We may unwittingly be teaching our pupils that conformity leads to successful learning. Teacher and pupil roles need to move with the times, but this won’t happen without serious debate in the schools.

Even before children start school, they have a clear picture of what school is, and what goes on in classrooms. You only have to watch a toddler sitting their teddies and dolls in a row and teaching them letters and other facts in what they already perceive is a ‘teacher voice’. Where do they get this idea from? One study found that preschool children see school as a big and complicated place with lots of rules and no play and that they got these ideas from their family, teachers (presumably in their preschool settings) and television.

What messages does this video give children about their role as learners? About their rights? About their teachers? About their classmates?

We might assume that once children start school their conception of school and themselves as learners changes. Or maybe, there are ways in which we unwittingly promote and maintain the picture of the good student as compliant and passive.

A group of Australian teachers and researchers got together in 1985 to address their concerns about the prevalence of passive, unreflective, dependent student behaviours. They were disturbed about how, even in apparently successful lessons, students were passive learners, lacking strategies when they were stuck, and seeing the teacher as responsible for their learning and discipline.

They started a project called PEEL (Project to Enhance Effective Learning) and came up with a list of Good Learning Behaviours (GLBs) that were consistent with research findings and their own experience.

In a subsequent study, two secondary Science teachers, Mr Boyle and Ms Fahey, used this list of GLBs to investigate the learning behaviours of two of their classes. These classes were mixed ability, with at least half the students identified as at the low end of the achievement scale, and one of the classes described as ‘the class you did not really want.’

Step 1. Students constructed their own list of GLBs: they were asked ‘What do you regard as good learning behaviours?’

Their responses included:

listens in class; completes homework; does not disrupt others; follows instructions; and completes class work.

The teachers were initially quite shocked at the prevalence of ‘compliant’ behaviours identified by the students, and how few GLBs were identified. However, when they reflected on why this might be, they realised that these compliant behaviours were  almost identical to the descriptors they used in their Student Reports:

Work PracticesC=Consistently, U=Usually, S=Sometimes, R=Rarely
Works cooperatively
Meets deadlines
Follows instructions
Completes homework
Completes classwork
Comes prepared for class activities

The school’s Student Report signalled that compliance was most valued.

Mr Boyle and Ms Fahey, along with their fellow researchers, realised that they may have inadvertently been training students to regard these compliant and passive behaviours as more important than active learning strategies. They acknowledged that these compliant behaviours were giving the impression that students were engaged and coping, when in reality these were more ‘coping strategies’ than learning behaviours.

Step 2. Class discussion of the PEEL list of GLBs: each teacher discussed the Good Learning Behaviours identified by PEEL teachers (see List of GLBs) with their class.

Step 3. Students list reasons why they are not using these GLBs: these were recorded by the teachers. Students’ responses showed that they had developed behaviours that they thought best matched their understanding of teachers’ expectations of schoolwork:

  • You just can’t be bothered or it may take too long.
  • There’s no point in thinking about linkage between subjects because there is no point.
  • When you’re always asking questions people think you are dumb.
  • Disruptive behaviours from other students.
  • What stops me from making a plan before I start is I never thought of doing it.

Steps 4-7 Baseline observations, intervention and follow-up observations.

The intervention consisted of the teachers using teaching appraoches that had been identified in previous PEEL resarch as leading to increased GLBs.

The research concluded that the intervention made a significant change to the prevalence of student demonstration of GLBs. However, when I looked at the results through the lens of Collaborative Decision-Making, I drew my own conclusions.

I looked down the list of which GLBs had been least affected by the intervention, and found these to be the GLBs that would challenge the traditional teacher-student role, where the teacher is always right and the teacher is the only person who can make decisions about the curiculum or pedagogy.

The intervention made least impact on the absence of the following GLBs:

  • Seeks reasons for aspects of the work at hand.
  • Explains purposes and results (why we are doing this task and whether we learnt anything from it).
  • Checks teacher’s work for errors; and offers corrections.
  • Seeks links between non-adjacent activities, ideas and between different topics (how this lesson/module links to other subjects they are studying, for example).
  • Independently seeks further information, following up ideas raised in class.
  • Seeks links between different subjects.
  • Offers personal examples which are generally relevant.
  • Seeks specific links between schoolwork and personal life.
  • Suggests new activities and alternative procedures.
  • Challenges the text or an answer the teacher sanctions as correct.

In the conventional classroom these behaviours carry with them a substantial risk. In many classrooms it is considered a punishable offence to question the teacher, or suggest that there may be a better way of learning something. Without a change of culture, it is hard to see how we can overcome the message that the good student is a good Muppet.

A paper by White and Gunstone, has some messages that are still relevant today, thirty years after it was written. They argued that the transformation of learners requires changes in the organisation of schooling, particularly adoption of methods of assessment that reward understanding. Any change in school culture will initially interfere with the smooth operation of the classroom, as students are encouraged to be more responsible for their own learning and teachers involve students in greater collaborative decision-making. They also recognised that not all teachers will be motivated to teach in this way, and not all students will be appreciative of the opportunity for greater involvement. Their paper contains the following account from researcher Richard White:

After eight months of experience in the Project to Enhance Effective Learning, two grade 10 students came to their science teacher. ‘We see what all this is about now,’ one said. ‘You are trying to get us to think and learn for ourselves.’ ‘Yes, yes,’ replied the teacher, heartened by this long-delayed breakthrough, ‘that’s it exactly.’ ‘Well,’ said the student, ‘we don’t want to do that.’

(White and Gunstone, 1989)

It does seem that longer you spend in a Muppet classroom, the more natural it becomes to behave like a puppet pupil.

Baird, J.R. & Mitchell, I.J. (Eds) (1986) Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning: an Australian case study – the PEEL Project. Melbourne: Monash University.

White, R. T., & Gunstone, R. F. (1989). Metalearning and Conceptual Change. International Journal of Science Education11(5), 577–586.

Do you agree with my analysis? What options have you tried? What was you own school experience like? Please leave a comment below to get a conversation started.

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