The lost art of discipline

Kevin Donnelly | The Australian | October 09, 2013

IT’S ever present but rarely acknowledged. Forget arguments about school funding, whether government or non-government schools achieve the strongest results, or what is the best way to reward teachers.

The real problem – and one of the main reasons so many teachers leave after three to four years in the profession – is noisy and disruptive classrooms.

Australian classrooms were ranked 34th out of 65 countries in a recent OECD survey that asked 15-year-old students to describe the levels of noise and disorder, the time it takes them to start working, whether they are able to work uninterrupted and whether they listen to the teacher.

It found Australian classrooms, compared with those in places that achieve the best results in international tests, such as South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Shanghai, are noisier and more disruptive and more time is wasted as teachers try to establish control.

Not surprisingly, the OECD study argues “orderly classrooms – regardless of a school’s overall socioeconomic profile – are related to better performance” and “students in schools where the classroom climate is more conducive to learning tend to perform better”.

The OECD study also suggests one of the most effective ways to improve the performance of disadvantaged students, especially those from low socioeconomic communities, is to ensure schools promote a positive and disciplined classroom environment.

And the problem with badly behaved students and disruptive classrooms across Australian schools is not new. A 1997 study carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research, involving 45 countries, concluded “Australia ranks among the top handful of countries” in terms of badly behaved students and poorly managed classrooms.

Similar to the OECD’s study, the authors of the 1997 Australian report also concluded “there is a negative relationship between incidence of disruptive behaviour and achievement”.

In addition to students suffering in terms of results, it’s also true teachers are adversely affected.

Such is the incidence of badly behaved students that many beginning teachers cite problems with classroom discipline as one of the main reasons they are considering leaving the profession.

What’s to be done? Parents have to realise they are their children’s first teachers. Discipline, respect for authority and being responsible to others begins in the home and must be taught before children go to school. Parents also need to turn off the screens, computer games and plasma TVs and get their children involved in activities that require concentration, effort and working silently. Research shows, for example, that children who have been read to daily and who are familiar with books do better at school.

Teachers also have a central role to play. A lot of primary schools have open classrooms, activity-based learning, and teachers – or guides by the side, as they are now called – no longer direct the class from the front of the room.

The problem, especially for boys, is that the noise and disruption make it harder to learn and – as proven by the US study Project Follow Through – the more traditional direct instruction method of teaching achieves better results.

Finland, one of the top-performing countries in international tests, has more traditional approaches to classroom pedagogy: teachers are figures of authority, respected by both parents and students.

As noted by Finnish educationalist Hannu Simola, teachers in Finland “appear to be pedagogically conservative and somewhat reserved or remote in their relations with pupils and their families”.

Teachers and schools also need to create a culture of high expectations with a disciplined classroom environment.

Students who misbehave need to be dealt with quickly and principals need the power to suspend repeat offenders without spending months on red tape and bureaucratic procedures.

Many of the submissions to the Gonski school funding review carried out by the previous Labor government argued that the best way to overcome disadvantage is to spend more money and to have smaller classes and more teachers.

As the OECD research proves, a more cost-effective way is to focus on improving classroom behaviour on the basis that “the impact of socioeconomic status on student performance can be weakened by a positive disciplinary climate in school”.

If standards are to improve, especially for disadvantaged students, Australian classrooms must embrace a more disciplined environment where teachers are authority figures who engender respect.

Kevin Donnelly is director of the Education Standards Institute.

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