Schools are innovative and inspirational places, in which no one day is the same. Yet so much of a teacher’s working life is based on tradition and doing what has always been done. In this insightful blog, teacher Sarah Withey reflects on her own practice and challenges established norms…

 

It was a challenging Wednesday afternoon lesson with my Year 4 pupils and I’d spent the last 10 minutes finding numerous ways to coerce my particularly excitable group to sit quietly to complete the task set, when one of my pupils exclaimed: ‘Why do we have to sit still?’

At that moment a thought occurred to me – why had I asked them to sit at their desks?

Throughout my time at university and teaching practices, there seemed to be an inherent code of behaviour, a set of expectations universally accepted by teachers that were inclusive of rules such as sitting at desks and being quiet whilst working.

I thought back to classrooms I had taught in when I was on supply and throughout my placements that all contained some form of brightly coloured, laminated sheets of card that exhibited the ‘classroom rules’, all of which showed rules like ‘we must be quiet when others are working’ or ‘we must sit nicely on the carpet’. Up until now it seemed ludicrous as to why I hadn’t questioned these indelible rules in my own teaching.

When you look at worldwide behaviour, and in particular, behaviour that is specific to different countries, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Behaviour that is acceptable in one country is interpreted to be rude in others.

A simple ‘thumbs up’ gesture in the UK is seen as a form of approval or achievement, whereas the same gesture in the Middle East is thought to be an insult. It leads me to think if behaviour is so different between countries, then why do we stick so rigidly to expectations of children within our classrooms?

As teachers, we view each pupil as unique in their learning and understanding of our teaching so I question myself to think: ‘Should I not be viewing each pupil separately in terms of behaviour expectations?’

I think about my own learning behaviour and the realisation of the joy I’ve found in learning as an adult; learning that occurs in a multitude of settings, learning that occurs outside of a classroom governed by its rules and social normatives.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine by Lund University, in Sweden, concluded that pupils who were more active in school showed greater attention, had faster cognitive processing speeds and performed better in standardised tests than pupils who were less active; this was particularly pertinent in the study of boys’ education.

‘We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning.’ Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J.

Professsor J.F. Sallis of the University of California, San Diego, who researched the association between activity breaks and classroom behaviour states that: ‘Activity helps the brain in so many ways’. He found that when a pupil engages in physical activity, it stimulates more blood vessels in the brain which essentially ‘wakes up the brain’.

Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, believes that pupils aren’t meant to sit still all day to take in information and argues that as adults we aren’t ‘wired that way’, so why should our expectations be any different for children?

As a topic of extensive research with conclusions being drawn that the idea of sitting still is not only counter-intuitive but counterproductive, and with employers introducing standing desks and multi-sensory work environments – shouldn’t we be rethinking the way that we as teachers run our classrooms?

I looked back at the boy in front of me who in hindsight had asked such a pertinent question and suddenly felt a wave of shame wash over me for failing to question my own reasoning behind such rules that play a daily part in my teaching of others. In asking myself why I wanted my pupils to sit still, I had realised what I should be asking them is: ‘In what way do you learn best?’

Whilst as a teacher, I understand that a classroom needs to have mutually accepted boundaries to avoid the ensuing chaos that would follow; I have also taken things that I have learnt for granted and instead of questioning my own practice, have often blindly followed common practices many of which (on reflection) seem outdated and irrelevant to the classroom environment that I am trying to create.

As a final thought I ask – are all of our rules truly necessary?

  • Sarah Withey is a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) and Specialist Teacher at an independent primary and secondary school in Swansea. She is also a first year student on Yr Athrofa’s Doctorate in Education programme

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