This post is about the impact of perfect behaviour on the test scores of the pupils in my Y9 history group, and why making sure children in school behave well should be top of the list of things SLT do. It was prompted by my thoughts after teaching a group about which I have had no behavioural concerns for the first time in my career.
This is not to say I’ve been fire-fighting terrible behaviour at all other times. I’m reasonably sure that colleagues at the schools in which I’ve worked would say my classes were generally orderly and purposeful. But, while it’s always dangerously flattering to be told otherwise, they’ve never been perfect; although it may not be noticed by an observer, subtle, low level poor behaviour has always been a factor that negatively affected the learning of at least a few pupils in each of my classes. To distinguish between what is considered good behaviour in most contexts I’ve worked in, and what good behaviour really is, I’d like to begin this post by explaining what truly exemplary conduct looks and feels like to me.
Perfect behaviour at my school is very easy to see. There is no ambiguity. It begins with every pupil silently entering the classroom and then writing the date and title down without being asked to. It means that pupils then move straight to the first task (always a retrieval quiz of some sort) as soon as they have finished. It means that teachers can take the register and warmly say good morning to every child while smiling at them each individually.
It creates an environment in which pupils say good morning back because they want to, not because they have to.
Perfect behaviour means that children listen attentively while a teacher talks, and make notes in their booklets. It means that when someone in the class is reading, the other children track the text, annotating and highlighting as they go. It means that when teachers ask a question pupils try their best to answer, and if they struggle say things like “can I have a bit of help, please?”, and never “dunno.” It means they listen to each other as attentively as they do to an adult. It means that when they are explaining or modelling something, pupils sit upright in their chairs and listen. It means never staring out of the window, fiddling with pens or distracting themselves or others. It means that if they don’t understand, they put their hand up and say ‘I don’t get it, could you explain it again, please?’
The effect of all this on me as teacher has been profound. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I look forward to lessons. I like the Y9 group a great deal. I know all their names, whereas in the past, a half term in on two lessons a week, I might only really know the names of those I corrected and nagged most often.
Before going on it is important that I make it clear this exemplary behaviour has not been the result of any mystical horse whispering on my part, and nor has it been created by engaging, inspirational teaching that enthuses pupils in their learning so much it doesn’t occur to them to misbehave. The conditions in which I teach existed long before I started work at my school. They were created by a system put in place by the Head, outgoing Vice Principal and SLT, and maintained by teachers who stick to it. This means giving pupils one warning for any misbehaviour and then removing them from the room if it continues. This was something that Professor Becky Allen was astute enough to notice a few weeks back when she watched me teach; her most telling observation was ‘you wouldn’t be able to teach like that in most schools.’ And she was right.
It was partially because I liked my Y9 group so much that I found taking their first set of tests in quite daunting. But this was only part of the reason I was apprehensive. Mainly it was because for the first time in my career, this set of results would provide clean data; there was nobody who’s poor performance I could attribute to their own inattention or bad behaviour. The results, whatever they were, would be the product of the child’s own ability and my own teaching, added to the amount of work they did at home to consolidate and extend learning.
As a class they did better than almost any I’ve taught before, and better than any I’ve taught for such a short time. The average percentage, on the first part of the test, which sampled all of the curriculum we’ve covered so far, was about 60%, with the lowest score 29% and the highest 98%.
Of course I can’t be sure that the reasons I think they did better, which I’m about to go into, are definitely the reasons the tests were so pleasing, but I’m comfortable sharing them as things to think about.
- The test was aligned to the curriculum.
That I have to even point this out is concerning. As bizarre as it may seem, I’ve often had to administer tests that are not fully aligned with what I’ve actually taught. This can happen for a range of reasons, but the main one is that many schools do not actually have a common curriculum that goes into enough detail to what should be taught to pupils. Without this, teachers may stress areas of topics that are never tested, or neglect to teach areas that then come up in an assessment. It’s difficult to say whether this is worse than actually sharing assessment questions before they come up and teaching to them, which also seems regrettably common. The MAT I work for (Midlands Academies Trust since you’re asking), has avoided this by producing one common curriculum that is taugwht in each of the four schools with all pupils in each school sitting exactly the same test. The result is that teachers can be sure that if they teach the prescribed curriculum, their pupils have the chance to do well. For anyone mentally smacking their forehead and shouting ‘how obvious!’ it may be interesting to learn that this issue is one identified by Dylan William in his latest book as a reason for pupil underachievement in many American schools.
- There was little extraneous mental load on pupils.
Anyone teaching a class which doesn’t behave perfectly knows how much pupil attention can be devoted to events in the classroom which aren’t learning. From the appearance of a spider through to the passing of notes or the appearance at the door of a class clown sent out from another lesson, there can be an infinite number of distractions. When this happens it is inevitable that pupils will miss out on some learning, because it is much hard to focus on reasons for the stagnation of medical thought in the medieval period when someone two desks down is breaking wind deliberately. In a classroom with perfect behaviour there are no distractions making it entirely logical that the pupils in it will learn more.
- All pupils have been exposed to the curriculum at least once, perhaps more, and have had the opportunity to increase their exposure to the material outside the classroom.
A great deal of time in my lessons is spent on whole class reading. This may involve pupils reading aloud, but more commonly this means me reading to pupils from the booklet. The result of this is that, even in the absence of any other teaching, I can be certain that all pupils have been exposed to everything on the curriculum. The perfect behaviour of the class, in regards to tracking, means that they will have read everything in the booklet at least once. Pupils in this particular class have actually engaged with almost everything in the curriculum more than once. Their completion of retrieval practise and cold call questions has meant that most concepts have been covered multiple times. Their behaviour has also meant I have been able to talk for longer and link back to previously covered content much more frequently, further increasing the number of times each piece of knowledge has been taught. That this has had a positive impact on test scores will come as no surprise to those familiar with Nuthall’s “Hidden Lives of Learners”, which provides an evidential base for the common sense assertion that the more times you are exposed to something the more likely you are to remember it.
- My feedback has been better.
The excellent learning environment has made it much easier for me to spot errors, gaps and misconceptions. While pupils have been working it has been easy for me to move around the classroom and read what they’ve produced, and has meant that on the many occasions when I’ve spotted something that needed addressing, I’ve been able to quickly stop the class and fix it. In a chaotic classroom this just isn’t possible because some pupils are quick to take advantage of the times in which the teacher is reading the work of another pupil by misbehaving. Teachers, of course, are quite aware of this which means their attention can’t be focused fully on either reading work or managing behaviour, which means both get done worse.
- Pupils tried their best in the test.
I think this is really the result of the other four positive impacts of great behaviour. Because pupils have worked hard, they are more confident and so gave their all in the final test. This makes the information I’ve got back really powerful and useful. In the past I often felt I couldn’t be sure whether a pupil scored very badly because they actually knew nothing, or because they didn’t think it was worth the bother of trying. Now I feel confident that if a pupil doesn’t write anything for a certain question it is because they didn’t know the answer, which means it needs reteaching.
In conclusion, I’m more convinced than ever that the single most impactful thing any school can do to improve its results is to make sure pupils behave perfectly in lessons. As I hope I have demonstrated here, the effects are profound and far reaching.