Poor behaviour in class is not acceptable but zero tolerance is not the answer

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Saved by the bell!Published by The Guardian, Friday 17 March

New international data shines a light on what’s going on in the classrooms of Australia. Some of what the OECD’s spotlight reveals is not pretty: students not listening to their teachers, teachers having to wait too long for students to quieten down and start work.

The federal education minister, Simon Birmingham, is unimpressed. He sees a discipline problem and is talking about working with families and parents to improve student attitudes to school. So far so good. After all, prevention is better than cure.

But the minister is also promising a “zero tolerance” approach to bad behaviour in Australian schools. He should drop that phrase. It comes from the United States, loaded with baggage, and it can do more damage than good.

The minister was responding to a new Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report from the OECD, which shows that 40% of Australian students agreed that “students don’t listen to what the teacher says” in most or every lesson. In the US, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, the figure was 25% or lower. In Australia, 43% of students said there was “noise and disorder” in class; across the OECD the average figure was 33%.

Poor behaviour in class is not acceptable but zero tolerance is not the answer. Two decades of US experience with “zero tolerance” policies in schools tells us that it doesn’t work. The policy was introduced to support a ban on guns in US schools. Fair enough. But it soon spread to encompass strict discipline and harsh punishment for all manner of minor misdemeanours, regardless of situation or context.

Punishment such as expulsion or suspension from school disproportionately damages students who have the highest educational and social needs. It takes problem students out of class, reducing their time learning, making it even more difficult for them to catch up to their peers.

Zero tolerance advocates argue that it creates a safer and better learning environment for other students in the class or school. The evidence shows it doesn’t. Rather than improving their behaviour, students are just as likely to respond to punishment with anger and aggression, causing more disruption. Where classmates see punishments for misbehaving students as overly harsh, they can lose respect for the teacher and the school. Mutual respect and fairness are fundamental to good working relationships with students in schools.

A knee-jerk focus on discipline risks masking a more pervasive problem in our schools: quiet student disengagement.

The Grattan Institute’s report, Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning, showed that as many as 40% of Australian school students are unproductive in a given year, that unproductive students are on average one to two years behind their peers, and that their disengagement also damages their classmates and teachers.

The main problem is not the sort of aggressive or even violent behaviour that attracts media headlines and calls for “zero tolerance”. More prevalent, and more stressful for teachers, are comparatively minor issues such as students simply switching off and avoiding work.

The evidence shows that the teacher’s ambition should not necessarily be a quiet classroom but a genuninely productive class. The broader aims are to help students feel comfortable, be confident in their own abilities, be willing to take part and make mistakes, and be keen to challenge themselves in learning. Noise can be part of this but it must be productive.

Of course, the classroom climate is only one element of effective teaching. What is taught (the curriculum) and how it is taught (pedagogy) are crucial. But content is not everything – setting high expectations for learning is vital as well.

To create an effective class environment, the evidence shows teachers should raise student expectations; develop strong relationships; establish routines; and ensure learning is active and not passive. Consistent consequences are needed too. But it is not appropriate for teachers to always jump straight to punishment without some warning, a “correction”, which gives the student an opportunity to change their behaviour.

Teachers themselves say they need better information about what strategies produce the best classroom climates, and they need more time to learn how to use those techniques in the heat of the moment – and thus diffuse low-level behavioural problems before they become more serious.

These are the education issues that should be in the spotlight in Australia. Simon Birmingham knows this. As part of his response to this week’s OECD report, he talked about the need for school systems, education departments and principals to provide teachers with all the professional development, training and support they need to perform their difficult task. This is most crucial in the disadvantaged schools where behavioural problems are most pronounced.

And, as the minister highlighted, a team approach is vital, with families, communities, teachers and principals working together to raise students’ expectations.

More concerted action along these lines, please minister, and less dangerous talk about “zero tolerance”.