To improve teaching practices, New Zealand teachers go beyond surveys to get student critiques

To improve classroom practices and get “authentic” student involvement in improving secondary schools, teachers need to go beyond surveys and consult students themselves about their experiences of learning and teaching in the classroom, say two New Zealand researchers in a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Education. The researchers describe a study of a small group of volunteer teachers who wanted more student insight on the relevancy and effectiveness of their teaching.

This research project with six volunteer teachers and 330 students was the first in an ongoing project called “Making Sense of Learning at Secondary School Project”, which is funded through the New Zealand Ministry of Education Teaching and Learning Research Initiative.

“There is a sense, both within New Zealand and internationally, that in spite of widespread curriculum reform, schools have changed less over the past 20 years than have the young people whom they serve,” the researchers write. “This article argues that good practice must necessarily be informed by students’ needs and therefore by consultation with students.”

In earlier work in this area, the researchers write that Michael Fullan observed “the historical absence of students’ voices in research about learning and schooling” and asked “‘What would happen if we treated the student as someone whose opinion mattered?'”

Students reviewed videotaped classes

Each of six volunteer teachers in the school nominated one of their classes in the senior years (11-13) to participate in the study. The classes were on geography, chemistry, mathematics, Bible studies, English. Researchers, teachers and students worked together over a school term (10 weeks).

All students completed questionnaires about what they liked, didn’t like and would like to change about their teacher’s practice about what teaching practices they felt supported or stymied learning. Teachers’ views of learning and teaching were also collected in questionnaires and interviews.

Researchers separately met with teachers to ensure that they felt safe and comfortable with the project. They also met with the student’s in each teacher’s class to explain the project. The researchers observed classes and also used questionnaires, initial interviews, learning journals, fast feedback, video-taped teaching sessions and video stimulated recall interviews. At initial meetings with the classes, the researchers asked each class to appoint a focus group of up to five peers to represent them through the course of the project.

“During the SRI (video stimulated recall interviews), students took control of the video remote control enabling to stop and start the video tape at any time to comment on what was happening in the lesson and to explain what was influencing their learning,” the researchers say. “In this project, the students were regarded as authorities on learning and on teaching, a position they found increasingly comfortable as they realized that the teachers were accepting their insights and reflections as meaningful and authentic feedback.”

Teacher vulnerability a concern

Recognizing that teachers were placing themselves in a vulnerable position, one of the key roles of the researchers was to be supportive of teachers as they opened themselves to feedback from their students. Transcripts of the students’ SRIS were discussed with the teachers each week, providing an important opportunity to reflect on their concepts of students’ learning and the students’ concepts of learning.

“Through positioning the researcher as a conduit for student feedback, students were able to provide feedback with the assurance that it would not, unless they specifically wished, be directly linked to individuals,” the researchers say.

The students were initially skeptical that their input would be taken seriously by their teachers, but as they saw the impact of their critiques being ‘fed back to them’ by changes in teaching practice, they became more purposeful and confident in the feedback they provided , the researchers write. Participating teachers reported significant transformations in their teaching practices, which were confirmed by students in their classes, the researchers conclude.

Said one teacher who participated: “The research has given me more valuable feedback and insights from my students than any of the weekly ‘professional development’ that I attended in the last four years of my teaching career. The feedback from the students has shown me a different perspective about teaching in schools. And the students’ voices have inspired me to try other methods of teaching in class.”

Said a student: “Maybe if the teachers or the school people actually really listened to us they could have a deeper much clearer view and understanding of what we are going through in school.”

A four-fold model is useful in considering the role of students in giving feedback, the researchers say: As sources of data, as active respondents, as co-researchers and as researchers. As the project continues, students and teachers are being encouraged to drive the research process in a more authentic partnership, the researchers note.

“Making sense of learning at secondary school: involving students to improve teaching practice” Cambridge Journal of Education, Volume 35, Number 3, November 2005, Pps. 311-322.

Published in ERN April 2006 Volume 19 Number 4

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