A modicum of internet research shows that behaviour management is often codified in ways that link theory with classroom practice. This approach is useful. The insights of Rudolf Dreikurs and Burrhus Skinner and others, offer explanations that demystify classroom behaviours. Theory offers understanding. Understanding mitigates the frustrations we feel when we encounter the inexplicable. It's useful to have a zen-like, Ah, so!, moment of clarity when managing misbehaviour. Theory is the first pillar of behaviour management.
The second is classroom practice. This is informed by theory, of course. Skinner, for instance, infers that positive reinforcement trumps punitive strategies and our strategies evolve accordingly. Many teachers rely on cathartic peer exchanges, swapping solutions to low-level issues and high-level atrocities. It is axiomatic that every faculty has a teacher who simply nails behaviour management. For her, the most challenging student holds a grudging respect. For him, the corridor resembling Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones resolves itself into a sheepish calm as he stalks past. The temptation to seek guidance from these oracles is understandable.
Emulating outstanding teachers is absolutely appropriate, but miming the nuances, witticisms and eccentricities of charismatic teachers too often ends in cringing failure. These individuals stand alone and cannot be replicated. Nor should they be. We need variety, not a homogeneous legion of charismatic droids. . It’s marvellous that a challenging learner behaves for a single, superstar teacher, but a learning experience encapsulates all classes and should be holistically excellent. In any case, there is a third way because genuinely effective behaviour management is a team sport.
The third pillar of behaviour management is more obelisk than pillar. It’s a panacea. A key. It is triumvirate with the first and second and their coalition constitutes a golden age. It inspires hyperbole and a blizzard of mixed metaphors. It offers hope to uncharismatic teachers everywhere. It deserves an exciting title that heralds its undeniable power. Alas, it doesn’t have one. The third pillar is called ‘Information Management’.
Now before you discard this article in disgust please bear in mind that I’ll concentrate more on procedure than policy... That doesn’t sell it, does it? Look, trust me, we’ll examine procedure in the context of the Information Age. We’ll consider how the zettabyte era - an epoch in which the Berkeley School of Information Management and Technology estimate that the amount digital data being exchanged by humanity exceeds the sum total of every film and TV show ever made, rendered in DVD quality, travelling across the internet every three minutes - impacts our ability to manage behaviour in the classroom, and how it can offer solutions.
But it’s not just about technology. It’s about how practitioners support each other and collaborate, and it’s about how information flows horizontally nowadays, which baffles education (and other) institutions that are often resolutely pyramid in structure. We’ll get to that though. For now, an apology.
Policy: an apology
We encounter policy and procedure in teacher training, linked as it is to roles and responsibilities and inclusive practice and so on. It’s also part of the induction process in just about any school or college you’ll join, but policy and procedure is rarely embedded in behaviour management modules or toolkits and you’ll struggle to find it referred to in books and articles on the topic, trust me I’ve looked.
Policy is boring, I know. It’s dry and legalistic because much of it derives from legislation and some of it seems orthogonal to the point, but knowing an organisation’s policy on all matters, from attendance and punctuality to the use of social media, is absolutely essential. Teachers should scrutinise them. Knowledge definitely is power. After all, when you confront lateness, bullying, drugs, sexting, plagiarism, sexism, racism, mobile filming or photography, aggression, or swearing, moral outrage will only carry you so far. Knowing the policy inside out lends confidence to your interventions and credibility to your reactions. Haven’t read them yet? Stop reading this; read your policies. Finished? Let’s look at procedure.
OMG! Your procedures are so last season
Procedure could be defined as the official way of doing things in an organisation. The trouble is that technological advances and cultural developments antiquate established ways-of-working with breathtaking speed, yet institutions seem to cling to them like old romantics to dusty heirlooms. Procedure is essential to behaviour management and it should inform classroom practice at least as much as theory does. How many times should you warn a student for low level disruption? Three is often divulged as the magic number, but it always depends on context. This is why procedure declines and subjectivity proliferates. Teachers are expected to stand alone and use their judgement, and we tend to think that’s just how we want it, but someone has to maintain the procedures. If not they corrode and reactions to incidents become arbitrary and dependant on the time of day, the teacher, their mood or relationship with the student(s) involved. So a learner tells you to f**k off. Well, they’re having a bad day and you’re not, so let it go with a stern, ‘Excuse me?’ What’s the alternative? What’s the procedure? Who do you turn to? Do you remove the student? If so, where to? And how do you record the incident? And when do you record it? Do you stop the lesson and disrupt learning for the rest of the class? If you do carry on, what do you do about it after the lesson, in the five minutes you have before the next class rolls in?
We didn’t lose control; we ran out of time
Time is key. Teachers have so little of it that reporting procedures need to be rapid and easily invoked. Yet legacy processes are anything but. The aftermath of incidents often involves printing a form that is designed to capture information in a quasi-legal way. Maybe the form is photocopied a few times and passed to relevant stakeholders: safeguarders, tutors, managers and so on. Perhaps emails are sent. Maybe paper copies are stored in files, or details recorded on fussy spreadsheets and buried deep in subfolders so far from analytical tools that they might just as well be deleted. Parents or guardians must be contacted by telephone, of course, and the conversation backed by an official letter home. A meeting should be arranged.
Unless your student demographic is the equivalent of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives and you’re averaging one incident of dropped litter each term there simply isn’t time for this. Incidents happen all the time. Just printing and completing a form can usurp fifteen precious minutes of marking time or lesson prep. By the time you turn to the rest of the procedure you’ve moved on emotionally, and in any case something else just happened, now where are those incident forms again…
The thing is, the steps involved in many legacy procedures are valid. The procedure is the way it is because it used to work and because it’s designed to meet the legal and policy conditions that protect students, teachers and the institution. You can’t just drop a step to save time; you’ll invalidate the whole process. Problems, problems...
“The best part about being alone is that you really don't have to answer to anybody. You do what you want.” Justin Timberlake
We share our resources. We swap best practice. We offer advice. We never, ever speak ill of one another in front of students. But let’s be honest, other teachers are our competition.
We delight in achieving Outstanding lesson observations, don’t we? Oh yes we do. Back in the staff room, our eyes glaze in sympathy as we pat our devastated peer on the shoulder. “It’s not your fault,” we say. They stare blank-eyed at their damning feedback. Our brows furrow in earnest, “It’s the heat,” we say. “That class was on one all day.” Our sympathy is real; we’re not monsters. But we’re also thinking, Well, I did warn you that your starter was boring. Is it too soon to talk about the great comments on my observation report?
Teachers work hard to achieve outstanding lessons, there’s no doubt about it. It’s tempting to think, and sometimes it’s true, that others don’t spend as much time planning or reflecting on their practice. But it’s also true that observations are theatre. They are performance in every sense and even come with a script. Some teachers are better performers than others, some have learnt their lines, others are adroit improvisers.
There is a higher truth though: education is about the student, not the teacher. Internal competitive environments are appropriate for Fortune 500 companies, but teaching and learning is a social activity, dare I say it a socialist activity? Institutions tend to commission their outstanding behaviour management teachers to deliver pep talks and toolkits, this is great but not enough. On its own it simply perpetuates the myth that teachers must stand alone in the classroom, and it delays the difficult work of tackling systemic dysfunction. Isolated pockets of excellence do not an outstanding college make. A truly positive culture should permeate every classroom and corridor, and for that we need procedures that are fit for purpose in the Information Age.
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Bill Gates
If you are responsible for procedures relating to behaviour management in your organisation, your initial response to what follows will likely be disbelief, quickly followed by anger and then a state of protracted denial. This is a normal reaction. It is important to grasp that there will come a time when you will adjust to and accept the truth. It might be weeks from now or months, but in all but a minority of cases it will happen. You might even look back upon this time and wish that you could have willed yourself to make the transition to acceptance quicker than you did. You will know then that it is only when that process is accomplished that anything resembling effectiveness becomes possible. Let us therefore begin the process of adjustment.
Your procedures don’t work. They don’t work because you are using paper to record and report incidents. And even if you’re not, your procedures don’t work because your teachers are using a Microsoft Word form to record incidents, which is the same thing just neater. And even if they’re not, you’re not analysing the data you capture. And even if you are, you’re not responding to your data by allocating your limited resources effectively. You have the sense that behaviour in your college is the worst it’s been in years, but you have no real idea what’s going on. You’re probably blaming demographics or muttering colloquialisms like, “There’s something in the water.”
There’s not. There’s nothing in the water.
Your problem is identical to that which has already ravaged businesses by the thousand and continues to wreak havoc in political and social systems globally. Your problem is the information flood.
Information flood is a metaphor for humanity’s relatively recent ability to produce, store and exchange information at a truly galactic rate. Managing, verifying and exploiting that information is an epic challenge, and technology has altered the shape and size of our workforces. We used to need more people to accomplish stuff that we think computers do for us now. But computers only do stuff for us if we use them effectively; if not, they work against us, like HAL. As Bill points out, simply migrating legacy procedures onto computer networks magnifies inefficiency: Microsoft Word, for instance, is a typewriter, not an information management system. It’s paradoxical, but the information flood can actually result in you receiving less information. The good news is that your organisation almost certainly already has the tools it needs to organise its procedures and capture information effectively: most Microsoft business packages come with Infopath bundled; Sharepoint, if it’s rolled out properly by an experienced information manager, will revolutionise how information is stored and shared in your organisation; Google Apps for Education (now used by more than fifty percent of schools and colleges, apparently) has the powerful Forms tool bundled; Adobe Acrobat forms is great too, if you use the capture and analysis component, and it hits the new signature regulations demanded by the EU.
In larger organisations you should find a ninja with a black belt in Hadoop and Map Reduce. In any case, data capture must be quick and simple at the point of input, if not then it won’t work. If your incident form in any way asks for duplication, then it won’t work. If it’s a wishlist that goes on for more than a page, it won’t work. If it’s designed to capture just qualitative data, it won’t work. If you have multiple forms, it won’t work. Someone in your organisation probably used to work in online marketing or research - they will help you design your form. Someone else probably worked in data analysis - they will help you design outputs that will cleanse the doors of perception, and then everything will appear to you as it really is, infinite. (Sorry, when you invoke Blake you’re definitely getting too carried away; I’ll take that out in the edit.)
The point is that the information you collect will increase exponentially, but it won’t be an unmanageable flood. The correct capture tools will organise your information like it never has been before. To paraphrase The Martian, “It will science the hell out of it.” And it’s the presentation and analysis of your information that will allow you to allocate resources effectively and preemptively.
Colleges, in short, should go from tall to flat
Using the correct tools to capture data will centralise your information instantly, but - and this is most important - you must not hoard it. The temptation to do so will be strong. Your data will horrify you. When you see things as they really are you will avert your eyes as though from a new Gorgon. You won’t trust that data in the wrong hands. You will share that data exclusively with a trusted cabal of your senior leadership team, sworn to secrecy and made to endure biometric eyeball scans prior to being granted access to the airlock dungeon in which you will store it. You will invoke Safeguarding or the Data Protection Act as pretexts to keep the data to yourself. The former warrants consideration, but you can easily anonymise the data you collect, and in any case the information was captured by those from whom you’ll seek to hide it. That temptation you feel, that desire to absorb information in a perpetually simplex way is a legacy of the industrial pyramid hierarchy. We need to flatten it.
In the Age of Information it’s need to share, not need to know. How else will the smart people you have hidden away in offices and classrooms analyse the data and come up with ways to use it? There is a tension, of course, between the need to share and the need to protect information, but this can be resolved at the design stage. As information folds towards the centre, triggers should feed it to the teaching teams it directly involves, relevant managers, support staff and so on. Information should flow sideways not just up and down. This way you empower teams to manage behaviour effectively. Individual teachers can analyse the data: scrutinise the dates, times and manner of their incidents, perhaps matching them with aspects of their curriculum that aren’t working. Managers can respond quickly, allocating training or support staff to areas that need it. Official warnings can be produced automatically and assigned behaviour targets that follow individual students until their criteria is met. The SLT can identify spikes in particular types of behaviour and generate tutorials that tackle them directly. Remember the legacy procedure? Well, if it’s designed effectively, your automated system can generate parent letters, warnings, emails and other notifications without having to dump this procedural work on the teacher. This will give them what they need the most, time. In an ideal world, with the exception of sensitive personal information, every drop of raw data will be released to your staff so that they can figure out new ways of interrogating and using it. Small steps though...
In this article I’ve concentrated on what I call the third pillar of behaviour management, but in no way have I sought to negate the importance of theory and classroom practice, rather Information Management should be given equal weight. I acknowledge, of course, that the notion of three pillars is itself inadequate. The military pillars, ‘training’, ‘equipment’ and ‘morale’, for instance, could be applied to the education context also. In truth, behaviour management is so complex an issue, we could go on adding pillars until a Parthenon appears. However, I believe that the three pillars I have identified are broadly right, and I focus on procedure in this article because it is there that I see reversible decay. I have argued that the Age of Information changes everything and turns to rusty obsolescence what once was shiny and new. Organisations survive and thrive when they evolve to meet changes in their environment. In some ways this change is simple and relatively inexpensive. In others it is profound and requires visionary leadership, technical knowledge and intellectual muscle. In any case, behaviour management should be a team sport; no teacher should stand alone. Leaving procedure to the discretion of individuals is not empowerment, it is abdication. If procedure is extant but takes too long to use, it simply won’t be, and behaviour will decline. Finally, in an Age of big data, when we all know that the world’s most successful companies are using information to absolutely smash it out of the park, we have to ask why our own organisation in a more limited way isn’t doing the same thing.