Bennie Kara discovers an excellent, practical guide to behaviour management that sometimes misses the mark with its commentary

Education circles will be familiar with the ubiquitous Tom Bennett, founder of ResearchEd and, since 2015, government “behaviour tsar”. In his latest work, he guides us through a curriculum for behaviour designed to support teachers new and old in maintaining order in their classrooms.

In a book that starts off slowly (the majority of his practical strategies start to appear nearly halfway through), Bennett leads teachers through the science of behaviour using common metaphors. The book’s title is a metaphor derived from Bennett’s own experiences of working in nightclubs, where keeping order and ensuring safety was an exercise in organisation, anticipation and preparation of the space.

Throughout, the concept of firefighting is used to demonstrate the need to make behaviour strategies preventative – to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to poor behaviour. The unifying thread of the text is that prevention is better than cure – that “a fence at the top of a cliff is preferable to an ambulance at the bottom”.

What is important is the emphasis on behaviour needing to be taught, not told

Bennett’s argument over 340 pages of substantive material is that creating a culture of good behaviour in the classroom is a deliberate and considered process, in which the teacher is an agent of authority, and the gatekeeper for the rule of law, not just in school but subsequently in wider society. Through explorations of philosophy, psychology and politics with a small ‘p’, he outlines behaviour management in two distinct sections: “Human Nature” and “Creating the Culture”.

In many ways, there is nothing revolutionary here. What is important is the emphasis on behaviour needing to be taught, not told. Bennett maintains this is a systematic process like any other transference and retention of knowledge. He makes the allegedly intangible, tangible; asserting (correctly, in my opinion) that this approach takes the guesswork out of behaviour management and facilitates better learning for all. New teachers are far too often left to discover independently how to run the room, which leads inevitably to exhaustion and disillusion – and ultimately, poor retention of teaching personnel.

It is worth mentioning that Running the Room anchors itself in a very particular education theory.  One only has to look at the list of endorsements to know that the book is predicated on what some call “traditionalist” principles. Be under no illusion: this a book that deals in routines, rules, conformity and scripts as well as rewards and relationships. If the thought of this makes you break out into hives, this book may not be your thing.

Whether one buys into the “progressive vs traditionalist” binary or not, at times we witness Bennett himself slipping into partisan commentary on the merits of the strategies in his book. Often footnoted, the commentary at times feels unnecessary and generalised. Those who disagree with his philosophy are said to have “little experience of lack” and treat children “as guinea pigs for the fairy tales they tell themselves”. The same footnote asserts that “considerable sections of the education sector […] think this way”.  Such assertions detract from what is otherwise an excellent guide to systematic behaviour management.

Unfortunately, Bennett misses an opportunity to thoroughly explore the thornier aspects of behaviour management. Teacher perception of groups of children is only directly addressed towards the end of the book. He mentions how we might unconsciously reward students disproportionately, but does not tackle the issue of how this negatively affects particular groups.  How this curriculum might help solve that problem is left unexplored.

The ultimate test of a behaviour book is whether it can be directly applied to the classroom and Running the Room certainly can. Amidst the references to Hume, Locke, Hirsch, Dylan Wiliam, Marzano, Aristotle, Rousseau and Hans Gruber from Die Hard, there is a behaviour curriculum here that may just make the lives of new teachers far less complicated and exhausting.