At What Cost?

By their very nature, small children are full of energy and movement. They fidget, they wriggle, they flit from place to place. They play constantly, because they are filled with a burning desire to explore and discover the world around them. Their small bodies are still developing, and growing stronger, and this need for constant movement is part of that process. The focus and control that we see in (most) older children does not come out of thin air – it comes out of the learned ability to regulate their own behaviour, and out of the gradually developing ability to control their bodies, and their emotional state. When you teach small children, this need for constant movement can feel frustrating – if only they would sit still and listen, then you would feel so much more in control of your classroom. You could focus on ‘getting through the learning’, if only small children weren’t quite so ‘small children-y’.

Small children respond very well to routines – routines give the children a sense of security and they help to create a safe environment in which to learn. The routines form a ‘buffer’ between the children’s current levels of self control, and the ‘real world’ realities of the classroom environment. The routines help the children learn how to regulate their own behaviour. Even as adults, we often live our lives by routines – we set the alarm clock to get us up for work, we put out the bins on the right day each week. Routines help us to impose a sense of order and control on our lives. There are many ways that you can incorporate routines into a classroom environment. You can use visual reminders, you can gently encourage the children to follow them, you can make the routines seem fun to use, by giving them an imaginative element. Or you can ‘train up’ the children to do exactly as you want them to do, in a kind of ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’ approach to education.

When I watch video clips like the one above, I feel very uneasy indeed. Although I am told that Doug Lemov’s approach ‘doesn’t look like that in real life’, this is not the point. The point for me is a set of ethical questions about what is going on. I can see how these routines help the teacher – the sense of control is palpable. I can see how these routines might make it easier for some kinds of learning to happen, because the children are taught to focus their attention. But it is what I can’t see that really worries me, because these are children. Where is the choice, the fun, the flitting, the wriggling, the laughter, the joy, the sensitivity, the nuance, the playful interactions, the movement, the gradually developing self-regulation? Where are all the completely normal behaviours that we would expect to see in a group of five year old children? Are we clear about the long term impact of this approach on the children’s mental and physical health? Is it ethical to ‘train up’ small children from low income families in this way, with the justification that it will get them into college? And have we stopped to ask ourselves the question: at what cost?

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8 Responses to At What Cost?

  1. Brian says:

    I thought this post was brilliant, but before I say why I just need to get something off of my chest. When I trained as a secondary teacher as a mature entrant to the “profession” I found a copy of Getting the Buggers to Behave and I read it from cover to cover. Some people found it very useful but I struggled with it. I couldn’t get much from it. I left a comment on a TES (as it was in the old days) thread to which you responded and we had a brief and polite discussion.

    I think in hindsight the issue was not so much with the book but with me. I was a father of 3 (boy and girls), i grew up in a family of 6 children and had contact with a great many children of neices, nephews and friends kids. I think I actually had a fair handle on things and needed the practice. I can see now why others found the book to be really useful. We are all different but sometimes we can see similar characteristics in a significant proportion of a population and we can then we can use similarities to economise on effort, but that is all it is, economising.

    The Doug Lemov stuff, the “traditional” approach and the Michaela approach are for me examples of ways of economising as well as controlling. It is control and conforrmity that allows us to economise effort (as I imagine most trads will confirm to some extent). Treating kids as individual people is expensive and in no way efficient, but just as shopping in Lidl is a different experience to shopping in Harrods but the cost of providing the two is different.

    We cannot provide the same treatment in school for poor kids as we can for rich kids, we just cannot afford it. If the Doug Lemov approach was a good way to educate kids in principle you can be sure that rich parents would buy twice as much for their kids, but they don’t. I suspect that trads tend to see their approach as approximating that which is provided to rich kids via a private education.

    Poor kids cannot have a rich kids education, it isn’t possible just as you do not get served as quickly and politely in Lidl as you do in Harrods. I believe something has to give. In Lidl, you queue longer and the price is time.

    In state schools I believe we need to choose between flexibility and efficiency. Sacrfice flexibility and we go the trad route, sacrifice efficiency and we go the prog route. Increase resources and we can actually combine them and have both but this would be a private education and would be costly.

    Just as the cost of pollution has been known for some time, as we approach meltdown people are now saying with the environment “at what cost?” and climate change has become important. Perhaps because it is now threatening rich as well as poor.

    I believe the US are closer to educational meltdown but it will arrive in the UK and when it does, those with the power will start asking “at what cost?”. It will be then that you will be able to show a printed copy of your post and say “I told you so!”. Maybe about 2030 or so.

    You may already guessed that my background is in management and strategy in industry and I teach Economics. There is of course the issue that we don’t need 80% of the population educated to degree level as an economy but I wouldn’t want you to think I had a downer on capitalism.

    I believe you are 100% correct. We should be asking “at what price?”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Great comment. Sue, behaviour is only one small part of Lemov’s stuff, a lot of it is the other stuff which, as the person here says, isn’t too dissimilar to your own. There’s a good pdf summary here: Things like technique 8 and 10 for example aren’t controlling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The biggest problem in current education debate is that every little thing is lifted out of context to make, or back up a point. Unless any methodology is part of a broad armoury of approaches, selected and applied to need, they become utilitarian and can become useless in practice, in the wrong hands.

        If you look at the professional standards, half describe the person; professional, in control, running a good classroom, ordered and organised and “knows stuff”. The others look at the engaged person; knowing children across the taught range, engaging and tweaking expectations to evident need.

        The second group can, to some extent, dictate whether the teacher can get to the substantive learning elements, but, the teacher, in seeking to over-control could create negative environments so that they cannot develop.

        It always has been a question of balance. Little is really new.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Harry says:

        Yes, balance. The word seems to be tainted, because it doesn’t win you debates.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. debrakidd says:

    If you ask small people a question then immediately follow it up with “Track Track Me”, the question falls out of their minds. And for that reason alone, it’s a stupid thing to say. I’ve not seen a single bit of evidence anywhere that suggests that human beings thinking hard about a question think better if they stare at the person asking it. There IS some evidence that watching a person’s body language during a conceptual explanation is helpful (Goldin-Meadow). As with everything in education, there are grains of truth in many ideas that then become distorted to the extent that they are enforced in fundamentalist fervour. The very people advocating tracking (with no evidence of impact) are often those mocking the naivety of those who fell for VAK. And in the meantime, children pay the price. Small children need to move in order to think – there’s a whole body of evidence supporting the importance of activity to brain development. It’s depressing to see this passivity promoted as learning.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. TJY says:

    “Where is the choice, the fun, the flitting, the wriggling, the laughter, the joy, the sensitivity, the nuance, the playful interactions, the movement, the gradually developing self-regulation? Where are all the completely normal behaviours that we would expect to see in a group of five year old children? ”

    One imagines at other times of the day. Times when children aren’t trying to learn the basis of the knowledge that will help them to overcome the huge disadvantages they face in life.


  4. Pingback: The psychology of behaviour management (part 1) | Evidence into Practice

  5. Pingback: Psychology of behaviour management (part 3) | Evidence into Practice

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