Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Theorising students’ performance

A theory may loosely be described as an idea which provides an explanation or understanding of a phenomenon. (Many more sophisticated definitions abound).
A number of scholars have expressed the view that for a “construction” to be referred to as a theory it must meet certain criteria. For example, Eva Jablonka and Christer Bergsten in their article, Theorising in mathematics education research: differences in modes and quality (2010) have presented a detailed discussion of the issue of theorising while presenting the criteria which they believe a theory should encompass. In spite of the focus of the article, the view of Jablonka and Bergsten on theorising may have some resonance with those scholars doing research in areas other than Mathematics.
My purpose in this article is not to present an exposition of theory but to invite us as teachers to do some unorthodox theorising about the performance of our students in the education setting in which we find ourselves. Later, we may want to refine these theories according to extant academic wisdom and share them with colleagues in our field in order to increase understanding of the issue of students’ performance which, in turn, will enable us to craft suitable interventions to help them to improve their performance. This theorising may be about students' performance generally or students' performance in individual subjects. 
I know that there is much information on this issue which teachers may access. And in our theorising we are encouraged to take note of previous studies of the issue with which we are concerned. But, often, in our search for previous research in the area in which we are interested we may find either, that the research was done among students in contexts dissimilar to ours or, very little or no research was done on the issue in our contexts. If we uncritically accept research done in other contexts and use it as a guide to action in our contexts, we seem to be saying that all students in whatever context they are learn in exactly the same way. I am contending that this is not the case and am suggesting that we should, as teachers, put on the “cap’ of researchers  and not be averse to exploring issues of performance or any other issue of interest in our local contexts. It should be quite interesting to do comparisons across sites with the data collected to see what nuances reveal themselves.
There is much in the environment of the school that we do not readily understand. For example, we may faithfully follow the prescribed methodology or we may be creative/innovative with the methodology that we use in the classroom. Yet, our efforts may not have produced the positive outcome which we expected, that is, learning by all students as measured by standardized tests. Why do some students seem to grasp the content and reproduce it while others do not?
We may provide an explanation of our students’ performance based on our observations of and interactions with them. Possible answers to this question may lie among the following – nutrition, methodology, interest of students, personalities of teachers and students, expectations of teachers and students, parental expectations, capabilities of teachers and students, individual and school resources, peer pressure, community culture, the culture of the school among other factors. This list is by no means exhaustive.
However, we should realise that the performance of each student is mediated by different factors. For some students, their performance may be mediated by one factor, others by two or more. In some cases, many students’ performance is mediated by multiple adverse factors (in the case of those who perform poorly) or multiple beneficial factors (in case of those students who perform well) which may retard or aid students’ performance.
The aim of theorizing the performance of our students in the specific contexts in which they are schooled is to arrive at an understanding of how to best devise interventions that would elicit from all students the learning outcomes which have been set by the curriculum/curricula. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mission Statements

The school environment in many countries is continually being made business-like. One of the features of this business-like environment is the adoption by schools of mission statements. These statements are terse pronouncements as to the goal of these organisations. Even individual managers within the school seem to have seen it fit to create their own mission statements. I met one individual who was just taking up a position as canteen manager of a school. She proudly showed me her mission statement and passionately explained its importance to her and its application to her new role. So these statements seem to, or ought to, give direction to those who take them seriously.

To what extent do schools seriously take mission statements? It depends on the commitment of the leadership of each school. For the effect of these mission statements to be felt by the stakeholders of schools, the leadership of the school must be committed to them.

I perceive that many schools adopt mission statements because of a directive from government, not because of any deep-seated conviction about their efficacy one way or the other.  Take a mission statement which speaks to the provision of quality education to students in an environment which fosters respect for all, a commitment to service and an emphasis on diligence of all to ensure that students will be able to positively contribute to their society, for example. This mission statement is the broad goal of the school – the administration, all the categories of workers and students – which adopts such a mission statement.

However, one may visit or make contact with such a school and come to the realisation that the school is operating counter to its mission statement in every way. That is, there is no demonstrable respect being evinced by administration to staff, by staff to administration, by staff to each other, by students to each other, by students to staff and vice versa and by administration and staff to some external stakeholders. One may also come to the realisation, therefore, that there is very little “commitment to service” and also, based on the overall performance of the school (the school achieving its goal), that the emphasis on diligence has been de-emphasised. To what extent, then, are the administration and staff” positively contributing to society” and to what extent will students be able to “positively contribute to society”?

Mission statements are becoming a feature of the educational landscape. However to give effect to them the leadership, having drafted them, must be committed to them and there should be an attempt by this leadership, by example, to re-socialise the school community into internalising the tenets of these statements.