What is good behaviour?
My views on behaviour have evolved. This is my most recent thinking. January 2015
What is good behaviour? Well, that’s obvious isn’t it? Good behaviour is sitting still, doing what you’re told, speaking when you’re spoken to and generally following instructions. And that’s great, except for the fact that students are in school to learn, not to behave. Behaviour rules are only a means to an end; they enable us to teach. But if rules encourage unquestioning passivity, should we really be compelling students to follow them?
Ever heard of Behaviour for Learning, or B4L? Most often, all it seems to mean is that students are being quiet and respectful so that the teacher is free to impart knowledge instead of wasting time trying to make them shut up and listen. Of course shutting up and listening is important, and anyone who’s ever had charge of a truly dysfunctional class knows how horrible an experience it can be.
To overcome this, you’ll often see lists of classroom rules fastened to classroom walls. They usually contain some variant of the following:
- Listen when others are talking
- Follow directions
- Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself
- Work quietly and do not disturb others
- Show respect for school and personal property
- Work and play in a safe manner
These are great rules for instilling ‘good’ behaviour. Students need to know that these things are important. But how much have they got to do with the types of behaviour required for successful learning? Back in 1969, Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner wrote the following;
What all of us have learned (and how difficult it is to unlearn it!) is that it is not important that our utterances satisfy the demands of the question (or of reality), but that they satisfy the demands of the classroom environment. Teacher asks. Student answers. Have you ever heard of a student who replied to a question, ‘Does anyone know the answer to that question?’ or ‘I have been asked that question before and, frankly, I’ve never understood what it meant’? Such behaviour would invariably result in some form of penalty and is, of course, scrupulously avoided, except by ‘wise guys’. Thus students learn not to value it. They get the message. And yet few teachers consciously articulate such a message. It is not part of the ‘content’ of their instruction. No teacher ever said: ‘Don’t value uncertainty and tentativeness. Don’t question questions. Above all, don’t think.’ The message is communicated quietly, insidiously, relentlessly and effectively through the structure of the classroom: through the role of the teacher, the role of the student, the rules of their verbal game, the rights that are assigned, the arrangements made for communication, the ‘doings’ that are praised or censured. In other words, the medium is the message.
They go on to say,
The most important and intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not taught in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued… Asking questions is behaviour. If you don’t do it, you don’t learn it. It really is as simple as that.
Teaching As A Subversive Activity – pp 33-34
How much has changed in the intervening years? We’re told that most behaviour issues can be solved by well-planned, stimulating lessons that engage students. Now, it’s not that I think this is wrong, it’s just that there is so much more to behaviour than occupying students’ minds in an effort to make them behave. The need to make students behave can be used as justification for word searches and all sorts of other pointless wastes of time which keep students busy.
It’s no good bleating about “behaviour crises” if all you’ve got to offer is some rules to follow. Frankly, I wouldn’t follow ‘em. I’m a bugger for asking, “Why?” which accounts for my personal struggle with recipe books: I always want to be given a reason why the onions have to be cooked for five minutes, or why the water has to be ice-cold, or why you have to keep on stirring.
I’m interested in knowing the thinking behind these instructions and really struggle to follow them unless they’re explained. Possibly the reason I’m bad at following recipes is also the reason why I enjoy teaching?
Professor Robert Sylwester at the University of Oregon says, “Misguided teachers who constantly tell their pupils to sit down and be quiet imply a preference for working with a group of trees, not a classroom full of young people.”
All too often we get good behaviour hopelessly confused with good behaviour for learning. Sitting still, following instructions and paying attention might look superficially like every classroom’s holy grail but it’s worth having a look at this list of good learning behaviours from the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL).
- Checks personal comprehension for instruction and material. Requests further information if needed. Tells the teacher what they don’t understand
- Seeks reasons for aspects of the work at hand.
- Plans a general strategy before starting.
- Anticipates and predicts possible outcomes.
- Checks teacher’s work for errors; offers corrections.
- Offers or seeks links between: different activities and ideas; different topics or subjects; schoolwork and personal life
- Searches for weaknesses in their own understandings; checks the consistency of their explanations across different situations.
- Suggests new activities and alternative procedures.
- Challenges the text or an answer the teacher sanctions as correct.
- Offers ideas, new insights and alternative explanation
- Justifies opinions.
- Reacts and refers to comments of other students.
How often do you see these behaviours encouraged in lessons? How important are they in your classroom? Try putting them up as a wall display to remind them (and you) exactly what good behaviour for learning looks like.