Deteriorating class climate is a blind spot in our education systems, and struggling students will pay an academic price for the disruption.
Students fidgeting, sneaking a peek at smartphones, chatting with one another and disrupting others — this all contributes to making today’s classrooms unsettling places. Yet excessive classroom noise and disruptions remain largely undiagnosed and understudied in Canadian kindergarten-to-grade-12 education. Now, fresh evidence demonstrates that this background noise is interfering with student learning and achievement, particularly for those who are struggling readers.
According to a global student survey conducted in spring 2018 and recently released, one in five 15-year-old Canadian students reported that learning time was lost to noise, distractions and disorder — so much so that they detracted from learning in class. This problem has worsened since the previous survey in 2015.
Canada’s record in this regard is poor: the country ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the OECD 2018 index of disciplinary climate. The index is based on an international survey of 600,000 15-year-old students to capture their views about the state of student discipline in their classes. A relatively high proportion of Canadian students say the teacher is not listened to and it takes a long time for the class to settle down. In addition, students regularly skip school and report late to class.
While most mainstream media and education commentators focus on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 student achievement rankings in reading, mathematics and science, critically important survey data on the lived experience of students tend to be overlooked. Deteriorating class climate is a blind spot because so much of the prevailing philosophy of positive progressive discipline focuses far more on student engagement than on curbing misbehaviour. For that reason, few Canadian policy-makers take the time to make the connection between worsening disciplinary climate and its adverse effect on student achievement.
Noise and disruptions are relatively common in Canadian classrooms, and well above the average among the 77 jurisdictions completing the survey. This is significant because students who report being unable to work well because of such distractions scored 25 points lower in reading on the 2018 PISA test.
For most countries, classroom discipline improved between 2009 and 2018, the OECD report said. Comparing student behaviour in 2015 in Canadian science classes with 2018 behaviour in English classes, student discipline has deteriorated, with more students reporting that the teacher has to wait a long time for students to settle down, that students cannot work well and that they don’t start learning until long after the beginning of the lesson. Students are best behaved in school systems focused more on providing orderly, purposeful teaching, such as those of Korea, Japan and China, and of other authoritarian countries. Classroom unruliness is far worse in Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, Spain, the Philippines, Belgium and Australia than in Canada. Concerns run so high in Australia that discipline has been publicly described as an “entrenched behaviour crisis.”
A total of 38.9 percent of Canadian students reported there was noise or disorder in most or all of their classes, compared with 31.5 percent across the participating OECD states. That’s far higher than in Korea (7.9 percent), Japan (9.7 percent) and the top European performer, Estonia (23.6 percent). It’s also more prevalent here than in the United Kingdom (33.7 percent) and the United States (28.2 percent).
Deteriorating classroom climate is also reflected in other key indicators such as student bullying, absenteeism, lateness and psychological harassment. One out of five Canadian students (19.2 percent) reported “being hit or pushed around by other students.” In the two weeks prior to the PISA test, according to the report, some 23 percent of Canadian students said they skipped one to five or more school days, and over half reported being late to classes at least once.
Student feedback on the PISA 2018 survey drawing attention to noisy classrooms is consistent with recent academic research outside Canada. A 2019 Belgian study, conducted by Marc Vander Ghinst, found that children ages six to nine learning to read have a much tougher time concentrating as classroom noise levels rise. Two University of Wisconsin researchers who tracked 122 high school students confirmed that high background noise can significantly distract students, lowering their mathematics test scores.
Connecting changes in school disciplinary climate with students’ academic achievement challenges is long overdue in Canadian K-12 education. Struggling students in noisy and regularly disrupted classes, according to the OECD, do pay a price in terms of their scores in reading and presumably in other core subject areas.
The School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SW-PBIS) framework has eclipsed other approaches to student behaviour management in Canada and in many of the countries where students report poor disciplinary climate. It’s now used by schools characterized by regular noise, distractions and disorder where students skip school and regularly miss classes. Whether you favour SW-PBIS programs or not, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there has been a breakdown in effective classroom management. Far more attention must be paid to responding to “behavioural violations” (where positive praise does not work) with planned and systematic strategies, including “brief, concise” correctives, “planned ignoring” and the appropriate use of explicit reprimands.
School leadership is critical in instilling a positive and productive school climate and minimizing both class disruptions and student misbehaviour. That is clearly demonstrated in Tom Bennett’s 2017 report for the UK government, Creating a Culture. His UK-wide study of schools and classrooms found that most beginning teachers had little training in class management and that the topic was given minimal attention in initial teacher training. He recommended the introduction of teacher training modules focused on student behaviour and more emphasis on creating a school culture of improved student behaviour in educational leadership programs.
Some education researchers, such as Australian mathematics teacher and blogger Greg Ashman, see student misbehaviour as connected with the decline of explicit instruction and the spread of constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Educators have to be active and skilled at interventions — or noise levels and disruptions become a chronic problem in those classrooms.
One small indication of the change is the virtual disappearance of a particular pedagogical goal: to provide focused, purposeful learning in the classroom. The shift has definitely contributed to loss of teaching time, lags in class preparation and aimless group interactions. “Productive noise” is desirable, to a point, but classes should have a purpose other than playing around with ideas at a general conceptual level.
It is time to seriously examine the disciplinary climate in Canadian schools and its impact on student performance — particularly on students who are struggling readers. That will likely lead us to consider alternatives to school-wide positive behaviour supports and associated class management programs. Without turning schools into joyless little production factories, it should be possible to right the balance in favour of providing all students with more of the benefits of focused, engaged and productive learning environments.
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