*With thanks to Michael Rosen for the inspiration
I got in an argument recently. It was over the phrase ‘impeccable behaviour’ and whether this is something which schools should be aiming for. This person, a teacher, said that she felt that children benefited hugely from a strict behaviour policy. Children with special educational needs, or who are neurodiverse, benefited even more, in her opinion, from ‘crystal clear expectations, routine and a calm quiet classroom’.
It sounds good at first hearing – the ideas of ‘good behaviour’ and ‘high expectations’ are hard to disagree with. After all, what’s the opposite? Bad behaviour and low expectations? Tricky to defend.
Our government is certainly crystal clear in their expectations. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, said so in a speech on March 1st. “We will be unceasing in our support for teachers to maintain discipline and behaviour in our schools. The teacher is the authority in the classroom, and students must learn that the expectation is they will follow reasonable adult instructions the first time – without dispute. From that, everything else can follow.” (In another part of the speech he argued that the evidence shows that children need to be facing forwards and listening to an expert in order to learn best, something I’ve written about here).
So why does the whole idea make me feel queasy? What’s the problem with requiring children to do as they are told, first time? It certainly makes life easier for adults. I can only imagine how different our home life would be if my children were fans of the Education Secretary and every request I made was followed first time without dispute.
Apart from the inherent problem of how we expect children to know whether adult instructions are ‘reasonable’ or not, there’s another reason to be cautious about calls for schools to control behaviour. It comes down to what we understand by ‘behaviour’ and how it should be interpreted.
Let’s start with ‘good behaviour’. An impeccably behaved child is generally one who does what is most convenient to adults. Sits quietly and listens. Doesn’t complain when asked to do meaningless tasks. Never runs in the corridor or rocks on their chair in class. Definitely doesn’t ask questions like ‘Why do we have to learn about fronted adverbials, when my mum is a writer and has never heard of them?’. In Williamson’s dream-world, children are expected to do what they are told, without dispute. The adult becomes the ultimate authority, whilst children are to do their bidding.
What’s missing is any analysis of what the child is telling us through their behaviour. A child who does not comply may be doing so for a whole range of reasons. They may be busy writing poems in their head rather than listening. They may think that many of the demands which a teacher thinks are reasonable are entirely unreasonable. They might be highly anxious. They may be bored out of their minds by the curriculum. Or they might be dealing with stuff from home which makes schoolwork seem irrelevant. We have no way of telling, if our focus is simply on controlling their behaviour. The behaviour is ‘bad’ and so that is what is addressed.
Behaviour is important, but not because it should be impeccable. Behaviour is communication. Through their behaviour, children can show us when something isn’t right in their world. If we listened to those who do not ‘behave’ at school, we might hear that they need something very different. Facing forwards and listening to an expert isn’t how they learn best, and they know it. They need meaningful choices, autonomy, and mutual respectful relationships. They need an education which engages them and which takes account of their interests.
Education would look very different if schools listened to what children are expressing through their behaviour. Stripped of the ability to punish and intimidate, adults would have no alternative but to rethink. They’d have to start with what children like to do, and how they learn best. That would not look like the well-behaved obedient children imagined by Williamson.
There is another way. Behaviour does not just tell us when something is wrong. When children are interested and engaged, their behaviour expresses that too. An education which respects children’s views and empowers them to make choices is the very best behaviour policy. This way there is no need for unquestioning compliance – for children’s questions are the sparks for learning which, once quenched, are hard to rekindle.