Behaviour and the purpose of education

I recently wrote a blog post outlining some of my thoughts on behaviour. The post was emphatically contested by several people on Twitter. This follow up post is by no means an apology, or a way for me to back-track on the comments made. I remain steadfast in my belief and perspective outlined in the original post. However, there are elements where I feel I may have been unclear and certainly there were aspects that were misunderstood. I was hopeful that in writing the original post, I would stimulate interest, debate and discussion. It clearly did do this, but I would like to go over some of the key issues raised to be able to further my own thinking in this area and continue the discussion.

The thing that was abundantly clear from many of the comments was that there are diametrically opposed positions being argued over. Which can feel redundant at times. I feel that the polarity that exists in education, and particularly on social media, is problematic. I do not mean to fuel this in anyway, but I think it is important to understand that there are certain fundamentally conflicting views at play here, and it is important to interrogate your position in this debate in an informed way. As I said in my original post, I think that it is important to determine what you see as the fundamental purpose of school and education. What is it all really for? I think your answer to the question of purpose has a hugely significant impact on your approach towards behaviour.

For me, I believe that one of the fundamental goals of education should be to challenge learners to see the (social) world differently, to be critical of the status quo and to try consciously work towards a world that is inclusive and fair for everyone. This is a view that draws on the thoughts and ideas from Critical Pedagogy, Progressive education, and Transformative Education, and has been heavily influenced by writers such as Gramsci, Freire, Giroux, Biesta, Dewey and more. Through this critical lens, those committed to this type of approach:

  • “Acknowledge and connect with learners’ personal and emotional experience, rather than neglecting the learning potential that lies in these experiences;
  • Engage these experiences through dialogue, which is a form of social interaction that integrates different perspectives, including affective knowledge (emotion/feeling) and experiential knowledge. Dialogue is differentiated from discussion, which can tend to put aside the affective and experiential.”

(Teachingfortransformation.com)

If you read the statements above with behaviour in mind, this gives you a totally different perspective and subsequent set of pedagogical practices to utilise than if you hold a different belief about the purpose of education. On reflection it appears that this is why there was such disagreement, because it seems from the comments I received, that I have an entirely different view of the purpose of education to many of those who disagreed with what I wrote. This is the salient point. Everything else is secondary.

As mentioned in the original post, this is a hugely complex and challenging issue. Of course it is. Because, just as I approach the conversation with my own unique set of beliefs and lived experiences. So do you. However, part of the anger and frustration around this debate comes from the fact that behaviour can be such an emotional and highly impactful aspect of school life. I recognise the emotion, frustration and anger. I work as a Depute Head in a large Primary School. I have a very good understanding of dysregulated behaviour and the impact this can have on school life. I do not want to appear flippant or removed from the issue, or to belittle the very real concerns of my colleagues across the profession. This is what I do every day in my job. I think there is agreement that things are not perfect and there is work to be done in the system to make things better. I also know that everyone, not matter what their perspective or answer to the question on the purposes of education, believes they are doing the best they can to support the children ad young people in their care. However I think it is naïve and reductionist to say that violent, aggressive or even low level disruptions exists and persists because of a restorative practice approach being used in a school. To ignore the wider societal inequality in this debate is theoretically flawed and morally wrong in my opinion. Schools do not exist in isolation, and any impact or effect must be read and understood in the entirety of the context.

My views here have been influenced by the ‘private troubles and public issues’ distinction put forward by Mills (1959) where ‘troubles’ are concerned with a person’s individual character and experience, and ‘issues’ are to do with matters that transcend the individual and the local environment of their life. The following example illustrates the distinction well:

When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.

(Mills, ibid: 9)

To individualise problems around behaviour, we risk viewing behaviour as a ‘personal trouble’. However, the fact that so many schools can speak to similarities in terms of the struggles they face around behaviour strikes me as more of a ‘public issue’. When analysed further, and you see the trend of children from low socio-economic status, or with additional support needs being excluded at a rate disproportionately higher than their counterparts across the country, there is even more evidence of a ‘public issue’ that requires resolution at a system-wide level, not an individual one.

I was also criticised for trying to monopolise practices that lead to social justice. For me to lay sole claim to equitable practice or the pursuit of inclusion and social justice is wrong and I would never attempt to do this. I am yet to come across anyone working in education that would say they would willingly perpetuate in-justice, or that they are not affected by the inequality that is ever-present in the education system and wider society. It is clear that reading through Tom Bennett’s book – ‘Running the Room’, that there is a clear belief that the approaches he suggests will have a significant impact on the children who are most vulnerable in society. It was clear in the follow up comments to my original post that people believe the way to challenge this inequality is to give the children the skills to behave through high levels of adult control, direct instruction and clear consequences and boundaries in place for any infractions. The argument goes that to tackle inequality, we are duty-bound to teach the children who are not provided with correct models of behaviour, exactly how to behave. This will inevitably lead to more equality.

The approach to tackling inequality promoted here, seems to be an individualised one though that addresses the problem as if it were a ‘personal trouble’, to engage with Mills (1959) again. i.e. helping individual children overcome deficiencies of their character or immediate local environment to gain key skills, attributes and knowledge required to enter the labour market and perhaps advance socially and economically.

My argument here is that to view this as a problem of the individual, rather than a systemic issue, it does nothing to move society forward. We simply have a practice which leads to success for some, but nonetheless perpetuates the status quo which is inherently unequal and unjust. Children are given the skills to advance individually, but only into a system that has a large degree of inequality.

A lot of the comments I received were around the fact that people believe the approach I advocate for (a strongly relational and restorative approach) is impractical, people claim it simply does not work in a real school. “Utopian sentimentalism” was the great phrase Tom Bennett used, which I think was meant to be used pejoratively, but may well be the title of any book I ever write. This speaks to the question raised at the start about your position on the purpose of education. If you favour a neoliberal, business-like efficiency model of education which is built on the transactional value of learning experiences and promotes a replicable model for ensuring children learn more content and does not value highly the lived personal and emotional experiences of children, then I agree that a restorative approach probably is impractical.

Biesta’s excellent article Why “What works” wont work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research’ (Biesta, 2007) has had a significant impact on my thinking here. Biesta argues that evidence-based practice, or the over-reliance on finding ‘what works’ or what is practical restricts the scope of decision making in education to questions about efficiency and effectiveness. He argues that this also restricts the opportunities for teachers to participate in educational decision making. A focus on efficiency and research-based practice serves to deny teachers the right to make values-based judgements on the educational desirability of any action or strategy and consequently removes their right not to act according to evidence about “what works”. The problem here is that discussions around practicality or finding strategies that research suggests ‘works’, is that it fails to give sufficient weight to the moral and values-based issues inherent in all educational decision making. Why is practicality and efficiency valued above all else?

I think behaviour is far more complex than simply finding a range of strategies that ‘work’. I think this suggest that education and any approach to behaviour is linear, with a simple and observable input-output model. There is no simple solution towards achieving progress with behaviour. It is for this reason that I refuse to be drawn into an argument that poses certain strategies against others to determine which is better. Some strategies will work for some children some of the time. It will be a complex blend of strategies for some, and a more straight-forward approach for others. But what we cannot lose sight of, is the bigger question around purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing?

The approach I am advocating for here is highly personalised, and unique to individual children. It is about connecting with children’s personal emotional experience and being responsive to a range of needs. This is not a cookie-cutter version of simply ‘managing’ behaviour that can be replicated with ease from school to school. It is about growing and developing genuine human connection and meaningful relationships built on tolerance, mutual respect, unconditional and relentless positive regard for the children we teach. This process will be different for every teacher and child working with each other, in every school up and down the country. Yes, there are strategies and approaches consistent in all schools committed to restorative practice, but at the foundation of it all is practice that is built on relationships before anything and everything else. This is a cultural approach, a statement of values, a community working together – not a shortcut to an efficient model to fix things in the short term. Perhaps some of the criticism restorative practice receives is from teachers reflecting on their own experience of restorative practice, where children descend into chaos, are relentlessly disrespectful and start acting like they own the place. The belief is that the children take advantage of the lack of punishment and consequences which ultimately leads to serious disruptions in learning and puts people’s safety at risk. This is not what restorative practice looks like in my experience. But just as those who advocate for stronger boundaries and more consistent consequences feel frustrated when they are characterised as punishment-driven, joyless, cruel, Dickensian teachers, so to are those who are faced with the above caricature of restorative practice.

R. F. Mackenzie, a key figure and radical voice in promoting a progressive model for Scottish Education said:

“I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and mould children into some shape but to help them grow into freedom”

(Mackenzie, 1965:9)

There is a certain amount freedom that is afforded to child through restorative practice. Freedom to find out who they are and how they want to interact with the world and those around them. I am not suggesting for a second that children do not need guided or nurtured through this process. A high level of support is required to help children grow into this freedom.

I find McCold and Wachtel’s (2003) notion of the Social Discipline Window helpful to explain more fully the intent behind restorative practice and what this ‘freedom’ looks like. The axes of control and support give us 4 quadrants to describe approaches to behaviour.

The idea here is that with a high degree of support, along with a high degree of control/challenge, we can work with children to achieve better behaviour choices and actions.

If we have a high degree of control, with low levels of support, we are in the quadrant where our choices around behaviour, as the adults in the building, are simply given ‘to’ the children, without any flexibility or opportunity for challenge. This quadrant is punitive, and in my opinion, less aligned with my aims for education as laid out previously.

I know that some of the criticism around this approach is often directed at practice that would actually fall in the bottom two quadrants, described as neglectful or permissive. This is not the approach I argue for, and I think it sometimes leads to the misconceptions around what restorative practice involves.

By working predominantly in the ‘To’ quadrant, by forcing children to comply to a system with very low tolerance or flexibility for any behaviour that does not follow the rules, I believe we are not recognising children as humans in their own right, with their own perspective of justice and what is fair. We are simply reproducing the set of societal and cultural norms that have been agreed upon by those in positions of relative power, and have led to a large degree of inequality and a system in need of change. For me, this approach to behaviour does not model the democratic, transformational, or critical potential of education that I hold dear. It does not allow children to find their voice and learn about making morally or ethically based decisions by themselves. If children are simply ‘behaving’ for fear of the punishment, my view (through a wide range of experiences and observations) is that when the fear of the punishment is no longer there, the undesirable behaviour can continue.

I have argued repeatedly in this post for approaches to behaviour to be discussed in a way that pays cognisance to the question of the purpose of education. What you believe children are at school for, and what experiences you believe are educationally desirable, will have a huge impact on what you think is the correct way to approach behaviour in schools. I have acknowledged the tendency in this debate for toxic, unhelpful polarity to take hold, and while I disagree with the notion of perpetuating false dichotomies in educational debate, I do believe it is important to question your beliefs, and align these with writers, theorists and practitioners who argue for a similar thing that you believe in. By not doing this, you risk working in a system and adopting a range of strategies that perpetuate injustice and do not lead to meaningful change for those who need it most. As the adage goes; If you don’t stand for something, you risk falling for anything.

References

Biesta, G. (2007). Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research. Educational Theory, 57, 1-22.

Mackenzie, R.F. (1965), Escape from the classroom. London: Collins

McCold, P. & Wachtel, T. (2003). In pursuit of paradigm: a theory of restorative justice. Restorative  Practices 

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

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