BBC Radio 4’s series The Educators ran a long form interview today that I did recently with host Sarah Montague. Here are three thoughts in response:
1. I genuinely enjoyed the conversation. I don’t say that often about interviews but Sarah Montague and producer Joel Moors were unusually well prepared and knowledgeable. My mom, a journalist, noted: “You did fine; she [Sarah] was outstanding.” One small thing I especially appreciated was Sarah’s first question about teaching specifically. It was about one of the subtlest but most important techniques for a teacher, Wait Time. It might not make for sexy journalism but it’s so important. Plus while to some people I am “known” for the behavioral techniques, only 2 of 12 chapters in my book, in fact, deal with behavior. The rest is about things like Wait Time. Pedagogy, like, and none of the behavioral stuff makes sense without that context—that’s why the behavior advice is at the end of the book! Anyway I was grateful that Sarah led with a question about Wait Time. I understand the behavioral stuff is important and controversial but I appreciate that she also put it towards the end.
2. Another thing I especially appreciated was the way the producer, Joel (I met him because he came to gather sound at my workshop; he watched the whole thing), layered in scenes from the classrooms of outstanding teachers I profile in my workshops. He used two in particular- a clip demonstrating Maggie Johnson’s use of Wait Time and a clip showing how Nicole Willey normalized positive benign touch in her classroom which then allowed her to use it as a positive and a corrective tool. I thought listeners might was to actually see those clips so here they are.
Finally the interview was wide-ranging and in listening I was struck by the possibility that listeners might think my advice on non-invasive corrections while you were teaching always involved touch. Actually that’s a bit of a special case for a student with his/her head down—the example I used in the interview. More often teachers correct with hand gestures and other nonverbal interventions while they are still teaching. Here’s a great video of Ashley Hinton doing just that. Just try to count the number of times she redirects students while she keeps her engaging lesson going. (This is about 15 minutes of teaching condensed into a minute or two).
3. On their morning news hour BBC 4 also offered a discussion of the segment by Tom Bennett, teacher, blogger and head of the UK government’s study group on classroom behavior, and Ruth Payne a linguistics professor from Leeds who has researched behavior in schools.
Ruth, arguing the anti- position, used a series of arguments that I commonly hear. Notably they involved the tendency of people to globalize. When you talk about building teachers’ skills in managing behavior they often extend the argument to its furthest logical extent. You describe how you could get kids to transition from one place to another quietly and all of a sudden you are advocating that kids should not be allowed to speak, have emotions, or disagree with their teachers in school. The assumption is that the adults will of course no longer care about and relate to the kids. Arguing for the importance of being able to get kids to do what you ask as a teacher is inherently also arguing for restrictive levels of order.
So when the program played a tape of a silent transition in from recess at a school in Birmingham, Ruth was away and running with the assumption that this mean silent repressed kids. So I’d like to remind folks of two things.
- Because you can does not mean you must. Because teachers can establish order and get students to be silent or follow their directions when they ask, does not mean that they always do and does not imply one thinks they always must. Only a fool gets a hammer and thinks everything is a nail. Teachers, in my experience, are smart people who want to balance the need for order and the need for happiness and joy and relationship building. I mean, they teach because they care about kids. They find different answers to the question of what’s the right balance. The problem, generally, and particularly for teachers who teach in schools that are not filled with kids of privilege, is that establishing order when you want it with 30 skeptical and clever teenagers is very hard. Teachers cannot get listening or silence when they need it and this leads to the loss of learning opportunities not just for the distracting kids but for every kid. Plus, a classroom with an angry or feckless teacher struggling for order is rarely one where long standing relationships and trust thrive. It’s an adversarial place. Teachers know this and they feel the cost. Ironically, they can usually much more easily give kids true freedom and independence if they know they can reliably call them back in ten seconds if there’s a problem. So teachers need to know how to establish positive order. And then they get to decide when to be orderly. Building their capacity is different from arguing they must always use it. Building the capacity of teachers to bring order to the classroom when its warranted helps them spend their time doing productive things. Building warm relationships with students is one of those things.
- Structure and Freedom have a complex relationship. Let’s also remember that a silent transition from recess is not a silent recess. It’s a way of making sure that whatever recess you have—loud or otherwise—is managed so it does not cause disruptions in or time taken away from the classroom. You have your fun and then there is a clear signal that says: “Now we are going inside to do something very important. Use your walk to get into a scholarly mind frame.” So, again, silent transition is just as likely to allow as restrict freedoms and fun at recess. And it’s a lot easier to start with the expectation of silent transition and allow the exception—you may speak quietly on your way to class—than it is to try to enforce silence when you need it but haven’t made it an expectations. Anyway, as Tom wisely put it, there’s a case to be made for a wide variety of schools. If Ruth wants to send her kid to a school where there are no rules about how much noise you can make, when, fine. But people who enjoy the luxury of class and caste, who send their children to schools of privilege and who can augment their learning experiences at will, rarely understand why parents who have sent their children to dangerous or chronically disruptive schools are so happy with orderliness in school- and in fact why the kids themselves often relish it, as Tom, again, points out. When you’ve had school stolen from your child, or when you worry about her safety, or you dream about her becoming a doctor even though you are barely making ends meet, then you maybe place less of a value on everyone else’s unlimited freedom to say and do as they wish and maximize social interactions no matter how they affect the school’s ability to deliver on its mission. You might place more of an emphasis on additional minutes in Science class with fewer disruptions.
So is it reasonable to have a school with silent transitions some or all of the time? Yes. Maybe not for all parents and sure I respect that—it’s a great argument for school choice—but it’s certainly a reasonable approach. And even if you don’t think you favor the idea, please differentiate a silent transition from a silent recess. I leave you with the words of a student at a school I once worked with. It was quite orderly. “At my old school we could do what we wanted but we never did anything. They couldn’t let us. Here, we’re expected to be orderly but we are always doing stuff. Basketball tournaments at lunch, field trips out of school and reading real books all the time… because we all know how to do those things the right way. Honestly, some times it’s hard. I see a friend and I want to talk to him right then and I can’t, but in the big picture, I’ll take the trade.”