The OECD has handed down yet another disappointing report card on Australia’s school systems. It shows record spending has been paralleled by declining outcomes for both students and teachers.
Importantly, the report makes clear a common denominator to school systems’ problems is the increasing disruption and disorder in Australia’s classrooms.
As the OECD data show, Australia ranks at 70th out of 77 school systems on its ‘disciplinary climate index’ — placing it among the least orderly in the world.
It should come as no surprise that this harms the learning of students. Those in disruptive classrooms do more poorly than in orderly ones; leaving them the equivalent of nine months behind in their learning by the age of 15.
Disruptive classrooms — and the consequences of them — also take a toll on teachers and principals. Addressing students’ behavioural issues is among the most–cited burdens reported by teachers. And many school staff are also subjectedto violence and intimidation from students.
But action on classroom behaviour, disruption, and disorder has long been unreasonably delayed and denied, despite the obvious problem.
This is because the educational orthodoxy has a wrong-headed ideology about student behaviour, and resistance to how schools can effectively manage it.
Education’s academics and educrats take a progressive and permissive approach that is reactive, rather than proactive, to addressing student behaviour.
They urge teachers to be more ‘relationship manager’ and less ‘authority figure’ with their students.
Rather than model and explicitly teach desired behaviours,habits, and expectations, there is pressure for teachers (or, as academics prefer, “facilitators”) to uncritically accommodateand entertain potentially errant behaviour.
According to these ideologues, it’s the teacher who must learn from and adapt to the students — with correction and discipline used only sparingly.
But this reactive approach is unhelpful to teachers and of course to learners.
It is far more effective — and empowering — for teachers to proactively and explicitly teach behavioural standards, practices, and expectations.
It can’t be assumed students will simply know what’s expected of them without clearly being shown and having it explained to them.
Applying disciplinary expectations is about establishing boundaries to assist students and teachers; not the touted misconception of power-tripping educators relentlessly applying punitive penalties on students.
There are also harmful and lazy narratives that deny the agency of teachers in addressing behaviour. This neglects the obvious fact that it’s not what happens outside the classroom, but what happens inside it, that matters most.
It’s true that technology has slashed attention spans, andfamilies can be less constructively engaged than in the past.But ultimately, it’s not digital devices, busy working families, or even poverty that cause classroom disruption.
It’s that teachers often haven’t been given the strategies and techniques to manage the classroom — no matter how challenging the students and the context.
Compared to other countries, data show increasing numbers of our teachers aren’t ready to ‘run the room’ when they graduate. Many will build on these skills with experience, but it’s too often left to chance — and compounds the pressure onearly career teachers.
Most notably there’s a ‘big five’ evidence-based classroom management strategies founded in educational practice and learning science: making clear the expectations of students through establishing rules and routines; maximising learning time; minimising opportunity for distractions; reinforcing positive behaviour; and addressing serious misbehaviour.
For this reason, managing behaviour must be part of every teacher’s classroom management toolkit.
Research estimates students learn around 20 per cent more in classes when their teachers have essential classroom management skills.
Far from being ‘old-school’, best-practice, explicit teaching is sophisticated and scientifically-grounded.
When teachers are armed with these strategies, they can more often get ahead of, and prevent, potentially disruptive behaviour. It’s empowering teachers with these practices that will further advance the teaching profession — not subscribing to ideology.
Australia’s policymakers would do well to heed the OECD’s warning that reform must start with turning around classroom disruption and disorder. Belatedly, some are now taking the issue seriously.
Next week, the Australian Senate opens hearings for its inquiry into increasing incidence of classroom disruption. A teacher training review recently signalled the need for new teachers to be better prepared for managing classrooms. The federal government has commissioned the Australian Education Research Organisation to produce evidence-based resources for teachers on the topic. And the recently-instatedNSW government is reviewing a flawed policy that limits schools’ ability to genuinely handle behaviour issues.
This is all promising to see, but for a pathway to reform, Australia must look to Britain — where increasing numbers of schools are taking a more disciplined line on behaviour.
UK schools now run a ‘behaviour curriculum’ that clearly sets out expectations of students and is taught alongside other content. Behaviour levels are routinely measured and monitored through a national survey. The ability to managebehaviour is now prioritised in rating teachers’ readiness for the classroom. And a ‘behaviour tsar’ provides guidance to teachers and policymakers on best practice.
Addressing the Centre for Independent Studies last year, eminent educator and ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’, Katharine Birbalsingh noted that taking a firm line on discipline is not because of a meanness to children (despite what her critics allege), but out of compassion for them. As she says, what’s mean is failing to provide children with boundaries that allow a proper education.
It’s true some will fear that a focus on behaviour is a reflex to traditionalist, heavy-handed discipline of old. But this concern is misplaced.
Students’ success starts with classrooms and schools where all students are ready and able to learn. Australia’s educational systems won’t improve until these basic conditions are met.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov