether or not his criticism is justified, the reviewers have focused on these few individuals and treated them as if they are only what they seem to be in school, ‘little sods’ as the TES puts it. The new teachers know the ‘Don’t smile till Christmas’ rule, they’re been told that they must be in control. The Ofsted Chief Inspector agrees, he says that good teachers ‘exude authority’. Caleb is given an ultimatum by a senior teacher “You join us or you leave.” He knows about this offer, he’s heard it before. He was in a pupil referral unit before he came to this school. He wouldn’t have been there unless he’d been struggling with school. He’d missed out on his time in his mainstream school when he could have been preparing himself for his GCSE years. He’s told he can get a good grade by his TY teacher, but as Tom Bennett puts it “Would Caleb realise that he only had the potential to get a B in his GCSE in the same way I can potentially run a marathon in flip-flops.”

Then the Guardian reviewer reminds us of something important. Schools are filled with children; studying, growing up, making friends, being the best they can be, making mistakes. At the end of Part 2, Caleb has tears in his eyes. He talks about his hopes, he says it in his own way. He’s dealing with rejection and still hoping for the best. He’s one of the 3000 again.

It’s better to be present in schools in some way, presenting at least some perspective rather than not being there at all.  We’re seeing people, young and older, with strengths and weaknesses dealing with very important issues. It’s up to all of us as viewers, the programme makers and the reviewers to maintain a sense of balance.

Paradigm – loose ends, tidy thinking Part 2


Knowing about knowledge Part 2


Superficially it seems that we know enough about knowledge to be able to talk about it fluently. It comes in two forms: procedural and declaritive. Procedural knowledge can be directly applied to a task, for example solving a problem, and the knowledge is formed by doing the problem solving task. Declaritive knowledge here could be called knowledge about problem solving. However, from my understanding of knowledge and information, what’s called declaritive knowledge looks more like information and prodedural knowledge more of a process than an object. This isn’t a settled field. Maybe we don’t know enough. Or maybe I don’t.


Luiztavio Barros writing about language acquisition says:


“Procedural knowledge is (….) knowing how to do something. It contrasts with declarative knowledge, which is knowledge about something. For example, I may read about the importance of perfect arm strokes and coordination while swimming and yet drown like a stone when inside the pool. This may sound obvious, I know, but as far as language learning goes, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Declarative knowledge enables a student to describe a rule and perhaps apply it in a drill or a gap-fill. Procedural knowledge, on the other hand, enables the student to apply that rule in real language use.


Not surprisingly, procedural knowledge does not translate automatically into declarative knowledge – try asking a native speaker to explain why exactly she said “I’ve been there” rather than “I went there”. In the same way, declarative knowledge does not automatically cross over into communicative language use. In other words, students may be able to describe a grammar rule and manipulate it through controlled exercises, but consistently fail to apply the rule in communication – spoken or written.”


Educational psychology puts things in this way: ( ‘Declarative knowledge is a persons ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge base, whereas procedural knowledge is specific knowledge relating to performing particular tasks. The application of these cognitive paradigms to education attempts to augment a student’s ability to integrate declarative knowledge into newly learned procedures in an effort to facilitate accelerated learning.’


This suggests that knowing how to do something is a fixed procedure deploying specific knowledge for a specific task without reference to the context of the action. Declarative and procedural knowledge are treated as discrete but amenable to integration. This is quite a different notion to mine, outlined in my previous post, about information and knowledge being different from one another, knowledge being uniquely created and deployed in the moment of action.. Rewriting this using ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ as I understand them, would look more like this:


“Know-what is a person’s encyclopaedic information base, including the specific step-by-step information of the actions necessary to complete a specific task, a task related skill. Teaching a student the information contained in routines or hierarchies of action may produce more rapid and consistent action on their part. The student’s performance of the action, seen as know-how, may become automatic if they are given the opportunity to practice. The student’s know-what can be assessed by standardised testing; their know-how by recording their actual performance and interpreting the performance of the skill – for example by recording the performance on video and asking  asking them to comment on it).”


‘In the field of second language learning other writers ( e.g. Krashen ) claim that declarative and procedural knowledge are two separate entities, (language acquisition being associated with comprehensible input, language learning with exposure to grammar) while others believe that declarative knowledge can be proceduralized through practice. There’s a third group that argues that it’s noticing (and renoticing) rather than practice that will push students’ interlanguage development forward. In other words, there is far from unanimous agreement that practice makes perfect as far as language learning goes.’


In the context of the classroom, a student brings some procedural knowledge with them into the classroom and adds to it, for example by learning about learning strategies, the rules, actions/action sequences, and skills that result in successful learning. 


In the business world knowledge and information are described in non-technical terms. Procedural knowledge is called ‘Know-how’, practical knowledge on how get something done. Declarative knowledge is called “Know-what”, facts and information. There are also the categories “know-why” (science) and “know-who” (communication) containing know-how and know-what specific to these areas of activity. Know-how is seen as often tacit and difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or speaking it. The opposite of tacit knowledge is explicit knowledge that is readily communicated. Interestingly Know-how is recognized in U.S. Tax regulations as an industrial  property. Services by individuals having know-how are not.


‘A chief practice of technological development is the codification of tacit knowledge into explicit programmed operations so that processes previously requiring skilled employees can be automated for greater efficiency and consistency at lower cost. Such codification involves mechanically replicating the performance of persons who possess relevant tacit knowledge; in doing so, however, the ability of the skilled practitioner to innovate and adapt to unforeseen circumstances based on the tacit “feel” of the situation is often lost. Expert know-how is broad and deep, say of a chess grandmaster. Even with massive processing power current computers cannot achieve this “feel”.’


Note: Information technologists seem to be ambiguous about the relationship between tacit and explicit knowledge and in the use of terminology in talking about information and knowledge.


‘The conflicts (…..) are reflected in Ikujiro Nonaka’s model of organizational knowledge creation, in which he proposes that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. Transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification. In that model tacit knowledge is presented variously as uncodifiable (“tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified”) and codifiable. This ambiguity is common in the knowledge management literature.


Nonaka’s view may be contrasted with Polanyi’s original view of “tacit knowing.” Polanyi believed that while declarative knowledge may be needed for acquiring skills, it is unnecessary for using those skills once the novice becomes an expert. And indeed, it does seem to be the case that, as Polanyi argued, when we acquire a skill we acquire a corresponding understanding that defies articulation.’


(see )

An end note on noticing


( ) 


‘Traditional information processing models explain acquisition as the conversion of declarative knowledge, obtained through explicit instruction, into procedural knowledge through processing practice which involves the automatisation of controlled processing. The Noticing hypothesis reverses this process: implicit knowledge is acquired through focusing attention on a form which becomes procedural knowledge; declarative knowledge may develop later with practice.

Schmidt defines noticing in a special sense, meaning apperception as opposed to conscious attention.  Conscious attention is a metalinguistic process which leads to metalinguistic knowledge; noticing is a more subtle phenomenon.

Doughty claims that:


People learn about the structure of a complex system without necessarily intending to do so, and in such a way that the resulting knowledge is difficult to express. (Doughty 2003)


Automatic processing is activation of a learned sequence of elements in long-term memory that is initiated by appropriate inputs and then proceeds automatically – without subject control, without stressing the capacity limitation of the system, and without necessarily demanding attention. Controlled processing is a temporary activation of a sequence of elements that can be set up quickly and easily but requires attention, is capacity-limited (usually serial in nature), and is controlled by the subject. (http// (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977)’

According to this idea, there two kinds of skills


1) skills as sets of information coming straight out of the information store, know-what rather than know-how, automatic, fast with no capacity limitations, light on processing power demands not demanding attention


2) skills as know-how, an on-demand set of know-what elements, capacity limited and controlled by the performer, context related, requiring attention and resource hungry.


Does that sound plausible?








Paradigm – loose ends, tidy thinking Part 1

Knowing about knowledge Part 1


Ontology-Epistemology-Axiology-Pedagogy – a teacher’s paradigm.

I’m writing this series of pieces as reflective research; I believe that writing is research, not merely a product of it.  It certainly helps me to clarify my own thinking and I’m grateful to you for your reading of it. The purpose is to get a better understanding of pedagogy in theory and practice, as the professional core of teaching. I feel I’ll be closer to that after this Part 1 and the following Part 2.

Thanks to Nina C Smith ( ) for her gentle comment on my recent post:

Thanks for this interesting post. I would also add axiology to your building blocks of paradigm, just because the value level decisions are the ones that define your other choices. I wrote a blogpost about the dimensions of teachers’ learning process to clarify my thinking about that. It seems to me that you are using information and knowledge somewhat interchangeably, and I was hoping you could clarify the connection between procedural/declarative knowledge in your thinking of pedagogy.”

I’ve been missing something important. I’ve been circling around it and glimpsed it now and again. I’ve had an image in my mind but not expressed it. In my last post I said In teaching, our stock in trade is reality and knowledge about reality. Of course there’s no right or wrong about what reality and truth might be. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. Teachers are assumed to have beliefs that are generally virtuous as are other professionals, but outside this limitation teachers are entitled to believe as they see fit.” As I was writing this I was also thinking “But what if a teacher isn’t virtuous?” In my work I’ve witnessed a senior teacher being physically cruel to a student in school. The teacher was never held to account; they left the school before a police investigation into alleged systematic cruelty got under way got under way. The school was subsequently closed down.

Nina, trained as a teacher in Finland, says ‘….. the value decisions are the ones that define your other choices.’

We talk about the ethos of a school but what does it mean? What when you walk into a school you can often sense it from all kinds of signs around you, in the corridors, in classrooms, in the playground, in the road outside. Schools often state their values on their websites – how are these values arrived at? I haven’t come across an organized way of thinking about his in my experience in the U.K. as student, teacher and person. I’ve known that we don’t pay as much attention to this side of teaching as happens outside the U.K., since talking to a Norwegian friend in the early 2000s about his training as a teacher in Norway. It wasn’t there in my own PGCE training in 1993 and I think my experience is generally true for other teachers. In reading for the blogs I’ve been writing over the last weeks I didn’t come across the term axiology. Now Nina C Smith has made me aware of it, it’s easy to find.

Axiology is the study of values and of how different people determine the value of different things. Different people can approach the same item and value it in a different way. Included as values are ethics, morals, religion and aesthetic values. Depending on the individual the value he or she assigns an object or idea can either match their reality if it is a valid judgment of value, or distort it such as when too much value is accorded a particular item by others, making it seem to be worth more than it actually is.

To give a value to an item, idea or belief, priorities need to be set in a person’s mind. The person needs to compare the new item, belief or idea to those that are already known or held and then decide which one has more value. All people assign value and they do so in a pattern that is unique to themselves. Axiology studies how people make these decisions and the patterns of value setting that can be discerned. (See

The second point Nina C Smith makes is my use of the terms information and knowledge interchangeably. That was a mistake and I’ve been working to try to correct it.

I support the view that unlike information, knowledge isn’t stored in the brain somehow as relatively fixed material, it’s created in a specific situation. It’s never recreated in the same way again or used in the same way to produce action. For example, take an ice-skater to a frozen river. Whilst the skater has stored useful information on balancing, skating, falling, facts about ice, her skating knowledge is created at the time, on that ice on that day. Another time things will be different and new knowledge will be created to match those circumstances, on that other day, on another frozen river.

Information is raw; the receiver doesn’t act on it. Information is static and can be represented by a conceptual model, a case, a rule, an object. Knowledge is action and can be represented as information in symbols, but the two are not the same. Information does not produce knowledge until and unless it is applied effectively.

Information can be recalled from the memory store. We can’t recall knowledge because it isn’t stored; we can only experience a situation as being similar to one we have already experienced. We can describe the situation but we can’t describe the knowledge associated with it. When we communicate about our knowledge we usually describe the information related to it. Knowledge is fluid, dynamic and tacit. Try riding a bike with your hands crossed and then tell me about it.

That’s enough information about information. Thanks for your company.


Being pragmatic about teaching


Two responses to my last Elephantological posting: Neil Gilbride (@nmgilbride) “Aw, no Pragmatic Realism in that piece, such is life” and Karl Bentley (@bentleykarl) “amazing blog post re pedagogy – hell to pragmatism, why what we do is equally, if not more, important”.  Thanks Neil and Karl.

I set out with this series of Elephantology blogs with the hope that we could have a conversation about what lies at the heart of our passion, to get to know each other better as teachers and do something more productive than insulting each other from positions of ignorance. That’s not to say I see myself as the expert here. More the irritant in the oyster.

Good point Neil. I’ll try again. Let me know what you think please?

I’d like to acknowledge LeoNora M. Cohen (1999) Ontario State University, School of Education before I start. OSU have got good materials online

In teaching, our stock in trade is reality and knowledge about reality. Of course there’s no right or wrong about what reality and truth might be. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. Teachers are assumed to have beliefs that are generally virtuous as are other professionals, but outside this limitation teachers are entitled to believe as they see fit. Which of these fits your belief system best?

Idealism: ideas are reality. Truth is established through conscious reasoning. The idealistic curriculum is literature, history, philosophy and religion. Idealistic pedagogy embraces lectures, discussion and dialogue and developing introspection, intuition, and insight and building character through the imitation of heroes.

Realism: reality is in physical objects. Truth is what can be observed. The realist curriculum is standardised and focuses science and mathematics. The pedagogy of realism organises and presents content systematically to master basic facts and skills through demonstration and recitation, within the boundary of a discipline with students showing they can think scientifically and critically. Training of students in the rules of conduct develops their character.

Pragmatism: (experientialism): reality is those things that can be experienced or observed. Truth is what works and it’s always changing. All learning depends on context, of place, time and circumstance. Pragmatic pedagogy blurs the lines between disciplines, students often working in groups, focusing on problem solving and experimentation with social experience in the foreground. Students apply their knowledge to real situations. Character development comes through making group decisions informed by the process of inquiry.

Existentialism:  reality is subjective and individual; the physical world has no inherent meaning. Existentialists do not accept any other person’s predetermined view of realty, but focus on freedom and individual meaning making. The teacher provides opportunities for self-direction and self-actualisation, with the subject matter agreed through personal choice, starting with the student rather than with the curriculum. The teacher opposes the tracking, measurement and standardisation of students. Character development emphasises personal responsibility in decision-making.

The point of all this is to enable me to be reflective about what I’m doing. My best hope is that it could enable us to be reflective.

My particular interest is what has come to be known as behaviour with capital B. If what I do is all attributable all to my own experience, as a research biologist, a tree feller, a boy in private primary school, a welder of smashed cars, a teacher, a pharmaceutical researcher, a cabbage picker,  a chickens farmer, am I an existentialist pedagogue? Maybe. But do I believe that all reality is subjective and of my own making? No. I’m closer to pragmatism and I know I’m not a realist.

I’m having this conversation with you as reader as if you were there in the other chair. If you were and we shared an understanding of both what is possible and the pedagogical consequences of our positioning, we’re off to a flying start when we come to discuss how to approach students learning about themselves. Those who position them selves as realists, training students in the rules of conduct as the way to develop their character could join the conversation in a rational way. If realist training means that a large and relatively stable number of children and young people are dismissed, removed, segregated from a full and fruitful education, that needs some rational justification. That would be better than blundering about in dark rooms, I think.

If we started the conversation with the question: “Supposing when you’re teaching you’re operating within a particular paradigm – what might that be?” or “What’s your paradigm?”  that could be interesting.

What do you think?


A herd of elephants: Paradigm, ontology, epistemology, pedagogy


I’ve just read a blog by a teacher working in a Pupil Referral Unit, for 12 students, with several teachers and teaching assistants. It provides for primary aged students with behaviour problems and secondary aged students with conditions that apparently make them medically unfit to stay in school. This little school could be seen as markedly different from mainstream school; it’s a temporary school – students are only supposed to stay for a short while and yet quickly establish a working relationship with the community there; there is an intensity about it, very few students all with some high profile problem and a relatively large number of adults around; students are expected to quickly change their behaviour, in a way that will mean them leaving this little school where they feel they belong and returning to their mainstream where they’ve already failed or to another school where they have to start off being new to the community, all over again.

I’ve worked in a PRU. Before I applied for the job there I didn’t know such places existed. It was for secondary students, permanently excluded and not statemented, for 42 children, although we had students with statements and 24 desks and chairs. Like the rest of us going into this area of work I wasn’t specially trained to do this rather different work. It puzzled me that in the PRU we were supposed to do something that had proved impossible in these student’s home schools and do it in quickly and in a specified time. In staffroom language, we had to ‘make them school-shaped’ in two terms for their ‘return to mainstream’.  Exactly how were we to do this ‘reshaping’? When I started at the PRU the new head there was a teacher of dance who had worked in a secondary school and drifted into working with the ‘special ed.’ classes. She’d come to the PRU just before its first OFSTED inspection, the first PRU inspection in the County. She had to get it into shape fast. She told me she was a behaviourist and that was how we were going to work. We passed the inspection. All the new paintwork and carpets and the new indoor toilets probably helped, replacing the extremely worn out and battered stuff that was there on my first day. She told me that some of the staff resisted the idea of behaviourism, but she was the Head and we’d do as she said.

Behaviourist. Why? Were we supposed to be psychologists applying psychological theory? If so, why didn’t the authority staff the PRU with psychologists or train us – we didn’t get training. This was the nineteen nineties and Jerome Bruner had proposed that cognitive psychology should replace behaviourism in the nineteen forties and this had largely happened. But not apparently in the PRU I worked in. Our new PRU head was a qualified teacher but how much specialist training had she received in working with this group of students, somehow identified as requiring separation from their mainstream communities? As I set up my science room, walling it in a space with cupboards in part of the existing woodwork room in the Victorian primary school that housed the PRU, I set off on my Ph.D. research. I was interested in the history of the PRU, what had lead it to its present state and me to my pedagogy as a specialist Behaviour Support Teacher.

Meanwhile in the day job in the PRU, we mostly just made it up as we went along. We had a token economy, rewarding students for good behaviour with food vouchers. We recorded bad behaviour in class and had sitting in the hall and exclusion from the PRU as punishments. If the students behaved very well for several weeks they could return to their mainstream school, if they hadn’t been already permanently excluded. Most of them had been, didn’t and weren’t. We had a visit from the Director of Education for the County; he was a chemist by training. He asked me how I was supposed to teach science with no laboratory and no gas taps. I said I thought it was a good question. He said he’d do something about it. He didn’t.

As well as teaching in the PRU I was a support teacher in mainstream and special schools, advising everyone on behaviour. I’d turned into a behaviour expert. It’s a straightforward process; you do a bit of work, untrained, with students who’ve got into trouble because of their behaviour and you can call yourself a behaviour expert. Simple.

I could begin to see fragments of psychological theory emerging as practice in the way people were working in schools. Teaching seen as a practical activity has no need of grand theory. Other people could do the theorising. Psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, psychoanalysts had that job. In Universities people were developing systematic theory about teaching but their work didn’t seem to penetrate to the classroom level, unless the classroom practitioner studied for a higher degree maybe. Certainly my experience had been that as a working teacher I could pick and choose the bits of theory that suited me and I knew I would never be asked to justify what I was doing, because no-one else in teaching had much theoretical know-how either.

So what? It’s suggested that the relationship between teacher and student is an important factor in learning, maybe even the most important. How you think about another person, whether you think they justify your investment in making a relationship with them at all, student to teacher, teacher to student, seems to make a difference.

This is where having some idea about ‘What is your paradigm?’ might be important.

If you are a behaviourist, you’ll know that the only things of interest are publicly exhibited behaviours. You’ll know that behaviourism began its battle with mentalism in psychology 130 years ago in what William Uttall (2000) called ‘The war between mentalism and behaviourism: on the accessibility of mental processes’. The person generating the behaviour is of not significant within this paradigm. I hear someone say in school “I like you but I don’t like your behaviour – and it’s your behaviour that’s got you a two hour Saturday detention a next weekend.” Is that the kind of relationship that you want with your student – actually not a relationship with them as a person but only as a container of behaviour, conditioned responses and the rest. Is this a relationship that will lead to improved learning? Maybe.

If you’re a mentalist you’ll be with the cognitive psychologists with their paradigm. Both sides agree ontologically that mind exists. After all if we do not accept that personally experienced awareness is a reality we talk ourselves into non-existence. What they don’t agree about is the accessibility of mind and to what extent it can be analysed. The recent development of neuropsychology and brain imaging can be seen as an extension of mentalism, fully maintaining the concept  of the brain as a physical structure understandable by the process of reducing it to its component parts: reductionism.

As a teacher reading this are you feeling fully engaged in this psychologists war? As a teacher writing this, I’m not.

I am interested in Carl Rogers, who studied individuals in his research and focused on the individual’s direct reports of experience. Ontologically; a realist, mind exists. Epistemologically; knowledge is subjective, known indirectly by the observer who is part of the knowledge being investigated. Methodologically; phenomenological and idiographic. Pedagogically; humanist. Carl Rogers’ approach is claimed psychologists, psychotherapists and educationalists. It didn’t interest him at the time. He wasn’t prepared to be incorporated in any way whilst he lived. The PRU blogger mentioned unconditional positive regard, Rogers’ concept, as a fundamental in his PRU..

As for me, I am interested in what effect my understanding about paradigm can have on the learning and development of students. How does Rogers’ humanist paradigm fit together with behaviourist punishment and reward?

If I stand in the student’s shoes and experience what paradigmatic uncertainty looks like from their perspective…..,

Teacher: ‘About balancing on the back legs of your chair, Jack. You know this is a fair rule. It’d be good if you remembered it. Thanks.’

Student: ‘Mmm.’ (You’re telling me again. Of course I know about the rule. I was just leaning back to ask Joel if he needed help with this one – he’s rubbish at Maths)

Teacher: ‘Fair rule Jack? Thanks.’

Student: ‘Mmm. (Joel’s really stuck and all you’re worried about is the stupid chair.)

Teacher: ‘Third reminder Jack. Thanks.’

Student: (Or what? You still haven’t asked my why I’m leaning back – so I can fall on my head ….  I don’t think so.)

Teacher: ‘OK everyone, looking at the whiteboard, thanks. Jack, it seems to me that you’ve got this calculation sorted…. I looked over your work just now and you’ve made sense of it. Good job. Can you show us how you did that?’

Student: ‘Uh?’ (So you think I can stand up without falling off my chair? Now you want me to be the teacher? You do it. Thanks)

Teacher: ‘Jack. Fourth reminder. Five minutes at break. Thanks.’

Paradigmatic flip-flop: student as a rule-breaker, incompetent failure/competent, successful/back to the start. At one moment the student is treated as a source of exhibited behaviour, learning and applying external rules, at the next as an individual with agency, and back again. I think it might explain why some students give up – the whole thing is too confusing, ‘I don’t know who I’m supposed to be. What do you want?’ It felt like that to me when I was at school.

Or certainty……

Teacher: ‘Jack. Just me wondering…..  How’s rocking back good for you at the moment?

Student: ‘What? Oh, Joel’s really stuck with his and I was just telling him how to get started.’ (He’s always saying we should work together when we can. And I know the rocking rule, we’ve had it since primary school, duh.)

Teacher: ‘OK. What are you hoping to do now?

Student: ‘I’ll just turn around to work together for a bit OK? Then I can get on with mine.’ (I can see how to do this problem, so I want to get it finished my way.)

Teacher: ‘Joel, I’ll pop back to see if you need anything else in a couple of minutes. And thanks Jack. Maybe you can help us all out…. can I ask you to explain to us what you’re doing… in a bit?’

Student: ‘Mmm.’(Yeah maybe I could …. I really know this stuff!)

Paradigmatic certainty: The student as agent, competent, resourceful, successful. Pedagogically: inquiry = the solution focused approach. Change by choice, no flip-flop = Less confusing.

What do you think?

What’s your Paradigm?


‘What’s your paradigm, if you don’t mind me asking?’

I’m using some good material at (an e-learning resource about research) in talking about this particular Elephant.

Paradigms can be characterised through their: ontology (What is reality?), epistemology (How do you know something?) and methodology (How do go about finding out?) (Guba (1990), These characteristics create a holistic view of how we view knowledge: how we see ourselves in relation to this knowledge and the (methodological) strategies we use to un/dis/cover it.

In order to get to grips with this, we need to clarify what these terms mean.

The original resource has been written for researchers and if it’s true for researchers maybe it’s true for teachers too. I’ve refocused this article for you as a teacher, where your interest is pedagogy rather than methodology. I’m taking pedagogy here to include your view of knowledge, how you find out about it, your relationship to it and how you represent it, to and with your students.

Ontology is what exists and is a view on the nature of reality.

Are you a realist ? if so you know that reality is something ‘out there’, as a law of nature just waiting to be found.

Are you a critical realist? You know  things exist ‘out there’ but as human beings our own presence as researchers influences what we are trying to measure and explain.

Or, are you a relativist ? You know that knowledge is a social reality, value-laden and it only comes to light through individual interpretation.

Epistemology is our relationship with the knowledge we are un/dis/covering. Are we part of that knowledge or are we external to it?

Your view will frame your interaction with what you are teaching and will depend on your ontological view. For example your approach will be objective if you see knowledge governed by the laws of nature or subjective if you see knowledge as something interpreted by individuals. This in turn affects your pedagogy.

Pedagogy refers to how you go about finding out knowledge as a person and a teacher, the teaching of it to students, whether your relationship with students is of relevance and what results in terms of their education. It is your strategic approach, rather than a set of techniques and skills. Some examples of pedagogical methods are:

  • Didactic
  • Dialogic
  • Dialectic
  • Ideological

Mark K. Smith gives a useful outline of the development of the idea of pedagogy over time. In the U.K. at present the term carries such a wide range of meanings as to be of limited use, unless we take care to limit the range of the particular aspects of ‘pedagogy’ we are talking about. For example the ‘pedagogy of teaching’ is most often taken to mean teaching the basic components of education to the student using logic and facts; it’s not about ‘teaching as entertainment’, it is about presenting a topic in a way that a student can learn it. The teacher presents the information, and the student listens and takes notes. This would be more accurately described as didactic pedagogy (Hamilton, D. (1999). ‘The pedagogic paradox (or why no didactics in England?)’, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 7:1, 135-152) and refers back to John Amos Comenius’s book The Great Didactic [Didactica Magna] (first published in Czech in 1648, Latin in 1657 and in English in 1896).

Dialogic pedagogy involves interchange between different points of view and dialectic pedagogy, testing the strengths and weaknesses of opposing points of view to get at the truth of a matter.

I am particularly interested in the effects of pedagogy on students’ thinking expressed through Imaginative Inquiry and through my work within the solution focused paradigm. Teachers who have been trained in this approach often express their delight in broadening their pedagogical base in this way.

Understanding the meaning of pedagogy and consequently being able to make pedagogical choices is strengthened by knowing which paradigm you’re in. In turn your ontological and epistemological understanding are practically useful when it comes to making pedagogical choices. It seems that in the USA and UK at least education is in the grip of didacticism, which would not be a criticism if it were an informed choice. Dr Richard Paul reinforces the need to understand where you are as a teacher:

‘Knowledge is discovered by thinking, analyzed by thinking, interpreted by thinking, organized by thinking, extended by thinking and assessed by thinking. ….. There is no way to take the thinking out of knowledge, neither is there a way to create a step by step path to knowledge that all minds can follow.’

So what is your paradigm, if you don’t mind me asking?


Part 2 Ontology – Getting Relevant

Part 2 Ontology – Getting relevant

What’s the point of ontology? Who cares? It surprised me that when looking at the ontological question as part of research for my thesis, it wasn’t a big deal in research terms. Method seemed to be more important. But it seemed important to me to open up the assumptions about ‘gold standard’ positivist research and the about research into the realities of the social world. As it turned out, when I had my viva, my examiners raised some queries about the amount of writing I had done on ontology. For my final presentation I cut out most of the detailed investigation of the ontological question – after all I wanted my thesis accepted and to stand up for my floppy hat!


And yet……. the heated argument that’s going on in the blogosphere between the attacking positivists and the others ( I include my self as an other) is going round in circles because the ontological question is not being raised properly. This circular argument is getting boring because there’s no possibility of agreement or even compromise when the opposing sides are operating in different realities. The ontology of positivism is so well-established that the loud and bullying bloggers who claim that everything else is rubbish apparently don’t know that cause-effect science is only one way of looking at the world. Or if they do they’re being disingenuous since they know their gang don’t seem to know one science from another.

So what’s to be done? If you’ve got this far, I would probably agree with you that the detailed discussion of ontology, epistemology and the relationship between the two might be the job of academics in universities. But there is a need to pursue this as ‘flipped’ academics outside institutions and inquirers after truths, because the rules governing cause-effect science are not universal, were never meant to be, and are giving rise to some peculiar artefacts. Not least of these is the attempt to use positivist science to investigate complex, multi-layered, non-cause/effect realities rather than undertaking a search for other ontologies, such as that of critical realism which can describe/explain social realities.

(see ‘The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio’ Brown N Sokal A and Friedman H American Psychologist 68 (2013) for a clear example of misapplication).

What comes out of this, if you can accept that social reality might be different from glasses-and-beer reality, is the possibility of the people in the snug at the ‘Rose Valley’, just walking out and going to the ‘Cottage’ down the road. Just when you were about to get going with your sociological investigation.

Now, I’d had some hints about this problem when I was researching fish reproduction; in my laboratory Day-book sometimes I’d write ‘Healthy but dead’ when I found a deceased fish during my morning check, still with its clear eyes and metallic sheen, but no life. As biologists we didn’t talk about this much, that our experimental subjects could effectively leave the lab. In pharmaceutical safety testing we had means of covering it up – we’d run experimental ‘extras’ to take the place of the fallen and maintain sample sizes.

However, with people involved, this propensity to walk out for one reason or another is real and an important part of social reality – agency – the ability to act independently. If you can’t adjust the sampling procedures then you’re faced with the fact that you can only make uncertain claims that are located in a particular situation. And if generalisation, the product of positivist research, isn’t the intended outcome of sociological research then it’s pretty pointless to claim that this type of research is rubbish because it doesn’t produce generalisation.

And I don’t want to get involved in a pointless and tiring struggle with people who could and might know better.

If agency is a factor in producing and influencing social reality, then there are new possibilities opened up for discussion. I’m interested in moving away from the problem-focused approach that is the method of positivist science, because it seems impossible to critique it without getting entangled. Glassware doesn’t have agency and surrounding it with problems makes no difference to the outcomes of investigation. But when we take this approach in our conversations with other people, the fact that we focus on problems does effect the outcome of the conversation. People do feel hurt when they’re attacked by a positivist blogger who won’t engage in a reasoned discussion about reality. Students feel diminished when they’re attacked for making mistakes in their learning about themselves and how to be, isolated or detained or even socially excluded by problem-focused positivists who are making an ontological error. On the other hand people are energised by focusing on solutions, moving their lives onward to where problems have disappeared, doing more of what is already working to bring them their best life. Their agency is engaged in making positive changes, to reach towards their best hopes – people of all ages and in all situations.

Here’s my proposal. Let’s blog about what works, what is hopeful, what we’re hoping for in the whole field of learning, behaviour, schooling, professional development, science. Let’s take a critical position, challenge our own assumptions as we go along, a healthy routine. And what should we do about those positivists?

Just wait. Sometimes doing nothing is the best doing.



Part 1 Ontology – Getting Real

Part 1 Ontology – Getting real


The start

When I was ten I spent every Saturday outdoors at Bullocks Farm in Canfield, Essex. It was a typical mixed farm; small fields with thick hedges, woods, pigs and chickens, potatoes, wheat, barley, field beans and sugar beet. There were old ponds and a big orchard with all kinds of apples, pears and plums. The farmhouse had heavy black beams and a chestnut tree in the garden. I could go anywhere and explore everything all on my own. I collected the display feathers of birds and put them in the yellow cover of a school exercise book I’d torn apart. I found it a few years ago, labelled in my childish handwriting: teal, mallard, jay, pheasant, English and French partridge, bright feathers stuck in with cello-tape.

I took the eleven plus when I was ten and went to Grammar school when I was eleven. I found out that I wasn’t going to be allowed to study science until I got to be thirteen. I remember gazing out of the window of the Latin room, where Wilf Sing made us sit in isolated desks and grind away at amo-amas-amat, through the windows of the science labs, with their tall taps and high benches and etched glass reagent bottles. I never reached thirteen there. At my next school I was allowed to do science and ‘A’ levels in Physics, Chemistry, Zoology and Botany; with ‘O’ level Economics and Maths for Physics. I dropped Physics and made a reasonably poor attempt to pass the others. I took them again at Tottenham Technical College and did a bit better.

I went to work at Allen and Hanbury’s in Ware as a lab assistant in the Teratology section of the Reproductive Studies Department. The Department head was Professor at the new Brunel University and suggested I apply there to do a B.Tech. Degree, a new invention. I went to Brunel the next year but didn’t like the course and moved on to a University of London B.Sc. at Sir John Cass College within the square mile of the City of London. I graduated with a Joint Honours degree in Botany and Zoology in 1972. I stayed on for two years researching the reproduction of roach, carp and tench. I continued my fish research with a water authority for a year, independant consultancy and another year of research with a commercial consultancy firm. I had a change of scientific direction and worked as a team leader for a contract pharmaceutical company for a couple of years.

I changed direction when my first son was born in 1980. For the next thirteen years, with my little family I ran our own field studies centre and a small farm in Pembrokeshire. But I kept in with science running field studies courses for ‘A’ level and undergraduate students and then training as a secondary phase science teacher in 1993 at Aberystwyth.

In 1995 I started an Open University Masters Degree in Education. It was made up of three modules over three years. I studied Diversity in Curricula, Science Education and Educational Research Methods. In 1998, having nearly completed my M.A. I started my Ph.D. in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia.

My supervisor was Professor Ivor Goodson, a leading light in life story and life history research and for me the perfect match. I was fifty when I started my Ph.D.

I had an idea of what I wanted to do and of the methodological range in educational research. I talked to Ivor about what might be possible and what to read. In conversation he raised the subject of ontology.

The surprise

I’d been in and around science for half a century and ontology was something I’d not thought about. I may have heard the word but what was he talking about? ‘Ontology and epistemology – what your research stands on’.

What did it mean? In the science I’d been involved with for so long the question of what is real, the ontological question, is sufficiently settled that there’s no need to ask it. ‘We scientists know what’s real and what’s not, we’ve got ways of confirming it and we know what we’re doing.’ Science deals with real things, chemicals, DNA, levers, birds and fish, rockets and reactions. Is ontology something you can ask questions about? I soon found out.

‘The Rose Valley’

‘The Rose Valley’, Norwich. Draught beer and crisps, a snooker table, pickled eggs. Tim and me, in the pub for a chat. One of our regular meetings when we’d talk about what we were doing, him an infant teacher and philosopher and me a behaviour support and science teacher, well into my Ph.D.

I was looking into the ontological question, reading Danermark et al. ‘Explaining society’, on critical realism and talked to Tim about it. He had a good think, shook his head and told me he didn’t get it.

I tried again, like this;

“We’re in this pub. It’s a pub. Some things are fixed, you can touch them – beer, glass, table. OK so at an atomic level the glass and the table are intermingled at their boundary but generally speaking we treat them as real, discrete things. When we ask for another glass of beer we’ll get something pretty much the same as we got this time. And the person we ask will have the same idea about beer in a glass, whether we ask him now, in an hour or the next time we come in here. And we’ll put it on the table.

There are a lot of people here in the ‘Rose’ too. It’s a pub. They’re talking and laughing and listening and thinking and imagining. Interacting or not. There’s all this social stuff going on that we’re part of. But there’s nothing solid, nothing you can touch and it’s in a state of permanent flux. Come in next time and it’ll all be different.

So if we wanted to find out about ‘The Rose’ can only look at the glasses, the tables, the real physical, touchable, measurable things in here? Is the social thing that is ‘The Rose’ real or do we have say we can’t look into it because it’s a state of permanent change? Do we need a different kind of science based in a different reality, when we’re trying to explain things you can’t touch or feel, the social world that is as important as the glasses and tables in making up the ‘The Rose Valley’? Positivist science has two layered, it’s either/or science, cause/effect with the mechanisms causing effects open to investigation. Critical realism is has three layers, the real, where social mechanisms operate out of sight, the actual where the mechanisms have their effect, singly or in combination and the empirical – where we see things happen. It’s both/and science, where cause and effect are separated, it’s tentative, it’s descriptive and contextual.”

Whatever ‘The Rose’ it was it’s gone. It’s had a name change and now it’s a restaurant.

But Tim had got it and we talked some more.







Elephantology: The study of what’s big and lurking in the room to which no-one is paying any attention.

What kind of science can handle that? How can we investigate it, when by definition we will have to do it whilst not noticing that it’s there? How can we organise it, when even though we might individually have an inkling that it’s there, we can’t discuss it?

And the elephant-in-the-room isn’t small. Well it wouldn’t be, if we could see it. It often turns out to be the very thing that…… if only we could study it, investigate it, talk about it …. is the key to making progress with our other        – ologies.

Maybe blurting it out might be the way to get going. Blurting to materialise the elephant-in-the-room followed by blogging to bring it into focus.

So here goes …. my first Elephantological blurt is ………….Ontology

Next comes the blog.

Support …….. now!

I am writing this in response to an article by ‘Bergistra – “Headteacher on a Knife-Edge’ in the Education Guardian of May 28 2013. She said ‘I have a reception child, aged four, who desperately needs some serious long-term therapy. In school she is unmanageable.’ She goes on to talk about the difficulty of keeping this child in school and her deep commitment to fulfilling the broad needs of her community of children and their families. She talks about the length of time to get support from outside agencies and says ‘It feels awful not being able to provide this little girl’s family with the support they need now. Not in six weeks, or six months or next year.’

‘Bergistra’ has systems in school to support children. She said she recently reintegrated a year 4 boy whose ‘behaviour was so extreme I seriously considered a permanent exclusion.’ When he returned to school ‘he seemed to be stuck in a tornado of rage and fury that swept him along, trying to destroy everything in his path.’ She made alternative provision for him, but his behaviour deteriorated there and when he was back in school she excluded him again. She said neither his mother nor herself knew what to do. ‘It felt hopeless.’ But she’s taken him back again and hopes to find a way to get him back on track.’

In the context of the new approach to special and additional needs of children, with more responsibility being put on school staff to identify and meet these needs, the tension is obvious and growing. If only the school could have an educational approach to meet the needs of the relatively small number of children who experience the greatest difficulty.

I work with children like the two in Bergistra’s article in my job as an Advisory Teacher. I take referrals where things look hopless, people feel stuck and children are at imminent risk of permanent exclusion. From finding myself in Bergistra’s situation fifteen years ago, I have developed my use of the solution focused approach to problem-solving. If what you’re doing doesn’t work it’s a good idea to do something different and this is certainly different and produces remarkable results. The following two case reports are illustrations of this approach. The names are locations are fictionalised to protect identities.

On a Thursday morning two weeks ago I was driving away from a primary school where I’d been meeting a boy and his mum, when I got a call on my work mobile. As soon as I could stop the car I checked the voicemail. An infant school SENDCo had called – “We’ve got a serious problem with a child and we’d like your help with an intervention – we’re in the danger of exclusion zone – so if you’d get in touch as soon as possible ……thanks Geoff.”

At the primary school I’d been holding a review meeting of the solution focused programme I call VulCAN looking over the work I’d been doing with nine year old Chris over six weeks. Chris had been seriously bullied in his previous school, to the point where his Mum had decided to move him to another school in the hope he could make a new start. He had been very unhappy, his behaviour had become difficult and he had been very aggressive with other children. What we call here a managed move was recommended and supported by the Local Authority Behaviour Support manager who requested my solution focused work with Chris as a key part of the process. Until I could report a successful outcome Chris would not be put on roll in his new school. If he failed he would have to return to his original school.
My first meeting had been with Chris and his Mum, when we’d agreed the purpose of our work together. I’d asked the SENDCo to come along but he wasn’t able to. Chris had been in his new school for three weeks and he told me how he knew things were going well. His Mum agreed to a point but felt he needed to do more about getting angry with other children and this would be central to his success at his new school and Chris agreed with her. His being calm was our project.

I asked Chris to scale himself on what he called the “Calm”/ “Losing it” scale and he put himself at 5. He hoped to be at 7 when we met next time. Over the first weeks Chris noticed himself being calm; after three weeks with this going well we refined the focus to ‘Staying calm even when people annoy me’. At the last-but-one meeting I asked Chris if our project would be complete when we met the next week to review things with his mum and we could finish. He said maybe we could meet for a few more times, maybe fortnightly rather than weekly as we’d been doing. I said we’d check this out when we met to review our work.

When we met for the VulCAN review both Chris and his Mum felt that we had done what we set out to do, Chris was securely in school, he had friends and was keeping calm even when he felt a bit angry inside. Again the SENDCo couldn’t attend but I spoke to him after the meeting. Later I called the LA Behaviour Support manager to say our work was complete. He said that Chris’s move was completed in his view.

From my car I called the Infant school and asked for the SENDCo. I was put on to the Deputy Head teacher – he told me that the SENDCo was teaching her class – and arranged to go in to meet the boy, Tom, his mum and dad and the Teaching Assistant working closely with him the following Tuesday afternoon.

Then I drove on to meet a year 10 boy at an Academy, who had been urgently referred to me because he was at the point of exclusion and his school had ‘tried everything’ and were stuck.

The following Tuesday, when I arrived in school the SENDCo told me that Tom lived with his Mum and spent weekends with his Dad. Both his parents were coming to the meeting and were happy for any help we could offer. Tom is five. After introductions, I asked Tom if he knew we were going to have this meeting. He said his mum had told him. I said that if we were going to do something useful we needed to agree what our work would be about in this meeting. After a bit of talk involving all of us he said it could be about him being calm in school. So I said if we did some work on that it would be ok? He said “Yes”. I said we’d talk about that later.

I asked Tom what were his best things, what he liked doing, what he was good at. We talked about this for twenty minutes, Tom answering questions and thinking about his strengths and his best things, often sitting on his chair or coming back to it after he’d done some thinking and playing. He talked about Scooby Doo and rattled off the names of a lot of Scooby videos. He told me that in school he stayed with his friend Carrie and helped the girls get away from the boys when they were playing outside. He liked reading time and the story they had in class now, “Rat a tat tat”. He said his Dad would say when he was at his house he liked to watch TV and running and shouting. Mrs. Brett the TA would say he was good at making Lego models and picture drawing.
When we’d done a lot of talking about what he liked and was good at, we moved on to how things were going in school. I checked out his understanding of a number line and I wrote the numbers 1 to 10 on a line I drew in my notebook for him. I gave him the pen and he drew a number box across the page and wrote 1 to 10 inside the box. I told him we’d call his ‘calm’ scale, where 10 was him being calm in school and 1 was him not being calm in school. He drew another number box as before which he left blank. I asked him if he wanted the numbers inside. He said ‘yes’. I asked him if he wanted to write them. He said ‘no’ he wanted me to do it. I wrote them in and said that 10 would be him being really calm and 1 the opposite to that. He told me he wanted 1 to be the ‘calm’ end and 10 to be ‘really crazy stuff’. I asked him where he’d put himself now and he put a circle around the 1. I asked him where he thought the others in the room would put him and he said 1. I asked him where he hoped he would be at the end of the same day and he said 1. I gave him a job to do – to notice things going well and him being at the 1-end of the scale. I asked the others if we could give Tom a compliment about the meeting he had just been doing and asked him who would go first. He said mum, then dad, then Mrs Brett, then me. I asked him to give himself a compliment. I asked him again what his job was. He went back to his class to get his things as it was going home time.

In a few minutes I explained the purpose of what we’d been doing to Tom’s parents and outlined the solution focused approach. I asked them if they needed anything else. They said they were impressed by how well Tom had concentrated and stayed on-task in the meeting. He usually couldn’t do this. They left and I asked Mrs. Brett if she could make a scale with him as a reminder – which Tom was calling his number line – maybe he could choose the colour of card and they could write the number line together. Perhaps they could laminate it and agree where to keep it so it would be most useful to him.
We had a plan, the meeting had taken 30 minutes and Tom was fully engaged throughout.

I’ll catch up with how things are progressing when school restarts after the holidays.

An important aspect of this solution focused approach is that schools can do this work for themselves – it’s an educational approach to a child’s learning needs, and if it’s school based it’s highly responsive. Provided it lies within a rigorous framework of action and review, where appropriate and timely referral to outside agencies, like mental health or social services, is made to ensure the safety of and appropriate support for children who have needs additional to their learning needs, it’s useful for a school to have this resource in-house. A few do already.
It strikes me that Bergistra is doing all she can, following the established routines in her school. She’s not giving up – and that is the most common reponse of teaches in this situation. They don’t want to give up on children but they don’t know what else to do. If like Bergistra you feel you’re stuck, get solution focused. It’s the difference that makes a difference.

Thinking about children’s behaviour and learning

I’ll state the obvious.
When children start school they are all young and small. They might have already learned how to walk and talk but they mostly can’t do maths and don’t read and write too well. They’re also pretty shaky when it comes to Geography and the history of the Celts and in how to behave courteously to other young and small people. Some of them know how to use the toilet but ask them put them in front of a mass spectrometer and you’ll get nothing back.

But don’t despair. When they leave primary school to move into the big complex world of secondary school these same children are older and bigger. That seems to happen automatically. Many of them read and write, they do maths and they might know that there’s somewhere called Paris, somewhere. Many of them move to high school with their friends from primary, they know how to play together and how to walk down corridors and keep quiet in big assembly time.

Since many of them seem to know quite a lot of things, this implies they’ve been learning in the time between starting primary school and arriving at high school. So what’s been going on as far as teaching them all the knowledge and skills they’ve developed?

Jade is in Reception. It seems like every day she comes into school she cries. She starts crying as her Mum says goodbye to her, she cries for a long time after she’s gone. It’s seems like a habit and it’s getting in the way of her having a good time in school. The staff in Reception sees a lot of emotional upset as a regular part of their work. Some children cry, some get cross, some do both. They know how to settle children, they haven’t been formally taught how to do it, they know how. But Jade just cries and cries. The Head teacher decides to intervene. When Jade seems a bit more settled he asks her to think about a time when she came into her class with her Mum – and she was happy. Jade has a think and tells him about it. He asks her about the details of that day and in her four year old way she tells him. He sums up her story and asks her to look out for it happening again. He doesn’t mention the problem of her crying and being unhappy so often and neither does Jade. Within a week she’s coming in happy every day, no more crying. Her Mum says it’s because they’ve moved Jade’s bed away from the boiler and she’s sleeping better. In Reception the children’s learning about their behaviour, individually and as a member of their group is enmeshed with their learning about letters and sounds and numbers, the early components of the academic curriculum.

Eddie is six. In school he’s very aggressive, he’s angry and he swears a lot. His Primary school is in the centre of a big housing estate and has lots of energetic children to educate. They have a lot of resources to match the children’s needs, a red-yellow-green card behaviour system, restorative justice, assertive mentoring, a range of support staff and a well-run SEN department. Eddie has absorbed all their support and emerged unchanged, still aggressive, angry and swearing. He’s getting closer to permanent exclusion by the day, as the school uses up its resources and his teachers continue to report the effect his behaviour is having on other children’s learning. I get a request in my role as Advisory Teacher to work with him. I meet him with his Mum who is expecting a baby very soon and the SenCo who made the request. He looks apprehensive and talks in a small voice. I ask him about what he’s good at and what he likes doing and we’re soon chatting freely to each other. I check out his understanding of numbers and number lines as we chat and I ask him to mark where he is on a 1 to 10 ‘How is it going in school?’ scale that I’ve drawn in pencil on a sheet of A4 paper. He puts himself at 2. I ask him ‘If I come to see you next week where do you hope you might be on the number line?’ He marks it at 9. I tell him ‘When I come in next time I’m going to ask you where you are on the line. I’m going to give you a job to do – your job is to notice things going well for you and I’ll ask you about that when we meet again. OK?’ He says ‘OK.’

Next time we meet, just Eddie, the SenCo and me, he’s remembered about the numbers and tells me he’s at 10 without my asking. I ask him what tells him that, what his Mum might have noticed that would tell her he’s at ten, what his teacher might have noticed. He tells me that he hasn’t got any red or yellows; he’s not been swearing or punching people. I ask him what he’s doing instead – he says he’s asking his teacher to help him even though he feels angry sometimes. He says he hopes he’ll be at 13 the next time. The SenCo tells me that the day before he had got angry with someone. We hadn’t talked about that because he hadn’t brought it up.

The next two meetings are a rerun of the first. He tells me he’s moved up on his scale, I ask him what tells him that, what people around him are noticing that has changed a bit. I ask him his best hope for the scale for the next time we meet and he writes 10,100,000,000 on the scale. After he’s gone back to class on is own, the SenCo says that it looks like we’ve done the job with him. He’s getting on well, no more outbursts or punching, he’s getting on better in class too. It’s going to be hard to hold our review with his mum because the baby is due this week, but she’ll contact her to bring her up to date and we’ll review our work with Eddie and close the next week. That’ll actually be next week. This is a work in progress.

Jack is twelve. I’ve been called into his secondary school because they’ve tried everything in their Behaviour Policy to get him to change and nothing has had the slightest effect. He’s very disruptive, he runs out of class when he’s in trouble, he confronts teachers who attempt to control him and is attendance is poor. There’s no problem with his learning, in fact he seems to be a bright boy but he’s not behaving. The only thing left to is to permanently exclude him. I’ve worked in this school before, notable with a violent and angry thirteen year old boy, in foster care, who was also just about to be permanently excluded and I’m seen as a last report. That boy changed his behaviour and was not excluded, going on to take his exams and take up an apprenticeship when he left school. The first time I went in to school for Jack he refused to come to meet me. The second time we did meet, just the two of us. I did the same thing as usual. We agreed on our project. He didn’t know how close he was to permanent exclusion because he’d been doing the same things for the whole time and he was still there, so I explained it to him. I asked him what his best hope was and he said ‘Not get kicked out’. I asked him what he hoped might happen instead. He said ‘Stay in this school.’ I said ‘So if we were working on that, it would be useful to you would it?’ He said it would and our project was agreed. I asked him what he liked and was good at. I asked him to scale where he was on the ‘Stay in school’ scale. I asked him where he hoped to get to and what he might be doing a bit different to get there. From our first meeting he stopped his disruptive behaviour and after a few weeks we agreed to end because he’d got to his ‘best hope.’ At the last meeting as we were agreeing to end our work with the project completed, I asked him what had changed, that made the difference. He said ever since he started at high school he felt worried and now he didn’t feel worried any more. After a few months I called in to check out how things were going. He said he was getting on well, no problems. The SEnCo agreed. He wasn’t excluded.

I could tell you dozens of stories like these from my working life, but these will do for our purposes for now, to ask some questions about what is going on in schools around children’s behaviour. My work is just one of a number of possible alternatives that could be available to children who are at a point of crisis. I didn’t invent the solution focused approach to change. I’ve done no more than learn how to do it and to understand what’s unique to the solution focused perspective. I’ve taught many people in many schools to use this approach as have other solution focused facilitators in this country and across the world. I’ve supported people learning to be solution focused through short training course or buy personal coaching – whatver fits people’s avaliable time and resources. It requires practice and effort to get to be good at it and it has this in common with all thorough going professional work no more, no less. It goes together with learning about yourself.

When we are very young our learning about ourselves and our learning about the world around us is seen as being fully integrated. When we’re a little bit older this previously integrated field is divided into two parts, which in schools are currently and usually called ‘learning’ and ‘behaviour’.

The ‘learning’ component is well understood and well supported. Children are assessed using standardised assessment tools and support programmes, often informed by research evidence, are matched with those with additional. Children with the highest level of need, or to put it another way those who experience serious barriers to their learning and participation, are assessed by educational psychologists or specialist teachers and, at present, receive a Statement of Special Educational Need which specifies the barriers and the actions to be taken to lower or remove them. They may be educated in a special school which is staffed by people who are trained specialists in the areas of the child’s main needs.

The ‘behaviour’ component is treated differently. As teachers our focus is on children’s intended learning outcomes and what we can do about teaching and learning to help them make progress. Once a child is identified as having a ‘behaviour problem we start to burrow into the child as a person and make guesses about the cause. Because this is really outside our teaching and learning remit we import ideas from other fields and often assign labels. In my work I hear teachers talking about children being ASDish, with signs of ADHD, a bit of attachment, anger problems. Children needs are managed in the first place by generalist pastoral staff where they are in post in a school and sooner or later by control and punishment systems. By now they’ve been moved out of the ‘learning’ zone and into ‘behaviour’.

Four year old Jade is supported by the Head teacher using the solution focused inquiry approach to her unhappiness and is soon starting her school day like all the others in her group.

Six year old Eddie is initially nurtured by the pastoral team in an approach common to most infant and primary, but when it’s not effective in bringing his behaviour within the boundaries of what’s usual in the school community the control and punishment system comes in to action. This is different to what would be done if he were showing a learning need. If he was not making expected progress with his literacy he would be given additional learning support. But if he is not making similar progress in learning about himself as a person in his community he subjected to increasingly tight control. There is clear and generally accepted evidence produced by the early experimental psychologists that punishment only interrupts existing behaviour, it does not promote new learning. It produces a short term, temporary effect and this is what happens in practice.
whether one is interested in short term changes in performance without enhancement of learning or longer term changes in learning itself. (Journal of Neuroscience 2009 Differential Effect of Reward and Punishment on Procedural Learning Wachter T. Ovidiu V. Tao Liu Willingham D. Ashe J.)
Twelve year old Jack he gets caught up in his new school’s control and punishment system as soon as he starts there. As expected his behaviour is regulated to some extent but in the end it seems that he can’t be managed in school, until I meet up with him to do something completely different, and effective in supporting his leaning and long-term change.

A consequence of this diversion of attention away from proper teaching and learning work is that in my opinion there is insufficient in-depth critique of non-educational programmes which are hauled in to deal with ‘bad’ children. When a child has a suspected ‘learning’ need, this can be assessed by trained people using standardised tests. When a child behaves badly, there is no such assessment process although such children are often subjected to removal from school to a ‘specialist’ provision for some sort of claimed assessment, which focuses on their ‘bad’ behaviour. I’m speaking from experience here, having worked in and around pupil referral units and specialist resource bases. To deal with children’s guessed-at internal problems programmes which were designed for other purposes are brought in. Mental health professionals themselves cannot positively diagnose the deficits most commonly talked about in school and themselves have to use differential diagnosis (‘if it’s not this, then it must be that’).

I think that as teachers we should base our work on what we know about teaching and learning rather than uncritically accepting inappropriate ‘stuff’ from anywhere else. Take restorative justice for example, set up in the criminal system to bring together a harm-doer, the criminal, and the harmed, the victim. The harm has been proved by the court so there’s no doubt about it, and the criminal must be remorseful about the harm they have done for the restorative meeting to go ahead. Does it make sense to use the restorative approach with children as young as five, in school? Are we sure we have a criminal and a victim with clearly assigned roles? Do we want children to conceptualise themselves as harm-doers? Is it appropriate to use an approach developed in the adult criminal justice system to deal with children in schools? Can we treat children as adults, and should we?

“Always someone else’s problem” – a comment on the Atkinson Report

Always someone else’s problem – (unless you’re the child involved)

The recently published report on illegal exclusions ‘Always someone else’s problem’ by Dr. Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, looks into one aspect of a serious and recurrent question; what we do when we’ve tried everything to get children to ‘behave’ and failed?
Her report, in common with most research activity, is problem focused. You could say “Well of course it is. If you don’t focus on the problem how will you come up with any answers?” She looks at the problem in detail searching for details of deficits in schooling and providing expert strategic advice on what steps must be taken to remedy these deficits. The title is telling – the ‘always’ indicates a rule, a theory about illegal exclusion that is supported by the evidence. The rule is that responsibility for ‘proper’ exclusion is always handed over to the next professional in the line. The purpose of this type of investigation is to make generalised statements that will apply in all situations. It was not the purpose of the investigation to look at exclusion as such, and it makes no connections between exclusions which comply with the law and those which are illegal.
Most responses to the report that I’ve seen over the last weeks take the same problem focused perspective in responding to the report, either attacking and criticising Dr. Atkinson personally and directly for her failures ( or approving her reporting as one of a series, for its strategic problem focused advice. (
This polarised reaction to the report demonstrates the deeply embedded belief that when social behaviour is in question the way to change and improve it is by means of punishment and reward. In general schools punish mis-aligned children out of the belief that this will correct them and make them into good citizens, or at least discipline them into being good school students. In turn Dr. Atkinson recommends that schools are punished for illegally excluding children. In both cases punishments are renamed sanctions.
sanc•tion (s ngk sh n) n.
1. Authoritative permission or approval that makes a course of action valid.
2. Support or encouragement, as from public opinion or established custom.
3. A consideration, influence, or principle that dictates an ethical choice.
a. A law or decree.
b. The penalty for noncompliance specified in a law or decree.
5. A penalty, specified or in the form of moral pressure, that acts to ensure compliance or conformity.
6. A coercive measure adopted usually by several nations acting together against a nation violating international law.

Which one applies in this context?

Two excerpts from the report:
“Foreword from the Children’s Commissioner for England
For a long time, illegal exclusions from school have been an elephant in the room for educators, policy makers and others. Whenever I speak to head teachers, educational psychologists or education welfare officers anywhere in England, all will admit, always in strict confidence, that these exclusions do sometimes happen. But nobody wants to go public or is prepared to name names. There is a feeling in these conversations that for the sake of inter-school harmony, or the reputation of
the system, this is a subject best left alone. It is too hard to identify what is happening, or while there may be a few bad apples, it isn’t really a significant problem. As the conversation goes on, it usually dawns on those talking to me that, if you are one of the however few children it has happened to, it is very significant indeed.
A year ago I published “They Never Give Up On You”, the result of year one of my first formal Inquiry into school exclusions. Again, just as when I speak to professionals face to face, illegal exclusions were discussed. But finding concrete evidence that they do happen proved extremely elusive. We managed to find one head teacher who would admit, albeit anonymously, that not only did such practice take place, but that he excluded children from his school illegally – sending difficult,
challenging and troubled Year 11 children home informally, for months at a time, in the months leading up to their examinations. However, given the secret and covert nature of this – as of almost any illegal activity in any walk of life – we had no way of knowing whether his was the only case in the country. It seemed unlikely, given there are tens of thousands of publicly funded schools in England, but we had no way of proving it.”


“Reasons for illegal exclusions
We consider that illegal exclusions happen for four main reasons.
• Lack of awareness of the law
• Gaps in the accountability framework for schools
• As an unintended consequence of the incentives in place for schools
• The lack of a meaningful sanction.”

Some evidence from my practice.
For the past 15 years I’ve been employed to work with children who are struggling in school. My job title at the outset was Behaviour Support Teacher, I was given no specific training to do this job and had to rely on whatever experience and prejudices I carried into it. What was true for me is true for most if not all ‘Behaviour experts’ around today. As I developed my own skills in the solution focused approach, I developed a structured programme for children with what is called BESD (Behavioural, Social and Emotional Difficulties) which I called VulCAN (Vulnerable Children – Addressing Needs – one of those rather annoying reverse-engineered acronyms). In the course of my Ph. D. research into the area of EBD and PRU provision I came to see that most behaviour support was open ended. Because it had no proper structure it often carried on indefinitely, one behaviour support professional handing on to the next as the child got older, only ending in expulsion from school, or getting old enough to leave. I was determined to do something different, to be able to know if support was useful to the child and the school, and if not to do something different and timely. VulCAN is the embodiment of this. It comprises five solution focused (sf) meetings over a month. The first meeting is with the child, their parent(s) or carer(s) and closest school staff member, when I outline what the sf approach means, we agree the project, and start the work itself. We review on the fifth meeting to decide whether the project is complete in a good enough way, to run VulCAN again because the project in not complete or do something different because sf has not been useful. This prevents unplanned and over extended support. Because at the start I was the only person doing sf work and there was the potential of a high demand I set the acceptance criteria high. The criteria were:
For the student to be at the point of permanent exclusion
For people in school to be feeling stuck about what to do – everything tried and nothing working

In my experience, doing this solution focused work over many years, it is possible to unstick what seem to be the most stuck situations. Change is always happening, even on the brink of exclusion and when the change happens the student takes up their place in their school community with no fuss. I’m not saying that my approach is the only one that does something useful in directly supporting children’s educational rights, but it’s what I do and I don’t see much else on the horizon that can be delivered by education professionals within schools. With the current reduction in external specialist support, my work group is being made redundant this summer, it makes school based effective action even more relevant. Incidentally it also fulfils the best hopes of most professionals in schools to include the whole range of learners in their varied and dynamic school community.

So I would add to Dr. Atkinson’s list of four reasons for illegal exclusions a fifth:
The lack of a straightforward and effective way for school staff to support children in finding solutions and to avoid exclusion altogether

……. Or something like that.

A bit more direct instruction

A recent (April 11 2013) TES post said:
“Social science is often not science. It is investigation; it is commentary; it often illuminates, and helps provide valuable light and guidance in human affairs. What it does not do is offer reliable predictive powers, nor irrefutable explanatory mechanisms for processes. Merely commentary, case study, opinion, and subjective analysis.”

I’ll come back to this in the last paragraph of this piece.

A bit more direct instruction:
The purpose of science is to reduce uncertainty by making acceptable explanations of what our senses tell us is ‘the world’ in action. If we had no explanations we couldn’t make predictions; ‘I’ve seen this before and got an explanation for it, so I can make a pretty good guess as to what’s going to happen next.’ It doesn’t claim that its explanations are irrefutable, but rather any claim to be open to critique and provisional.
The sciences provide ways of organising information that have particular processes we can adopt in collecting evidence about a ‘thing’, reporting it, explaining it and getting agreement on whether or not our explanation is believable.

“Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines:

Natural sciences, the study of the natural phenomena;
Social sciences, the systematic study of human behavior and societies.
Natural sciences
Astronomy, the study of celestial objects and phenomena that are outside the Earth’s atmosphere, e.g. stars, the cosmos, etc.
Biology, the study of life.
Ecology and Environmental science, the studies of the interrelationships of life and the environment.
Chemistry, the study of the composition, chemical reactivity, structure, and properties of matter and with the (physical and chemical) transformations that they undergo.
Earth science, the study of earth and specialties including:
Science-based or Physical Geography and Oceanography
Soil science
Physics, the study of the fundamental constituents of the universe, the forces and interactions they exert on one another, and the results produced by these forces.
The main social sciences include:
Cultural studies
Political science
Psychology )
Social policy
Development studies”

The process of natural science is to observe a phenomenon, think about the factors that might be involved in its production and then guess which one is causing it and which are non-causative factors. We are influenced by whether or not a factor is testable and eliminate or ignore possible but non-testable factors. When we’ve got this far we can set up an experiment. The causal factor we’ve chosen we call the experimental variable; the non-causal factors we call control variables. If we guessed right when we put different amounts of the experimental variable into the experimental system the amount of effect will change. To make this system work we need to change only the experimental variable that we have guessed to be the causative factor. The control variables we must keep unchanged during the course of our experiment, because if we allow a control variable to change we won’t be able to tell if it is our experimental variable that is making the difference in effect, or the change in the control variable. The quality of an experiment in natural science is judged by how well we have identified and controlled the control variables in order to prevent this possible confusion when we come to explain our results and claim a cause/effect relationship between experimental variable and phenomenon. Of course in any experiment there will be some control variables which we can regulate and others that will lie outside our control.
If we noticed a puddle in our area disappeared more quickly in the summer than in the winter, we might guess that this was being caused by the higher temperatures in summer. We could set up an experiment to test our guess. We could heat several a pans of water on the cooker and record the time it took for the water to disappear in the pans set at different temperatures; the experimental variable. We could control the control variables by using the same pan for each test, the same cooker hob, water from the same tap. For other variables that would be difficult to regulate but we guess could affect the result, like height above sea-level and the ambient temperature of the kitchen, we say the experiment was run under ‘ideal conditions’. We assume they don’t cause the puddle to disappear so they’ll be put in this ‘ideal’ category and left out of our explanation. We should also run a control group and we should state our experimental and null hypotheses, to be scientifically thorough. But this is enough direct instruction. It’s time to move on.

It’s obvious that this process suits the investigation of some phenomena and these are the ones that have caught the attention of the natural scientists. When natural science was the big new thing in explaining what was going on in the world, everyone with a living to make jumped on to the cause/effect band-wagon. Alchemists gave way to the scientific chemists, the shamans bowed out as the scientific medics got underway, physics and biology took the same path. Amongst these New Scientists the psychologists created a problem for themselves; by adopting methods of natural science to create explanations in their field they effectively collapsed their science of human behaviour into those aspects of it which were measurable in their laboratories. Whilst one purpose of psychology might be to explain human thinking and learning it’s only been possible to carry out controlled scientific experiments on non-human subjects in many cases, mirroring the procedures for medical clinical research.
This had two effects; it was only the measurable phenomena which were measured; and results with non-humans were assumed to apply to humans, more or less. The early psychological natural scientists were looking for cause-effect relationships and they found them in rats running mazes and Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Basic conditions for evidence and explanation to be accepted by the scientific community are that they are believable and reproducible. Using natural science methods gives the best chance acceptance because believability of is established by peer review and this community of peers is so wide as to give almost universal consensus on ontology, the particular reality under investigation, and everyone has internalised the mysteries and routines of the natural science paradigm. As a biologist I can read psychology when it is operating within the natural science paradigm and in turn the psychologists can feel they are scientists, sharing their knowledge with me and the chemists and the physicists, and to some extent the medics.
Coming more up to date with Kiershner, Sweller and Clark (2006), they proposed a ‘new educational psychology’ promoting direct instruction, in turn based on what they call a cognitive structure made up of working memory and long term memory which experiences cognitive overload under some conditions and not others. How is their ‘new educational psychology’ to be evidenced and verified? As psychologists these authors continue to hold on to the safety of ‘gold standard’ natural science methods and propose extensive, randomised controlled experiments to confirm their guesses. You can see this ‘holding on’ happening when Kirshner et al reminded me as a reader that proper science has one experimental variable which is manipulated. Why did they tell me this? More to reclaim my allegiance as a natural scientist peer than to remind me of the conditions that exist in the paradigm maybe.
At this point I think it’s useful to point out that;
Firstly: the cognitive structure they elaborate isn’t believable. They show that they’re aware of this in commenting that Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chinn (2007) tacitly accepts it in her critique of their paper. As a natural scientist I don’t believe this structure can operate as they say it does, being both susceptible to overload and having infinite capacity at the same time. As a biologist I cannot see the adaptive advantage of a structure which is essential to learning and yet so readily becomes non-functional through overload as a built-in aspect of its operation. Without adaptive advantage biological structures do not persist, and this cognitive structure must have some relationship to its blood and bone nature. Without the cognitive structure in place direct instruction procedures don’t hold up.
Secondly: academics have to publish to survive. In that world it’s more important to get something written than to make sense, although doing both is a bonus and leaving open edges allows for more writing which is academically necessary. Academic exploration is a continuous process and it’s always good to suggest the next research needed but it works almost as a closed cycle and does not rely on the practical application of any research findings for its survival.

Back to the beginning. There’s a campaign being staged by the randomised control trial/cause effect brigades, with powerful support from real scientists, non-scientists and the Secretary of State for Education. There’s a claim being made for natural science to be the one and only science worth pursuing. In the relevant University departments this is a ‘good thing’ because it leads to more papers being written and the possibility of more research funding. But if you look at the list above, it’s largely irrelevant to the world of teachers and children in schools, where social science has a role and could speak with a clearer voice. The social science of education is not “merely commentary, case study, opinion, and subjective analysis”. It is intensive, constructive, qualitative and contextualised by design.
Natural science or social science as the route to educational understanding? It’s not either/or it’s both/and. Direct instruction or Inquiry Learning? That’s not either/or, it’s both/and too.

A bit of direct instruction

The ideas that the three psychologists, Clark, Kirschner and Sweller (Ed. Psychol. 2006 42(2)99-107) are putting forward to support their argument for direct instruction are:

The brain is made up of structures, cognitive structures which handle learning. Two of these structures are the working memory and the long term memory. Their existence is demonstrated by experiments in psychology over a long period. Being described as structures means the long term and working memory have stable and fixed natures. Since they are not physical structures but what the psychologists term ‘cognitive structures’ they cannot be seen but their existence is implied as a logical outcome of the experimental work.

This is how these cognitive structures function.

Long-term memory is a data store of unlimited capacity the access to which is via the working memory. Information is sorted and assigned to storage areas by the working memory. Stored information in the long term memory is not open to conscious inspection. It can move back from this store to the working memory structure to be used as the basis for action which may be conscious or unconscious. Having been transferred to working memory it also remains in the store unchanged. Learning is defined as a change in information in the long-term memory store structure. (What about forgetting?)

The working memory structure receives information both from the environment and from the long-term memory store and is open to conscious inspection.
When information comes from the external environment and it is new information, termed novel information, the working memory has strictly limited capacity – from 2 to 7 pieces of information at one time. It holds information for from 30 seconds to several minutes after which time this information is lost from the working memory. When the amount of information moving into working memory at one time is too great, from 3 to 8 pieces of information at one time, it becomes overloaded. The psychologists call this ‘cognitive overload’. The working memory has two distinct functions; it holds incoming information – up to 7 pieces at one time; it sorts this information and passes it to the long-term memory for storage.
When information comes from the internal environment, from the long-term memory store, the working memory structure assumes a different function and in this configuration can store and process unlimited amounts of information. It does not demonstrate cognitive overload with information from the long term memory store. When handling information from the external environment it will recognise this information and adopt the strictly restricted format for this type of information whilst processing the long term stored information with no restrictions whatsoever. The working memory does not carry out both functions simultaneously, but switches from overload-possible to overload-impossible mode.

This notion of the change in function of the memory structures when exposed to information from external or internal sources has been explained by another psychologist. This answers this question; Why does a baby not experience cognitive overload when it is handling very large amounts of novel information, to do with language, walking, social communication etc.? His explanation is that all information falls into one of two groups, this information is processed into becoming knowledge biologically primary knowledge and biologically secondary knowledge. He suggests that in the course of the evolutionary process some information, relating to the biological needs of the individual is recognised by the cognitive structures as forming a group. This information group bypasses the working memory to be stored in large amounts in the long term memory, thus removing the possibility of cognitive overload occurring. The second group, biologically secondary knowledge, is formed from that information which schools deliver to children, the information which makes up the academic curriculum. This category is recognised also as novel information (as was that making up the biologically primary knowledge group) but because of its biologically secondary nature is routed to the long term memory via the working memory which will experience cognitive overload unless direct instruction by the instructor regulates the flow of information to a slow enough rate for the limited capacity working memory in this configuration to handle it. Both working and long term memory have a mechanism which allows them to identify and separately handle biologically primary and secondary information which can be processed to biologically primary and secondary knowledge

It has been proposed by another psychologist that to explain this difficulty of a structure apparently fundamentally changing its form and function when exposed to different types of information, novel or previously categorised and stored, there is an additional structure which he calls long-term working memory. This third structure would have unlimited storage and processing capability. This structure has not been fully explained as it has not been the subject psychological experiments.

Psychologists state that the mode of instruction must match the cognitive structures established by psychologists through evidence obtained by experimentation over time.
The psychologist’s proposed structure of working memory is overloaded by too much information being delivered to it at one time and its capacity is strictly limited. When the learner is a novice, the only way to ensure the working memory can operate without becoming overloaded and non-functional is to utilise direct instruction. The procedure for direct instruction is for the teacher to fully explain the concept about to be taught to the novice learners. Immediately following this a pattern of information is delivered to the learners which surrounds and supports the previously explained concept. As all information is novel and coming from the outside environment the working memory structure is operating in strictly-limited, fast-decaying mode. The rate of delivery of information is controlled by the instructor to enable the working memory structure to operate without becoming overloaded, avoiding ‘cognitive overload’ as it is known by psychologists. Evidence from psychological investigation demonstrates that the when the learner is a novice, direct instruction is fast and effective, as assessed by psychological tests.
As the novice builds their store of information on a specific topic in their long term memory store structure over time they become expert. As experts their working memory handles unlimited amounts of information without becoming cognitively overloaded.

Quoting from the Clark et al (2006) paper:

“Working Memory Characteristics and Functions
Working memory is the cognitive structure in which conscious processing occurs. We are only conscious of the information currently being processed in working memory and are more or less oblivious to the far larger amount of information stored in long-term memory.
Working memory has two well-known characteristics:
When processing novel information, it is very limited in duration and in capacity. We have known at least since Peterson
and Peterson (1959) that almost all information stored in
working memory and not rehearsed is lost within 30 sec and
have known at least since Miller (1956) that the capacity of
working memory is limited to only a very small number of elements. That number is about seven according to Miller, but may be as low as four, plus or minus one (see, e.g., Cowan,2001). Furthermore, when processing rather than merely storing information, it may be reasonable to conjecture that the number of items that can be processed may only be two or three, depending on the nature of the processing required.
The interactions between working memory and long-term memory may be even more important than the processing limitations (Sweller, 2003, 2004). The limitations of working memory only apply to new, yet to be learned information that has not been stored in long-term memory. New information such as new combinations of numbers or letters can only be
stored for brief periods with severe limitations on the amount
of such information that can be dealt with. In contrast, when
dealing with previously learned information stored in long-term memory, these limitations disappear. In the sense that information can be brought back from long-term memory to working memory over indefinite periods of time, the temporal limits of working memory become irrelevant. Similarly, there are no known limits to the amount of such information that can be brought into working memory from long-term memory. Indeed, the altered characteristics of working memory when processing familiar as opposed to unfamiliar material induced Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) to propose a separate structure, long-term working memory, to
deal with well-learned and automated information.
Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar in formation is unlikely to be effective. Recommendations advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or, if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information, the
very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures. We know that problem solving, which is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance, called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory (Sweller, 1988). The onus should surely be on those who support inquiry-based instruction to explain how such a procedure circumvents the well-known limits of working memory when dealing with novel information.”

Clark and his collaborators still hold to their explanation, as evidenced by their Spring 2012 paper pages 6 to 10 in the American Educator, They state that ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trial experiments should be conducted to establish direct instruction as the method which matches the cognitive structures they propose. The cognitive structures that they require instruction methods to match up to are at present figments of their fertile psychologists’ imaginations. There is an absence of experimental evidence to incontrovertibly establish the existence of any of a highly sophisticated and dynamic information processing system which underpins their direct instruction argument. As a biologist I cannot yet see the adaptive advantage of a highly restricted gateway to novel information/learning in individual humans.

Maybe inquiry pedagogy circumvents the unproven working memory/long term memory structural problem and the whole memory/knowledge system operates as whole, powered by the agency of the learner. Of course I can’t prove it.

The Dodo Verdict

I’ve been working for a Local Authority Educational Psychology and Specialist Support (EPSS) service for 16 years. I’m called an Advisory Support Teacher. In written documentation it is stated that the service we provide is based on sound psychological principles. In the last few years we have been trying to tighten up the interventions we offer to support children who are struggling in school for a wide range of reasons. With no specialist training offered by my employers I was employed as a Behaviour Support teacher doing outreach for mainstream and special schools and a Pupil Referral Unit science teacher for children permanently excluded from secondary school. I started my Ph.D. at the same time, intending to research the history and practrice of thePRU. I assumed there would be a great documentary archive to explore for my research data, building my thesis as a natural scientist. However when I started looking there was no documentary record, as the place had metamorphosed form one from of provision to another all documents had been destroyed, or moved out to other services where they were unavailable.

In the course of my work I came across solution focused brief therapy as an approach to children with a range of difficulties. I undertook some training at BRIEF in London, which I arranged and got funding for from an outside source. I asked my employers to pay but they refused my request. A few years in to my job I was accidentally recategorised as a Learning Support Teacher, again with no specific training. My Authority separated ‘behaviour’ from ‘learning’ and still does for no apparent reason. At about this time I accepted a secondment to work in part-time in the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinic. When I started there I met a mental health nurse practitioner who had trained in solution focused brief therapy and used the approach routinely. He told me that when he started the job with the NHS he was asked what specific training he needed. He said he wanted to go to Milwaukee to train with Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg, the key people in the solution focused world. The NHS had to follow NICE guidelines in commissioning interventions and SFBT is included amongst the unspecified group of ‘non-directive’ therapies, with weak evidence quoted for its effectiveness. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is promoted by NICE despite the evidence for its effectiveness also being weak.

My role with CAMHS was unclear and not set out by my management. I decided to review what had gone before and write a proposal for my work which was accepted by my manager. The previous Advisory Teacher from the EPSS had used a small room in the clinic to provide a very limited programme of education for children and young people who were missing school because of their mental health difficulties. I felt that there were already far better facilities in schools and my role would be to act as an intermediary between the CAMHS professionals and school staff to ensure that children and young people maintained access to their entitlement education. I was having good success with the solution focused approach in my direct work with children at the PRU and in mainstream schools and offered to contribute my approach to CAMHS provision. A mental health professional was always the case holder.
At the clinic I worked with a 14 year old girl who was experiencing serious anxiety problems and related physical effects that resulted in her being unable to leave her home. I was asked by a clinical psychologist who had started CBT with her and was making no progress, if I could join a meeting to offer solution focused support. The psychologist knew about sfbt because of its presence at the clinic and felt that maybe this approach could do something useful where CBT had not been effective. The psychologist had explained the principles of sfbt to the girl and her parents and asked them if they would like to meet me, to try this different approach and they readily agreed.
When I first met this girl in May, with her mother and the clinical psychologist, I used the usual sf framework. I asked her about her best hope for school and she said to be in school fulltime in September in the same year. I asked her to scale her current position, where 1 was when things had been at their most difficult for her and 10 being in school full time in September. She said she was at 3. I asked her if the meeting had been useful to her and she said it had been and she said she’d like to meet me again. I asked her this question; if we were to meet in two weeks, as was usual at the CAMHS clinic, where did she hope she might be on the scale. Did she hope things might change a bit or did she hope to keep going at 3? She said her best hope was to keep at 3, to ‘stay at the same place’. I asked her to look out for things that would tell her she was keeping at 3, and said I would ask her about what was telling her that she was ‘staying in the same place’ when we met next time. I complimented her about a strength she had shown in the meeting and asked her parents and the psychologist to compliment her. I asked her to compliment herself which she did.
When we met two weeks later I asked her about ‘staying in the same place’ as we had agreed. She said that she thought she might have gone up a bit. I said that was good to hear and we would talk about that later, after she we’d talked about her keeping going at 3, if that was ok with her. Then we talked about the change she’d noticed. She said she thought she was at 4 this time. I asked her to tell me her best hope for the next two weeks and she said ‘stay in the same place’ at 4.
We met fortnightly over the summer term. Her best hope remained the same – to be in school full time in September. Each time she said she hoped to stay in the same place and each time she’d made progress. Each time I asked her the ‘staying in the same place’ question before we got onto what had changed. During the course of our meetings she experienced several very diffucult events, affecting her general health and particularly her level of anxiety, yet never moved down the scale and she maintained her steady progress.
We didn’t meet over the summer holiday period. In early September I returned to the clinic for a prearranged meeting with her and her mother. Just inside the main entrance is the waiting area. She was sitting with her mother. She smiled when she saw me and I said ‘Good morning’ and walked past her and into the clinic. She was wearing her full school uniform.

I discussed what had happened with the clinical psychologist, who had attended every meeting and addressed the medical needs and coordinated our work with the psychiatrist who was managing the girl’s case. What was the difference that had made a difference? CBT is problem-focused, the therapist directs the work and anticipates week by week changes taking place; it’s directional and directed. For a patient to be taken on for CBT it’s a requirement that they demonstrate their motivation to make changes. My clinical psychologist colleague felt that for this highly anxious girl, the pressure applied to her by the CBT process was too great and she could not respond because it made her more anxious. My question to her, about whether she hoped to stay in the same place on the 1-10 scale or to make changes was the key. All she had to do was keep going as she was, nothing new, no pressure, by her choice. What she did was to make continuous changes, even when unexpected outside factors put her under considerable additional pressure.

CBT of SFBT? Both the clinical psychologist and I did our best, with work which had sufficient but limited conventional positivist scientific evidence to be approved by NICE. We both intended to do something useful and in this case the solution focused approach was right for this particular young individual.

So how come sfbt is relatively little known approach and CBT is growing and expanding nationally?

Have a look at this from the University of East Anglia in 2007

“CBT superiority is a myth
The idea that Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is more effective than other types of therapy is a myth, according to leading psychotherapy experts attending a major conference at the University of East Anglia (UEA) today.
The US and UK researchers will present data and critical analyses that debunk the widespread belief in the superior effectiveness of CBT.
The major international conference will be hosted from July 6-10 by UEA’s Centre for Counselling Studies. Organised on behalf of the World Association for Person- Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling, it is the first time the conference has been held in England and 400 delegates are attending from across the world. Professors Mick Cooper and Robert Elliott (both University of Strathclyde), William B Stiles (Miami University) and Art Bohart (Saybrook Graduate School) will issue the following joint statement today:
“The government, the public and even many health officials have been sold a version of the scientific evidence that is not based in fact, but is instead based on a logical error. This is how it works: 1) More academic researchers subscribe to a CBT approach than any other. 2) These researchers get more research grants and publish more studies on the effectiveness of CBT. 3) This greater number of studies is used to imply that CBT is more effective. This is a classic example of the logical fallacy known as ‘argument from ignorance’ ie the absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence. Although CBT advocates rarely make this claim so boldly, their continual emphasis on the amount of evidence is misunderstood by the public, other health care workers, and government officials, a misunderstanding that they allow to stand without correction. The result is a widespread belief that no one takes responsibility for. In other words, a myth.
“This situation has direct negative consequences for other well-developed psychotherapies, such as person-centred and psychodynamic, which have smaller evidence bases than CBT. These approaches are themselves supported by substantial, although smaller, bodies of research. The accumulated scientific evidence clearly points to three facts: 1) People show large changes over the course of psychotherapy, changes that are generally maintained after the end of therapy. 2) People who get therapy show substantially more change than people who don’t get therapy, regardless of the type of therapy they get. 3) When established therapies are compared to one another in scientifically valid studies, the most common result is that both therapies are equally effective. A case in point is person-centred and related therapies (PCTs): In a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies to be presented by Robert Elliott and Beth Freire at the Norwich conference, PCTs were shown to be as effective as other forms of psychotherapy, including CBT.
“In view of these and other data, it is scientifically irresponsible to continue to imply and act as though CBTs are more effective, as has been done in justifying the expenditure of £173m to train CBT therapists throughout England. Such claims harm the public by restricting patient choice and discourage some psychologically distressed people from seeking treatment. We urge our CBT colleagues and government officials to refrain from acting on this harmful myth and to broaden the scope of the Improving Access to Psychological Treatments (IAPT) project to include other effective forms of psychotherapy and counselling.”
Beyond this joint statement, Prof Cooper, in his lecture to the Norwich conference, will say: “The research consistently suggests that the kind of therapy that a practitioner delivers makes little difference to outcomes. More important is the client’s level of motivation, how much they get involved with the therapeutic process, and how able they are to think about themselves in a psychological way. After that, the key ingredient seems to be the quality of the therapeutic relationship, with warm, understanding, trustworthy therapists having the best results.”
Last year Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced that by 2010, £173m a year would be spent on CBT as part of the UK Government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme. The increased funding will allow 900,000 more people to be treated using psychological therapies. Prof Cooper added: “The Government’s decision to spend £173 million on CBT can only be applauded, but not all clients will benefit from that approach. There is clear evidence that some clients will do better with other forms of therapy. It all depends on who the client is, and what kind of treatment they can most make use of.”
Art Bohart, a world-leading psychotherapy theorist and researcher, will say: “There is evidence that some clients prefer an approach to counselling where the focus is on helping you explore and understand yourself. The outcome of this approach is that you make choices that move your life in new, more meaningful and personally satisfying directions. The counselor’s expertise lies in his or her ability to create a relationship where you have companionship and support on your journey to understanding. Client-centered and psychodynamic counseling are examples. In contrast, other clients prefer an approach where the therapist takes the lead in teaching you particular cognitive and behavioural skills, such as how to think. Since both work about equally well it is important that both be available to the public.”
In the world of psychotherapy research, the finding that different therapies are about equal in their effectiveness is known as the ‘Dodo verdict’, after the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland who, on judging a race, declared ‘everybody has won and all must have prizes’. This conclusion continues to be hotly contested by some CBT advocates, but the four researchers presenting at the Norwich conference are unanimous in calling for a more balanced, scientifically accurate reading of the available evidence.
Also speaking at the conference will be Pamela J Burry, whose mother ‘Gloria’ was a patient of Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy, and featured in the celebrated 1960s educational films, Three Approaches to Psychotherapy, more popularly known as ‘The Gloria Films’.
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Tel: (+44) (0) 1603 592203 Fax: (+44) (0) 1603 259883

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© UEA 2007. All rights reserved.”

You could apply this thinking to current claims currently being made about the absolute superiority of direct instruction over other teaching approaches, logical error and the ‘Dodo verdict’ notwithstanding.
Today’s question: where else can you see ‘the logical error’ operating in your world?
If you’re interested in children’s behaviour in school, have a look at the sources of evidence that informed the 1989 Elton Report on discipline in schools, what type of recommendations the report made and what’s happened as a result since 1989. See if you can spot the logical error.

I’ll come back to the matter of direct instruction later.
Thanks for reading this far.

Ideas about agency

Ideas about agency

I’ve been reading though a lot of comments and tweets from people interested in children’s behaviour today. There’s a theme about the motivation of children who come onto the ‘behaviour’ radar.

This is how I see it.

I am a solution focused practitioner. The solution focused framework for my work is very clear.
I’m interested in where the child says they are hoping to get to, in hearing the stories about their success and what was it about them that this success happened. Within this paradigm I’m not interested in what their problems might mean to me, or anyone’s guesses about what might have caused them. I’m curious about what their world would look like with the problem gone away and I’m curious what might change a bit for the solution to get stronger. I’ll ask directly about the times when the solution has already happened, what’s already working, because this is the exception that breaks the rule. I’m told a child is always fighting in the playground, the rule, so I’ll ask “Tell me about a time when things were looking like you could have had a fight in the playground, things were building up to it…….. and you didn’t?”

These are questions you can find in any guide to solution focused work in any context, because they form the strong framework for the solution focused inquiry process. Equally strong is the solution focused facilitator’s conception of the person they are working with, in our context children maybe with their parents or carers, school staff, or other involved adults. I call it ‘The Three Beliefs’, that people are resourceful, successful in their past and hopeful for their future. This is in agreement with Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg’s earlier ‘assumptions about children’, that we hold in mind as we operate within the solution focused paradigm.

“Working Assumption about Children until proven otherwise

We believe that all children want to:

• have their parents be proud of them

• please their parents and other adults

• be accepted as a part of a social group

• be active and involved in activities with others

• learn new things

• be surprised and surprise others

• voice their opinions and choices

• make choices when given an opportunity

For my better understanding of what underlies the activity and success I join these ideas together into one concept – agency. A person’s agency is expressed through their effectiveness in the world. It’s appositive attribute in this sense; within the solution focused paradigm, I conceptualise children as people growing to the best they can be in the best world they can make, through their own agency in relationship with others.
When I meet someone to do work on change, I hold this characterisation in my mind as a belief, of the person having agency, being resourceful, successful and hopeful. It’s an uncompromising position and it has to be to be effective, because if I were to slip into holding a different and unhopeful characterisation, I’d fall back into being problem-focused, which I am prepared to do in a planned way as a strategic choice not by default. I’ll explain this point in a later blog.
Two things come out of this in terms of the potential to facilitate changes.
Firstly, I’m often told by other people who think they know, that this solution focused characterisation of a child isn’t true. I’m shown a stack of incident slips, which one school I know calls ‘Records of Harm’. I’m told about non-professional diagnoses of disorders and syndromes as deficits – I’ll talk about this too in a later blog. Individual Education Plans and the written requests for my involvement all tell me the child is failing, hopeless, helpless. When I take the child, and maybe some relevant adults, into the solution focused paradigm I put all this aside in a disciplined way and in effect communicate in the solution focused language. This refocusing connects directly with the ‘child at her best’ – that’s an aim of solution focused work – and when a she starts to recognise some of her strengths she will tend to see more of them as a natural consequence. I’ll say more about this in later, as a blog about linked multidimensional (ecosystemic) change rather than step-by-step (transtheoretical) change. Within the solution focused conversation the change is happening as you talk, building greater reflectiveness. resourcefulness, competence and agency.
Secondly, it seems that one person may be able to determine the beliefs another person is holding about their interaction, even when it’s not spoken about (link to Goldacre). If the facilitator believes the work is going to fail, it’s likely that it will. If the conversation is about failure of course there’s nothing implied and the failing child, being asked the question ‘You’re here because you refused to carry out your teacher’s instructions – why did you do that?’, knows the beliefs of their interrogator. But even when the facilitator is doing his best to help, but feels things are hopeless, this also may be communicated in some way. Hence the need for discipline in holding the belief

In schools that I’ve worked in there’s a general consensus that children with difficult to manage behaviour need to be propelled less or more strongly into doing something different. This is reinforced by the official emphasis on the necessity of discipline and the authority of the teacher in order to maintain control. The control and punishment approach makes the assumption that children;
1) don’t know the rules so need to be taught them, by rote if necessary.
But how many children who break rules don’t know what it is they’re breaking? In my experience working with children from year 1 to upwards, infant to ‘A’ level, rule-breaking children always know the where the boundary is, it’s just that they go over it. And children in secondary school have been to primary so it’s quite likely that after five or six years of schooling they would have got to know what school rules are – and they’re not much different across the phases. Schools have reminders of the rules around the place, children know what they are without looking.
2) are trying to be bad and need to be stopped. This assumes that a particular group of children wake up in the morning and think “I’ll break the rules in school today, that’s my best hope.” In my experience working in PRU, special school and L.A. educational psychology support service when I ask children who’ve been referred to me because their behaviour is out of line what their best hopes are for school, they say the ordinary things like ‘Meet my friends’, ‘Play football.’ ‘Not get into trouble’. I have never met a child who said their best hope was to get told off, get detention and have their Mum brought into school for a serious meeting. Stopping children who are breaking the rules they already know about is usually done by punishing them. The early psychologists who were interested in the effects of reward and punishment and were clear about one thing; punishment interrupts existing behaviour, it does not promote new learning. Skinner boxes with rats running mazes are ancient history but most school educators are misled into thinking that reward and punishment are a matched pair of motivators to make children learn to behave differently. Yet the same children if they move onto work-related learning or college are assumed to be self-starters – maybe a bit tired by their obligation to live life at the same time, but not rewarded and punished into compliance.
This approach to behaviour management from the outside in does not contain the intention to work cooperatively with the child to engage children’s agency, it assumes a powerful position over the child. It you look at this from the perspective of the intended learning outcomes of the behaviourist encounter, children will learn that they are relatively powerless, that compliance is the way to a better life in school. The children who can’t or won’t comply will resist and as the pressure from outside increases they’ll resist more strongly, until they’re removed form their community and permanently excluded.
The solution focused approach engages the agency of the child, by taking an inquiry position asking questions like; What are you good at? What is it about you that makes things go well for you? What’s your best hope for school over the next week? Suppose your Mum noticed things going better for you, what would she notice that you were doing? Suppose things got better what would you be doing a bit differently?
And once started on the path, the child carries on with the work whether you’re there or not. In Carl Roger’s terms the child is self-actualising, through the action of their own agency. My role is to act as a guide, maintaining the possibility of hopeful change and this is what children have reported back to me. When I ask the question ‘What is it about this work that’s been useful to you’ children say ‘When I see you it reminds me…….’

Doing something different – children’s behaviour

When it comes to children’s behaviour we’re all looking for something that works so how about this idea?
I’m employed by a Children’s Service in England as an Advisory Support Teacher. The main behaviour problem in schools is low-level disruption which is routinely managed by consistent good classroom practice. My work is with the much smaller group of children whose behaviour soaks up so much time and effort, often with so little success. My service gets requests from schools to support children who are disengaged, confrontational, disruptive; children experiencing serious barriers to their learning and participation in school. I’ve been working in this field for eighteen years and I’ve got an M.A. and Ph.D. during that time.

We depend on children to bring their strengths and resources into the room to connect with our teaching, to make sense and meaning out of the work we do together. If they don’t understand something we’ve got strategies to help them. We all need a well-ordered space to concentrate on what we’re doing and to use our time effectively. As teachers we bring this about through our professional practice, our pedagogy. We don’t separate children’s learning about Maths and English from their learning about themselves as it all goes on together in school, as they grow into themselves.
If they experience a barrier to their learning we provide assessment and targeted interventions. We work with with the children, an intended outcome of this additional provision being to strengthen their independence and self-confidence as effective learners, to be able to meet and overcome barriers to learning if they come up.
However when children have behaviour difficulties, we see this as sufficiently different that we have separate Learning and Behaviour Policies in schools, as if a child’s behaviour isn’t an aspect of their learning. The usual approach to the problem of behaviour is to take control and direct children, to make them change, gradually stepping up the pressure if they don’t respond. Public Experts in Behaviour tell us to write lists of rules, make sure children are punished before they’re rewarded, exclude disruptive children to protect the learning of others. There is often little in the way of objective assessment of a child’s needs and interventions are based on guesses about their deficits. There’s a limited repertoire; ‘anger management’, ‘ASD type problems’, ‘signs of ADHD’. There’s nothing new here, we’ve done the same things for decades and failed to make a difference. It clearly doesn’t work and maybe things have even got worse.

What to do about it? A problem with behaviour can be approached in two ways.
One way is the problem-focused approach, concentrate on the problem itself and try to make it go away. In schools we usually do this. A problem focused problem solver is the expert, getting detailed knowledge about what’s gone wrong in the past and deciding which strategy will eliminate it. The Behaviour Policy contains the strategies – traffic-light cards; loss of privileges; removal from class; detention; front of school; involvement of parents/carers; exclusion. The child must be compliant for this to work and often it does, they comply. But what about the ones who won’t or can’t? They misbehave. We try to stop them. They misbehave more. We try harder to stop them. It’s like they’ve got a ‘bad behaviour’ habit and we’ve got a ‘try to stop them’ habit and as with any habits, we all just keep on doing the same things. If you do the same you get the same and the way to stop a habit is to do something completely different.
The other way, the solution focused approach, is completely different. It’s going directly for what you hope might go better in the future and what’s already working to help you get there.
Last year I had a request to work with a Year 11 boy, Jim (not his real name) who was doing no work, was disruptive and seriously interfering with the GCSE work of other students. Unless there was an immediate improvement in his behaviour he would be permanently excluded. I went into school to meet him. The pastoral manager told me he was on the playing field, he’d refused to meet me. I left a message for him that I’d be back the next week, same time same place. This time he turned up. I asked him if he knew what our meeting could be about, that it had to be useful to him or there was no point in us talking. He agreed and said it might be about his behaviour and that’s what we’d be working on. We met three times over a month, for 40 minutes, 20 minutes and 15 minutes. He said he was getting on with his exam work and had stopped messing about in class and that our work was done.
Three months later I called in to check out with him how things were going. There were no problems and he’d caught up with the work he’d missed. He still felt he didn’t need any additional help to complete his year in school. He was keeping his own record book to know he was doing well enough.

For Jim, who had withstood and resisted the problem focused approach, the solution focused approach was the difference that made a difference. Rather than seeing him as hopeless and helpless, I characterised him as resourceful, successful and hopeful. We didn’t get caught up in the past but looked forward at what might be possible. He had agency and when he engaged this in working towards his best hope, to stay in school, the change happened.
Pedagogically speaking, I had set up an inquiry, framed by a set of questions.
‘Suppose we did some work together that would be useful to you, what would we be working on?’ ‘What are your best things, what are you good at?’
‘What would tell you that you’d been successful when you get to the end of the year?’
”What’s already working?’
‘On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is you being permanently excluded and 10 is you staying in school to the end of the year, where are you now?’
‘Suppose we met up next week where do you hope you might be then?’
‘What might change a bit for things to go better for you?’
I left him with a task; ‘Notice what’s going well over the next week.’ I told him I’d ask him about that next time we met. I complimented him on his clear thinking in answering my questions.
At our next meetings I asked him where he was on the scale and what was telling him that; what his teachers might have noticed that was different. As we ended the third meeting he said that we’d done the work we set out to do and we didn’t need to meet again.

What ‘s the difference that made the difference with Jim?
I knew it was possible to get to the solution directly without analysing the problem.
I believed that Jim was resourceful, successful and hopeful and he would use his strengths to make the changes he hoped for.
I respected Jim as the expert in himself, he had agency, the ability to influence the world.
I didn’t have to do anything apart apart from being consistently solution focused because Jim was doing the work. I don’t have to carry the stress of being responsible for the other person’s progress.

I have introduced many school professionals to the solution focused approach and many are making it a part of their regular practice. You don’t need permission to take this approach because it’s pedagogy and if you want training it’s a short course to get started. For myself I’m deeply grateful for the insightful work of Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazar; Harvey Ratner, Evan George and others. If you are interested to know more do contact me.

Good evidence

The purpose of science is to reduce uncertainty. That is not to say that science claims to produce 100% certainty, but it aims to explain things in a way that makes the world more predictable, constructing a more solid reality than if we just guessed at explanations. It’s generally assumed that there’s one proper scientific method and it’s what scientists do, standing at their laboratory benches in their white coats. It might come as a surprise to some people that there are scientists and sciences of different types, depending which bit of reality is under their consideration. It’s an important aspect of science’s work is to investigate itself – to be reflective about which type of science might increase certainty in any particular reality.

I’ve read Dr Ben Goldacre’s recent article for Mr Gove on evidence based practice in education ( ) prompted by a email note from Tim Taylor .

I’ve mulled this over for several days, looked at the responses to the Guardian item by Dr Goldacre and a few other blogs and there are a couple of questions I want to address.

There are two parts to my argument. The first is about the scientific investigation itself and the second is about the application and effect of the results of the investigation.

Randomised controlled trials, projecting the science of numbers into the lives of people, have their place and Dr Goldacre’s project to strengthen the role of good science in medical decision making is admirable. At the same time it’s generally true that what gets measured is what’s measurable. That means if something can’t be translated to numbers it won’t be the subject of a good randomised controlled trial. To set up a randomised controlled trial the researcher makes a guess as to what the outcome of the trial might be and what might be the opposite of this outcome; the experimental hypothesis and the null hypothesis. The experimental variable, the assumed cause of the effect is being guessed at, must be measurable by an instrument of some kind; thermometer, pressure gauge, people counter, whatever.

For example in his book ‘Bad science’ Dr Goldacre critiques the evidence for homoeopathy. He makes a strong scientific case for the removal of homoeopathic remedies as evidence based medicines, because the active agent which mimics the symptoms of the disease in question is absent from the treatment. Certainly the dilution levels of the potentially active disease mimicking agent are so great that at a molecular level the original agent is effectively and statistically absent from the final preparation.

However Dr Goldacre also talks in the book about the well-known placebo effect. There is evidence related to this effect that he quotes in his book; and the recasting of the ‘placebo’ effect as the ‘meaning’ effect. If there is meaning, without molecules, it seems that the cure might just work. In the mid-20th century Viktor Frankl came up with the idea that the meaning of an intervention is significant and developed his ideas into the school of Logotherapy in Eastern Europe.

Whilst I respect Dr Goldacre’s work within his frame of reference, he’s making a common mistake in overclaiming the application of positivist scientific methods to sociological phenomena.

He talks a bit about interventions designed to change phenomena in the social world and the measurement of such changes. An intervention in his terms is a cause intended to bring about a particular effect, conforming the experimental hypothesis. In the reality of the medical world in which he’s operating, there are physical mechanisms operating, for example this exercise strengthens that muscle or this molecule inhibits that enzyme. However this reality does not allow for agency, a person’s ability to influence the world.

In the laboratory I can set up a system to investigate the strength of 8 year old children’s arms, the children having been given a course of specified arm strengthening exercises in school, by trained trainers. The experimental group will have the exercises and a matched control group will have no specific exercise programme. Having read other published work on exercise and outcomes, my experimental hypothesis is that ‘the programme of arm exercises will produce a 20% increase in arm strength in the experimental group.’ I will need a large experimental group to be able to carry out statistical analysis, so 2000 children do the exercise programme. I also identify 2000 children matched for age and gender who will get no specific exercises. They are the control group. Everything is ready to go, the first groups are coming into the lab where we will measure their strength. The subjects of the experiment are the children’s muscle’s. The fact that some children will drop out of the trial or won’t cooperate with the trainer is provided for in the experimental design. The children themselves are means of getting their physiology into the lab. The children are necessarily and properly reduced to numbers.

In doing sociological science to investigate social reality, the objects of investigation are the people themselves. Methods are designed accommodate the fact that the people who are the experimental subjects have agency, they can and do make choices. This needs a different form of science to investigate that reality, social scientific methods to investigate social phenomena.

What Dr Goldacre has missed out , in common with many investigators, is the ontological question; does this science match that reality?

In his commissioned article he was addressing a journalist, Mr. Gove and a venture capitalist, Lord Nash. They were hardly likely to raise the ontological question because they probably don’t know it exists. It’s evidenced by the internal inconsistency shown by Mr Gove, proclaiming the importance of evidence at the same time as ignoring it. The Education Minister is putting the training of teachers in the hands of Teaching Schools, modelled on teaching hospitals. Where is the evidence that teaching hospitals can produce high quality teachers? Schools aren’t hospitals and teachers are not medics. Their realities are different. The confusion is shown up by Mr. Gove’s 2010 policy directive:

‘We will reform initial teacher training so that it focuses on what is really important.

    1. The initial training of teachers is perhaps the most important part of their professional development. Over a twenty year period, initial teacher training has tended to focus more sharply on classroom practice. Even so new teachers report that they are not always confident about some key skills that they need as teachers, for example the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics as the proven best way to teach early reading and the management of poor behaviour in the classroom.

Synthetic phonics is a mechanical, skills approach to reading, it’s does not take into account the learner’s agency, everyone has to do it. As a cause-effect pair, synthetic phonics/reading, it would be susceptible to assessment by randomised controlled trial, if there was an agreed meaning of the term ‘reading’. The evidence that Mr. Gove has seen has convinced him personally that it is ‘the proven best way’.

Mr. Taylor, the Government’s ‘behaviour expert’, casts the management of children’s poor behaviour as another cause-effect pair; recite the schools discipline rules twice a day/children will behave. He claims that the evidence shows his method works. He’s no scientist but he’s making the same mistake as Dr. Goldacre. Rote learning to read is a mechanical phenomenon; children’s learning to become themselves as people is a social phenomenon. Hard outcomes and soft outcomes. Different reality, different science.

The second part to my argument is about the application of research findings, and in my opinion this is the biggest barrier to the useful deployment of large scale randomised controlled trials in education. Whatever methods are used to construct and conduct experiments in medicine, if a trial demonstrates that an intervention achieves results that are as good as, or better than that which is already available, the intervention can be assessed by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and if approved will be delivered in a consistent way by medical professionals. The delivery can be monitored for consistency and the results monitored for effect and cost.

However, whatever methods are used to carry out research in education the application of the intervention is always a social/cultural act. Medical professionals have a common belief system which overcomes personal prejudice and individual experience. At least that is the official position. Educational professionals engage their experience, personal prejudices, creativity and other characteristics in their pedagogy – the art and science of teaching. This is not what medical professionals do. I would suggest that whatever randomised controlled experimental findings might be, there would be no overall standardised process of intervention, or what we’d call pedagogy, to ensure consistent application.

It’s been tried already, it usually doesn’t result in long term sustained improvement.

If science really is about increasing certainty then we should be looking to what science can do this, whether it’s extensive randomised controlled trial, ethnography, intensive action research, thought experiments or the reflective cycle of the professional. Critical realism or scientific positivism?

Both/and, not either/or.



That’s evidence for you…..

That’s evidence for you …………………
the basil rathbone collection



I hear people talking about ‘evidence based’ practice a lot in my work. It’s been creeping up for a while. ‘All our interventions must be evidence based’ I’m told. That seems like a very clear message.

What do we mean by the ‘evidence’ we’re going to use to provided the basis for all of our work? That seems clear too. It’s produced by randomised controlled testing that generates statistically validated results. It’s done by proper researchers in proper universities and written up in academic peer reviewed journals. It’s obvious.  The problem is that this is only one sort of evidence, but it’s got itself the reputation as being the only kind of evidence that’s worth anything, at least in the minds of the non-academic public in general, including politicians. And my managers. It’s the evidence that is produced by what we know loosely as scientific research.

I had to face up to this in writing my PhD thesis. I was working full time with children lumped into the ’emotional and behaviour difficulties’ group. Their greatest apparent learning need, was their learning about themselves as people; emotional and social learning. Here’s a section from my thesis Introduction (see my thesis and references) :

My thesis is intended to progressively refocus my research and my practice towards the improved social and emotional development of my students by pedagogical means. I understand the risks inherent in my developing my entirely qualitative research approach in that my work could be marginalised. Lather [2004] pointed up a division of policy in the USA with reference to the progressive marginalisation of qualitative research in favour of objective, random sampling experimentation [Gable 2004; see also Lincoln and Canella 2002; Shavelson and Towne 2002]. A similar policy pathway is being trodden here in the UK [Atkinson 2004].

Evans, Harden and Thomas [2004] in their systematic review of international research published in the English language into the effectiveness of strategies to support pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties in mainstream primary schools, found that; there was little sign …of a greater focus on social justice and equal opportunities… most studies were framed in terms of trying to reduce social or behavioural deficiencies’. [Evans, Harden and Thomas 2004 p.6]

This review acknowledged the debate around a the possibility of a change from the medical model of deficit to a more context-related theory of interaction [Weare 2000] in theorising the difficulties experienced by children and young people in school and the scientific narrowness of research into this work. The review cited a number of publications aimed at providing advice and support for teachers in maintaining disruptive children in their classes [Chazan 1993; Cooper 1989; Kolvin, Garside, Nichol, Macmillan and Wolstenholme 1976; Laslett 1982; Wheldall, Merrett and

Borg 1985], and stated that ‘these strategies are located within a range of

psychological and pedagogic paradigms.’ [Evans, Harden and Thomas 2004 p.3]

However, the review found no completed studies that had evaluated psychotherapeutically based strategies rather focusing again on studies rooted in behaviourism and there was no detailed description of the specifics of the paradigms mentioned. As a practising teacher working with children and young people experiencing serious emotional and behavioural difficulties in school, I have felt the impact of this lop-sided response. In my experience, in meeting these children and young people as they teeter on the edge of mainstream school or fall out of it, their needs in terms of their emotions are often under-represented. The theory and practice of behaviourist science, existing in a reality that can be investigated by means of hypothesis-testing positivist methods, implies that a ‘need’ can and should be separately identified from the person and the deficit rectified. But I find a much more messy and complicated reality in my day-to-day work with people, those children and young people who express these ‘needs’ within their human context of their peers, teachers, parents, carers and lunchtime supervisors, amongst many others. Carrying out research in this socially constructed reality justifies my adoption of the ethnographical and biographical qualitative methodology that is interested in qualitative description and analysis rather than in generalisation.’ 

So what’s to be done?

My first degree is in Botany and Zoology, and I was well trained in the ‘scientific method’, of hypothesis-testing, controlling variables, ideal states and all the rest. When I brought this understanding to my thinking about children’s learning it was clear that natural science methods weren’t suitable to investigate the ‘messy’ reality of people’s lives – not natural science but social science. That’s where I looked.

Teachers as social scientists.

Teachers aren’t psychologists doing psychology or neuroscientists doing neuroscience. These people use positivist cause-effect sciencitific methods and where they stay within their rules they can produce some useful information to inform teacher’s work. Teachers do pedagogy, it involves other people in the constructing of social realities. Pedagogy is often described as ‘the art and science of teaching’ but may be better it’s termed ‘the art and social science of teaching’.  In my research reading I found an interesting book, ‘Explaining society – critical realism in the social sciences’ by Berth Danermark and others. (see my thesis link for bibliography). These writers explain the reasons for taking a different approach to social science. The objects of study of natural and social sciences are fundamentally different. Natural science excludes everyday knowledge, often referring to it anecdotal. Social science includes the study of ‘everyday knowledge’ itself, ‘science’, ‘common sense’, concepts which constitute the reality under scrutiny.

It means that we can take the evidence that comes out of our practice seriously, understand the difference between intensive and extensive research ( case study is intensive). It gives us the ability to argue for our position as teacher researchers without feeling the need to defer to the positivists. It also means we can look for so-called soft outcomes as well as hard outcomes in assessing and evaluating our work and what it produces.




Look into my eyes………….

Look into my eyes…..only my eyes…………

We conceptualise students in school as being resourceful and engaged across the range of pedagogies that we use in our teaching work. After all it’s their engagement that makes our pedagogy work. That is, until we come to children making a few mistakes in becoming themselves, learning socially and emotionally to be the best person they can be.

So in general we hold an image of the student-as-resourceful, sometimes as the student-as-expert; but when ‘behaviour’ rears its head we default to the image of student-as-hopeless, or sometimes student-as-bad. And we’re the teacher-as-expert, so then we start mind-reading. Look into my eyes……..

In getting started with this I went from Tim Taylor’s excellent Guardian article “Children learn best when they use their imagination” ( ) to huntingenglish’s fine blog ( on Inclusive Questioning. And just this morning Tim forwarded kevanbartle’s ( thorough ‘Doing’ pedagogy blog. With thanks to all for providing me with the impetus and material for doing some pedagogical thinking, I am going to have a look below the surface of pedagogical action, to the beliefs that underpin it.

I want to develop the idea that my conceptualisation of a student drives a particular pedagogy, for example direct instruction or cooperative learning, that I engage in working towards an intended learning outcome.


Tim Taylor said;
‘A lot has happened in education since I started teaching: the literacy and numeracy strategies, Ofsted, league tables, international comparisons, three changes of government and countless education ministers. But what still holds true (in my mind) is that children learn best when they are engaged in their learning, when it matters to them, when its contextualised in meaningful ways and when they have a sense of ownership and agency. The best learning I’ve been involved in has not been ‘delivered’ to a class, but built, over time, in collaboration with students. Explored, examined and argued over.”
What image of the children in his imaginatively inquiring class did Tim have in mind? From what I can gather he was treating them as people, able to engage in their own learning; that learning matters to them; that they had a sense of ownership and agency; that they were people who would collaborate; they were reflective thinkers, exploring, examining, arguing. Agency – having the resources to be able to have an effect in the world – links to expertise. The conceptualisation of the students in the classroom community in this way means he is foregrounding this aspect of their nature, as experts on themselves, bringing these strengths to the learning process he facilitated through inquiry pedagogy.

huntingenglish said;
I today read an excellent blog by @headguruteacher on differentiation, which defined it as a key aspect of great lessons – see here. I was most interested in the role of inclusive questioning in continuous differentiation. The first, and most crucial, aspect of differentiation is knowing your students. Of course, I don’t mean knowing your students just by their name, although this is important (I once spent a month in a sulk because one of my teachers kept getting my name wrong!), but having a thorough understanding of their skills and knowledge level, beyond just prior attainment and their target level or grade. Just as important is the intimate, expert knowledge of the soft skills of our students: their confidence level; their willingness to speak in group activities, or to contribute in front of the whole class; their attitude, or mindset to learning, and your subject in particular. When we know our students, and particularly their soft skills, we can undertake excellent inclusive questioning which will help progress their learning.
This brings me around to the specifics of questioning:
our bread and butter – the stuff that connects and binds our pedagogy. Whether we are undertaking Direct Instruction (see link) or Cooperative learning, the learning and progress hinges on effective questioning. Skilful differentiation is also dependent upon skilful inclusive questioning.”

huntingenglish foregrounded the importance of the teacher’s ‘intimate, expert knowledge of the soft skills of our students’. He referred to the teacher-as-expert holding an image of individual students, relying on the students-as-experts in engaging their confident, actively cooperative selves in the best way they could, for the plan to work. Maybe conceptualising students as resourceful in themselves makes teacher-as-inquirer and student -as-expert more possible.

headguruteacher said;
I think it is legitimate – actually it is necessary – to give students a degree of ownership and responsibility for directing their learning in terms of the level of challenge.  Teachers need to create the opportunities but students need to learn that, ultimately, it is up to them to find their level; don’t suffer in silence and don’t coast….teachers are not mind readers and they’re not the ones sitting the exams.  Then there is also a consideration of self-esteem. It can hold a student back to know they are on the ‘thick table’ (I have heard that phrase) but, at the same time, the issue of ability can’t be tip-toed around.  Again it comes down to culture.  Mixing up the groupings over time, using a range of differentiation strategies and creating a general deep-end high-challenge spirit is needed; knowing how students deal with this on the self-esteem scale is part of that knowledge bank, just as much as their NC sub-level.”

If students are to activate their agency as learners in the pedagogy of reflective inquiry it’s true that as he said ‘It is legitimate – actually it is necessary – to give students as degree of ownership and responsibility for directing their own learning’. huntingenglish is conceptualising students as people with agency and engagement. In doing so there’s no need for teachers to attempt mind-reading, because a student can already read their own mind reflectively.

In all three examples, there is room in the school day for students to be conceptualised as agents in their own learning. The student is seen as owning a range of resources, of already having successes on which to build their new learning, and positively engaged as a hopeful learner.

It looks as if this way of conceptualising students can be applied across the curriculum, in the right places at the right times. And it seems that once students have assimilated this idea, that the teacher can rely on them as co-workers in the learning process, it’s a reliable structure.

Now have a look at this. What is the conceptualisation the student’s here?

The Education Endowment Foundation toolkit says this about behaviour

Behaviour interventions seek to improve attainment by reducing challenging behaviour, including aggression, violence, bullying, substance abuse and general anti-social activities. Three broad categories of behaviour interventions can be identified: 1. Universal programmes which seek to improve behaviour and generally take place in the classroom; 2. More specialised programmes which are targeted at students with either behavioural issues or behaviour and academic problems; 3. School level approaches to developing a positive school ethos or improving discipline which also aims to support greater engagement in learning.

What do I need to know?

  • Targeted interventions for those diagnosed or at-risk of emotional or behavioural disorders produce the greatest effects.
  • Programmes of two to six months seem to produce more long-lasting results.
  • The wide variation in impact among evaluated programmes suggests that schools should look for programmes with a proven track record of impact.
  • Training of facilitators or professional development improves the impact of programmes
  • On average, programmes which involve parent or community involvement show higher effects.”

What image of students in school do these writers hold? There’s a list of deficits in students that have to be corrected. If there’s a diagnosis of an objective disorder – or even an anticipated diagnosis – interventions are more effective. So for the other subjective categories, like challenging behaviour and general antisocial activities, we’re relying heavily on the mind-reading abilities of teachers to identify the deficit and put in place an intervention, which probably will not be effective – the evidence for this may be in the largely unchanging number of school exclusions every year. The conceptualisation is of the student-as-hopeless, in the hands of the teacher-as-expert. Students are seen as already challenging, violent, bullying, and antisocial and these aspects of their nature have to be reduced in order for them to achieve. So are these the same people we conceptualised as cooperative agents when they’re involved in imaginative inquiry? Why are things so different when ‘behaviour’ comes along?

The point of this is that I work with children who come into the ‘behaviour’ category. I conceptualise them as resourceful, successful and hopeful and work in a future oriented way, the solution focused approach. It’s the same conceptualisation as the creative, inclusive bloggers have, and it works.

Making a start

Making a start

I got my PGCE in 1994 when I was 46. I got my first job as the science teacher in a special school. I was told the last one went home at break time on his first day and never returned. There had been a two year gap before I came along.

I’d been doing supply teaching in state schools for a year and I didn’t know schools like the one I was entering existed. It was in a small rural village, up a long driveway with staff houses on both sides, surrounded by fields. I parked my old Saab amongst the newer and smarter cars and went in to the office block. There was a recent photo of Princess Anne opening the new school site with the owners in attendance.

I was offered the job, on a private pay scale way below what I would have been paid in a state school. I was told that the school didn’t need fences because if a child tried to run away they were faced with open fields and nowhere to hide. They didn’t get far.

That’s where this blog started, although most of my personal writing has been fairly private since then and I called it ‘miscellaneous jottings’. I quickly realised that there was no training available to be a ‘special’ teacher in a ‘special’ school. I couldn’t find anything useful to read either.

There were 110 children there, from the age of five to sixteen, segregated from other children because they wouldn’t or couldn’t behave themselves. I decided if no-one else could help me to make sense of this, I’d do it myself. I had a lot of experience of DIY. I studied for three years with the Open University for my M.A. and for eight years at the University of East Anglia for my Ph.D. and paid all the costs myself, working full-time.

What I found out changed my life and the lives of children I’ve worked with, and it’s what I’m writing about now.

It’s all clear …….

Over the last 150 years we have developed a steady and well thought-out regime in schools, tested and refined over time to deal with the bad and the naughty children. We know there are always going to be a few bad apples and we have systems to make sure they don’t send the whole barrel rotten. We warn them when they start to go wrong. we punish them if they don’t heed the early warnings. if they persist we collect the evidence against them, we find out what they can’t do and tell them to do it. If they still disrupt, disobey and generally break the school rules we exclude them. That deals effectively with the problem.

The result of this long-term national experiment is that we know that dealing with bad children by ‘control and punishment’ is amazingly successful. It keeps the adults in charge of schools as well-regulated places. Taking heed of this success some Academies are excluding the bad children before they even enter the school door. Or soon after. ( )

Selecting out children with statements and those with a record of poor behaviour in primary school can certainly improve the results of high schools and can be seen as good preventative work. Children over the whole age range, from 3 years old onwards are being moved towards exclusion, making all those places better for the good children.


The control and punishment system is being continuously honed and sharpened. Right now the government’s ex-Expert Advisor on Behaviour Expert, Mr Charles Taylor, now permanent Chief Executive of the Teaching Agency,author of the notable ‘Divas and Dinosaurs’ (2008) says there should be the recital of lists of rules, twice daily, that he has drawn up for us from his experience as a teacher and head of a special school.

( )He also explains to us that when children get angry the supply of blood to their brains gets shut off and that’s what stops them thinking. There’s science for you. Mr Taylor is just a recent appearance in the long and distinguished line of experts in behaviour management, confirming our need to control children, knowing their innate tendency to be bad and taking up our responsibility as teachers to stop them doing it and to put them right. And most importantly that there’s no other way to do it.

.. as mud.

However if we switch our attention from organisational success to the success of the children themselves, the picture is very different. As one Academy I know of recently put it ‘We’ve got the behaviour under control but the children don’t seem to be learning anything’.

What’s going on here?

About the same number of children are excluded year by year, with minor fluctuations. On their way to exclusion, children are subjected to segregation and social isolation, delayed punishment, sensory deprivation, public humiliation – the sorts of things that are banned in the prison system.

Reading this great natural experiment another way it tells us that:

Most children know the rules and follow them – they don’t need heavy regulation, schools only have a very small number of children who test their systems to breaking point. Most children are almost invisible to the ‘behaviour policy’.

Control systems deprive children of their opportunity to flourish in their lives. Excluded children are over represented in homeless, crime, addiction,ducational failure, mental illness statistics.

Control systems do not seem to promote children’s creativity and initiative, their lifelong love of learning.

A note: the dominant system for behaviour management in schools is based on Descarte’s explanation of how the brain works, on the fixedness of the brain’s functions and on the separation of the body and mind. That’s 400 year old science for you.

Here is a story from my working life,about doing something completely different.

Kyle was in is first year in high school. He’d had a bad start and things had got worse; he was consistently uncooperative, rude to teachers, lazy, resistant to the school’s Behaviour Policy. Being rude to teacher’s was the biggest problem, I was told. I met him in the summer term, by which time the school had tried everything and he was on the verge of permanent exclusion.

The first time I went into school for a pre-arranged meeting I was told that he was refusing to come to meet me. I left a message for him that I’d be back at the same time the next week, I’d be ready to meet him if he was ready to meet me. The next time things went well. We met 5 times over 4 weeks. From the time of our first meeting, he started to behave as the school wanted. At our last meeting, with 4 weeks of success under his belt, he said he was confident that he could keep going without my support.

I called into school early in the Autumn term to see how he was getting on. The SenCo said Kyle was fine, and there no risk of him being permanently excluded. I met Kyle for about fifteen minutes, he told me things were fine – he did get into trouble a bit like all the others in his class, but that was ok wasn’t it?

What was different? I’d approached him as ‘the expert in himself’ and I hadn’t given him any advice. Instead I’d asked him what he hoped for. He said, to stay in school with his friends. I’d asked him what was working already. I’d asked him what might change a bit for things to go better. I’d asked him if he’d look out for what was going well. He did, and told me about it in our meetings. He kept on noticing, even after we’d finished our work together. And I knew that what we’d done had worked, because there he was in school the next term, getting on with it.

Instead of focusing on the problem, I’d been solution focused. That’s the difference that makes the difference.

Growing the good – children’s behaviour in a new light

Making the paradigm shift: where children’s behaviour is concerned, go for the good and make the most of what’s already working for greater success and more happiness in school.

It’s about pedagogy, the unique work that teachers do. It’s about children becoming themselves in the world, being the best they can be, and us knowing they’re doing their best, even when it doesn’t look like it. it’s what we do best – growing the good.