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At this year’s Education Festival at Wellington, I spoke to rather hot and sweaty room about why behaviour is so difficult to talk about, why we overcomplicate matters, and what we can do about it. Thanks to everyone who packed themselves in – not sure H&S would have been keen.

What follows is the third and final part of the talk, on classrooms. You can find part one, on ideology, here, and part two, on policies, here.

You can find the slides here.

A final recap.

  1. I believe a calm environment is the best in which to learn. I am fully aware that different subjects will require chatter and collaboration, but this can be calm: we really shouldn’t be worried that little Vernon Victim will again be locked in the sports cupboard, or that any food-tech session is really an exercise in ‘dodge-toast’.
  2. We’ve misunderstood the notion of relationships. These should be built on respect, not pandering to the whims of a child. We’re the experts. We’re the adults. We’re not circus animals, or second-rate nannies. The curriculum should be what engages, not the method of delivery. Let’s wow children with our acumen and build relationships around a respect for learning so that, for genuine want of a better phrase, it’s cool to be a nerd.
  3. I don’t have a problem with the word ‘obedient‘. Complaining of some Zamyatin-esque ‘We’ army of child-bots, obeying.commands.in.mechanical.synchronicity. is as lazy as it is wilfully dismissive of a loving teacher or parent’s aim: to help their child be the best they can in a safe environment. I want and need children to do what I say, because I happen to have a clue what I’m doing.

With all this in mind, what can we do in classrooms to minimise behavioural problems? Because there are things we can do to help ourselves. Teachers are not responsible for the behaviour of their pupils (that would be down to the children and the HT), but they can, of course, make things better or worse. Whilst it would be lovely to assume all pupils will behave wonderfully, we know that just isn’t the case: children make mistakes because they are children. Some will make many fewer mistakes than others, and vice versa, but this is part of growing up. Instead of accepting this as a norm, however, it’s much better to help pupils not make these mistakes.

There are, I think, at least three key problems with behaviour in classrooms.

  1. Too much focus on ‘how’.

Discovering Doug Lemov’s work in 2012 was a bit of a game-changer for me. Reading Teach Like A Champion (which Jo Facer discusses here) made me realise what I did well, but also gave me a whole host of other tools to try. What was important, I felt, was to work deliberately on things which would make my history teaching clearer. Sure, there was loads of stuff that could be used across various subjects (many of which are outlined below), but my main concern was to improve my exposition of history. Thus, if a technique seemed to me to be either superfluous or noisy I ignored it.

The problem with any thing like TLAC (as I’ve noticed with some of the reaction to my blogs on knowledge organisers) is that schools use this kind of stuff as a bible rather than a suite, an emperor’s new wardrobe, as it were. As far as I can tell, a fundamental misunderstanding of something like TLAC is to try to use everything. Instead, know your subject. Focus on the ‘what‘, rather than the ‘how‘; wow them with your acumen, as Stuart Lock makes brilliantly clear here.

The other issue with this myopic focus on the ‘how’ is that schools believe the answer to behavioural issues is often in the delivery, rather than the policy or the actual bloody content. This leads us down the progressive path of engagement, activities and tired, early-greying teachers, obsessing over fun rather than thinking about the subject. It also places behavioural responsibility firmly at the feet of individual teachers, which is why we ended up with Ofsted judgements on T&L, idiotic five-minute lesson plans, and soul-destroying (and plain wrong) learning-style’d, multi-activity’d, differentiated by task’d ten-part lessons. That’s not to say there aren’t some effective, and generic, ways in which to suppress the most bouncy of teens, but that making these a focus, rather than a basic foundation, is mistaken.

There is one, very simple (though perhaps, unfortunately, brave) and very important thing to consider: don’t plan lessons, plan learning.

2. Too much noise.

By this I have two things in mind. Firstly, schools are so loud. I don’t think we realise how loud they are until September, when our peaceful days are torn apart by a thousand unbroken voices. But too often we say “be quiet” when we mean “be silent”. Frankly, you get what you ask for. Thirty quiet children, however little they whisper, are still louder than thirty silent children. In fact, the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was to speak more quietly myself, as I was driving the noise up. And there are ways to modulate how we do this in various subjects, sometimes employing our inner silliness, but the important thing is to be in charge of the noise. If we want silence, then we must insist on it, both in our classrooms and around the school.

And the thing is, when one teacher asks for quiet and another asks for silence, we end up with noisy expectations.  I absolutely love the attitude of Luke Sparkes, principal at Dixons Trinity Academy: the pupils there are given one warning at the start of the year, and that’s it. There’s clarity and focus. All staff, pupils and leaders know the rules, and as such there’s a lack of noise.

3. Too much bureaucracy.

In one school in which I taught, a new principal introduced a paper system for dealing with behaviour. He was not a fan of technology and instead wanted to create a paper trail. The resulting behavioural incident form included something like twenty-five different options of behavioural misdemeanours, and the form itself had to be countersigned by at least four different people. In another school, we had Behavioural Incident Forms and Serious Behavioural Incident Forms. Each was on triplicate copy paper, which meant by the time it reached all relevant persons the incident itself was forgotten. Teachers were expected to keep their own records of these which would then be checked by the department head if behaviour was reported in official parental conversation – checked as evidence we weren’t making it up.

This kind of nonsense has no place in school, and should be well away from a streamlined classroom. Learning can often be messy, but the reporting of behaviour should not be.

At my current school we use Class Charts, a superb browser-based piece of behavioural software, though I’m sure there is other effective technology out there. In my previous post I wrote this about it:

Linked to SIMS, the software gives teachers a way to create online seating plans (accessible by all staff for cover purposes) which are then used to praise or sanction behaviour, creating all sorts of immediate and importantly, live datasets and updates for year heads, etc. You can find out more here. The point is that this is so much less paperwork for more gain. I’m not usually a tech advocate, but in terms of consistently managing behaviour this is something to look in to.

Letting bureaucracy get in the way of effective behavioural reporting, that which can be done immediately, in real time and with public consequences, is as unimaginative as it is unsupportive and downright professionally malevolent.

So what can we do in classrooms, even if all this stuff gets in the way?

But they just never shut up. Every time I turn my back they start talking again!

I’m always tempted to wryly, though facetiously, observe, “Then don’t turn your back” when I hear this. Watch them like hawks! Send them out if they breathe! Refuse to teach any children who have mouths!

Well, no. There is no silver bullet to ensure silence, bar perhaps the new boy who calls you a racist within four seconds of his first lesson with you (yes, I’ve had this). The road to silence is long and winding, the night is full of terrors and there is no Lord of Light to smite the low-level noise. There are clear systems, a culture of work, the head’s acceptance that she is ultimately responsible and, of course, the pupils’ choices. Good behaviour, and silent classrooms, are possible when any of these four are not present, but they are the exception.

It is possible to create oases of paradise in a desert of chaos, but these will always occur in spite of a school’s poor behavioural policies: an ill-thought out focus on generic pedagogy, the noise created by others and even excessive bureaucracy can be counteracted to some extent. What follows are five examples of things which we do have control over. It is not a guarantee of silence with 9X7 on Friday afternoon, but over time, with patience, persistence and a host of other ‘how to‘ ideas which I’ve written about recently, these might pay off. What’s important to remember is that consistency and clarity are key.

1. The threshold

Some of us have space to line up our classes. Some don’t. Either way, if we’re stood outside the room as pupils enter then there’s a chance that, unsupervised, they might talk. Similarly, if we’re stood inside then we don’t have control over how they enter. Whether we can line our classes up or not, we must do everything we can to ensure pupils enter silently, and there’s one way to ensure we at least know what’s happening both inside and outside of our classrooms.

Matthew Hood, at the Institute for Teaching, recently spoke about the power of standing in between the door frame, at the threshold. This allows us to see both the class and the corridor. We can then allow one or two in at a time, ensuring they are silent when entering. If they aren’t, we can pull them out, safe in the knowledge that the rest won’t be rioting around.

Saying, and getting a friendly response to, “Good morning”, is also essential. I do not allow pupils into my classroom unless they have returned the greeting. It’s manners, it shows you care, and it demonstrates the expectations we have. Ben Newmark has written about this here

2. Immediacy

At Torquay Academy every lesson begins with a ‘do now’. It’s not a starter, as such, but one might call it ‘bell work’. It’s what happens on entry. This might be a quiz, or a piece of text to annotate, or some reflection on a previous piece of work – whatever – but the purpose is to immediately settle the pupils into work. Our site is huge, so pupils might have walked for a while if they’ve arrived from PE. We cannot, therefore, ensure silent corridors, but we can insist that pupils begin the lesson with something to do on entry.

The task should be one which does not need questions. It should be one which does not need explaining. It should be one which can be accessed by any pupil in that class.

Having said that, it might be that a particularly noisy class needs time to settle even before this. With certain groups I insist on three other things: “Pens out, bags on the floor, standing behind your desks.” This doesn’t mean they can’t be reading a question on the board, or looking at a quiz in front of them, but with some groups it’s necessary. Don’t worry if you feel like it’s taking a lot of time, but instead insist upon what you expect, and rigorously uphold those requirements.

3. Positioning

After many years of coaching football teams, I learned a huge amount about positioning in the classroom. When you’re outside on a football pitch you need to think about where you’re standing: is the sun behind you? In which direction is the wind blowing? In which direction is the rain falling (usually down, I’ve found)?

Thus, when I give instructions in my room I stand in the very centre and DO. NOT. MOVE. Well, apart from my head. I move my head a lot, owl-like and with intensity. I am looking for all eyes, all attention, all focus. I can’t do that without rows, and I can’t gain that singular focus if I’m moving around. Stand still.

If I’m speaking to a pupil on the front right of my classroom, I move to the far left. In this way I can see all of my class, scanning as I listen. If ll my focus is right underneath me then I simply can’t give the rest of the class that attention.

In this way I’m in control.

4. 100%

I wrote about this a while back, but it’s worth reiterating.

Instead of saying, “Kamila, put your pen down”, try, “I’m waiting for one pen and two pairs of eyes.” The lack of public attention means there can’t be an argument or any talking back.

5. Non-verbal gestures

Her tie is around her waist? Mime doing a tie up. You want him to start writing? Mime him writing. His head is on the desk? When everyone else is working, walk up and tap the table so he can hear but the correction is private. Her shirt is hanging out? Mime tucking it in.

The thing is, it’s quite difficult to argue with a non-verbal gesture because, well, no-one has said anything. And the implied privacy of not making a big deal about a minor misdemeanour tends to mean children don’t resent the correction.

Finally, what about motivation? Even if they’re doing what we want, does this really mean they’re trying? Some make this the difference between merely behaving and behaving for learning. I’m not that interested in the semantics here, but I am interested in using small gains and achievements to increase motivation.

I’ve written a huge amount on how low-stakes testing (using knowledge organisers) can have a really positive effect on even the most disengaged pupils. Sarah Donarski makes similar claims here regarding positivity bias among lower performing pupils. This illusory superiority seems to be significantly more motivating for pupils who might normally achieve less well. Imagine your weakest pupils beginning every lesson with a well-answered quiz, or even having the chance to achieve 100% on the test at the start of the lesson. What effect might this have?

Whatever you choose to do in your classroom, ensure you deliberately practice it. Work on it solely for a week or so, building opportunities in to each lesson so that you feel confident with it. Don’t give up, even when classes are tough, your HOD is rubbish and the school policies suck – keep going.

But, more importantly, remember why you’re there – to teach pupils about your subject. Know that, and know it well. Be proud of your knowledge and show them just how cool it is to be so fabulously interesting, how you can make links between various subjects, and why your domain is so flipping important. Because you have to have something to talk to children about – all the tricks in the world won’t make them interested.