inTuition taster: Responding to a disruptive learner

Susan Wallace suggests teachers need to turn philosopher to weigh up the best way to deal with that typical teaching headache: the learner who’s distracting everyone else’s concentration. But at the end of the day, it’s the teacher’s psychological insights that will work out the best way to help the disrupter.

Sue WallaceMost of us are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as philosophers; and yet every day, as teachers, we are weighing up our position between two famous philosophical arguments and choosing the stance we’ll take.

To understand this, imagine a situation, familiar to teachers everywhere, where a group of learners are working more or less on task – except for one whose behaviour is beginning to disturb the concentration of the rest. The way we respond will be an indicator of whose rights we consider to be paramount in that context. Do you, in this instance, believe, like the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), that the rights of the individual are more important than the rights of the collective, and that no one person should be treated by any other as a means to an end?

If so, you may tend to give your attention to the disruptive learner and do what you can to get them back on track. Or do you judge in this case that the progress of the majority should be your priority? In which case, you’d be aligning yourself with the utilitarian argument advanced by, for example, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1842), that the benefit of the many is always more important than the individual rights of the few.

If so, your response will be something along the lines of shutting down, ‘telling off’ or reporting the learner in question. We all make these sorts of calls instantaneously every day. They are just one of the multitude of professional challenges that we face. And it’s rare that we credit ourselves with arriving at philosophical decisions about what constitutes social justice.

So what I want to talk about firstly here are some of the practical ways we can devise strategies which are consistent with the Kantian view that every individual’s rights matter – even when that individual is a learner whose behaviour is testing your patience to the limits.

And a good place to start is with how we construe the behaviour. By that, I mean whether we regard it simply as a nuisance or whether we take it personally as an insult to our professional competence. Or can we pull back a little and see it as a useful source of information which, if we’re able to read it accurately, will provide us with clues about how best we can encourage the learner to engage.

For example, a learner who’s opting out of the lesson or the task in hand may be doing so for a number of reasons which have more to do with fear than with laziness or malice. These might include one or more of the following:

  • Fear that they will fail at the task, thus reinforcing their own lack of self-esteem.
  • Fear that they will get something wrong and look ridiculous in front of their peers.
  • Fear that by engaging they will appear insufficiently cool and lose their rebel image.

Professional evaluation

Your professional evaluation of the learner’s entry behaviour and ability level may allow you to home in on which, if any, of these factors is the likeliest cause.

However, it’s always a good idea to build opportunities into your lesson plan for a one-to-one chat to help you ascertain the nature and extent of the problem. This, in turn, will give you a clue to what strategies might work. If you suspect a disengaged learner of being covertly afraid of failure there are various familiar approaches you could try.

  • Avoid aiming direct questions at the learner, which could make them feel exposed in front of the rest of the class.
  • Make sure the learner is seated for group work with peers you know to be positive and supportive.
  • Build confidence through the staged use of differentiated tasks and outcomes, particularly those that will build on the learner’s existing strengths.
  • Find opportunities to give the learner praise if at all possible, rewarding effort, for example, if not achievement; or praising them for remaining on task even if not completing on time. On the other hand, your professional assessment of the learner’s mindset and abilities might lead you to conclude that their disengagement or non-compliance is conveying a quite different message; that their goal seems not to avoid exposure but appears rather to be a bid for attention. In this case, again, there are a number of well-tried strategies you can draw on in order to bring them back on board. These are largely about managing the situation so that the learner discovers that they can gain the attention they crave more readily by joining in and engaging with the lesson. 
  • Asking them to act as an observer in group work and feed back to you.
  • Asking them to look up online a key piece of information necessary for the task with which the class is engaged.
  • Appointing them to act as scribe and write up group ideas on the whiteboard.
  • Ignoring, as far as possible, the disengaged behaviour, taking special care not to openly challenge it, which would allow it to draw the focus of the entire class.

While it might be objected that this looks a bit too much like rewarding poor behaviour, I would say that a pragmatic approach is often necessary if we are to achieve our prime purpose: supporting the development and progression of our learners.

Once an attention-seeker finds that engagement pays off, but that disengagement will be (as far as possible) ignored, you already have them halfway on board.

Greater good

What, though, of the learner whose persistent disengagement spills over into disruptive behaviour which threatens the motivation and progress of the rest of the class? This is where we may need to change our philosophical allegiance and adopt the Benthamite approach of putting the greater good of the many before the good of the one or the few.

This may mean invoking disciplinary procedures and/or asking for the learner to be removed. Or it might mean referring the disruptive learner on for professional help, particularly if:

  • Their behaviour becomes confrontational or violent.
  • You suspect the underlying cause of disengagement may be drug or alcohol abuse.
  • You have reason to suspect serious problems in the home environment.
  • You suspect there may be psychological issues which are beyond your remit to deal with.

Whether we judge it best to prioritise the individual or the group, the bottom line is that we must make a decision and act on it appropriately. Failing to do so would be to the detriment of everyone, teacher included. To be seen letting a learner disengage without consequences will set the rest wondering why anyone should bother.

Simply having a confrontation with the learner is more likely to distract or entertain the rest than motivate them to remain on task. And if all else fails and you can’t get the learner engaged with the lesson, get them engaged in conversation with you instead. That way, you may gain more clues as to the best way forward.

I suggested at the beginning of this piece that we are all philosophers, whether we know it or not. But that’s the very least of it. To interpret learners’ behaviour – to work out what it’s telling us about how we can best help them – calls for us to apply some psychological insight. And to decide where to draw the line, and whether to refer the problem on to other professionals, often requires us to put on our social worker hats. Philosophers, psychologists, social workers: no wonder ours is such a demanding – and above all rewarding – profession.

Susan Wallace is emeritus professor of education at Nottingham Trent University. She is an author and expert in behaviour management. 

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