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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 Funding was withdrawn at the end of the pilot project although some local services like the probation service continued the practice in their areas.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,



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?

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.

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.

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.