26 SES 17 A, Leading Schools, Leading Communities
The research is situated in Norway and explores how students participate in schools through the perspectives of students, teachers and school leaders. Using mixed methods, views were collected from seven Norwegian schools between March and November 2020. This research incorporates the research fields of student voice and the leadership of learning communities. However, the research has deliberately avoided using the concept ‘student voice’, primarily because it is not recognised in Norway, where participation is a more appropriate translation of the widely used Norwegian word ‘medvirkning’.
Students’ right to participation in schools is a legal obligation in Norway and has recently received increased attention due to its prevalence in the new National Curriculum (2020). Taking a constructivist stance, the curriculum suggests that students’ participation is central to co-creating learning communities, stating that ‘students must participate and assume co-responsibility in the learning community which they create together with the teachers every day’ (Utdanningsdirektoratet [Department of Education], 2018). This is echoed in the curriculum’s requirements that schools should also be professional learning communities, in which leaders prioritise ‘developing collaboration’ and ‘promote a sharing and learning culture’ among the teachers (Utdanningsdirektoratet [Department of Education], 2018). We wanted to find out more about how students, teachers and school leaders experience student participation and what the implications might be for leaders working to develop schools as learning communities.
The research questions are:
- How do students, teachers and school leaders understand and experience student participation?
- What do these understandings and experiences reveal about schools as learning communities and what are the potential implications for school leadership?
The findings are internationally relevant, indicating disparate interpretations of student participation and significant barriers leading to a range of differing and often limited experiences and practices. Teachers reported a lack of competency in how to involve students as well as concerns about loss of control, school leaders described ideals of student participation, but are uncertain about how to enact them in their schools. Students said their experiences are highly dependent on the approaches of individual teachers and their willingness to be flexible and to listen.
The research utilises a critical pragmatist perspective. Critical pragmatism acknowledges the importance of locally gained knowledge and practice whilst also inviting critical reflexivity about knowledge and practice (Feinberg, 2015). Critical pragmatism can be understood as an intersection between critical thinking and pragmatism. Pragmatism emphasises knowledge and understanding gained through experience, and critical thinking encourages inquiry. As a lens for this research, critical pragmatism has facilitated a focus on practice in various school contexts; on how different members of school communities apply and experience the ideals of the Norwegian national curriculum in their everyday. It has also enabled a critical exploration of the roles of adults and young people, particularly the complex power relationships which exist within schools and classrooms. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has allowed for the consideration of student participation as a central aspect of building and leading learning communities; both through the positioning of young people as autonomous learners actively involved in their own educational experiences and through the integration of listening to and acting upon the views of students as a vital part of reflexive practice for teachers and leaders. These considerations transcend national borders.
This research involved an initial anonymous digital survey of students in seven schools with students aged between 10-19, followed by focus group interviews with students (aged between 10-19), teachers and individual interviews with school leaders in six of the schools (the COVID-19 situation prohibited interviews in the seventh school). The survey allowed for the collection of opinions of a greater number of students, whilst also facilitating comparison between the schools. The face-to-face interviews were semi-structured to allow for exploration of themes in the survey, but also for personal reflections. To some extent, the research design can be described as sequential explanatory (Robson & McCartan, 2016, p. 178), in which the qualitative findings were used to enrich the findings from the questionnaire. The schools were invited to participate in the research, and participants in the focus groups were volunteers recruited by the schools. The response rate to the survey was more than satisfactory, averaging 74%. Capturing the experiences of a wide range of students, teachers and school leaders of listening to and acting upon the views of students is far from straightforward. The phenomenon is complex, not least because schools are, and research which intends to capture experiences from a diverse group of informants requires a multi-faceted design. Mixed methods can go some way to addressing the challenges. Largely defined as the integration of quantitative and qualitative methods to collect and analyse data (Lund, 2012), mixed methods researchers prefer to select a range of methods which are deemed to best suit the phenomena under study, rather than subscribing to the norms of one paradigm. This is closely connected with a critical pragmatist perspective; enabling the selection of a combination of methods which are best suited to the research intentions. Mixed methods research has been described as aiding a more ‘complete’ and therefore accurate representation of a phenomena (Wisdom and Creswell, 2013, p. 1). As Greens and Hill (2005, p. 16) warn, however, ‘triangulation can imply that there is a reality to which one can come closer by combining multiple perspectives’. In educational research, the notion of one ‘reality’ is perhaps inappropriate and the advantages of mixed methods for the field are thus summarised by Pring (2015) as addressing the intricacies of multiplicity; potentially enabling a deeper consideration of opinions, experiences and contradictions.
The findings indicate diverse experiences of student participation. Whilst students in the survey reported that they felt involved to some extent, they were less positive in the group discussions, and struggled with examples of participation. Nevertheless, students were overwhelmingly positive about participation, feeling that they have much to contribute. Students wished to be listened to more, wanting to work together with the adults to improve their schools, thus arguably expressing a stronger desire for schools to be learning communities than the adults. The survey results showed that most students participate in discussions in the classroom about learning. In some schools these discussions involve students’ opinions about their learning. Fewer students are asked how to improve their schools. Respondents described student councils as arenas where students are listened to regarding practical matters. A minority of respondents reported that student councils discussed learning; these discussions are seemingly dependent on teachers’ initiative. Teachers and leaders expressed concerns about whether students should be able to decide “everything” and subsequent implications for their roles. Teachers were uncertain how to facilitate participation; what it might look like in practice and how they could manage it alongside other demands. There were doubts from teachers of older students how participation was compatible with the demands of assessment and accountability. Teachers of younger students were worried about disorder if they lessened their control. External expectations of the roles of students and teachers weighed heavy. Power issues were prevalent. School leaders were unclear about leading the participation of students and teachers’ collaboration. Whilst leaders wanted teachers to involve students, they were unsure of practice; especially how teachers might be supported to overcome barriers. This raises important questions about leaders’ understanding of the impact of their intentions and actions in leading change and moreover, their leadership of learning communities.
Feinberg, W. (2015). Critical Pragmatism and the Appropriation of Ethnography by Philosophy of Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 34(2), 149–157. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-014-9415-6 Greens, S., & Hill, M. (2005). Researching Children’s Experiences: Methods and Methodologies. In S. Greene & D. Hogan (Eds.), Researching children’s experience:Approaches and methods (pp. 1–21). SAGE Publications Ltd. Lund, T. (2012). Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches: Some Arguments for Mixed Methods Research. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 56(2), 155–165. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2011.568674 Pring, R. (2015). Philosophy of Educational Research (3rd ed.). Bloomsbury. Robson, C., & McCartan, K. (2016). Real World Research. John Wiley & Sons. Utdanningsdirektoratet [Department of Education]. (2018). Overordnet del av læreplanverket [Fundamental Principles of the National Curriculum]. https://www.udir.no/laring-og-trivsel/lareplanverket/overordnet-del/ Wisdom, J., & Creswell, J. (2013). Mixed methods: integrating quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis while studying patient-centered medical home models. Rockville: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
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