Research School Network: What does teaching ​‘learning behaviours’ look like in the classroom?

What does teaching ​‘learning behaviours’ look like in the classroom?

Jon Eaton, Director of Kingsbridge Research School

In the Education Endowment Foundation’s recent report, Improving Behaviour in Schools, recommendation 2 is entitled Teach learning behaviours alongside managing misbehaviour’. This recommendation is vital and it cuts through the existing debates that can polarise behaviour approaches – with limited binaries such as zero tolerance’ and restorative approaches’ being simplified and even mis-characterised.

Behaviour GR Recommendation 2
Recommendation 2 from the EEF's Behaviour guidance report

Learning behaviours – as you would expect – are behaviours that support learning, such as resilience or paying attention to a partner. We too often limit our discussion of behaviour to sanctions and do not consider enough how we change and model learning behaviours. 

The guidance recommends we anticipate rather than react to problems in the classroom: the general climate for learning can be improved through the explicit teaching of learning behaviours, reducing the need for teachers to constantly manage’ misbehaviour.” The inverted commas around manage” – especially when combined with constantly’ ” – imply that managing misbehaviour is not really managing at all, or is at least a distraction from the core business of learning. As the report puts it, managing a child’s misbehaviour does not necessarily lead to that child learning: they may be quieter, but not necessarily engaging with the content of the lesson.”

The teaching of learning behaviours, on the other hand, does appear to support learning. The guidance states, research suggests that when children improve their learning behaviours, this skill set can improve both academic achievement and cognitive ability”. If they are clear about how to behave, modelling such behaviours, then we have removed a barrier between them and the curriculum. 

Let’s imagine you are observing a lesson. So far it has been calm and productive. The teacher has spent roughly five minutes explaining a particular concept, and she has explained it well. Now the teacher tells the class that, before they work on it individually, they will practise it in pairs. Although they’ve been quiet so far, you saw them in the corridor and they seemed quarrelsome, so this work-in-pairs idea seems ill-fated. Even so, as an observer you must maintain a strict policy of non-interference. All you can do is run your finger round the inside of your collar and wait for her to say, Off you go.’

But instead of this, the teacher first outlines her expectations: we’re going to work in pairs, but you will be speaking one at a time, taking turns. The person with the lightest hair is going to start. Let’s see what that looks like.” 

She picks two students, Joffrey and Sansa, and asks them to take turns listing things you might eat or drink at a wedding. When they’ve done this, the teacher points out, Did you notice that they weren’t shouting out their ideas? They were speaking in a normal conversational voice, just loud enough for the other person to hear.” She adds, And when your partner is sharing an idea, remember to make eye-contact. When I say go, you will have thirty seconds in which to share your ideas.”

She is explicitly teaching the desired learning behaviour, so that she does not have to manage rowdy conversations later. This might not eliminate all poor behaviour, but it reduces the opportunity for poor behaviour. Put another way, if we don’t tell them the rules, they will make their own. 

Will this approach work for everyone? No, and the report is very clear about this: universal systems are unlikely to meet the needs of all students.” It recognises that this isn’t a magic bullet – we still need good classroom management, good relationships, targeted approaches for individuals, and consistency in the application of school-wide systems. 

For most students, though, it’s easy to see that being explicit about learning behaviours is likely to be helpful. It’s what we do when we model subject-specific content, so why not apply the same level of clarity to desired learning behaviours?

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