BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 23: February 1996

Pupil Power

Brian J Ford

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Now is the time for New Year resolutions, so here’s one for schools. There are many reasons why science is so poorly understood by the young: large classes, low funding, poor morale, bureaucracy ... those are the reasons about which we hear. Much less is heard about another prime cause - bad teaching. There are thousands of ignorant teachers out there, and they need to be stopped.

The best way to obtain some feedback would be to add a new dimension to the tradition of school reports. For centuries, written reports on a pupil’s progress have been maintained at school. Even with continuous assessment, school reports retain their power.

Now we need something different. Schools should resolve to introduce reports on the school-teachers by the students they teach. The chance to trade ‘your child could try harder’ with ‘this teacher is sarcastic’ would offer a new dimension of feedback. The ignorant teacher would suddenly be faced with the possibility that the children would point out these failures and put them in writing.

The kids are, in any event, better placed to comment constructively on the teacher than vice versa. The effects of a teacher on the child are far greater than the impact of the child on an adult. What is more, pupils see more of the teacher. Take a class of, say, 30. On average, the teacher will relate to each child and will take in knowledge of the child’s behaviour for one-thirtieth of the duration of a class. That’s the mean figure. In reality, the teacher will take far more notice of the star pupils than of the under-achievers. It may be 30% attention paid to the top two or three, and virtually nothing at all to the slowest in the class. Meanwhile, each person in the class is under the teacher’s influence for 100% of the class time.

This is worse than it seems, for the under-achievers are the ones who need the attention. Most high-fliers educate themselves irrespective of what the teacher does. Thus, the very individuals who need most care receive least; and those who are least likely to be influenced by a pedestrian teacher are given attention which may well serve only to hold them back.

I believe that schools should send out a pupil questionnaire. It would ask what they thought of school, the head teacher, and the teacher’s abilities and attitudes. It should be sent to the home address, and returned by post from home. That would reduce the chances of a mass mutiny in the classroom. You could even offer multiple choice entries, with a rating of 1 to 5 for sarcasm, helpfulness, clarity, deviousness, humility and ignorance. Yes, there would be perturbations on the results from time to time, but few poor teachers would go undetected.

And meanwhile, the kids would love it. Why, truancy might even fall if there was a real chance, at last, to make such feelings felt.

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