Glenda McGregor

Behaviour: Senators ignored the research

Schools are workplaces as well as places of learning. All those who work in them have the right to feel safe. Clearly, not all teachers feel safe. The interim report of the Senate Education and Employment References Committee: The issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms and the submissions to it provide evidence for this. The interim report refers to surveys conducted by the Australian Catholic University (ACU), Monash University and the Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union, all documenting the unacceptably high levels of fear which some teachers operate under as a result of perceived and real threat. While the levels are disturbing, we want to stress that any level is too high.

In our view, the recommendations by this Committee to address such behaviours miss the mark.

Within the report there is yet again, and something that those working in teacher education are becoming very familiar with, a critique of initial teacher education. Inadequate ‘teacher training’ alongside a lack of classroom management skills is foregrounded as one of the major contributors to poor behaviour. Included are also the structures of classrooms, especially for students with disability, socioeconomic factors, bullying and family trauma. The recommendations thus focus on fast tracking reforms outlined in the TEEP Report.

Where’s the evidence?

The report makes frequent reference to the need for ‘evidence-based approaches’ as if ITE programs across the country are not already providing them. A scan of such programs will reveal plenty of courses that aim to explain the root causes of schooling disengagement that lie at the heart of ‘disruptive classrooms’; indeed, the report notes many examples provided in diverse submissions from many social and educational bodies – typically, low SES, disability, undiagnosed neurodiversity, childhood trauma and just the challenges posed by adolescence. Many approaches are suggested but the Senate Committee appears to favour suggestions that coincide with practices from the past that may have been suitable in a non-global industrial era rather than approaches that are responsive to the needs of young people today who come to school with vastly different attitudes and digital skills than, say, the “boomer” generation.

The report makes much of the need for “explicit instruction”, including explicit behavioural instruction; it favours “traditional” classrooms and “Positive Behaviour for Learning”. The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) claims to have “the most rigorous and relevant research” and the Senate Committee appears not to question that despite many other contributing research organisations who present very different views that situate challenging student behaviours within broader socio-economic and social factors and the roles played by community and parents/caregivers. Reverting to what seems to translate into “training-for-good-behaviour” will not solve the problem and will stifle engagement even more.

What needs to be fixed first

Schooling engagement and associated behaviours have several dimensions – cognitive and emotional as well as “behavioural”. The first two factors have to be addressed before “better behaviour” will occur. Students have to be intellectually stimulated to engage cognitively; for teachers to do this they must be confident in their subject matter and enthusiastically creative in their delivery. Learning should be an enjoyable journey for students; it should be meaningful and provide them with opportunities to problem-solve and work in teams; these are the skills required for future economic and social structures for which “explicit instruction” will have no place.

Students need to feel respected and have a sense of belonging; to feel supported and safe at school. Whilst acknowledging the external impacts of poverty, the report does not address it. Young people who experience homelessness, hunger and family violence will remain “disruptive” regardless of what happens to ITE programs. This is a shameful problem that we share as a society: the fact that some young people are so neglected, sad and angry that often their response is to turn against their teachers cannot be solved by educators alone.

While we support Recommendation 3 that calls for investment in professional learning for teachers, we rigorously challenge the conclusion evident in Recommendation 4 with its sole focus on promoting ‘explicit instruction; formative assessment; mastery learning; and spacing and retrieval to manage ‘disruptive behaviour in classrooms and provides the best possible learning conditions, to be implemented’. We need rich forms of professional development that recognise, value and enhance the professionalism of teachers. 

No one-size-fits-all

Within academic research and also evident in the submissions to the committee, is a clear need for a diversity of responses to student behaviour, depending on the reasons for the behaviour: there is no quick fix, no “one-size-fits-all”. Additionally, the conclusion evident in Recommendation 4 appears to ignore the complexities of the lives of adolescents living in the 21st century and the skills that they will need for future economies and their self-efficacy and well-being.

We support Recommendations 5 and 6 that call for greater support for young people and teachers in managing neurodiverse students. Whilst we agree that a national approach to classroom management might lead to the sharing of useful research, we are alarmed by Recommendation 9 seeking to ‘fast-track the implementation of the National Unique Student Identifier for school students’. 

This proposal is Orwellian in its intent to “track” students who may have experienced challenges at school. Wherever they go to school in Australia, their past will follow them and label them as “trouble-makers”. How can young people start with a clean slate at a new school and prove themselves. The suggestion of a National Unique Student Identifier is an egregious assault on their human rights. Historically, young people have been labelled as “good” vs “bad” but we argue that such simplistic generalisations have no place in 21st century education systems.

Alarm bells

The silences in the report also raise alarm bells. There are references to violence without any mention of gender. There is no consideration here about who the students are who are threatening violence against teachers. We know that there is a strong relationship between dominant forms of masculinity and violence. The threats posed to teachers, and others, as a consequence of toxic forms of masculinity performed by some boys need to be challenged. This violence can also contain a sexual element to it. We know that female teachers can be sexually harassed by male students and made to feel uncomfortable and threated by innuendo and verbal abuse.

Much of the report often implies that it is schools located in lower socioeconomic areas where teachers are likely to be most threatened. However, we know that gender-based violence towards female teachers can be present in some of the ‘best of schools’. Similar silences exist in the report about other forms of discrimination and the ways in which teachers can, for example, be the subject of racial vilification or transphobic abuse from students. Addressing these issues will require, alongside broader societal approaches, school programs and curricula that address consent, valuing difference, human rights and social justice. There is nothing in this report that encourages such approaches.  

Unfortunately, the Senate Committee’s recommendations are largely based upon one view which disempowers teachers and students and is backward looking rather than aspiring towards the future worlds in which our young people will live. Many submissions pointed to relational and pastoral approaches of working with young people within contexts of support and early intervention. It is our view that this is confirmed by a breadth and depth of peer-reviewed educational research.

Glenda McGregor is associate professor and deputy head of the School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University. Martin Mills is a research professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership, QUT. He was awarded an honorary life membership of AARE in 2023 for services to educational research and the Association.