Wednesday, February 17, 2016

School Culture and Motivation

My last blog discussed the effects of environment and culture on student motivation for learning. I am sharing the results from my high school focus group meetings with students.  I asked them to share with me their insights into the climate at their school, as well as classroom instruction and the courses available to them.  I appreciated their candor and thoughtful responses. 
I asked them to share their thoughts on being a high school student.  Students mentioned a time in elementary school when they were excited about their learning and eager to share with their parents when asked “So how was your day?” Those same students now dreaded that question. What changed over just a few years for students to feel so negative? They mentioned they thought they would receive more responsibility in decision-making and student choice as they progressed from starting middle school and finishing high school.  The comments included “The restrictions that are put in place squash any creativity.” and “School spirit is dead.”  They stated that they believed high school should be a time to prepare them for life. They said that with the current restrictions that it is difficult to see the connection to life.  “We need more career counseling and information to make good choices about college, the military, and work.”

They were disappointed that too many of their teachers lectured or talked for the majority of the class period. They wanted time to work with each other and collaborate.  “Why put our desks together, if you are not going to let us talk?” Their questions on topics outside of the SOL curriculum were often unanswered or left for another time. The test-driven content tied to SOL tests was not a motivation to them. “We hear every day that this is going to be on your SOL test.”  What they really want to know is, “How does this prepare us for life?” The students realized that this is not the fault of the teachers, but a result of what has been prioritized over the past decade.  Teachers have been told that SOL scores are the most important measure of student success, so that is what they tend to focus on.  They are aware of the tremendous stress placed on their teachers when they feel that one test (SOL) is going to be used to measure their effectiveness. 

The students also commented on their own levels of stress which they attribute to learning in a restrictive environment.  They felt strongly that too much emphasis was placed on grades and they weren’t allowed to experience trial and error, or “failing forward”.  “It’s not about learning anymore, it’s about passing.” “We’re human, we are going to make mistakes and sometimes get a bad grade. That one bad grade can keep me from getting a B.”  “The stress from one bad grade takes the fun out of school.  What about the skills, effort, and time that we put in? Doesn’t that count?”
So how could their high school experience be better?  The students offered several suggestions, including training teachers and students in the uses of technology. General appearance of the school was also important to them and they said the learning environment could be improved by purchasing new furniture, frequently painting and keeping the school clean. They want to see student work on display throughout the school.  They see this in other schools and which only emphasizes the absence of it in their building.  They also wanted to know why school started so early and commented that a later start time like 9 am would work better for high school students.

While the students had significant concerns, they did share positives about their high school experience.  Their concerns and the changes they suggested were very insightful and align nicely with the direction the state and IWCS are headed with performance – based learning opportunities. After my experience with the student focus groups, I immediately saw the benefits of listening to what they had to say.  They students provided valuable suggestions and comments but I don’t think we’ve given them the avenue for communicating these ideas with school and division leaders.  As we move towards a culture with an emphasis on student’s producing beautiful work, with an emphasis on the 4 C’s, I am hopeful that many of the concerns I heard a few weeks ago will just be distant memories.