The teacher who thought twice to create a better school
9 September 2022
How can we make schools more orderly? How can we create a pleasant, peaceful classroom environment where students learn what is required and no one is excluded? Martin Karlberg has been studying these issues for over 20 years. Now, he’s launching a research project in which 100 schools around the country will try out two different versions of a method called the IBIS programme.
"I am interested in creating a working environment for teachers that is pleasant and productive and a study environment for students that leads to learning and development. Then I'm interested in students coming to school and staying there and feeling well. The aim of IBIS is to influence all this," says Martin Karlberg, continuing:
"If we can implement the programme as effectively as it has been implemented elsewhere, it is likely to have an impact on the well-being of both staff and students. It is likely to affect school performance, mental health and attendance.
IBIS (Inclusive Behavioural Support in Schools) is about schools working proactively on peaceful work environments, structure, routines and rules, as well as relationships between teachers and pupils. In this way, a positive school culture will be created that strengthens students' academic achievement and social skills. The programme is based on similar programmes in the US and Norway. Research there has shown positive effects.
"The results have shown behavioural changes in the students, i.e., reduced problem behaviour, less bullying, higher attendance rates, improved school performance and also improvements in mental health," says Martin Karlberg.
In Sweden, several primary and lower-secondary schools in and around Uppsala have been working with IBIS. The project recently received a grant of almost SEK 6 million from the Swedish Research Council to study the effects of introducing the programme and its abbreviated version, IBIS-k, in 100 schools across the country over three years. Half of the schools will participate in the IBIS programme in its traditional form and the other half in the IBIS-k abbreviated version. The results will then be compared.
"The difference is that IBIS-k focuses more unilaterally on classroom leadership and what one might call the core components of instruction. For example: how to work with relationships, how to start and end lessons, how to conduct structured teaching, how to prevent and deal with conflicts and children in distress. The traditional version of IBIS is based on applied behavioural analysis and focuses on systematic work to promote positive behaviours and to create the conditions for students to behave in accordance with school expectations and rules.
In traditional IBIS, all staff from the headmaster to teachers, leisure-time teachers and school caretakers are involved and in schools that have already implemented the programme, this has proven to be important.
"We have a school in the Uppsala area where the cafeteria staff were not participating in IBIS at the start. But they asked to be involved after a while because they saw that something exciting was happening with the students," says Martin Karlberg.
What happened to the students?
"It was calmer, there was less commotion, they were nicer and they stayed longer in the dining hall. They behaved more in line with our expectations of how to behave in a dining hall.” The same can be seen at Treklangen School in Gottsunda. They have been involved in developing IBIS from the beginning and have continued for four years. They report a lot of positive things happening, with students more engaged during lessons, it being calmer, a better study atmosphere, it working better in the cafeteria.
Routines, structure, security and predictability are the cornerstones of creating a good school environment where students thrive and develop. This is particularly true for students who are anxious or have a neuropsychiatric disability, such as ADHD or autism.
Another important part of IBIS is to reduce scolding and nagging as research shows that these damage teacher-student relationships and do not lead to a change in behaviour in the long run.
“We assume that the vast majority of pupils in most contexts will want to do what we expect of them, and this means that we must be good at creating the conditions, a context in which they can behave according to our expectations. So the IBIS programme and its predecessors are usually said to be a so-called proactive programme. Instead of only rewarding students who do the right thing and punishing students who do the wrong thing in different ways, we try to create a situation where it is easier for the student to do the right thing," says Martin Karlberg.
He has long been involved in the area of truant students. His research has shown that the most common underlying causes are anxiety and depression as well as neuropsychiatric disability. Similarly, he has seen that students with high levels of absenteeism are at increased risk of exclusion, mental illness, substance abuse and crime.
"There have been times when I have sat with very large amounts of data and got stuck in individual students' survey responses. For example, I remember when a student with a lot of absences had answered that he or she had no friends and poor contact with his or her parents. It was really heartbreaking.”
Martin Karlberg himself worked as a primary school teacher for eight years. But in the early 2000s, a psychologist friend who was conducting a research study in primary school asked if he wanted to be involved. He did. From that point on, thoughts of becoming a researcher himself began to germinate. But he has never given up teaching, and today it is university-level student-teachers, rather than children, to whom he imparts knowledge.
"It's great fun, but there's no getting away from the fact that there's something special about teaching students to count and read. It’s like, you can send home a first grader dancing across the schoolyard and singing "I can read, I can read", when they couldn't do it that morning. At the same time, I think it's really fun to meet student-teachers. Standing in front of student-teachers and giving lectures or seminars is really fulfilling," says Martin Karlberg.
Facts Martin Karlberg
Position: Associate professor in didactics with a focus on inclusion.
Education: Teacher education, PhD in didactics 2011
Family: Wife, two teenage boys, two golden retrievers and two cats
If I weren’t a researcher and teacher, I would have been: A carpenter, I love carpentry.
What inspires me: How other people learn and develop
Most proud of: That I'm a decent dad
Hidden talent: Can solve Rubik's cube in just over a minute.
Awards: The 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award