Saturday, 27 September 2014

What are schools for?

There has been a flurry of debate following Michael Wilshaw's comments about behaviour management in schools and I don't want to enter the debate as to whether behaviour in schools actually is a problem or not (for what it is worth, I believe that there is a certain type of teacher and of parent who will always complain that behaviour is deteriorating). Instead, I wanted to reflect on much broader questions about the relationship between students and their schools, and the central issue of what schools are actually for.

On the face of it there seems to be a pretty clear consensus about the purpose of schools: just look at school slogans. Usually heavy on abstract nouns ("achievement", "success", "challenge", "diversity", "tolerance", etc. etc.) they pretty universally present the notion that schools encourage students to learn and prepare them for adult life. Easy.

Except of course, it isn't. It is for instance clear to anyone who has ever had children (or indeed has ever been a child) that children learn best when they are enjoying what they are doing. However most schools (even those with the imperative "enjoy" in their slogan) do not put much of a premium on students actually having fun, at least not in lessons. Schools see a clear duty to take learning seriously, and to transmit that seriousness to their students. How could they otherwise, with the Damoclean sword of league tables hanging over them?

Similarly, it is clear that the best way to develop life skills and interpersonal relationships is to be given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Yet the schools that Mr Wilshaw admires are those that give students no opportunities whatever to do this. Effective behaviour management, according to his prescription, involves intervening immediately a student does anything like swinging on a chair or talking to a neighbour.

One would think that students would learn best (both in terms of academic learning and social skills) from teachers whom they saw as human beings and to whom they could relate in a natural, unstructured and responsive way. Yet the most "successful" teachers are generally those who lay down and rigidly enforce non-negotiable codes of conduct for their students. Once I was walking behind two students on a corridor and one (unaware of my presence) said, "Mrs ___ is a really good teacher. She never listens to you." This sounds absurd, but what he meant by it was that the teacher in question never listened when you tried to make up excuses for why you had not done your homework.

I struggled with this issue throughout my career as a teacher. A part of me wanted to relate to each student as an individual- to afford them trust and give them responsibility for their own decisions. Yet another part of me recognised that that simply made me a soft touch, so that eventually none of my students would ever do their homework. It is a shame though. Fear of the consequences of not doing Mrs ____'s homework is certainly an effective motivator, but to what extent does it lead to real learning?

In a similar way, students who learn to walk in silence on the left of the corridor and stand up when a teacher enters the room are certainly receiving a training of sorts in appropriate modes of behaviour, whereas the classrooms of the liberal and "nice" teachers are always where the fights break out, but to what extent is behaviour training internalised as a mode of interaction with the world? It is certainly possible to create a school ethos in which students are universally quiet, submissive and polite, but are we sure that that will make for better members of adult society?

I am genuinely not sure. One argument would be that people adopt habits of being around other people that can stick with them and inform their entire lives. Another argument is that "repressive" school regimes simply store up resentment and hatred which are never addressed within the school system. Certainly my experience is that the incidence of bullying is in direct proportion with the rigidity of school codes of conduct and discipline.

I would never argue for a Summerhill approach to schooling. I believe that schools are important social institutions, and to some extent should model the functioning of society as a whole. So I strongly believe that schools have to have codes of discipline and clear statements of acceptable behaviour, with structures of rewards and sanctions to reinforce them. I also believe that students have to perceive a clear authority structure, and know who makes the decisions and where they fit into that process. I think schools do have both to teach and to model ideas of citizenship with all that that implies and that students need to learn to thrive within an environment of constrained freedoms.

The problem, as I have argued in a previous post, is that what schools often seem to tell us instead (and tell their students too) is that as a society we really do not like our children. Take the crimes identified by Michael Wilshaw of "talking to your neighbour" and "swinging on your chair". These are entirely normal behaviours of children who are enjoying being in the company of others and enjoying what they are doing. And yet they are to be eliminated if PROPER learning is to be carried through.

Next time you are working with a group of colleagues on a particular problem, imagine that as soon as you started discussing it in an animated fashion, or someone told a joke, your boss glared at you and told you to be quiet and get on with your work. How long do you think you would stay in that job? And how successful would that company be? Yet this is how we are to treat our school children, apparently.

Surely there is something wrong with that.

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