Beyond Blame: Understanding ‘bad’ behaviour

Activity 1: Think of the last time you got upset at a student. I mean really upset. What happened? What did they do? What did you do? Did you issue some kind of punishment? A detention? A lecture? Did you try to mend their ways? How? Did it work? And most importantly of all, why did you take that particular course of action? What was really going on?

Well, two things were really going on. First, you were assigning blame. You believed that the student in question chose (on some level) to behave how they did and therefore could have chosen to behave otherwise. This frustrated you no end, especially seeing that by now, they should be able to make the right behavioural choices to meet the super-objective of getting through school.

Second, you were attempting to modify their behaviour. In that terse and eloquent speech you delivered, eyes locked in fury, you were doing all you could to make that kid realise the error of their ways. You knew that they could make the right behavioural choices, so you were encouraging them to remember their wrong-doing and fix it next time. My first question to you is this: how useful is a belief in blame if you’re trying to modify undesirable behaviour? Tricky stuff.

Activity 2: Imagine the future.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable.

Imagine checking your pigeon hole for next year’s timetable and finding detailed class profiles.

Imagine if these profiles offered information on not simply academic progress, but behavioural limitations.

Imagine if these limitations were based on infallible scientific evidence.

Imagine if the nuances of human behaviour have been neuroscientifically deciphered. Imagine if we had a detailed understanding of which parts of the brain were responsible for which behaviours. Imagine if every single one of us came with a detailed neurological map of chemical balances, environmental influences and genetic codings that fully explained our behaviours in a way that was as easy to read as the colour of our eyes. Imagine if we regarded behaviour and impulse in the same way we currently regard allergies and medical conditions. Imagine if we didn’t blame a student for being distracted, or belligerent, or disruptive. Imagine if we didn’t praise a student for being hard working, or polite, or calm, or responsive to feedback. Carol Dweck has already taught us that we shouldn’t praise students for ‘being good’ or ‘being clever’. Imagine if we didn’t praise them for having a growth mindset?

Imagine if that future was now. Because it sort of is.

Activity 3: Google ‘neuroscience human behaviour’. Even a cursory glance at page one of the results will reveal compelling evidence that behaviour is a complex balance of genetic disposition, chemical balances, developmental trackings and environmental influences. We’ve come a long way from attempting to exorcise demons out of people prone to fits of physical spasms; we now treat them for epilepsy. And controversial or not, we know that the administration of certain drugs can suppress some disruptive behaviours in children. We even have a column on our aforementioned class lists for behavioural and social development issues, right alongside the column for Special Educational Needs. We understand that factors beyond conscious control may be responsible for different behaviours, desirable or not.

But do we care? Think back to the last time you got upset at a student, now add to it all of the frustrating conversations you’ve had over the past year. All the end-of-movie-courtroom speeches you’ve delivered about kids throwing away their futures. All the treacly see-saws over homework submission, or lack of. All the raised volume verbal beat downs you’ve administered in the attempt to get some kid to realise the damage their behaviour has caused. Why have you done this?

In the final chapters of his excellent book on the hidden machinations of the human brain, ‘Incognito’, David Eagleman highlights the concept of  ‘blameworthiness’ in society’s efforts to respond to criminal activity. Blameworthiness, he argues, is what the legal system tends to lean towards in its delivery of justice. To what extent can an individual can be ‘blamed’ for their actions? He then argues that a neuroscientific approach to behaviour makes this a redundant debate. Would you ‘blame’ someone with no legs for being unable to kick a ball?

Rather than ‘blameworthiness’, he suggests that a better focus might be the ‘modifiability’ of criminal types. Can they be altered just enough to make them socially safe, without the need for complete removal from society at large? This, in short, is the impulse behind rehabilitation and corrective incarceration, rather than simple imprisonment or, in the most extreme scenarios, execution.

The good news is that as educators, we seem to believe in modifiability. Think back again to that list of frustrating interactions you have had this year. If you really, truly believed in blame as the primary factor, you wouldn’t have even wasted your breath. Like the legal systems of old (and recent, actually), you would have simply assessed the extent of the crime and issued a fitting punishment. And if the crime was particularly abhorrent (let’s say, forgetting to put the lid back on a tube of Pritt-Stick) then you simply would have removed that child from your class forever, for the benefit of society as a whole.

See, the truth of the matter is that teachers believe that children can change. We have to, otherwise our jobs would be futile. We already believe what biology has proven, that the physiological development of a human is ongoing. Young people are in flux until they become older people and the circuity becomes hard-wired. You can see this reflected in legal systems across the globe: most societies operate with an age of criminal responsibility.

Ken Robinson, in his much viewed TED talk, ‘Changing Education Paradigms’, suggests that society readily over-diagnoses ADD and ADHD in its attempt to make every child fit a desirable behavioural template. Rightly so, he lambasts this approach as clumsy and dangerous, in that it fails to accept the nuances of human behaviour. Like the frontal lobe lobotomies of the 1950s, (in which criminals had their frontal lobes severed, leaving them unable to commit crimes but equally unable to be a fully functioning human being) searching for medical ‘solutions’ to behaviour is a kind of brutal modification that is clearly rooted in blame theory. You can’t sit still Jimmy, so we’ll fix you. And you deserve our treatment plus its nasty side effects because you CAN’T SIT STILL JIMMY.

Where I think Ken Robinson’s ideas need further interrogation is in the impulse behind the diagnosis of behavioural conditions such as ADD and ADHD. Is it an evil plan from the shady powers-that-be to create societal automatons, or something less malevolent? Is it in fact a desperation to ensure that children become ‘socialised’ before it is too late?

And so to the point of this essay. Schools, I believe are institutions of socialisation. I’ve spent four years helping to develop a school with a profound interest in well-being, which underpins everything from behaviour to academic progress. In our version of Parents’ Evening, each student talks about their progress and development as a person, with reference to various manifestations of this progress via school work and school experiences. Students reflect on their past and contemplate their futures, making sense of their impulses, choices and potential futures; their behaviour, in the broadest possible sense of the word.

And we wrestle with the frustrations of unmodified behaviour on a daily basis. That kid who defies authority today will have to deal with authority as an adult tomorrow, so we go through endless tweaks of her actions in the (desperate?) hope that she will be able to undergo a useful modification, before the frontal lobe becomes set. That kid who takes no responsibility for his actions now will be thrown to the wolves of a legal system that offers no second chances tomorrow, so we sit him in detention and ask him to reflect on his actions, hoping (desperately?) that the sting of punishment will complement the pillows of counselling. In this, it has become abundantly clear to me that much teacher energy is spent on socialising students; getting them ready for a world in which their behaviour will determine their fate.

If this is ultimately what 21st century schooling is, then the real job of the teacher must be acknowledged as thus. We are not simple subject specialists who deliver content. We are not only curriculum designers who foster cognitive engagement with interesting ideas. We are, perhaps, modifiers of behaviour, steering that final environmental course on the last stop towards socialisation.

In all of this, perhaps we need to be understanders of behaviour above all else, something that successive Education Secretaries seem to get wrong with astonishing alacrity. Case in point: the government’s recent appointment of a so-dubbed ‘behaviour tsar’. At a time when teachers are writing fifteen hundred word blog posts on the subtle shades of student behaviour, it seems a retrograde step to draft in ‘experts’ who believe behaviour management is simply a case of ‘sensible strategies that maximise learning’. Yes it sounds reasonable enough, but it falls short of the true debate at hand; do we even understand what ‘bad behaviour’ is? As Eagleman writes of the legal system:

“Effective law requires effective behavioural models: understanding not just how we would like people to behave, but how they actually behave.”

Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations


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