Inscribed upon his tomb in Highgate cemetery in London, are these words by Karl Marx:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Have you ever had the experience of being flagged down by a traffic cop and when you wind down the window, he says: “Mate, I just wanted to congratulate you on a great piece of driving back there” …? No…? Me neither. Mind you the other day, when I got back to my car, there was a note under the wiper that said ‘Parking Fine’ – so that was nice.
Why do we laugh at stories like these? Simply because society tends to work the opposite way around, most of the time. We don’t seek to approve and applaud desirable behaviour; we expect it, and when we don’t get it, when we become aware of behaviour of which we do not approve, then we punish it with barbed comments, dirty looks, reprimands, penalties, social ostracism, deprivation of liberty and, in some countries, even death.
So we expect people to behave well, in a socially responsible way, and we punish them if they don’t. Almost certainly not the most effective way of moderating adult behaviour, it is a downright cruel way of treating young people – particularly children of school age – who are still trying to learn how to behave appropriately.
Our findings on classroom behaviour management
Over the years, I have been involved in a number of studies, carried out both here in Australia and in the UK, with both primary and high school teachers, that have looked at the ways in which teachers respond to students’ behaviour in the classroom.
If you talk to teachers about their use of praise and approval in the classroom, they say that they use praise a great deal in their day-to-day interactions with students. And, to a degree, they are right; about 50% of the responses of primary school teachers to their students are positive comments offering approval and praise statements.
When we look more closely, however, at the types of behaviour that they are praising and reprimanding, a different picture merges. For responses to student academic behaviour – answering questions, written work, completion of maths problems and so on – teachers typically give nearly four times as much praise as they give reprimands and disapproval.
But when we look at their reactions to students’ classroom social behaviour – keeping to the rules, not disturbing others, getting on with their work quietly, for example – teachers typically give four times as many reprimands as they give praise and approval. In fact, they hardly ever praise students for behaving well; in some classes, it is a total non-event.
Sadly, this is particularly the case for boys. Even though the amounts of time boys and girls spend appropriately academically engaged, or ‘on-task’ as we call it, is not that dissimilar, with boys being a little less engaged, they receive twice as many reprimands for their perceived inappropriate classroom social behaviour. According to our calculations, boys in primary school are reprimanded for their behaviour about 40 times per week.
Most Australian primary teachers, then, while frequently praising academic work, hardly ever praise students for behaving well in the classroom. But they often reprimand students for behaving inappropriately, especially boys.
Indentifying common challenges
When we look at what Australian primary school teachers think about children’s classroom behaviour, there are a few surprises. First, according to our research, about half of them feel that they spend more time on problems of order and control than they feel that they should have to. In an average class of 28 students, they typically report four (about 15%) to be behaviourally troublesome, of whom three are typically boys. In fact, over 90% cited a boy as their most troublesome student in the class.
But what was it that the students actually did that teachers typically found to be most problematic? Surprisingly, more serious misbehaviours such as physical aggression were cited by less than 10% as being a problem. Nearly 50% of teachers cited ‘Talking out of Turn’ (or TOOT) as the most troublesome behaviour in their classes, followed by ‘Hindering Other Children’ (or HOC). These surprising findings replicate what we also found in the UK and what other researchers have subsequently found too. The findings for high school teachers are very similar.
To summarise, most Australian primary teachers are bothered by the behaviour of some of their students, but the most common and troublesome behaviours are relatively trivial, like TOOT and HOC. They are not particularly serious, but they are time-wasting, irritating, stressful and, ultimately, exhausting for teachers.
Using Positive Teaching to manage behaviour
The good news is that these sorts of behaviours, from boys or girls, are relatively easy to manage using the methods and procedures of Positive Teaching, one of the foci of our research for many years now.
Achieving effective classroom behaviour management is as easy as ABC; that is, if we consider the Antecedents, the Behaviour, and the Consequences. By the careful control of the antecedents or the context in which behaviours occur and the consequences following behaviour, disruptive classrooms can be brought into a state where they are more pleasant and positive for both teacher and students, and where real learning at least has the opportunity to take place. By becoming more positive in their interactions with students, everybody benefits.
A word on praise and reward
A great deal of damage has been done by educational critics such as Alfie Kohn by perpetuating the myth that praise and rewards are actually harmful. The key to the successful use of praise and reward is contingency: who is being praised by whom for what under which specific circumstances. Non-contingent and undeserved praise and reward, scattered like confetti with no thought to the contingencies, might indeed do more harm than good. But positive teachers know that to be effective, their use of praise and reward strategies has to be carefully thought through and delivered with skill, tact and subtlety. This is what our new course, the Positive Reaching Workshop, aims to do.
To conclude, it is almost impossible for effective classroom learning to take place where disruptive and inappropriate behaviour is frequently exhibited by students. Moreover, initial teacher training is commonly criticised for providing inadequate training in methods of effective classroom behaviour management. Teachers typically claim that they had to learn how to manage a class by trial and error 'on the job', having been given vast amounts of theory but precious little advice on what to do actually do.
As Marx chided us, it is not enough merely to attempt to interpret the world, the point is to change it. This is precisely what Positive Teaching aims to do: to change student behaviour by changing teacher behaviour.
For more information about the MultiLit Positive Teaching Workshop, visit www.multilit.com/professionaldevelopment/positive-teaching-pd/.