As a profession we’re in the midst of a quiet, but definite evolution in becoming more confident when handling research information, more informed about what research is already out there and more prepared to engage in our own classroom-based action research. This is welcome, but also necessary if we are to regard ourselves as a high status profession, get our policies right and use our precious CPD time as efficiently and effectively as we can.
My particular area of interest, which is rapidly becoming an obsession, is in behaviour, especially around improving behaviour in schools where it has been poor. This means I get to learn from studies looking at, for example, the effectiveness, or otherwise, of policies labelled ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’, and of longitudinal studies on exclusion.
What strikes me most about almost everything I read is a conspicuous absence of any discussion about values that underpin such policy decisions on behaviour.
For example, there may exist utterly compelling and overwhelming research from multiple sources which shows, irrespective of context, phase or sector, that corporal punishment is the swiftest, most effective way to improve behaviour in individuals. Even if this research existed, there is nothing anyone can ever do to convince me that we should implement beating children as a behaviour improvement strategy in our school. I am making a value-based judgement that rests on my belief that inflicting violence on a child is a perverse way of teaching them that whatever they did was wrong, and this also underpins my smack-free parenting. “You have hit someone, which is wrong. In order to teach you that this is wrong, I shall hit you to make you understand.” It’s an extreme example, but the principle stands. (Extreme, but not every teacher in the UK is against corporal punishment and it is still legal and practiced in a number of states in the USA.)
My experiences as a novice Headteacher have been documented before – in short, behaviour nosedived, we had to radically rethink how we did things, behaviour improved and remained much better. Never perfect, you understand, but much better. The journey is neatly captured by the four Ofsted reports, which you can read, that punctuated my six years as Headteacher. During the course of my early days as a Headteacher I had to grapple with the obvious fact that our values as a school were being undermined by my actions in response to poor behaviour. I was using exclusion heavily and without effect. The use of exclusion as a response to poor behaviour was contradictory to our values as a school. We were committed to working with each child to meet their complex needs and providing support in whatever form was needed. Excluding children plainly failed to live up to that and, in some cases, was making things worse. It was a blunt behaviourist response that placed all responsibility on the child to sort their life out by sitting at home for a time and thinking about what they did. Further, it did nothing to support my colleagues as children came back unchanged or with resentment entrenched. This was compounded by them missing school and falling even further behind academically.
I decided to stop using exclusion as a response to poor behaviour. It was a decision consistent with our values, and one which brought me significant criticism. A governor at the time insisted that the only way to improve behaviour was to exclude more children; I disagreed. I received some grief on social media, memorably “People like you are responsible for thousands of teachers leaving the profession. Moron.” People immediately jumped in with both feet, assuming that instead I simply did nothing. What I did do was to focus on action to improve behaviour that was consistent with our values. (The only external commentary I have are the Ofsted reports, so you can read for yourself how it went.) Had I (we, in reality, for it is always a team effort, but the accountability rested with me) not been effective in improving behaviour I would have had to admit that my strategies were wrong, but my values would remain intact.
This period in my life, and in the lives of the colleagues, children and parents who went through it with me, came flooding back recently when I read ‘Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education’ by Professor Gert Biesta1.
Biesta powerfully examines the ‘What works’ movement and the role it should play – “if evidence were the only base for educational practice, educational practice would be entirely without direction” and that “questions about ‘what works’ — that is questions about the effectiveness of educational actions — are always secondary to questions of purpose”
He defines three issues with the evidence-based approach, namely the knowledge deficit, the efficacy deficit and the application deficit, but it when discussing complexity reduction where things get interesting.
“In his book on Pasteur, Latour argues that the success of Pasteur’s approach was not the result of the application of this particular technique across all farms in the French countryside. Pasteur’s technique could only work because signiﬁcant dimensions of French farms were ﬁrst transformed to get them closer to the laboratory conditions under which the technique was developed. As Latour argues, it is ‘‘only on the conditions that you respect a limited set of laboratory practices [that] you can extend to every French farm a laboratory practice made at Pasteur’s lab’’ (Latour 1983, p. 152). The ‘pasteurization of France’ (Latour 1988) is but one example of how the modern world has changed as a result of modern science, and again and again Latour argues that this is not the result of bringing facts and machines into the world ‘outside’ but of the transformation of the world outside so that it becomes part of the laboratory conditions under which things can work and can be true. Latour refers to ‘‘this gigantic enterprise to make of the outside a world inside of which facts and machines can survive’’ as metrology” and that it “only tends to work under very speciﬁc conditions.”
I wonder how many value-free policies and practices result from attempts at complexity reduction. Off-rolling certain students, illegally excluding others, a grammar school kicking certain students out halfway through their A-Levels being just a few examples. ‘Success’ then can become a matter of getting as close as possible to the laboratory conditions by getting the right kids in the door, and keeping the wrong ones out. Children who do not fit the prescription are the collateral damage in this enterprise and you don’t need me to tell you who those children are do you?
1 Biesta GJJ (2010) Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29 (5), pp. 491-503.