Kristy Turner asks if a student's opinion of their learning experience really matters.
Pupil voice, student feedback, the National Student Survey, Ofsted pupil interviews…
The views of students on their learning experiences seem to be more important than ever, but does their opinion on lessons or lectures really matter?
My gut reaction is to say that of course their opinions matter. But, like anyone else, I have a desire for approval, and perhaps I’m not being completely objective.
An unnecessary evil?
A student may not enjoy a lesson or series of lessons for many reasons outside a teacher’s control. Some are personal, such as having interpersonal problems with other classmates. Some are organisational – chemistry might be a compulsory subject for students, so there may be students who are not particularly interested in the subject and who don’t see it as necessary to their future.
It may seem natural that students who don’t see chemistry as necessary to them may not enjoy chemistry lessons, indeed there has been a huge rise in context-based learning in chemistry in high schools in recent years to address this. I would challenge this view though, lessons can be enjoyable, even if the content seems completely irrelevant to the future lives of the students. One of my favourite quotes from a Year 10 lesson I taught about electronic structure: ‘I know this stuff doesn't really matter but we like it because you like it’. Maybe we can overcome the perceived irrelevance and duller aspects of the content just by sheer force of personality.
Of course, the important point is that enjoyment may not actually mean learning. Generally speaking, students enjoy doing experiments in class, so I asked a few of my Year 11s exactly why that was. To their credit they were very honest, they enjoyed practical work because they had greater freedom in the classroom, they could talk to their friends more freely and it mostly meant less writing! Some of these reasons are the very same as those that may undermine the learning that is intended to take place.
It’s vital that we don’t mix up correlation and causation – if our high-achieving students enjoy chemistry, it doesn’t follow that helping other students enjoy the topic will help their learning.
Dealing with difficulty
There is also the problem that difficult content also correlates to a less enjoyable experience for the students. I sympathise with lecturers who teach compulsory undergraduate courses in quantum mechanics for just this reason. But encountering and, hopefully, conquering difficulty builds character and provides its own gratification. Students need to learn that hard work does produce results.
Despite all this, I’m going to stick to my original instinct. I do think it is important that students enjoy lessons. Perhaps not every lesson, but over a series of lessons, even over the school year, I want my students to enjoy chemistry. We sometimes have to battle to convince students that what we’re teaching is important, to engage them in a vital subject. Exposing them to a series of dull lessons only undermines our cause.
Kristy Turner is a chemistry teacher in Bolton and an honorary fellow at the University of Manchester, UK
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