Fix rowdy classrooms
10th October 2013

In the Australian, based on an OECD report on rowdy classrooms and badly behaved students, I argue that more needs to be done to support teachers.

 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. 


Responses to this Post

Responding to "Australian" article today 9 Oct:

The points made in the column by Dr Donnelly were a good corrective to the vague,superficial front page piece which failed to identify the real problem of class noise. 

No one expects dead silent classes where a student barely dares to speak. It is riotous noise, deliberate disruption and defiance which are contributing to Australia\\\'s sliding academic status. Poorly run high schools around the country have this problem in plague proportions and it is unfair to blame individual teachers when they are rarely backed up by senior teachers and the administration in or outside the school walls. 

Problem students today- at any point on the socio-economic ladder-frequently compete to be the first to be thrown out of a class and sent to the "welfare" department where they will be softly spoken to and asked why they called Miss X a "F....cow" . They will then be brought back to class to "apologise"(ha ha) and start all over again. 

People out there need to know that this is not a rarity but common everyday occurrence in high schools. It's a million times worse than the Australian article suggests- but at least the problem has been aired. The Gonski solution is risible and utterly predictable: spend lots of money, have smaller classes. No surprise that this is a long running Union mantra. It is tired Socialist rhetoric. 

The worst classes can be those deliberately selected as having "special Needs" which at secondary level usually means behaviour problems, and these classes can be as small as 15 students and still totally unteachable. When I was a new teacher in 1970 Victoria my science and maths classes were ALL well over 40 students. I don't suggest returning to that but the culture then was that decent behaviour was expected and nothing less tolerated. The grownups need to raise the bars once more.    

Vivien Johnson

Macarthur ACT

One large unacknowledged factor in the poor achievement in Australia's high schools is precisely the one that so few people have been willing to talk about: behaviour. Thankfully this is now being aired , although only at a superficial level at the moment. 

Tolerance of high noise levels, even when the teacher is presenting to the class is a universal problem. It is so commonplace across schools that those staff who complain about it are often considered "whingers" by administration.

Because hard concepts, detailed information and specific content are difficult to get across under such conditions, only the easiest stuff is attempted. For example, a year eleven class might be studying the basic organs of the Digestive system for the fourth year running. It's impossible to move on because the material was not absorbed in the preceding years. There is enormous time wastage.

The eradication of serious assessment with consequences (exams) means that there is no pressure to learn or absorb  anything. "Assignments" are required instead. These are piffling in content, sometimes entirely downloaded from internet without the student even having read them. They are then widely plagiarised by other students in the same or parallel classes.

Rowdy classes have created a situation where the standards have nosedived in all areas of maths and science.

In the ACT for example there has been a drop in maths achievement of one entire level since 1980. There WERE 4 levels in year 11 and 12;- Advanced, Mainstream, Tertiary (meaning for those going on to non math studies) and Everyday Maths.

The original Advanced no longer exists. What is now called Advanced was once Mainstream in standard.  A similar slide down the pole has occurred with the other levels.  Similar downgrades have occurred in all areas of science.

In the ACT there is no external assessment so these deficiencies can be covered up.

In worst classes teachers give up on class instruction and hand out "inquiry" sheets where students read a textbook-if there are enough undamaged ones-and find the answers to set questions. it is common for less than half of the class to complete such work. 

It simply wasn't like this in the 60s and earlier. It just wasn't done to stick it up the teacher and riot in class. It has nothing to do with poor background or economic disadvantage. Students behave this way because it has been shown that nothing will happen to them if they do (except a load of talkee talkee) they behave like ratbags in class because they CAN.

Vivien Johnson

Macarthur ACT, ACT 



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10th October 2013

In the Australian, based on an OECD report on rowdy classrooms and badly behaved students, I argue that more needs to be done to support teachers. IT'S ever present but rarely acknowledged. For...
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