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Student participation and school culture: a secondary school case study.

Rationale and conceptual framework

Research generally indicates that students are still poor participants in secondary schooling. Despite this, student participation in schooling is critical to meeting student needs because quality educational outcomes are best achieved by harnessing student motivation through participation (Boomer, Lester, Onore, & Cook, 1992; Broadfoot, 1991; Glasser, 1990; Nixon, 1996). Holdsworth (1996) suggests that educators need to understand how student participation can be fostered in schools.

In this study, distinction was made between forms of participation that are tokenistic and those that are `meaningful'. The concept of meaningful participation has its roots in the writings of Habermas (1972, 1990, 1993) and others (Kemmis, Cole, & Suggett, 1983; Roberts, 1991; Young, 1990) who endorse emancipatory processes of communicative action in which all stakeholders have a voice. Meaningful forms of participation have meaning for the participant, and contrast with disengaging forms of student participation often employed in schools (Holdsworth, 1988). Forms of participation which have such meaning have been labelled `active' participation (Holdsworth, 1997), `authentic' participation (Cumming, 1994; Soliman, 1987), and `deep' participation (Wilson, 2000). These forms of participation are about students being active, taken seriously, listened to, and doing work of consequence. The notion of student voice is fundamental to deep participation. If students are to be accepted as participants in and practitioners of education (Holdsworth, 1996; Kelley, 1993; Kemmis et al., 1983), it is clear that student `voice' becomes a critical factor in allowing students to participate (Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey, & White, 1988; Young, 1990). Students can exercise participation in a variety of contexts within schools, most notably through their learning experiences, through involvement in formal school governance processes, and through student governance and other student-operated organisations within schools (Holdsworth, 1988).

Nature of the research site

Barracks High School (a pseudonym for the research site) is a state high school that had 840 students at the time of the research. It is situated adjacent to a thriving central business district in one of Sydney's most rapidly growing satellite cities. The school is relatively old, having celebrated 120 years of continuous education on the site. The school made much of its history, maintaining archival records and an active ex-students association. The make-up of the student population was multicultural with only 10 per cent of students having Anglo-Saxon origins. The remainder represented some 60 different ethnic and religious groups.

At the beginning of the study, Barracks High had a newly appointed principal. He felt that the school had a strong ethos of pastoral care, a justified emphasis on multiculturalism, a traditional 1960s curriculum which needed modernising, almost non-existent management structures which required re-structuring, and an out-of-date perspective on student participation. The study began during a period of quite significant change as the school sought to tackle these issues under the new principal's leadership. The school context was relatively turbulent during this period. This research was conducted at the invitation of the new principal, and after agreement by staff.

Research methods

The research was conducted over a 25-month period with a total of 78 days spent in the school. Data collection methods included many in-depth interviews, participant observations documented through the writing of field notes and field journals, and the collection of many documents and school artefacts (Merriam, 1988). These methods helped to uncover the multiple realities which existed in the site among the various stakeholder groups (students, teachers, executive teachers, senior executive teachers and non-teaching members of staff), and allowed the nature of school cultural practices and their impact on student participation to be identified. A particularly interesting method used in the study involved sets of interviews conducted separately with students and teachers as `hermeneutic circles' (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). Consolidated summaries from these interviews, using the power of participant voices as text, were disseminated throughout the school during the research and resulted in much interest and comment on student and teacher ideas. This provided further valuable data. Data analysis involved the development of grounded theory based upon systematic coding of data through constant comparison (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This identified a number of key themes or stories in the school, some of which related to school image, reputation and traditions, teacher and student views of learning, school decision making and leadership, the nature of student organisations in the school, and notions of school change and development. These issues were constant, of concern to staff and students, and provided rich data over the life of the study.

Cultural context: Broad themes

Research findings identified five broad sets of data categories, each indicating a key cultural theme within Barracks High School which impacted on student participation.

Development of school ethos

The principal and teachers felt the need to develop the school's ethos because Barracks was situated near a number of older state and private schools. Barracks felt the need to compete with these schools by building a comparable school image and ethos. The symbols chosen to underpin this ethos were the school's multicultural nature, its school uniform, strong discipline, and its history. Students and teachers generally supported these directions, though some conflict resulted as teachers and students felt that efforts to enforce the wearing of school uniform were overdone.

School governance and decision making

School governance and decision making comprised an important theme in relation to student participation. A range of school management groups were accessible to teachers (though not to students); however these groups were not empowered to make decisions. Teachers began to see management groups as forums for discussion rather than action, and believed that power lay outside of them. Teachers felt disempowered. They perceived that, although the decision-making style of the principal was outwardly democratic, in reality it was consistently directive. These feelings were also held by some executive teachers, and caused cynicism, withdrawal, low morale and lack of motivation.

Student Representative Council

The Student Representative Council (SRC) at Barracks contained many talented students but was ultimately a frustrating experience for its members. The SRC was not integrated into school decision-making processes and was not valued enough by the principal, teachers or other students. It did not have the level of support it needed to help it identify and work towards its goals. Despite a rhetoric of participation in Barracks High, in reality SRC members were expected to work within the confines of school expectations, upholding the traditional and confining orientations of school ethos. Even low-level student initiatives put forward by the SRC, including requests for school dances, non-uniform days and changes to the school uniform, were ultimately deemed unacceptable because they were perceived to threaten the desired image of the school.

Place of student voice

Student constructions of schooling comprised views and theories touching on many areas of school life, including teaching methods, relationships with teachers, bullying and teasing, safety in school, and the wearing of school uniform. Students often developed theories about school that were insightful and efficacious (see Wilson, 1998), and many students had quality ideas that would allow them to participate meaningfully in school development and decision making. However, despite the power of their ideas, most student voices went unrecognised and had no access to forums for discussion or decision making.

Approaches to teaching and learning

Classroom-related learning activities provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of students to engage in participation in school, yet teaching at Barracks High was generally found to be `traditional', textbook centred and didactic. Barracks was more concerned with curriculum development processes, especially the implementation of a `semesterised' curriculum, than with teaching and learning practices in classrooms. Few executive teachers, even those at the faculty head level, saw it as their role to lead changes in classroom practice, despite teaching and learning being identified as focus areas in school planning documents. Despite student voices during the research clearly pointing to the nature of `good' and questionable teaching practices at Barracks, teachers were reluctant to change and there was a lack of urgency among school leaders to accept teaching and learning as the core business of the school.

Cultural dimensions influencing student participation

Data analysis resulted in the identification of the broad cultural themes outlined above, the sub-components of which were coded and given substance through processes of grounded theory data analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). From this process of coding were identified sets of cultural phenomena (ultimately labelled `dimensions') which were found to be significant influences on student participation. These dimensions were able to be grouped into four distinct clusters of cultural dimensions at Barracks pertinent to student participation. One cluster comprised three dimensions which were found to be fundamental and pervasive cultural dimensions in the school. These were labelled `primary' dimensions. A second cluster was labelled `socio-political' dimensions. These relate to external social and political pressures on the school and to internal dimensions concerned with decision-making structures and ways in which individuals were positioned in terms of power and autonomy. A third cluster of dimensions was labelled `curricular' dimensions. These describe conditions and processes which influence curriculum development and classroom teaching. A final group was labelled `personal-participant' dimensions, and describes dimensions relating to the belies and attitudes of participants at Barracks--most prominently, students, teachers and executive teachers.

Each of these clusters of dimensions influenced student participation in a way that was neither simple, nor linear. The relationships between cultural influences on student participation at Barracks are best regarded as an ecological phenomenon. This ecology was complex and was beyond the resources of the study to engage fully. Its components are therefore presented in this paper as a matrix which outlines dimensions as distinct rather than inter-related entities.

Figure 1 presents the matrix containing each of the cultural dimensions identified at Barracks High and the relationship each had to student participation. These dimensions were found to either enhance or inhibit student participation, and were named according to the properties they were found to exhibit during formal data analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). There were 24 cultural dimensions identified at Barracks that related to student participation. For every dimension that enhanced participation, there were two that acted as inhibitors. It is not possible in this paper to give a detailed treatment of each of these dimensions and the way they influenced student participation in the school. However a brief overview of each is provided below.

Primary dimensions

Each of the three primary dimensions identified in the study acted to inhibit rather than enhance student participation within Barracks. `Paradigm boundedness' relates to literature which suggests that secondary schools generally conform to a model of schooling which emphasises the study of academic subjects, meritocratic structures and processes, and didactic teaching methods (Connell, 1994; Edwards, 1995; Hargreaves & Earl, 1994), and in which student constructions are generally unacknowledged or undervalued (Kemmis et al., 1983). At Barracks High, there was a general acceptance of this paradigm, evident in both teacher and student comments and teacher practices, and in the school's emphasis on its history and looking backward to its past to define its present. Despite rhetoric in the school about student futures and student centred activities, an unproblematic acceptance of the traditional paradigm positioned students in traditional roles where they had little opportunity to define the school and were expected simply to `fit in'. Paradigm boundedness was an inhibiting cultural dimension for student participation.

The term `fragmentation' is common in the literature and identifies phenomena in secondary schools including fragmentation of the curriculum (Hargreaves, 1994; Hargreaves & Earl, 1994; Stodolsky, 1993) and fragmentation caused by departmental structures leading to teacher separation and isolation (Eisner, 1988; Stodolsky, 1993). Fragmentation existed at Barracks as a lack of organisational cohesion and communication leading to fragmented understandings and courses of action among school stakeholders. It existed in school governance, leadership, and in school approaches to teaching and learning where few teachers were aware of the teaching and learning practices of their colleagues. Fragmentation inhibited student participation because school policies relating to participation were able to be ignored due to fragmented leadership and accountability processes.

`Rhetorical ambiguity' relates to literature which identifies a tension between the ideas espoused by practitioners (their espoused theories), and their actions, which are often at odds with their espoused theories (Argyris, 1993; Argyris & Schon, 1996). A feature of the Barracks High culture was the extent to which words, both spoken and written, were attributed a subtext where outwardly intended meanings were not necessarily those accepted by participants. This dimension has been labelled `rhetorical ambiguity', and is defined as the preparedness of participants to say, or expect and accept others saying, sentiments that were not intended to be believed or acted upon in practice. At Barracks it was a primary dimension, stemming from the principal's espoused belief that `image is reality', but evidenced in a variety of ways in school life. This dimension was rhetorical in the sense that much written documentation and statements emanating from Barracks were regarded as being for `show', for an external audience that had to be convinced that the school and its participants were functioning at an expected level. Teachers indicated that many of the sentiments in school policies were there to satisfy accountability requirements and convince external authorities that acceptable change was occurring. Barracks's Student participation policy was an example of a document seemingly developed for show. If the cutting-edge sentiments expressed in this policy had been taken at all seriously, student participation would have been very different at Barracks High. Rhetorical ambiguity was a powerful, inhibiting dimension for student participation, resulting in a lack of action by teachers and students (especially on the SRC) on initiatives which would have increased student participation. Not knowing what was to be believed or taken seriously, teachers and students were often not committed in their efforts in what they saw as token projects.

Socio-political dimensions

Socio-political dimensions relate to external social and political pressures, and to internal political or power relations in the school, that were found to be important influences on student participation. Six of the eight socio-political dimensions acted to inhibit student participation.

Inhibiting dimensions

Being under the microscope This describes perceptions by teachers that they were under observation from outside the school; that they were subject to external expectations that impacted on their work yet they could not control. The literature indicates it is common for teachers to feel under these kinds of pressures from parents (Dellar, 1992; OECD, 1989), bureaucracies (Dinham, 1995; Larson, 1992; Raebeck, 1992) and media (Raethel, 1997a, 1997b), resulting in confusion and ambiguity concerning the role schools and teachers are expected to play. At Barracks, feelings of being under the microscope were identified by participants as pressure from media interest in events involving gangs and fights, and in the need to prepare students effectively for examinations so that public expectations of acceptable Higher School Certificate (HSC) exam results could be met. Teachers seemed to be continuously aware of the need to be accountable to these external forces. Being under the microscope caused teachers to develop an `accountability mentality' where they continually weighed up the consequences of their actions in terms of possible public perceptions. A significant example was a teacher who, when a media report linked a lack of student note making with poor HSC results, stopped using student discussion as a teaching methodology and began having students write more notes. Being under the microscope related negatively to student participation because it made teachers conservative in the decisions they took, and unlikely to take risks and experiment in their teaching approaches with students.

Non-pedagogical orientations to leadership Some literature points to school principals becoming alienated from their staff by placing administrative concerns before pedagogical considerations (Ball & Bowe, 1992; Seay & Blase, 1992), leading to staff disenchantment with change and decreasing teacher motivation (Fraatz, 1987; Hargreaves, 1992). This study identified a widespread non-pedagogical orientation to leadership among the majority of the school executive, although it was not directly related to the principal. Few school leaders at Barracks took the opportunity to lead other teachers in pedagogical practice. Leadership perspectives were focused on other areas. The principal saw his main responsibility as working to `sell' the school, develop its physical environment, emphasise its history, and encourage major public events such as historical celebrations. A succession of deputy principals focused primarily on the development of a `semesterised' curriculum structure rather than pedagogy, and these curriculum initiatives did not translate into pedagogical reforms. Faculty heads saw their role as managerial: maintaining faculty programs, managing resources and making sure school and systemic policies were adhered to by staff. The development of teaching and learning was seen as something that would be nice to engage in if there were time, but faculty meetings were usually spent on managerial issues and disseminating information from executive meetings. Few people consequently took responsibility for developing more active approaches to teaching which may have led to improved student classroom participation.

Sink or swim Sink or swim describes the tendency of some participants at Barracks to expect students to demonstrate competence without being taught the necessary skills. This was apparent at a number of levels, and in each case constituted an inhibiting dimension for student participation. The most obvious level was in the SRC, where it was common for teachers to expect students to succeed on their own (swim), without help or training from staff. If students were not capable of autonomous success, they were allowed to fail (sink), and as a result were often considered disinterested in the SRC or not capable of success. Perceived failures of the SRC to succeed in their projects (planning camps, raising money for charities, running meetings effectively) tended to reinforce a view among some teachers that students were not interested in, or capable of, accepting responsibility.

Going cap in hand School leaders often adopt hierarchical decision-making structures in which they are vested with significant power (Cohen & Harrison, 1982), often sponsor those initiatives with which they are personally comfortable (Fullan, 1991), and act as significant `blockers' of initiatives with which they do not agree (Cohen & Harrison, 1982; Smylie & Brownlee-Conyers, 1992). At Barracks, going cap in hand related to the principal's leadership style. Teachers and SRC members had to seek out the principal's personal approval for many courses of action, despite the rhetoric of participation which the principal employed. This led to feelings of disempowerment and disinterest among teachers and SRC members and a lack of agency, commitment and innovative behaviour. Going cap in hand was an inhibiting dimension for both student and teacher participation at Barracks which related strongly to another socio-political dimension of the Barracks context, `learned helplessness'.

Deflecting agendas This was a dimension related to going cap in hand, and to literature which shows principals are able to be effective `blocking' agents in schools (Cohen & Harrison, 1982; Smylie & Brownlee-Conyers, 1992). Both the principal and the teacher adviser of the SRC engaged in deflecting agendas, to the detriment of student participation. SRC proposals to have school dances, camps, changes to the girls' uniform and non-uniform days were each rejected or stalled on grounds of safety or because they did not fit with the desired image for the school. Students became frustrated with these tactics because they were usually encouraged to put submissions to school leaders, often with a lot of work and energy behind them, only to have them rejected at the end of the process. Students often minimised or terminated their participation in the SRC as a result.

Learned helplessness Learned helplessness was a socio-political dimension that relates to literature on micropolitics in schools which indicates that teachers can become fatalistic about change and lack initiative as a result (Fullan, 1991; Roberts & Blase, 1993; Seay & Blase, 1992). Participants at Barracks expressed their helplessness by displaying a lack of initiative, interest, motivation and action. Although most were keen and willing in relation to those aspects of their work they felt they could control, they also developed a view that it was pointless trying to influence events in the wider arena. This helplessness was not a trait that necessarily resided within individuals: it was a result of a school culture in which individuals learned that it was difficult to influence events. At Barracks learned helplessness contributed to a form of stasis where no one in authority felt they had enough power to influence events and so little of substance occurred. This closely reflects research by Cohen and Harrison (1982), which found that competing but fragmented power relationships among teachers could lead to a vacuum in decision making in secondary schools. Consequently, in this study, those teachers and school leaders who were theoretically disposed to improving student participation in the classroom did not act to do so. Learned helplessness was also a potent force within the SRC at Barracks and inhibited student participation through the SRC. Lacking encouragement, students found it difficult to complete projects, which resulted in a lack of confidence among the SRC and having to wait to be told what they were allowed to do.

Enhancing dimensions

Two socio-political dimensions were identified as enhancing of student participation: seeking out empathetic power and scaffolding. The former was initiated by students, the latter by teachers.

Seeking out empathetic power Seeking out empathetic power describes the political activity, adopted by some students at Barracks, of circumventing political impediments by identifying staff members they felt were sympathetic to their cause and had the power to help them achieve their goals. Examples of students seeking out empathetic power were unusual because it required a level of confidence that most students did not seem to have, but they included SRC members by-passing the SRC coordinator for advice, and students enlisting the help of a deputy principal who would support their projects. Seeking out empathetic power provided an important enhancing dimension for student participation at Barracks. It initiated students into political processes of persuasion that were usually denied them and was an important act of participation in itself. It also allowed students to apply pressure to teachers and caused teachers to reflect on the issue of student participation and their personal responses to it. The few discussions about student participation were usually held between, or initiated by, adults. Seeking out empathetic power provided students with an opportunity to begin the dialogue from their perspective.

Scaffolding At Barracks, when meaningful student participation did occur, it did so that with the support of a teacher who provided structured and targeted support to students so that they could participate. The act of providing structured forms of support is defined as `scaffolding', drawing from constructs developed by Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1986) in relation to cognitive growth. Scaffolding was an important dimension of the Barracks context that acted to enhance student participation. Scaffolding was critical to student participation at Barracks because other cultural dimensions such as paradigm boundedness and learned helplessness had helped to create passive students unused to taking initiative or achieving success. Without scaffolding, student projects were often marked by poor planning, poor team work, a lack of goal clarification and poor success rates. Scaffolding helped students to develop the skills to overcome these obstacles.

Curricular dimensions

A number of curricular dimensions at Barracks influenced student participation. Of these, the primacy of institutional values, curriculum as the province of the professional, and spoonfeeding were found to be inhibiting dimensions for participation. A fourth dimension, student theorising, was found to be an enhancing dimension.

Primacy of institutional values Primacy of institutional values was an important curricular dimension at Barracks where the emphasis on discipline, school uniform and school history communicated that the values of the school stood above those of the students and teachers, and were not negotiable. The school's values were essentially meritocratic, emphasising success in relative and competitive terms and drawing attention to high achievers. These values required students and teachers to conform, to sacrifice individuality for the reputation of the school and the benefit that school participants would derive from this reputation. These values were not shared by significant numbers of participants, particularly students, who saw the world with themselves more at the centre and whose values focused on personal relevance, experience and growth. The primacy of institutional values also inhibited classroom participation. Teachers who did share institutional values found in this dimension a reason not to change their views of curriculum and teaching, whereas teachers who did not share these values found conflict in the way they perceived their roles as teachers. These teachers referred to their hesitancy in using active learning approaches and group work. They were worried about poor exam results and the responses of their more conservative peers to noisier classrooms. For many teachers, the primacy of institutional values had the effect of limiting opportunities for students to participate in the classroom because many teachers did not consider adopting teaching approaches which may have enhanced participation.

Curriculum as the province of the professional Research indicates that teachers generally feel comfortable when they use transmission models of teaching in which teachers possess privileged knowledge (Lewis, 1995; McNeil, 1988b; Young, 1990), and situations where they are in control of their work practices and matters of curriculum (Blase, 1990; Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991; Lewis, 1995; Nias, 1987). A dimension was identified at Barracks that is related to this literature, and has been labelled `curriculum as the province of the professional'. Curriculum as the province of the professional describes the assumption held by numbers of participants that those in the school best placed to understand curriculum and make decisions about its development were teachers. Curriculum as the province of the professional also resulted in limited opportunities in classrooms for students to help determine the nature of content or learning experiences: there was little evidence of student choice or negotiation in classrooms at Barracks High, although one positive example of student negotiation arising from this study has previously been documented (see Rabone & Wilson, 1997; Wilson, 2000).

Spoonfeeding `Spoonfeeding' was a term used by teachers to describe the teacher practice of giving unmotivated or under-performing students structured, unchallenging classwork, characterised by students having simply to copy or learn `right' answers. Spoonfeeding was a reflection at Barracks of trends among teachers, also identified in the literature, to expect less of students from culturally diverse and economically deprived backgrounds (Beiser, Lancee, Gotowiec, Sack, & Redshirt, 1993; Cooper & Good, 1983; Meade, 1983; Tollefson, Melvin, & Thippavajjala, 1990). Many teachers felt that spoonfeeding was rife at Barracks, and attributed it to student disinterest in academic work, poor literacy levels among students, and student resistance to more active and rigorous learning approaches. Teachers reasoned that, without spoonfeeding, students with low literacy levels would do poorly in examinations, especially the School Certificate and HSC. Spoonfeeding acted as an inhibiting dimension for student participation by providing students with unstimulating, repetitive low-level work which deprived students of the opportunity to engage in critical and creative thought, discussion and expression. It positioned them as passive consumers of information rather than as active interpreters and critics, and dispossessed them of the opportunity to participate in rigorous intellectual endeavour.

Student theorising This dimension enhanced student participation. Some literature indicates that students in schools are capable of theorising about school practices and contributing to school processes of curriculum change (Cumming, 1996; Cummins, 1997; Furtwengler, 1985a; Roberts, 1991; Young, 1990). At Barracks, student theories about curriculum, elicited and published through the hermeneutic circles, indicated that students could develop sophisticated insights into the nature and consequences of curriculum and teaching practices (see Wilson, 1998). Students effectively critiqued teaching practices, approaches to learning, classroom management and assessment, and the nature of classroom environments. Additionally they often offered their visions of better practice. Student theorising was an enhancing dimension for student participation at Barracks, particularly when, through teachers who were able to provide scaffolding, students were able to present their theories. Occasionally during the study, students presented their ideas in formal contexts, which gave them the opportunity to formalise their ideas and express them carefully and logically. These acts in themselves were participatory, indeed emancipatory for some of those students involved, and of significant benefit (Wilson, 1998).

Personal-participant dimensions

Personal-participant dimensions derived from the attitudes and beliefs of school participants. Most of the enhancing dimensions for student participation were of this type. Key inhibiting personal-participant dimensions identified were: dismissing student participation, a distrust of participant maturity, tuning out, and withdrawal. Enhancing dimensions were: celebratory perspectives of youth, a desire for equity, desire for meaning, wanting partnerships and wanting in.

Dismissing student participation Case reports of teacher innovation show that effective teachers adopt strategies which enhance classroom participation by students (for example, Daugherty, 1995; Levin, 1994; Renzulli, 1997). However Cumming (1996) found that some teachers find it difficult to accept that students should participate or should be given increased decision-making power. At Barracks it was evident there was a general lack of belief among teachers that student participation ought to be valued as a core school purpose. This was labelled as `dismissing student participation'. Teachers commonly perceived schooling in traditional terms as the learning of academic content. For them, students had little to bring to the definition or development of schooling. Teachers were the experts, students were there to learn. Student participation was a nice idea, one which fitted into the realm of rhetoric but could reasonably be forgotten in the real world of examinations and community pressure for acceptable academic results. Even teachers who espoused ideas compatible with student participation often failed to pursue their implementation in the hurly-burly of daily practice. There was a general lack of practical interest and action concerning student participation.

Distrust of participant maturity The literature on student participation suggests that students are often not considered by teachers or principals to have the capacity to engage in meaningful forms of decision making (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1989; Nayano-Taylor, 1987; Spence 1993). At Barracks, this came through strongly as a distrust of participant maturity. This distrust was experienced by teachers and students alike at Barracks High, and helped to create an atmosphere in the school which inhibited student participation.

Rather than challenging students to improve their work ethic and standards of classroom behaviour, some teachers tended to respond to student disinterest and management problems by narrowing down the range of classroom activities, focusing on book work, and limiting interactive learning experiences. At the institutional level, the school's discipline and school uniform policies and the manner used to enforce them assumed that students could not be trusted, that coercion was required to make students conform. Members of the SRC came to believe they were not trusted to make decisions, and at different times felt they were not trusted either by the principal or the SRC teacher adviser, as many of their projects were denied or not supported.

Students, teachers, and to a lesser extent head teachers all felt this mistrust. The outcome of this dimension for student participation was student and teacher resentment and frustration at the way mistrust led to infrequent opportunities to participate meaningfully in decision making and classroom activities. Feelings of mistrust deprived many participants of opportunities to participate and accept responsibility, helped to entrench the dimension of learned helplessness, and inhibited student participation both in its direct effect upon students and through the general non-participatory climate it helped to create in the school.

Tuning out Many students in secondary schools do not value the academic agenda of schools, valuing sports (Freeston, 1993, Suitor & Reavis, 1995), other extra-curricular activities (Nieto, 1994) and social interactions with friends over other aspects of school life (Cairney et al., 1992; Walton & Hill, 1987). Observations of student behaviour in classrooms indicate widespread student disinterest and boredom with academic work (Fullan, 1991; Nieto, 1994; Sarason, 1995; Siddle Walker, 1992). The literature also identifies similar characteristics amongst teachers who become dissatisfied with their work and retreat into minimalist roles in their schools (Blase, 1990; Dinham, 1995; McNeil, 1988a; National Board, 1993). Similar feelings about school were identified among students and teachers at Barracks High. These were collectively labelled as the dimension of `tuning out'. At Barracks, tuning out described the phenomenon of teachers and students not wanting to be involved in school decision making, development or change, or limiting their involvement to areas where they had influence. For students, this often meant limiting their real commitment at school to subjects where they perceived their agendas were being met, to sport, or just to maintaining their social networks. Students also tuned out from their work on the SRC, losing motivation and productivity as their agendas were deflected by those with power. For teachers, tuning out meant ignoring school change initiatives and focusing on their classroom teaching or a faculty responsibility. Signs of teachers tuning out included teacher positions on school working groups remaining unfilled, and teachers expressing that they now stayed out of school decision making and politics. Tuning out was a significant inhibiting dimension for student participation beyond the obvious consequence of causing students to cease their participation in classrooms and student initiatives in the SRC. Tuning out helped to reinforce an emerging culture of non-participation at Barracks.

Withdrawal As students and teachers in schools tune out from school life, so the literature finds they also withdraw completely from it. Dinham's (1993) study demonstrated that teachers can become so dissatisfied with aspects of their work that they resign from the teaching service as a result. Literature on students in schools deals with student alienation and finds that significant numbers of students in secondary school are `alienated' (Ainley & Sheret, 1992; Australian Curriculum Studies Association, 1995), leading to non-performance or non-attendance at school (Farrell et al., 1988; Gibson-Cline, 1996). At Barracks, a dimension was identified among students and teachers that is related to concepts of alienation (for example, Cormack, 1995) which has been labelled `withdrawal'. Withdrawal was an inhibiting dimension for student participation, and describes a choice made by some participants to cease their involvement in some or all aspects of school life. Tuning out was a more common form of participant response to the school context, but withdrawal represented a more serious response by participants who chose this option. Students who withdrew did so by simply not attending school, by leaving early, or by ceasing to participate in particular aspects of school life. Often the reason for withdrawal was the failure of the school to provide them with participatory opportunities. An example was a Year 10 male who left school to work with the railways. He cited the reason as four years of junior education in which teachers failed to understand his problems, capacities, or to provide an appropriate standard of work. Like tuning out, withdrawal was an inhibiting dimension because it added to the general malaise of non-participation at Barracks.

Celebratory perspectives of youth A number of personal-participant dimensions were found to enhance student participation. The most significant was celebratory perspectives of youth. The literature identifies certain qualities that in the minds of students determine good teachers, and usually these qualities revolve around teachers having positive perspectives of young people (Abbott-Chapman, Hughes, Holloway, & Wyld 1990; Disadvantaged Schools Program (DSP), 1992; Hughes, 1994). There were teachers at Barracks who placed students squarely at the centre of their teaching. These teachers tended to listen to students, treat them equitably and fairly, and reflect on and modify their teaching to meet student interests and needs. These teachers were reflective, empathetic, and appeared intuitively to use constructivist approaches to learning. Whereas other teachers may have liked students (especially well-behaved and academically capable students), these teachers valued young people, academic and non-academic alike. Students in turn knew who these teachers were, enjoyed being in their classes (even if they did not like the subject), participated and were motivated. Students could articulate why these teachers were good teachers. The efforts of teachers who held celebratory perspectives of youth led to improved student motivation, enthusiasm and participation. These teachers routinely provided scaffolding to students to help them succeed in their projects inside and outside the classroom--a key example was the leading teacher, a senior executive member who believed in the students enough to convince the principal to let a group of students present to a full staff meeting on teaching methods in the school. Where meaningful student participation existed at Barracks (in the form of students discussing their own issues, being listened to, and encouraged to make their own decisions) facilitating the process was generally a teacher who held a celebratory perspective of young people.

Desire for equity The literature indicates that secondary school students would often like to change school practices to make them more equitable. These feelings of unfairness about the status quo and desire for change have been identified among students in relation to reforming the relevance of academic subjects (Cairney et al., 1992; Cumming, 1996; Nieto, 1994; Walton & Hill, 1987), teaching practices (Shann, 1990), and teacher behaviours (Harris & Rudduck, 1993). These feelings were also evident among students at Barracks High, and represent a personal-participant dimension labelled as a `desire for equity'. Desire for equity was a key dimension for participation among students at Barracks, manifest in their expressed need to be understood by teachers, to be treated fairly as emerging adults and to have their points of view listened to. Desire for equity was significant because it helped to mediate the quality of student participation and the ways students chose to participate. It essentially acted as an enhancing dimension for student participation. However, when other cultural dimensions such as going cap in hand and deflecting agendas acted to block change, the desire for equity could quickly lead to non-participation among students. At Barracks the desire for equity appeared to be linked strongly to other personal-participant dimensions of wanting in, tuning out and withdrawal.

Desire for meaning Secondary school students want to take subjects that are relevant and meaningful for them (Farrell et al., 1988; Gibson-Cline, 1996), want to improve their understanding of these subjects (Kempa & Orion, 1996; McNeil, 1988b), and want to participate in them through active and applied learning experiences (Shepardson, 1993). Such a dimension was evident in the Barracks context as students expressed the view that their learning needed to be meaningful if it was to be valuable and stimulating. This dimension has been labelled as a `desire for meaning', and it constituted an enhancing dimension for student participation at Barracks High.

Students desired meaning in relation to their classwork. They saw little point in the content or learning methodologies associated with much of their classwork. It was common for students to differentiate between theoretical and practical subjects and to express a preference for practical subjects. Practical subjects had meaning, either because they emphasised contemporary, useful or interesting content, were associated with vocations or vocational skills, or because they provided active, applied forms of learning. Practical subjects were more likely, in the minds of students, to meet their needs. Theoretical subjects were associated with content that was obscure, poorly explained or not readily applied to students' lives, and teaching methods which depended almost exclusively on the reading of textbooks and the making or copying of notes. Where students' desire for meaning was realised, they were generally more motivated and performed better in their classwork. However, like their desire for equity, when students' desire for meaning remained unfulfilled students often reacted by withdrawal or tuning out. Confronted with an unfulfilled desire for meaning in their schoolwork, many of these students maintained minimal levels of participation in their academic work, as testimony from teachers verified.

Wanting partnerships The literature on the secondary school context indicates that teachers and students share many mainstream values associated with schooling, with both wanting cohesive classroom climates (Raviv et al., 1990) where friendly supportive relations exist between students and their teachers (Abbott-Chapman et al., 1990; Cohn & Kottkamp, 1993; Dinham, 1993, 1995; DSP, 1992; Hughes, 1994). In this study, this need was expressed powerfully by some participants and transcended a simple sharing of values. At Barracks both students and teachers expressed a strong desire to be understood by the other group, and wished they had the opportunity, based on improved understandings, to work with each other for better schooling. This dimension has been labelled `wanting partnerships' and was an enhancing dimension for student participation.

Some teachers felt that students did not understand that they were real people as well as teachers, whereas students wished that teachers could appreciate things more from their perspective, understanding that they were more than students, they were people with other lives, family pressures and part-time jobs. Wanting partnerships was an enhancing dimension for student participation because of its potential to provide transactions between students and teachers and a basis for dialogue and negotiation. Wanting partnerships was something about which students and teachers were concerned and shared views. The issues were common ground, waiting for an opportunity to become dialogue between students and teachers, to be negotiated into a more commonly accepted and improved standard of relationships between them. Unfortunately at Barracks, impeding cultural dimensions ensured that these opportunities were not realised. None the less the feeling of wanting partnerships represented a potential lead-in to better student teacher communication and subsequent student participation in redefining student-teacher relationships and work practices.

Wanting in The literature indicates that students in secondary schools like having the opportunity to be involved in schooling in ways that transcend classroom activities and the learning of academic work (Furtwengler, 1985a, 1991; Lewis 1995). Students enjoy the responsibility provided by these opportunities and want the power to influence school decision making (Connors & Epstein, 1994). At Barracks, a dimension labelled `wanting in' was identified which describes this feeling among some students and teachers who wanted to have real power in the school by being part of meaningful processes of decision making and change. Wanting in was a strong desire to be involved in change, a belief by participants that they had the right to participate, and a tenacity to persist in the face of difficulties. Few students and teachers displayed this characteristic: in the face of other cultural dimensions at Barracks, many students and teachers settled into relatively non-participatory routines. The importance of wanting in for student participation was that those few students with this strong desire provided the potential leadership for student government at Barracks, taking the initiative and persuading teachers to work for student agendas.

Framework for building student participation

Cultural dimensions at Barracks High represent a complex ecology in which the beliefs and attitudes of individuals interacted with various structural and procedural constraints in the school, and acted to inhibit participation. Teachers and administrators did not see student participation as a priority. Added to this belief were other general beliefs about teachers, teaching and education which existed at Barracks--the importance of academic (as opposed to applied) work, concerns about discipline and student appearance, and the feeling that students should fit into the traditional paradigm of secondary schooling. These beliefs were set against structural features of the school which also militated against participation--the dominance of the principal in decision making, the fragmentation between faculties and within school development structures, and the lack of leadership in developing effective student learning.

Those dimensions which acted to enhance participation came from the realm of participant beliefs, values and actions. None of the enhancing dimensions can be regarded as structural: there were no entrenched processes or policies at Barracks that promoted student participation, no common approaches that endorsed active learning, no strategies to guarantee student decision making. Enhancing dimensions depended upon the beliefs and agency of individuals. Unfortunately individual students, like teachers, found the dimensions that inhibited general and student participation too pervasive to overcome. This raises a critical issue for student participation at Barracks and in other secondary schools: the issue of how to foster individual agency in an organisational context.

A sense of agency, or autonomous action in human beings (Bandura, 1986), triggers participation. Bandura (1986) suggested this is true of both children and adults. When human beings achieve success through participation, their feelings of self-efficacy rise. `The stronger their feelings of self-efficacy', wrote Bandura (1986), `the more vigorous and persistent are their efforts' (p. 394). A lack of these feelings triggers non-participation. Bandura drew similar conclusions about agency among children and adolescents, suggesting that young people in schools often lose motivation and agency because school `all too often ... undermines the very sense of personal efficacy needed for recurring self-development' (p. 416). Argyris (1993) found it common for organisational leaders to espouse the rhetoric of participation in organisations while engaging in behaviors which acted against participation. The solution, suggested Argyris, was to `create a new theory of action [which] would facilitate learning at all levels, ... drastically reduce their organizational defensive routines and ... build routines for effective organizational learning' (pp. 4-5). The concept of organisational learning has application to this study. To increase agency among their student and teacher stakeholders, schools need to construct themselves as effective learning organisations which stress collaborative communities working in critical, participatory and supportive relationships (Astuto & Clark, 1995; Burkhardt, Petri, & Roody, 1995; Fullan, 1995; Hough & Paine, 1997). Such learning communities need to be inclusive of students.

The Barracks High School culture was unique. Despite its uniqueness, there is considerable congruence between the dimensions identified at Barracks and those found in the literature to describe the general culture of secondary schools. In many ways, Barracks High can be considered typical. Therefore, although the findings of single-site case study research may often be inapplicable to other settings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), there are cases in which findings may be generalised (Sturman, 1994) and, in this study, they can be tentatively applied to suggest a framework for building meaningful participation in secondary schools.

At Barracks, the majority of dimensions acted to inhibit student (and indeed teacher) participation. Any framework proposing to build participation in schools needs to build on dimensions which enhance participation and respond to those dimensions which act as inhibitors. By using the clusters of dimensions identified in this study, it is possible to conceive of a framework of principles and strategies which would help to establish collaborative learning cultures in schools which could facilitate meaningful student participation. This framework is outlined in Figure 2. The framework rests on the assumption, arising from this study, that meaningful student participation in schools depends upon creating conditions which support participation by teachers and students alike.

Figure 2 A framework of principles and strategies for building participation in secondary schools

Strategies for the socio-political dimension

* clear processes to encourage students to say what they think about all aspects of school life;

* student representation in all school forums and committees and on each faculty;

* student government bodies have equal status with other organisational groups and equal access to decision making;

* student involvement in appointment or election of teacher advisers on student bodies;

* student learning experiences are the focus of all planning;

* `open' and problem-based approaches to organisational problem solving and decision making (Robinson, 1993);

* school ethos and underpinning values continually discussed and developed by all stakeholders, including students;

* external constraints and pressures are identified, discussed and responded to in the context of formal planning;

* integrated `bottom up' and `top down' approaches to planning and school development processes;

* targeted scaffolding is available for teachers and students involved in school development;

* clear communication about forward plans, etc.

Strategies for the curricular dimension

* student representatives involved in all discussions about learning experiences and curriculum in faculty meetings, whole-school meetings and committees;

* regular discussions in all classrooms about learning and learning experiences, including classroom-based student participation in curriculum negotiation and decision making;

* provision of academic credit for student representation in school governance;

* student learning experiences are the focus of all planning;

* consistent, planned discussion about student learning occurs in faculties;

* consistent, planned discussion about student learning occurs between faculties;

* curriculum development is secondary to the development of effective learning experiences;

* use of active learning approaches including problem solving, experimentation, research, use of non print-based resources and activities, discussion and cooperative learning;

* `bottom-up' and `top-down' processes of developing learning experiences and curriculum;

* scaffolding for teachers and students in techniques for promoting and valuing student voices, including developing critical thinking and discussion skills.

Strategies for the personal-participant dimension

* school leaders model organisational and personal tenets of schools as learning organisations;

* teachers resolve to value all students as learners and to challenge them to learn;

* celebratory perspectives of youth are developed by celebrating academic achievements of the full range of students, and by celebrating student successes achieved outside of school;

* teachers resolve to talk to students about themselves and their worlds; they look to connect the meaning of academic work to the personal worlds of students;

* all participants encourage trust and openness in dialogue between students and other participants; they discourage arbitrary resorts to power and status;

* encourage the belief in all participants that their ideas have value, are valued by the organisation, and can make a difference.

Note: It is difficult for schools to enact strategies to influence the beliefs and attitudes of participants. Generally, experience of efficacious new approaches will encourage teachers to change their beliefs (Fullan, 1983), as will collaborative approaches of critique and dialogue within supportive groups of teachers (Nias, 1987). Such strategies are believed to be natural outcomes of the socio-political and curricular dimensions of schools as participatory organisations.

The strategies outlined in Figure 2 are underpinned by a fundamental premise, reinforced in this study, that student learning should be the core purpose of schools and represents the most potent means of providing opportunities for student participation. The actual learning experiences of students need to be the central consideration of schools if participation is to be meaningful. Secondary schools need to reflect a concern with appraising existing practices in student learning and with continuously developing new practices. This should be done with students as participants whose voices are valued. Because school curriculum and teaching cultures are powerful determinants of the quality of the school experience for students, in an effective learning community students will have representation at all levels where curriculum decisions are made, including faculty discussions, inter-faculty discussions and at whole school meetings. Regular amounts of classroom time should also be devoted to discussions of curriculum, teaching and learning issues which can involve all students (Glasser, 1990). Further strategies in Figure 2 place students as participants in school political processes which give them access to school decision-making forums, integrate the SRC into school decision-making processes, allow students to select or elect their own advisers, and which encourage students to say what they think. Schools operating as genuine promoters of student participation are also likely to implement participatory approaches to school change and development, including open and problem-based approaches to school development (Robinson, 1993) which explicitly target school purposes, external constraints and pressures acting on schools.

To promote environments which in turn promote meaningful participation for young people, school leaders must manage both `bottom-up' and `top-down' processes of planning, provide scaffolding so both teachers and students can develop the confidence and skills to enable them to participate and, through clear, understandable forward plans and communication, provide participants with an informed basis on which to participate. In this way, participation may be accepted by participants as a genuine opportunity to contribute their voices to school development, and school leaders have an essential role to play in facilitating this environment. There is evidence, in this study and in other literature (Gabella, 1995; Harris, 1994), that young people positively change their attitudes to schooling when supported by engaging school practices. It is important for school leaders to model behaviours of openness and inclusion. It is also important for teachers and other participants to enact values that communicate a caring about and trust of students and each other. Communicating that all participants can achieve and are capable of success is also important, and can be achieved through strategies such as celebrating the success of student learning at every level, and celebrating successful teaching practices.

Had such principles and practices for building student participation guided school development at Barracks High, it would probably have contributed to increased agency and motivation among participants at Barracks, led to more meaningful forms of participation by students and teachers, and to enhanced learning outcomes for students. It is something that should be considered and taken seriously by secondary schools. Only by including students as meaningful participants in the learning community of their school are we likely to resolve issues of decreasing motivation and academic performance amongst young people in the secondary school years.

educational environment school organisation student participation
qualitative research secondary school teaching process
 Dimensions which Dimensions which
 student participation student participation

Primary * paradigm boundedness
dimensions * fragmentation
 * rhetorical ambiguity

Socio-political * seeking out * being under the microscope
dimensions empathetic power * non-pedagogical
 * scaffolding orientations to leadership
 * sink or swim
 * going cap in hand
 * deflecting agendas
 * learned helplessness

Curricular * student theorising * primacy of institutional
dimensions values
 * curriculum as the province
 of the professional
 * spoonfeeding

Personal- * celebratory * dismissing student
participant perspectives of youth participation
dimensions * desire for equity * distrust of participant
 * desire for meaning maturity
 * wanting partnerships * tuning out
 * wanting in * withdrawal

Figure 1 Cultural dimensions at Barracks High and their
relationship to student participation


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Dr Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Social Ecology and Lifelong Learning at the University of Western Sydney, Penrith Campus, Locked Bag 1797, South Penrith Distribution Centre, New South Wales 1797. Email:
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