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Do your Child’s Feelings Matter at School?

In ‘World Class – How to Build a 21st Century School System’, Andreas Schleicher, an education expert and an author, writes about our educational myths, our beliefs based on our distorted understanding of education.

In it, he maintains some of our pet ideas about education could be off mark, and that we could be misguided in our beliefs about education in many ways, putting our trust about our children’s education in the wrong principles. He illustrates our beliefs on such matters as educational spending, background and performance, talent and class size and a number of other issues that could be erroneous. Mr. Schleicher explains children of the poor do not necessarily perform worse than their affluent counterparts, and that the amount of money countries spend on education is not directly related to the success of their education systems. Moreover, he argues smaller class-sizes do not automatically produce good results. Talent doesn’t determine results, he further clarifies. Rather, it is effort that determines student success at school.

]Mr. Schleicher is the Director of the Education Directorate at the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), a club of rich countries. In 1995, he suggested that a global test that compares the performance of students from around the globe begin. This test developed into PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) in 2000. PISA, as a programme that compares the performances of various educational systems, tests 15 year olds from different countries in Science, Mathematics, and Reading. ‘World Class’ is a discussion and an analysis of the data gathered about these students (using different means), and the education system of the countries which they come from.

In it, Mr. Schleicher discusses such vital educational issues as the prioritization of education, teacher education, educational leadership, school autonomy, equity in education, and other themes. Through it, he helps us see education from a new angle, and lets us appreciate its complexity, showing the various factors that influence it. After reading the book, we come out with a much better understanding of education, as a system, and are much better informed than we were at the beginning of our reading.

One of the things Mr. Schleicher discusses in his book, an issue I think should receive more attention, is students’ well-being at school. This, I think, more than any other factor, determines student success, for it affects their motivation and may motivate or de-motivate the students depending on how they are treated at school. It is true that different factors affect success of a child (at school), but often the child herself receives little attention, and the child’s role in her education, often, is not given the attention it deserves. Quite often, it is the teacher’s capacity or training, the curriculum, or the teaching materials that grab the attention of educational experts, and take up their time, energy, and their resources (and the interest, time, energy, and resources of governments). True these factors affect the performance of children at school, but it is the student’s wellbeing that determines his or her success at school.

“For a start, PISA finds that one major threat to students’ sense of belonging at school is their perception of having negative relationships with their teachers. Happier students tended to report positive relations with their teachers, and students in “happy” schools (schools where students’ life satisfaction is above the average in the country) reported receiving much more support from their teachers than students in “unhappy” schools reported.”
Students do well in various subjects if their teachers understand their [the students’] feelings and respect them and their views. Such an attitude on the part of the teachers encourages the students to work harder and put in their best efforts into the subjects. In turn, the students respect the teachers and are convinced that their teachers have the welfare of their students at heart, and want them to succeed. In such an atmosphere of positive relationships, states Mr. Schleicher, teachers respond in a supportive manner towards their students. Taking their students’ weaknesses and strengths into account, teachers become more willing to help and “adapt their lessons so as to meet the students’ needs.”

On the other hand, students, as human beings, find it hard to listen to someone they don’t like or respect. It is in human nature (whether that human being is an adult of a child) to ignore someone that looks down on them. In other words, they judge their teachers by their actions, and not by their words, which underscores the fact that teacher behaviour and their relationships with students matter. As a matter of fact, students give a lot of weight to their teachers’ actions and think lightly of their words. It won’t be surprising, therefore, if students don’t see any good in the lessons of the man or woman that treats them with disrespect or if they have traced any attitudes of disrespect. Such teachers’ words fall on the students’ deaf ears.

This doesn’t mean that the students’ wellbeing overrides the contributions of the other factors to the students’ success. It only means that students’ wellbeing plays such a vital role (in student success) that by excluding it you guarantee their failure. Students’ attitudes and feelings are as important, if not more important, as the other factors. True, other factors contribute. Student efforts matter. Their concentration matters. Their interests matter. But, this could be the crucial factor that determines their success, provided that basic things are delivered.

But, student wellbeing should be seen in perspective. Parental concern for their children’s wellbeing should be tempered by the parents’ desire to see their child succeed, which could have disastrous effects on their children’s education, if taken too far. In an attempt to encourage their children to succeed, Mr. Schleicher explains, some parents become very demanding about good performance. “Both teachers and parents need to find ways”, Andreas Schleicher comments, “[to] encourage students’ motivation to learn and achieve without generating an excessive fear of failure.”

On the other hand, Mr. Schleicher argues that simple activities have far-reaching effects and may produce unexpected and surprising results. To encourage their children to succeed, parents should spend some time talking to them, discussing how they are doing at school daily, which produces “high levels of life satisfaction”, which in turn influences students’ school performance.

“Spending time just talking” is the parental activity most frequently and most strongly associated with students’ satisfaction with life, Mr. Schleicher argues. “And it seems to matter for performance too. Students whose parents reported ‘spending time just talking’ were the equivalent of two-thirds of a school year ahead in science performance. Even after accounting for socio-economic status, these students were still one-third of a school ahead. The results are similar when considering parents who reported that they eat meals with their children. This relationship is far stronger than the impact on students’ performance of most of the school resources and school factors measured by PISA.”

Now, do children’s feelings matter? If they do, then what can parents, teachers, and schools do? Here is Mr. Schleicher advice:

“All in all, a clear way to promote students’ well-being is to encourage all parents to be more aware of their children’s interests and concerns, and show interest in their school life, including in the challenges children face at school.

Schools can create an environment of co-operation with parents and communities. Teachers can be given better tools to enlist parents’ support, and schools can address some critical deficiencies among disadvantaged children, such as the lack of a quiet space for studying. If parents and teachers establish relationships based on trust, schools can rely on parents as valuable partners in the education of their students”.

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