01 SES 11 C, Learning in High Performance and Extended Professional Contexts
In everyday school debate high performing students and schools are often seen as something desirable. Not least since the introduction of goal and result systems, benchmarking, accountability, we have entered, more clearly than before, what sometimes is called a performance culture (Ball, 2009; Biesta, 2009 ). But is high performance always something good? Could it be that there is another side to high performing schools than just great scores? Stress and a high workload belong to everyday life at the schools in our project, but it is also common among students in general in Sweden (Skolverket 2016b, Folkhälsoinstitutet 2014, 2016). Studies also indicate that teachers and school leaders stress and workload has increased (Skolverket 2012, 2016; Ärlestig, Day & Johansson 2015; Folkhälsoinstitutet 2014, 2016). When it comes to international research on stress and achievement, the field where we find this type of problems (Welford 1965), it is seldom about education and learning (cf McClelland 1987). When looking at research and evaluations on school stress it often takes a health perspective and give no advice on how to approach these challenges in teaching, assessment and learning (cf. Folkhälsomyndigheten 2014, 2016).
In our project Sustainable learning, we are working with two of the highest performing schools in Sweden with issues concerning human and learning sustainability. Even though the pupils at these schools perform at a top grade in almost all of their subjects, they also show symptoms of mental illness and a disinterest for learning. These schools produce lots of graduates with all options for further studies available to them, but without, in many cases, any eager to actually learn, and without a sound life – work balance. We define this situation as a risk losing young people with a great potential into either instrumental learning or into an unhealthy, stressful, way of working. Using a so called ‘interactive research model’ we are working with the principals and staff over three years to find possible causes and solutions to the students’ unsustainable approach to learning.
Sustainable learning is not a common agreed upon concept. If used it is often related to teaching sustainability to pupils and students (e.g. www.sustainablelearning.com). We propose a definition of sustainable learningas a quality in teaching allowing teachers and students to interact in high quality learning without getting stressed out (cf Boud 2000; Boud & Soler 2016). In the concept we also put a long sightedness when it comes to the quality of knowledge learnt. It should be of value for the students not only now, but also in their future life.
The purpose of the paper is to discuss the rarely problematized ideal of high performing schools and the individuals performing in them. We do this by analyzing field notes and interviews conducted at two high performing schools in Sweden. A first question that is answered in this paper is how challenges in high achieving schools can be understood. A second question that will be elaborated concerns which kinds of strategies school staff can use to approach these challenges when it comes to teaching and assessment.
Added to sustainable learning the project uses knowledge from the latest research about assessment, motivation and learning with practical and theoretical school development strategies.
Therefore, the novelty in the project and in this paper lays in our effort to find out how we can work with teachers to detect ways of adjusting their teaching and their assessment methods in order to reduce stress and promote a more sustainable learning?
The project is designed in line with an interactive action research perspective (Svensson, et al, 2002). This means that we recognize the different logics of research- and practice based systems. Whereas research is built on theories and concepts, works through data collection and analysis which aims for theoretical knowledge production, schools are practice based and build on practical theories and aims for local school development. Both however formulate problems and questions and through interaction they can qualify each other´s processes and outcomes. This means that the project involves frequent interaction during the different phases: problematization, planning, action, observations and reflecting. In other words, the research project is based on an approach to school improvement where the whole school is involved in the work. This paper reports on our empirical research from the first year of the project. It includes five main empirical data sources: • Recurrent observations of lessons and daily activities in school, as background for our understanding of the schools work and culture. • Eight focus group interviews with teachers and two with principals at the two schools during spring 2018. • 53 meetings with principals and pedagogical leaders at the two schools. • Observations of professional development seminar groups with teachers during year one. During the year, the teachers have worked with theoretical input concerning sustainable learning which they have contextualized into the challenges they experience in their school practice. The focus group interviews allow us to explore attitudes, norms, experiences and ideas expressed in professional narratives (Bloor 2001). Observations provides an understanding of how collective actions relate to institutional conditions in the school practice (Czarniawska, 2007). In the analysis we used a thematic approach in which themes are developed in line with the aim of the project, statements in the group interviews and notes from our observation in schools (Kreuger & Casey, 2000). The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The empirical analysis was organized in three steps. After reading the transcripts, we compared and contrasted them with our observations and notes from teachers’ seminar meetings. Thereafter, we analyzed the contents, ideas and frequency of statements. In this process, certain categories were arranged from which specific themes emerged.
The analysis of the focus group interviews and of the field notes from our observations, indicate several specific challenges for high performing schools. In the analysis five intertwined themes emerges: Sustainable assessment, teachers practice, students’ learning and stress, lifelong learning/deep learning and organizational aspects. When it comes to for example assessment, we see that established methods for formative assessment needs to be revised since high performing students have other needs than low or even ordinary, performing students. Whereas assessment for learning literature often recommends clear cut performing goals, we find that this leads to a too instrumental approach at high performing schools. Together with the teachers this can be further explored through practice based actions regarding for example how to start lessons without focusing on to narrow performing goals. Another example, from the teachers’ practice, is the teachers needs to challenge their students. Since the students are high performing there is a clear tendency at both schools to teach more advanced courses than what the curriculum prescribes, and thus further increase the workload for the stressed out students. In sum, the project has shown this far that high performing schools has a very particular culture of performativity, that is shared as much among the students as between the staff members. This culture is both an asset and a burden. Teachers and students both realize the need to work in a more sustainable way and are willing to try new directions, but they are at the same time constrained in changing too much in their every day school life by their eager to reach top grades and high scored outcomes.
Ball, S. J. (2009). Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99 Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability 21:1, s. 33–46 Bloor, M. (red.) 2001. Focus Groups in Social Research. London: SAGE Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking assessment for thelearning society, Studies in Continuing Education, 22:2, 151-167 Boud, D. & Soler, R. (2016) Sustainable assessment revisited, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41:3, 400-413 Czarniawska, B. (2007). Shadowing and other techniques for doing fieldwork in modern societies. Malmö: Liber. Folkhälsomyndigheten (2014). Skolbarns hälsovanor i Sverige 2013/2014. Grundrapport. https://www.folkhalsomyndigheten.se/pagefiles/18915/skolbarns-halsovanor-sverige-2013-14.pdf Folkhälsomyndigheten (2016). Skolprestationer, skolstress och psykisk ohälsa bland tonåringar. https://www.folkhalsomyndigheten.se/pagefiles/23029/skolprestationer-skolstress-psykisk-ohalsa-tonaringar-16003-webb.pdf Krueger, R.A. & Casey, M.A. (2000). Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. McClelland, D. C. (19879: Human motivation. CUP Archive. Skolverket (2012). Attityder till skolan. Stockholm: Fritzes. Skolverket (2016). Attityder till skolan. Stockholm: Fritzes. Svensson, L., Brulin, G. & Ellström, P-E. (2002). Interaktiv forskning – för utveckling av teori och praktik. Mediatryck. Welford, A. T. (1965). Stress and achievement. Australian Journal of Psychology, 17(1), 1-11. Ärlestig, H., Day, C., & Johansson, O. (Eds.). (2015). A decade of Research on School Principals: Cases from 24 countries (Vol. 21). Springer.
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