Understanding And Challenging Dominant Discourses About Student Behaviour At School

Year: 2015

Author: Johnson, Bruce, Sullivan, Anna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

It is argued in this paper that a particular set of discourses about student behaviour – those that can be loosely located in the ‘traditionalist –authoritarian – zero tolerance’ basket of ideas – have become dominant in society and, in particular, in many of our schools. We present evidence that a strong rhetoric of control characterises most debates about student behaviour despite counter arguments for more humane and civil approaches, and the availability of ample research evidence which calls into question the efficacy of ‘get tough’ approaches.
Having established that authoritarian discourses about student behaviour at school are alive and well and are often used to ‘frame’ debates how children can and should be treated at school, we then examine the reasons why these discourses continue to attract support. Accounting for the persistence of authoritarian responses to student behaviour requires an appreciation of the macro-level influences on schooling in neoliberal times, as well as an understanding of the micro-level pressures that impact on teachers.
While international trends impact on national educational policies, the day-to-day routines and ways of ‘doing schooling’ – what Tyack and Tobin (1994) call the ‘grammar of schooling’ – are a more visible and tangible source of influence on teachers’ views about ‘managing’ student behaviour at school. While acknowledging the power of social and political forces in framing debates about student ‘discipline’, the realities of working in classrooms and within particular professional cultures explicitly and implicitly affect the contemporary roles and responsibilities expected of teachers. We identify four ‘pressures’ that influence teachers’ thinking and decision making about responding to student behaviour. These ‘pressures’ include:
• The ‘ecology’ of the classroom
• Professional role conformity
• Responsibility and accountability
• Behavioural attributions.
We argue that, when viewed together, these ‘pressures’ predispose many teachers to adopt authoritarian and controlling approaches in their interactions with students, even when they may be philosophically committed to more negotiated, relationships-based approaches.
This analysis of the pressures on teachers to ‘toughen up’ and ‘take control’ of student behaviour in a political and social climate in which conservative values are ascendant may sound overly deterministic. Yet, ironically, it opens up opportunities to examine how some teachers and schools manage to resist these practical and policy pressures to enact more humane and civilised ways of relating to students in school. Finally, we provide a case study to illustrate how schools can ‘answer back’ to the dominant discourses about student ‘behaviour management’.