Category Archives: focus on behaviour

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?


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


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

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!


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:







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.

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.