In many English schools, low-level disruption is the norm. Children talking when expected to be silent, fiddling with equipment and each other, calling out, and generally not being ‘on task’ are all routinely accepted as just something with which teachers have to contend. In 2014, Ofsted published this report on low-level disruption in schools. It it, “around two-fifths of the 723 teachers in the survey who believed that disruptive ‘talking and chatting’ was a key problem said it occurred in almost every lesson.”
The entire concept of ‘behaviour management’ is predicated on the idea that teachers must manage students’ inevitable disruptive behaviour in order to teach effectively; good teachers are ones who can manage a roomful of potential miscreants. Until I visited King Solomon Academy two years ago I didn’t realise it was possible to run a school where low-level disruption could be eliminated.
But that’s not the full picture. In most schools good behaviour is also the norm, but only for certain students and certain classes. Teachers tend to have much higher expectations for bright students and top sets than they do for lower ability students and bottom set classes. All children learn what we communicate; if we signal that we will accept a certain amount of disruption, then that’s what becomes acceptable.
Recently, I was asked to observe some lessons in a school I visited. In one lesson students’ behaviour was perfect: they listened attentively, followed instructions, worked hard and got a lot out of the lesson. In the other two, a minority of children set out their stalls to be disruptive and effectively ruined the lesson for all the students in the class. The first lesson was a 6th Form class and the teacher obviously had incredibly high expectations of what her students could and would do. The other two classes were ‘lower ability’ students and, although the teachers had worked hard to plan interesting and productive activities, they expected students to be disruptive. The thing about our expectations is, people often meet them. If we don’t expect much, we’ll be proved right. If we expect everyone to rise to our high expectations then sometimes we’ll be disappointed but then nobody ever rose to a low expectation.
This is a big part of the problem with ability setting. On their Toolkit website, the EEF say:
Overall, setting or streaming appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average, setting or streaming does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups.
… It appears likely that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort. Research also suggests that ability grouping can have a longer term negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way: it’s perfect possible for mixed ability teaching to be disastrous and ability setting can be made to work effectively.
It’s well-known that disadvantaged students are over represented in bottom sets. Teachers have an unconscious bias in favour of well-spoken, neatly dressed students who do what they’re told. The halo effect means that we see these traits as evidence of intelligence and their opposites as indicative of lower ability. Routinely then, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are packed into lower ability sets and everyone’s expectation of their behaviour and chances of academic success are low. If we don’t believe children can be successful they’ll usually prove us right. And if they feel unable to access an academic curriculum then there’s little incentive to get the most out of lessons.
But what if our standards for bottom sets were the same as that for top sets? What if our expectations for all students in all classes were that there was no disruption and that students would be polite, conscientious and respectful? And what if, in addition, we believed all children* could be academically successful and taught them with this in mind?
Doubtless there would be disappointment at times, but our expectations take on a critical mass. If students see a minority getting away with being disruptive it’s easy to join in. In fact it becomes increasingly difficult to commit to doing the right thing as behaving well when a majority are not can carry a social stigma. But when a majority conform to high standards of behaviour, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand apart. These social pressures mean that forgetting a pen becomes unacceptable, never mind mucking about or being disrespectful.
All this is easier said than done. Trying to manage persistent low-level disruption is draining. Teachers can only do so much in isolation and depend on schools to implement systems to encourage positive social norms. Schools need to support teachers by making it as easy as possible to use such systems so that the consequences for disruption are clear, consistent and certain.
Here are some suggestions for eliminating the scourge of low-level disruption:
- Expect the same standards of behaviour from all students in every class. There may be reasons why children might choose to misbehave, but there is never an excuse.
- Don’t be afraid to practise routines until they are automated. There’s little point in trying to cover content if some students are being disruptive.
- Always use the schools’ behaviour system. Teachers who don’t follow school procedures undermine all their colleagues. School leaders who view using the system as a sign that teachers are struggling and in need of ‘support’ are dangerous idiots.
- Poor behaviour can often be tied to poor self image. If students don’t believe they can be successful in your lessons then they might start to disrupt. By scaffolding the highest standards of work and then slowly, carefully removing this scaffolding we can help children establish clear mental representations of what high quality work looks like.
- Never forget: what you permit you promote.
*When I say all children I’m not talking about those with severe special educational needs. These children need to be taught be specialists who understand and can provide for their complex needs.