“The Social Mediation of Classroom Behaviour”

The Social Mediation of Classroom Behaviour
Moss G. Paper presented to the International Conference on Neuroplasticity and Brain Modification, Jerusalem, June 2013

Social mediation is the process of communicating in relevant ways a behaviour curriculum which will equip young people with the skills to better manage their learning and social interactions – skills whose importance they appreciate and ultimately internalise into their own repertoire of moral understanding.

According to recent teacher reports increasing numbers of school children are openly hostile and defiant in their lessons, unwilling to conform to the traditional expectations of student behaviour.[1] The perception of these teachers, comparing the student behaviour they face with their own social norms, is that these students must have some form of emotional disturbance, and that these are increasing in frequency. [2] Traditional approaches to discipline do not seem effective in many such classrooms. How are we to deal with this ‘cultural rupture’ between those who teach and those who are meant to learn?

While much of this disruptive classroom behaviour might on the surface seem typical of the emotionally disturbed child, the fact is that for many of students its aetiology is more a deficit of behaviour learning rather than some social learning dysfunction.  The reason is that within the space of a generation the nature of childhood, as experienced by many young people in the developed world, has changed significantly. Within the UK a combination of social, cultural, technological and legal changes has transformed adult-child roles and relationships, often to create more challenging students and less assertive teachers. [3] Under these changed circumstances many children do not acquire the mindset that appreciates the legitimate role of the teacher, nor practise the behavioural routines that allow for pedagogic complexity, nor develop the impulse control to manage upsetting emotions in the face of adversity. Traditional ‘behaviourist’ approaches to the classroom may therefore not succeed in modifying those neurocognitive processes that engender such antisocial behaviour in increasing numbers of students.

Our approach to dealing with this ‘cultural rupture’ between those who teach and those who are meant to learn was to look at Feuerstein’s theory of mediated learning experiences applied to cognitive development [4], and apply similar concepts to the acquisition of interpersonal skills. As in cognitive mediation, our aim is to provide mediated leaning experiences that will create a bridge between what children have so far learned, in this case about social roles and relationships, and what they need to achieve next in order to be more successful in the varied social contexts of classroom learning.

Typically in the past, classroom behaviour management has focused on managing students’ external behaviour. However the behaviour that attracts so much of a teacher’s attention is like the tip of the iceberg; it is the observable part of a person’s psychological state. What lies beneath the surface, those cognitive processes and emotional reactions, provides the impetus and the fuel for that behaviour. Social Mediation therefore aims to promote the students’ cognitive and emotional self-management. In role as social mediators, teachers do more than teach behaviour as a set of rules. They coach these behaviours in all circumstances in a child’s life at school, to help the student develop a repertoire of behaviour skills.

Social mediation aims to modify children’s thoughts and feelings about the teacher-pupil role and relationship, from negative to positive, by taking teaching opportunities as they arise in lessons – not in a way that is separated from the ongoing teaching-learning process but incidentally, as an integral part of it. This means that the teacher is mediating from the initial instructional phase of the lesson, during the operational on-task phase, all the way through to the review and evaluation phase.

At each phase there is likely to be a change of “learning behaviour” required of the student – from listening to talking, from reading to writing, from remaining in place to moving about the room, and so on. At each point the teacher must explain the required behaviour with unusual clarity, for example, the task might be

“How many examples of mammals can you find in section 6 of your workbook? Make a note of then and write them down in your jotter.”

This instruction only explains the task. It does not clarify the behaviour required to undertake it. So the teacher adds –

“This activity allows you to apply your new knowledge of mammalian attributes, and to use that to be able to discriminate from non-mammals.
You will work with your partner. Remember when working in pairs to use a partner voice.
You need your jotter, workbook, and a pen that works.
Remain in your place during this activity; if you need any help or have any questions, raise your hand, wait for me to come to you.
have ten minutes to complete the task.”

She then checks for understanding not just of how to perform a particular behaviour but also of the reasons for that behaviour, ensuring that students realise it is not because of some arbitrary requirement imposed by adults, but because there is a valid pedagogical reason for it.

“So, why do we need to be using partner voices right now?”

At each phase of the lesson the teacher also takes the opportunity to recognise the emotional self-management required at times of students when learning new skills or tackling difficult tasks.

“Well done Matt for sticking at that job and finishing it. I know it was fiddly to do but you stayed focused and never gave up even though some bits were really tricky. Good work.”

Through the process of social mediation teachers seek to promote internally guided actions and to promote intrinsic motivation for responsible behaviour. When students believe that a certain way of behaving in a situation is appropriate and they feel good about doing it, then we may say they are intrinsically motivated to perform that behaviour. Their thoughts, feelings and actions are all in agreement.

However, some of our students will possess little internal motivation initially to learn and apply learning behaviours. They are already well skilled at claiming attention by disruptive means, at avoiding tasks by prevarication, at responding to their own immediate impulse for self-gratification rather than to the needs of the group, and so on. These behaviours readily achieve pay-off for the student. The behaviour gets them what they want. It works for them – so why change?

The social mediation of behaviour must therefore pay attention to both the external social factors and the internal psychological factors that influence behaviour. In social mediation the teacher takes on the role of “behaviour coach”, not only instructing, but also modelling, encouraging, explaining, correcting and then instructing all over again. [5] The teacher is not just coaching the observable social behaviour through clear explanation and ongoing supportive and corrective feedback as that behaviour is in use. The teacher is also, and more subtly, developing the child’s intrinsic motivation, by helping the child reflect at times upon his thinking and feeling state.

The goal of social mediation is the deliberate and careful process of transmitting appropriate and effective social values through a teaching and coaching process. It happens in ‘real time’ –

“Alright everyone, the appropriate behaviour for this situation right now is …”
“Well done this table, good sharing of ideas…”
“Jack, that behaviour is not acceptable in this classroom….”

When required it goes beneath the surface behaviour and reflects on the immediate emotional and cognitive processing that is occurring within the child –

“I appreciate you don’t want to do this, but right now I need you to….”
“Thank you Jodie for stopping painting and listening to me. I can see you were doing something really interesting but you still stopped to pay attention. Well done…”
“Ayshea, I realise that you feel angry about this but it’s not ok for you to….”

Social learning is also happening ‘through’ a human mediator i.e. the teacher, as opposed to ‘direct’ learning in an abstract context. While the teacher is aware of what appropriate behaviour needs to be used, she is also aware of the psychological state of the student right now, and mediates accordingly.  “The mediator controls what is learned, how it is perceived, and what meaning is abstracted in the learner’s mind from the learning experience. The mediator often attempts to change the learner’s psychological state, the nature of the stimuli, and even herself in order to produce a learning experience.” [6]

If children today perceive the world in quite different terms than they did a decade or so ago, then our expectations of responsible behaviour can often be at variance with theirs.  When mind sets are challenged, emotions will be stirred.  The demand upon the teacher is then to create a learning environment that creates the psychological conditions for constructive learning.  In this respect, social mediation makes considerable demands of the teacher’s own personal resources.

Schools are charged with the responsibility of making decisions about what is proper behaviour and what is not. While those decisions will be influenced by the moral codes of society in general, it remains the responsibility of schools to articulate them and to teach them. In that respect there is nothing “post-modernist” about social mediation. It does not say all behaviours are equally valid!

“When we talk about the social mediation of behaviour this is not the same as the strict social determination of behaviour. For example, in the past a child may have learned from family and school that stealing is wrong, because authority says so. When that authority is no longer present we must move to a higher stage of moral development. We teach that stealing is wrong because it deprives others of their rightful property, not because certain religious and secular authorities oppose it.”  [7]

Authentic social mediation involves the development of values and the refinement of the behavioural skill in performing social acts – sometimes through justifying reasons which may contradict the child’s previous experiences and mind set. “The goal of teaching behaviour is not to have compliant students who dutifully sit quietly and follow their teacher’s directions.  It is to teach students to manage their own behaviour so that learning can take place – to make positive choices about how they behave, whether or not a teacher is watching.” [8]

[1] Retrieved http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/mar/24/schools-disruptive-behaviour
[2] House of Commons Education Committee 2011 Behaviour & Discipline in Schools
[3] ref Worlds Apart]
[4] Feuerstein, R., Falik, L., Rand, Y., & Feuerstein, Ra. S. (2006). Creating and enhancing cognitive modifiability: The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment program. Jerusalem: ICELP Press
[5] Moss, G. (1998) Coaching and Behaviour, Managing Schools Today  November-December.
[6] Ben-Hur, M. (1994) On Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment : A Collection  IRI Skylight Training & Publishing
[7] Conley J. J. “Retrieving Conscience” http://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/FR94304.htm
[8] Canter L (2005) Classroom Management for Academic Success. Solution Tree.