The recent review and subsequent report conducted by Sir Alan Steer on behaviour and learning in schools offers an intriguing insight into the success (or failure) of schools across England, in developing successful behavioural policies to improve student attainment and engagement in the classroom and whole school life in general. The report offers the opportunity to assess not only whole school teaching, but also allows the individual teacher to assess their own standing on behaviour, and how closely it is linked to learning. Steer (2009) stresses that the quality of teaching, learning and behaviour in schools are inseparable issues. Furthermore, Steer perceives that if the learning in the classroom is correct, then behavioural issues will fail to arise. This report will attempt to analyse Steer’s comments with reference to the literature that underpins what perhaps is a central issue in education at the current time. It will also focus on the experiences of the writer during time spent at recent placement schools and also working as a cover supervisor in a number of inner-city schools. The work will focus on the debate surrounding the direct link between learning and behaviour, whilst considering how much of an effect a school-wide consistency in the teaching and learning practise can have on this issue, as well as effective learning in within the classroom setting.
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My first placement school (School X) was located in a generally affluent, rural area in the north of Derbyshire. Due to the low population density the school had a large catchment area, which meant pupils from a wide range of social backgrounds attended the school. In the most recent OfSTED report dated November 2008 (Ofsted, 2008), it was stated that this is a ‘good school’, which gives pupils a thorough education and it was awarded Grade 2 for overall effectiveness. My current placement school (School Y) is a large comprehensive located in Derby, where a large proportion of students come from an area of ‘relatively high social and economic deprivation’. Despite this, students make good overall progress during their time at the school due to good teaching across the curriculum and a sharp focus on identifying, and addressing, under-achievement at an early stage. In the most recent OfSTED report dated May 2008 (Ofsted, 2008), it was it was also awarded Grade 2 for overall effectiveness.
On a school-wide level approach to behaviour, Wearmouth et al (2005: 180) highlighted that the success of an inclusive school when addressing behavioural issues is to have an accepted ethos in place. The difficulty acknowledged by the authors however is that there is no common agreement as to exactly what an excepted ethos should consist of, whilst stressing that positive relationships and acceptance of all individuals are key themes in any positive school ethos. Steer’s report highlights the key role that an effective school ethos can play in controlling and promoting positive behaviour. The report also underlines the vital role that the school leadership has to play. ‘Effective leadership is central when creating a climate of security and good order that supports pupils in managing their behaviour’ (Steer, 2009: 75). This strong leadership, displayed mainly through a well planned behaviour strategy and through leading by example, is imperative to a successful school-wide behavioural policy. Perhaps the most important factor in this is the continuation of this good behaviour into the classroom. Lee (2007: 20) notes that while a whole school ethos is difficult to define; once achieved it is very noticeable that one exists. The ethos tends to spread through all aspects of school life and especially in the classroom, where behavioural issues tend to be few and far between. In this manner, the whole school approach has a direct influence on teaching and learning in a school, highlighting that a consistent approach on a school-wide level is vital to improving behaviour in the classroom.
This can be emphasised with an example from the first placement school (School X), experienced by the writer. The strong ethos at this school focused mainly on behaviour towards others and self-attitude, enabling positive learning to take place. All teachers and parents (as well as other staff personnel) were fully committed to the successful approach designed by the school management. Therefore, on any occasion when students were either inappropriately dressed or were found outside of lessons during lesson time, staff would question the pupils in a positive manner. Moreover, all staff knew every student’s name due to the rotating pastoral system in place at the school and therefore students felt that they were treated as individuals, rather than en masse, as an indistinguishable group. This helped cultivate a strong positive school ethos which spilled over into the classroom and allowed successful teaching and learning to occur.
Chaplain (2003) and Koutsoukis (2004) substantiate this view by providing evidence that students who have ownership of a strong school-wide ethos, are better prepared to learn in the classroom. Chaplain emphasizes that social skills and mannerisms learnt by students from a positive ethos, put them in an elevated standing in the classroom. Ultimately the classroom becomes a more positive learning environment where safety, learning and success are of paramount importance. Hence students are more like to view education as a privilege, rather than an obligation over which they have no control. The more positive the ethos, the less likely individual students are to break from the social ‘norm’ in the school and misbehave. As Chaplain (2003: 78) highlights, less emphasis on punishment and critical control and a greater emphasis on praise and rewarding pupils (within the classroom) has a positive impact on student learning.
This is evident in School Y, where the writer is currently engaged in his second placement. Students receive ‘praise postcards’ for good work and behaviour. Those receiving the most win prizes that are presented in an awards assembly, in front of the rest of the year group. This is just one example of how ownership of a positive school ethos can be encouraged. Hence, the school ethos is reinforced by the students’ willingness to get involved and succeed, therefore supporting Steer’s assessment that learning correctly prevents behavioural issues from arising. In the manner of a whole school approach and consistency of positive learning experiences, the students here are developing their social skills and knowledge of acceptable behaviour in and around the school premises, at both a conscious and sub-conscious level.
A consistent approach to behavioural issues within the classroom is also a vital cog in the mechanism of developing learning and reducing negative behaviour in a school. Rogers (2000) addresses the issue posed by consistency of behaviour management in the classroom. When developing rules, Rogers (2000: 76) suggests that any classroom rule must adhere to school-wide policies on behaviour. Furthermore, Rogers underlines that, in reality, it only takes one or two members of staff to fail to adhere to school behavioural policies, whether it is on issues such as detention, eating in class, uniform or other matters, to seriously damage the whole school approach to behaviour. Mackay (2006:20) identifies that it can be extremely disturbing to students if the boundaries to behaviour in the classroom keep changing, temporarily disappear or simply don’t exist. The detrimental effect that this has is to lessen the whole school approach and highlights how important it is that all staff should follow the example set by the leadership in the school. The literature so far stresses how important a whole school approach can be to engage students in learning, both inside and outside of the classroom and that if followed by all staff, behavioural issues will not arise. This issue is particularly pertinent following an incident experience by the writer whilst working as a cover supervisor in an inner city school in Manchester. The school did not have a precise behaviour management strategy, or at least it was not disseminated to staff in an appropriate manner.
As Imray (2007:65) states, consistency of approach and communication are absolutely vital, but in the school in question such consistency did not exist. After being confronted about being late to class whilst wearing incorrect uniform, a student became abusive due to the questioning and ended up leaving the classroom altogether. Following a reconciliation meeting involving the head of year, the teacher and the student, it soon became apparent that a number of teachers had allowed the student to wear inappropriate clothing in their lessons, even though this was against official school policy and other teachers had failed to pick up on the continual lateness of the student. In this example, the whole incident could have been avoided had the school behavioural policy been adopted and adhered to on a whole-school level. The student would have realised from the very beginning that inappropriate attire and lateness would not be tolerated. However, due to the lack of communication and consistency in the school between leadership and other staff, a potentially explosive incident occurred and damaged the relationship between the teacher and pupil. In addition, such incidents also undermine the teacher’s standing with other pupils in the class, who will have deemed they had acted unfairly. This example highlights how vital a successful whole-school ethos is and how important it is for all staff to be consistent when applying it.
Within the classroom, there is a great amount that the individual teacher can do to minimise negative behaviour. Killen (2006:26) highlights that in the modern educational era, students display a higher ability to self-regulate and hold more responsibility than previously. Rather than just teaching their subjects, today’s teachers should facilitate learning by enabling students to work more independently and become more accountable for their own learning activities. Therefore, a simple method of sustaining engagement in learning to prevent negative behaviour can be achieved by allowing students greater choice. The unique needs and abilities of each student are such that through negotiations and guidance, learners should be given as much choice and control as is feasibly possible over their own learning. This individualised approach to teaching is prominent in the personalised learning strategy, introduced relatively recently to the curriculum. The view is supported by Grossman (2003: 226) who stresses that independent students must be encouraged in their independence and that opportunities should be made available for these students to work, on occasions, without any assistance from the teacher.
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This approach was adopted proactively at School Y, where the ICT departmental policy placed an emphasis on keeping teacher-talk time down to a minimum, as it was found that students were more likely to go off-task during that time. Instead of being subjected to extended step-by-step explanations of how to use software etc, students were given a brief overview of the task and then provided with a detailed worksheet to follow. The teacher then used the additional time saved to monitor students input to the task on an individual basis, providing assistance where necessary. If a particular problem area was identified by the teacher, time out from the task would then be taken to explain that aspect in more detail to the class as a whole. As a consequence, students spent a lot more time on-task and fewer behavioural problems arose.
This approach is also substantiated by a number of works of literature, including Walters & Frei (2007: 110) and Derrington & Goddard (2007:111), who emphasise that the key to improving students’ learning in the classroom is to engage all students at all times. While this may sound simple, it is important to realise that boredom is often cited as the number one cause of negative behaviour in the classroom (Walter & Frei, 2007:110) and that only exceptional teachers can engage every student for entire lessons. This can be achieved through a variety of activities focusing on different learning styles, such as a successful reward system through which students feel the desire to improve (Muijs & Reynolds, 2005) and greater ownership in the lessons taken by students for their own learning. Above all, the content of each class must interest the students and the learning must be relative to their own life experiences.
Porter (2000) highlights that different teaching styles account for negative behaviour in different ways. If we analyse behaviour from an authoritarian theory, then these teachers emphasise faulty external controls as the cause of student disruptions (Porter, 2000: 11). However, if we use democratic theories as suggested by Porter (of which the comments made by Steer appear to place him directly into this category), then disruptions occur when student’s emotional or relationship needs are not being met. Therefore, from a democratic theory viewpoint, Steer is correct in that negative behaviour can become obsolete from a school or classroom setting if the learning process is engaging and correct. However, if an authoritarian stance is taken, then negative behaviour will always exist due to the external factors outside of the teacher’s control. Price (2002:1) argues against this and supports the democratic theory by stressing that behaviour management in the classroom is a very personal matter, involving the student and teacher, and that issue is fundamentally an emotional one in which the teacher plays a very prominent role. This underpins the fact that learning and behaviour management in the classroom are fundamentally controlled by the teacher and the successful learning/reduction of negative behaviour is significantly down to the individual in charge.
However, the writer believes that there is an important area that wasn’t given full consideration by Steer and that is need for an increased level of self-discipline to be exhibited by students. From the experience of the writer, there seems to be very little direct correlation between the age, social demographic and to some degree, intelligence of students and how well they can apply themselves to accomplishing certain tasks. From the teacher’s perspective it is very frustrating to see otherwise capable students failing, simply because they lack the self-discipline to apply themselves to relatively simple tasks, no matter how hard the teacher has worked at making the activity engaging. Surely there is a point at which the teacher has to except they have made every reasonable effort to make their lesson engaging to all students, at all levels, and then place the onus on the student to learn?
Steer’s recommendations focus heavily on what could be done in schools to improve behaviour, but only touches on what can and should be done at home. Both on a school and a societal level, there needs to be a call for greater responsibility and accountability of parents for their child’s/children’s behaviour, especially where a distinct lack of self-discipline is preventing them from learning effectively. Rather than simply using a series of punitive measures against those students who persistently misbehave, may be a better approach would be to get them to accomplish a series of constructive tasks, which would benefit the school and help them improve their own self-discipline – a school equivalent of community service!
In conclusion, the literature and school placement experiences of the writer generally concur with Steer’s belief that if the learning is right, behaviour is not an issue. Whilst this is quite a simplified view held by Steer, the associated literature expands his concept. It is evident that to obtain the correct learning, in both the whole-school approach and the individual classroom setting, certain criteria need to be met and policies must be followed consistently. As mentioned earlier, all staff must work together in establishing a strong positive school ethos that develops students’ social behaviour and positive attitude towards learning. If this can be achieved and maintained through consistency in the classroom by all teachers and engaging lessons that interest all students, then the learning is effective and negative behaviour is much less likely to arise. However, the number of examples provided by the literature and the personal experience of the writer suggest that the achievement of this consistency and positive ethos, on a whole-school level, is achieved only by a minority of schools with strong leadership and staff who are willing to buy into their vision. The creation of a whole-school ethos and consistency across the school in terms of following behavioural policy, can lead to effective learning and the reduction of negative behavioural problems. However, whilst this may sound like a simple enough plan, many schools have found understanding the path to behavioural success and actually achieving it on a day-to-day basis are often at opposite ends of the spectrum.
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