I’ve been fascinated by the behaviour of students (and teachers) my entire career. I’ve worked for over a decade in a school that has come from special measures up to the lofty heights of ‘good’ (#ditchthegrades), and we still have a mix of students from vastly different economic and social standings, of which a minority provide a real challenge on a daily basis.
After reading Tom Sherrington’s blog about his work with Turton School I wanted to find out more about this concept of a ‘hive switch‘ so this week I read Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The blogs in general are full of good advice and aim to move thinking away from short-term intervention-lead triage, instead changing climate and culture to create long-term changes in pupil performance. I can definitely agree in principle with the logic and aim of this; unfortunately some of us find ourselves trying to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’: staffing issues, or schools in inspection cycles making tough decisions to make huge changes in outcomes within a 12 month period.
The Righteous Mind is a fascinating book and as well as helping me understand more about how different students might react in the same situation, it really helped me understand social issues and the current political climate across the EU and US. It also gave me a nice background on moral psychology. I would thoroughly recommend.
Here is my quick take on some of the more pertinent aspects for teachers:
- The rider and the elephant.
The mind is divided into parts, like a rider (controlled processes) on an elephant (automatic processes). The rider evolved to serve the elephant.
I find this analogy so pertinent, especially for teenagers! Haidt uses evidence from his own studies and others to suggest that this model holds true in moral judgements and other decisions. Essentially, the rational mind is there to justify the instinctive gut reactions to situations. Like a rider on an elephant who feels the elephant changing direction so pretends like that was what they intended all along, people make justifications for their instinctive reactions and make ‘post-hoc rationalisations’ for their beliefs.
This is every confrontational conversation in a school EVER! Haidt suggests that to get people on your side and willing to listen you have to ‘talk to the elephant first’:
If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.
I think this is why you often hear about behaviour management being ‘all about the relationships’. This is great but really a kick in the teeth to staff that find that aspect of the job difficult; it also risks staff putting the relationship above the behaviour and can lead to favouritism. At worst it can lead to my pet hate … getting the ‘naughties’ to go on special trips and be rewarded.
So in a confrontational situation with a student I think its pretty clear to assume that their elephant will initially be working on the idea of ‘the teacher hates me’ and in our conversations we have to pivot them away from that by finding ways for them to feel heard. I think this is where the school’s behaviour policy must actively work to promote both the rules to be followed and the reason why – it needs to be laid on thick with the students that the rules are there for their benefit and it is not personal.
2. The Ring of Gyges
Glaucon (Plato’s brother) asks Socrates to imagine what would happen to a man who has the mythical ring of Gyges, which makes its wearer invisible.
Glaucon’s thought experiment implies that people are only virtuous because they fear the consequences of getting caught
I think this is relatively self-explanatory, most societal checks and balances work by making sure people who behave outside of their group’s norms are identified and ostracised. The battle we have in schools is who forms the groups and establishes their norms. I’m sure we all have anecdotes of students with incredibly challenging behaviours that are completely outside the norm.
I can think of one student in particular who was prone to a vast array of disruptions and work-avoidance strategies (my top 3 of his were: pretending to be a duck, hiding in the staff toilets, and drawing Hitler moustaches on his table partner), but because he was a lone wolf and outside of the social groups of the school his behaviour was not endorsed and normalised by the group, and so he was easily dealt with by the school behaviour policy and outside agencies.
Now his brother was a different story. He had equally disruptive behaviour but he was a charismatic leader, he knew the value of getting others on side and so created problems not just in the lesson, but in the corridors and in the community by his ability to create a shift in the culture and behaviour of a large group of people.
This is the crux of a school’s ethos: how do we form the groups, create the ‘groupish behaviours’ we want to see in our students and communicate this to them effectively? Our systems need to deal with disruptive behaviour but we also need to be seen by the greater school community to be dealing with it: it can’t be hidden away, students need to know the consequences are real and not just idle threats.
3. Humans are 90% Chimp and 10% Bee
Haidt makes a compelling case for an evolutionary explanation for humans’ apparent ‘groupish’ behaviour. Humans appear to be able to put aside their selfishness and genuinely form part of a collective group that will result in them fulfilling a role and part of the greater good.
I think you see this everywhere in schools, from the students to the staff. He uses the term ‘Homo Economicus’ to describe a transactional approach to human society that at a surface level works well but fails to explain altruism and self sacrifice.
This reminds me of school rewards systems: they work on the assumption that capital gain is a strong motivator (or at least an effective one that is easy to administer). But there is a compelling case to be made that these achievement points/ merits / house points etc. are not an effective moderator of behaviour. They work merely as a way of recognising and thanking students for the things they were already going to do. They do not actively lever students to do the right thing, especially if that thing contradicts the usual behaviour of the group.
It seems clear to me that a behaviour policy needs to be more than a published list of sanctions and rewards; it needs to deliberately establish the conditions for correct behaviour and the modes of communication of this to the staff and student body.
4. The Hive Switch
If I am honest, the fact that this was not a magic bullet that instantly laid out all I wanted to know was a little disappointing. Naively I was hoping for a secret set of words or processes that would make students buy in. Turton School’s blog on the hive switch didn’t specifically give their rules or procedures, which triggered me to read the book. It was only after reading the book that I realised that the actual content is irrelevant. It is the way the rules and procedures are communicated that makes them effective.
The Hive Switch is essentially different ways humans can be made to form effective groups where the aim of the group is more important than their individual aims. Suggestions in the book include military drills, psychedelic drugs, raves and fascist dictators. None of these are particularly achievable in mixed comprehensives (well, maybe the raves) but incidentally do have a role in faith and independent schools (not sure about the LSD or dictators).
But it appears the hive switch can be activated by a transformational leadership model and by other simple techniques. Having a common language, repetition and talking to the elephant all help to secure buy-in when applied with a large dollop of charisma.
It was at this point that I realised that my school already has the requirements in place to make it happen. We are a Level 2 Gold Rights-Respecting school and a leading partner of UNICEF (look for us on Soccer Aid this week). As part of the process we created a list of desired behaviours known as ‘The Regis 10’. They are all typical things involving mutual respect, effort etc.
Unfortunately we have moved away from them recently in favour of the actual articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and I think this has muddied the waters a little. It has taken away a simple script that all staff could stick to and a common language of expectations that was easy to communicate. I think ‘The Regis 10’ could be our Hive Switch if used correctly.
5. Religion is a team sport
Essentially sport and religion both promote ‘groupish behaviour’ and a common sense of being through collective rituals and shared goals. Some schools do this really well and create an ‘us vs them’ mentality either within ‘houses’ or between schools (e.g. the boat race). Essentially both sport and religion are experts at flipping the Hive Switch.
On reflection, if I were in charge of a school behaviour policy, based on the ideas of The Righteous Mind I would do the following:
- Use ‘The Regis 10’ language in all conversations about behaviour, both positive and negative
- Create groupish behaviour by having all staff committed to upholding the expectations of the students: you have to flip the Hive Switch in staff first. Sell the staff on a vision of the school and a need to uphold these standards at all times, not just for the school to function, but for the students to become the best humans they can be.
- When talking to students all staff should be using ‘we’ not ‘I’, and we should not be discussing the sanctions as threats but rather why and how expectations are to be met for the good of the group. Every pastoral conversation and assembly needs to highlight directly or indirectly how these values will support the students (and more importantly the school/group) in future endeavours.
- Sanctions and rewards should be consistent, fair and visible. Teenagers have a high level of the ‘fairness moral foundation’ and a keen sense of proportional fairness so they need to see that students don’t get away with transgressions.
- Behaviour-modifying conversations (such as those by ‘on-call’ staff) need to talk to the elephant: they need to be soft in tone but assertive and remind the students of why the rule exists and how they can get back on the right path.
I think these ideas will be useful for me if I ever progress into school leadership and at a class teacher/department level there may be areas I can use within my team and my classes. I have a feeling once I get back to school more layers of the book will start to fall into place and I will find myself dipping back into this topic at a later date.