Sweating the small stuff: a critical analysis of responses to disruptive school behaviour

Year: 2016

Author: Graham, Linda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In 2013, a PISA report noting that Australia scored higher than the OECD average on classroom noise and disorder reinvigorated calls for a return to “traditional” teacher-centred styles of teaching and increased power to allow principals to suspend “repeat offenders” (Donnelly, 2013). The following year this same commentator advocated bringing back the cane (Perlman, 2014). This call was picked up by the international media, particularly in England where the Conservative government recently appointed a “Behaviour Tsar” to advise teachers on how to deal with student behaviour (Mason, 2015). In 2016, a new 'School Discipline Party' is seeking to run Senate candidates at the upcoming Australian Federal election. Among their policies is an end to grade progression for "lazy" students, confiscation/destruction of students' mobile phones, cessation of social security payments to parents of disruptive students, CCTV cameras in classrooms, increased exclusion in the form of off-site detention centres, and cancellation of enrolment for “students displaying a notable lack of cooperation or endeavour” once they turn 15 (Duff, 2016). Underpinning each of these proposed policy responses is the claim that student behaviour is out of control and that a “crack down” is necessary to restore order. Whilst this discourse has not yet reached the same extreme in Australia as the “no excuses” rhetoric currently emanating from England, there are obvious similarities in both the portrayal of the problem and in the solutions proposed. At the same time, however, this rhetoric is inconsistent with research that finds low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviours, such as students talking out of turn and not doing their work, are those most often experienced by classroom teachers but that only a relatively small minority of students engage in them (Sullivan et al., 2014). Further, the most recent strain of the rhetoric around student behaviour appears to be driven largely by a particular type of teacher, increasingly being referred to as “neo-traditional”. The neo-traditional teacher favours teacher-centred instruction, deplores differentiation and promotes whole-school discipline policies in which students and parents are told “if you don’t like it, you can leave”. In this paper, I consider the potential consequences of this latest rhetoric for policy and practice and the effect of a discourse that, in placing the onus for student mis/behaviour squarely on the shoulders of students, works to absolve schools and teachers of responsibility for their own pedagogical choices, including the behaviours with which they seek to take issue.