Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching
Students and teachers tend to experience school life quite differently. While teachers are trying to work out what to do next, students may be trying to figure out what the teacher wants, or simply trying to make the time pass. While teachers are excited about the subject matter, students are worrying about getting marks and knowing the right answers. Most significantly, students usually have little or no say about the nature of their schooling. It is often something that is done to them, rather than something they do. While teachers value highly their ability to make choices about how to structure their teaching, students rarely have such choices about how to structure their learning.
Although the experiences of students can vary considerably depending on their teacher and their school, a consistent body of research shows that student learning is improved when students are highly engaged in their own education (Young et al., 2019). In fact, many schools across Canada now implement the OurSCHOOL survey created by The Learning Bar that can be completed by students, parents, and teachers. The survey is designed to gauge school climate factors that impact student achievement, engagement, health and well-being, and attainment (https://thelearningbar.com/ourschool-survey/). It provides a forum for students to anonymously express their opinions about their school experiences that then allow teachers, principals, and system leaders to respond to student well-being and learning needs.
As noted earlier, the school curriculum comes divided into courses and units that are administered to students by teachers. The assumption is that students learn slowly, hierarchically, and one thing at a time. From students’ point of view, these packages may have not the slightest connection to their experiences or with their way of seeing the world. Nor does the school delivery model correspond to current thinking about how learning occurs.
Despite many years of effort to move toward so-called higher-level skills, the research suggests that classrooms are still heavily concentrated on getting students to produce the right answers rather than to think about important questions. Indeed, so pervasive is the emphasis on learning content that students come to expect it, and may be quite resistant to a teacher who tries to create open-ended debate without specifying correct answers.
Students’ experience of schooling also depends on their backgrounds and on how the school has categorized them. Students in tracks regarded as lower ability may find that less is expected of them, that more attention is given to their behaviour than to their learning, and that their efforts to improve themselves are actively resisted. Students whose language and culture are not that of the majority may also find that they are marginalized within the schools.
Gender plays a particularly important role in shaping school experience. In most classrooms, boys speak more, are asked more questions, receive more attention from teachers, interrupt girls, and generally dominate classroom discourse (Patall et al., 2018; Richardson, 2015). Boys may be encouraged to experiment with ideas and behaviour, while girls are dissuaded (albeit subtly) from doing so. And there is still a general perception that girls academically outperform boys in the majority of subjects. However, one must guard against applying these general differences to all girls and all boys, and recognize that gender and sex are fluid characteristics. Gender intersects with a number of variables, such as race, sexual identity, and disability, to shape the educational experience of students quite differently, depending on context. It is therefore necessary that educators pay attention to the different ways gender shapes learning, but also to be wary of essentializing the educational experience for students.
Over the past few years, the high-school completion rates and university entrance rates of girls has increased considerably. However, on a more global level, more girls than boys still do not have access to education. As well, although increasing, women’s earnings and their participation rates in non-traditional employment still lag behind that of men (Statistics Canada, 2018).