Thursday, July 1, 2010

Teachers Survey Discusses Student Responsibility

Over the last two decades, increasingly there has been an emphasis on holding teachers and principals responsible for student success. To some extent this is a good trend, because it has encouraged schools to work harder on developing best practices, and upon accountability. But I believe that it has led to an abject failure to focus on the importance of students and their families as part of the success equation.

I've been reading the Metropolitan Life Survey of the American Teacher, conducted by the Harris Interactive polling survey. You can read the entire survey by clicking here. Harris surveyed over 1000 teachers and 500 principals, using randomized polling techniques. I want to talk today about what the survey says about the role of students in their own success. The report points out:

Although there is no more important topic in education than student achievement – what it is and should be, how to develop, assess and increase it, and who is accountable for it – discussion often focuses more on adults’ roles than on the students themselves.

The survey reports interesting result in the area of teacher perception of student responsibility. It found that:

Most teachers (80%) and more principals (89%) believe that students feeling responsible and accountable for their own education would have a major impact on improving student achievement. However, only 42% of teachers believe that all or most of their students have this sense of responsibility.

The report continues: "Teachers and principals believe that students have a role as collaborators in creating an environment that will support their academic success. Eight in ten teachers (80%) and nine in ten principals (89%) believe that a school culture where students feel responsible and accountable for their own education would have a major impact on improving student achievement...... However, according to teachers, most of their students do not have a sense of responsibility for their own education. Fewer than half (42%) believe that all or most of their students have this sense of responsibility, with more elementary school teachers than secondary school teachers reporting that this is the case for most or all of their students (45% vs. 33%).

When teachers believe that their students lack a sense of responsibility for their own success, it can damage the morale of both teachers and students in the classroom. Education requires teamwork. Teachers will invest more effort, by far, into students who are investing effort into their own success. Students will put out more effort for teachers who believe in them. There is a self reinforcing cycle of success, when both teachers and students believe that they are doing their respective parts to create success.

Students cannot be successful when they aren't trying, and when students do try, it is hard to keep them from being successful. Hence, if the role of students in their own educational success is so critical, why then do we not put more effort into creating a stronger sense of student responsibility. If the survey of teachers is right--then one key to improving the performance of schools and their students, is to invest more effort into creating a sense of student responsibility for their own learning. What then can we do?

One thing that we ought to be thinking about is investing some time in the early years in training elementary students to develop that sense of responsibility. It is really amazing what children can do, if we unleash their own power to assist in the learning process. The Montessori folks have learned a lot about cultivating the sense of inner responsibility for learning. Whether you like the Montessori methods or don't, still, we can learn a lot from what they try to do, which is to start very early in school to develop a sense of personal responsibility for learning.

Working with parents to develop this sense of responsibility is another important key. Giving students homework is another critical tool in developing responsibility. Often, I hear folks argue that giving homework is a waste of time, because the students don't always complete their work effectively. But the giving of homework is a way of sending a message: an important part of learning is up to you. You need to develop the skills to do some learning on your own.

Too often we dismiss the possibility that students can learn on their own. We tend to believe that students can't learn anything important unless a teacher stands in front of the classroom and delivers a lesson. But we know that properly motivated students can learn a ton of information on their own, if the believe that the learning is important. Had a student a new electronic device, and they'll be communicating with that device in a wink of an eye without help from any adult. Successful schools need to harness this potential for self-motivation and personal responsibility.

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