Identifying and addressing productive and unproductive
student behaviours in South Australian schools
The issues this research seeks to explore are significant, given the well established link between student engagement, student behaviour and academic achievement (Angus, et al., 2009; Hattie, 2003; Marzano & Marzano, 2003). No other Australian or international studies have used a comprehensive mixed methods approach to identify the range of student behaviours in our classrooms and schools, how ecological influences precipitate productive and unproductive student behaviour, and how local schools negotiate the complex and, at times, contradictory demands of different stakeholders to develop and enact effective student behaviour policies.
This project is innovative in a number of ways. First, this research will provide evidence on which to base educational decisions related to the nature and causes of unproductive student behaviour in South Australian schools. Second, it will employ an innovative methodology that will involve three linked phases which has not been used previously in the field in Australia or internationally. Third, the project is innovative at a theoretical level because it will interrupt dominant traditional discourses about school discipline, student conformity, and punitive responses to unproductive behaviour (Ramon Lewis, 2006; Slee, 1995) by linking student behaviour to the ecological factors that promote student engagement with school. Finally, this is a cross-institutional and whole-State project which will have major implications for other states in Australia and influence policy and program development nationally.
The proposed research project uses as its comparative base several large studies of ‘school discipline’ conducted in South Australian schools in the early 1990s (Adey, Oswald, & Johnson, 1991; Johnson, Oswald, & Adey, 1993). In that work involving over 3,000 teachers from government and private schools across the State, it was found that most student misbehaviour was relatively minor (e.g., hindering other students, talking out of turn, moving around the classroom). These findings were consistent with earlier studies conducted in England using a parallel questionnaire (Department of Education and Science, 1989). A number of smaller studies have since confirmed these results (for reviews, see Beaman & Wheldall, 1997; Beaman, Wheldall, & Kemp, 2007; Stephenson, Linfoot, & Martin, 2000), but no large studies have been conducted since.
While the South Australian studies were important because they were the largest studies of teachers’ views on discipline ever undertaken in Australia, they have several limitations. Firstly, they used a restricted definition of what constitutes problem behaviour. Teachers in the studies were asked to focus on student behaviours which disrupt classes, teachers, and other students, and tended to ignore students who behaved passively or who withdrew from regular class activities. In relation to bullying and aggression, the more indirect behaviours such as exclusion from the group, spreading false rumours and cyber bullying were also left out of the earlier studies (see Owens, 1996; Owens, Shute, & Slee, 2000; Spears, Slee, Owens, & Johnson, 2009). Secondly, the studies ‘psychologised’ the issue of discipline in schools by focusing on individual student behaviour, thereby tending to blame and problematise individual students without considering the contextual factors that promote student engagement and influence student behaviour. These contextual factors include the planned and ‘hidden’ curriculum, teachers’ pedagogic choices, the nature and quality of relationships within the school, family background, gender and socio-economic factors. Finally, numerous changes have occurred within the context of South Australian schools since the studies were conducted 20 years ago. Some of these changes include: increased inclusion of students with special needs; increases in the school leaving age; implementation of vocational education community-based programs for senior students; markedly changed immigration demographics and, therefore, cultural variations; increasingly complex student home backgrounds; changes in technology; increasing student disengagement from teaching and learning, particularly in secondary schools; increasing drug experimentation by young people; and increasing accommodation of mental health issues.
Given these limitations, the surveys used in the earlier research will be modified and used in the first phase of the proposed research to provide quantitative data on the state of unproductive student behaviour in South Australian schools. The revisions will include changes to the structure of the survey and to the wording used. New sections will be added to overcome the limitations of the surveys mentioned above and a focus on engagement, which directly influences student behaviour, will be included as a central theoretical construct. The data from this survey will be compared with the results of the earlier South Australian studies to provide a unique longitudinal perspective on student behaviour in our State.
A recent study of behaviour management in 31 Western Australian schools was conducted by researchers from Edith Cowan University (Angus, et al., 2009). In this longitudinal study, teachers were asked to rate their students on a checklist of ten ‘unproductive behaviours’, defined as actions that impeded a student’s academic progress. These unproductive behaviours included the following: aggression, non-compliance, disruption, inattention, erratic behaviour, being impulsive, lack of motivation, being unresponsive, being unprepared, and irregular attendance. The authors found that in any year, 60 per cent of students were considered to behave productively, 20 per cent were disengaged, 12 per cent were low–level disruptive and 8 per cent were uncooperative. Over the four-year period of the study, 40 per cent of students were consistently productive, 20 per cent were consistently unproductive and the others fluctuated from year to year. In relation to academic performance, the uncooperative group, typified by aggression, non-compliance and disruption, performed worst but the disengaged group who were compliant and not aggressive, performed only marginally better. Students in the disengaged group were generally cooperative but found their school work uninteresting, gave up on tasks, were easily distracted, did not prepare for lessons and opted out of class activities. As the authors noted, the group which receives the greatest time and resources in relation to behaviour is the uncooperative group, while the quiet, disengaged group is often left un-noticed. In their recommendations, the authors highlight the importance of increasing levels of student engagement via changes to policy, pedagogy and resources.
In the second phase of the proposed study, we adopt several elements of the Edith Cowan study to inform our theoretical rationale. Firstly, we use the terms ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ behaviours rather than the more commonly used terms in the literature of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviours because of our belief that behaviour is inextricably linked to teaching and learning. Secondly, we recognise the importance of creating classroom conditions that promote academic engagement as these are crucial in establishing schools and classrooms where behaviours are more productive. In relation to the second element, in our own research we have emphasized an ecological approach to explaining and managing both productive and unproductive student behaviour (Conway, 2009). In the ecological model we use (see figure 1), the classroom is thought of as an ecosystem involving interactions between the physical environment, teacher characteristics, curriculum including pedagogy and resources, and a multitude of student variables. The model develops and extends the research on quality teaching in which classroom management is an important feature (see Gore, Griffiths, & Ladwig, 2004), by examining specific productive and unproductive behaviours and teacher responses.
Figure 1: Ecological model of the classroom (adapted from Conway, 2008)
Explanations of both productive and unproductive behaviours must therefore consider the interaction of all four components of the specific learning ecosystem and interactions between multiple school settings (e.g., classrooms, playground/yard, canteen). This is based on the key principle that student behaviour does not exist in isolation but within the interaction between all elements of that ecosystem. While recognising that students also operate within home and community ecosystems that impact upon school behaviour, for practical reasons we are delimiting our proposed study predominantly to a consideration of the school ecosystem. Despite this, we will gather some relevant demographic background information about school communities and students.
In the third phase of our proposed study we draw on insights from studies of the micropolitics of schools (Ball, 1987; Blase, 1991; Johnson, 2004) to help unravel the complex processes schools use to develop student behaviour policies and practices in a social and political climate characterised by greater ‘outside’ interest in student behaviour. Ball, Braun and Maguire (2009) identified more than 15 initiatives – based on legal mandates to intervene in schools in the UK – that seek to target a range of student behaviours that are deemed to threaten the social order. Similarly, Australian schools are required to implement or enact school discipline-related policies which take into account various state, territory and national legislation and action plans. In South Australia, this includes the Education Act and regulations under the Act (South Australian Parliament, 1972); the Equal Opportunity Act (South Australian Parliament, 1984); the Disability Discrimination Act (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992); the National Safe Schools Framework (Student Learning and Support Services Taskforce, 2005); and the Child Protection Act (South Australian Parliament, 1993). Given this legislative context, Ball et al. (2009) suggested that schools adopt a ‘smorgasbord approach’ to policy development where they draw selectively on a range of directives, policies, legal requirements, procedures, and local practices – ‘a profusion of ideas’ – that have emerged over the past few years in response to problems like truancy, child abuse, bullying and school defiance. These are then rendered into and enacted as particular programs and initiatives at the school level (Ball, et al., 2009).
In addition to these quite specific student behaviour focused directives, are more general demands – with attendant funding drivers – for improvements in education across Australia. In 2009, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) agreed to a ‘Smarter Schools’ National Partnership which focuses on improving teacher quality. The intent of this agreement is ‘to bring about systemic and sustained reform and improvement’ in the quality of teaching and leadership in Australian schools (South Australian National Partnerships Council-Schooling, 2009). Given the public and political interest in schools’ student behaviour management policies and practices, it is not surprising that this issue has been identified by our industry partners as a priority area for further research and policy development.