Schools are not just places where students acquire academic skills, they also help students become more resilient in the face of adversity, feel more connected with the people around them, and aim higher in their aspirations for their future.
Not least, schools are the first place where children experience society in all its facets and their experiences can have a profound influence on their attitudes and behaviour in life.
PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is best known for its data on learning outcomes, but it also studies students’ satisfaction with life, their relationships with peers, teachers and parents and how they spend their time outside of school.
The results show that students differ greatly, both between and within countries, in how satisfied they are with their lives, their motivation to achieve, how anxious they feel about their schoolwork, their expectations for the future, and their perceptions of being bullied at school or treated unfairly by their teachers.
Students in some of the countries that top the PISA league tables in science and maths report comparatively low satisfaction with life; but Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland seem able to combine good learning outcomes and high satisfaction with life. It is tempting to equate low levels of life satisfaction in East Asia or elsewhere to long study hours, but the data show no relationship between the time students spend studying, whether in or outside of school, and their satisfaction with life. And while educators often argue that anxiety is the natural consequence of testing overload, the frequency of tests are also unrelated to students’ level of school-related anxiety.
There are other factors that make a difference to student wellbeing and much comes down to teachers, parents and schools.
Positive relationships with teachers
For a start, PISA finds that one major threat to students’ feelings of belonging at school are their perceptions of negative relationships with their teachers. Happier students tend to report positive relations with their teachers and students in ‘happy’ schools (schools where students’ life satisfaction is above the average in the country) report much higher levels of support from their teacher than students in ‘unhappy’ schools.
On average across countries, students who reported that their teacher is willing to provide help and is interested in their learning are also about 1.3 times more likely to feel that they belong at school. Conversely, students who reported some unfair treatment by their teachers were 1.7 times more likely to report feeling isolated at school. This is important, particularly in countries like Australia where students’ sense of belonging in schools is lower than in many countries. Teenagers look for strong social ties and value acceptance, care and support from others. Adolescents who feel that they are part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and be more motivated in school.
‘Belonging’ and behaviour management
There are also big differences between countries on these measures. An average of three quarters of students feel they belong at school, and in some of the highest performing education systems, including Chinese Taipei, Japan, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Finland, Korea, Estonia and Singapore that share is even higher. But in France it is just 41 per cent. In Australia, too, it is below the average. In some countries, there are also large differences among students from different home backgrounds and in 23 countries and economies, students without an immigrant background reported a stronger sense of belonging than immigrant students, even after accounting for socio-economic status.
Of course, most teachers care about having positive relationships with their students, but some teachers may be insufficiently prepared to deal with difficult students and classroom environments. Effective classroom management consists of far more than establishing and imposing rules, rewards and incentives to control behaviour, it involves practices and instructional techniques to create a learning environment that facilitates and supports active engagement in learning, encourages co-operation and promotes behaviour that benefits other people.
A stronger focus on classroom and relationship management in professional development may give teachers better means to connect with their students and support their engagement at school. Teachers should also be better supported to collaborate and exchange information about students’ difficulties, character and strengths with their colleagues, so that they can collectively find the best approach to make students feel part of the school community.
Students’ perceptions of testing
While it is not the frequency of testing that affects student wellbeing, students’ perception of tests as threatening has a clear influence on how anxious students feel about tests. On average across OECD countries, 59 per cent of students reported that they often worry that taking a test will be difficult, and 66 per cent reported that they worry about poor grades. Some 55 per cent of students say they are very anxious for a test even if they are well prepared, and in Australia that share is close to 70 per cent, and very high even among the top performing students.
Also here PISA suggests that there is much teachers can do about this: Even after accounting for students’ performance, gender and socioeconomic status, students who said their teacher adapts the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge were less likely to report feeling anxious when they are well prepared for a test, or to report that they get very tense when they study. Students were also less likely to report anxiety if the science teacher provides individual help when they are struggling.
The impact of negative teacher-student relationships
By contrast, negative teacher-student relations seem to undermine students’ confidence and lead to greater anxiety: On average across countries, students are about 62 per cent more likely to get very tense when they study, and about 31 per cent more likely to feel anxious before a test if they perceive that their teacher thinks they are less smart than they really are.
Such anxiety may be students’ reaction to, and interpretation of, the mistakes they make – or are afraid to make. Students may internalise mistakes as evidence that they are not smart enough. So teachers need to know how to help students develop a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and an awareness of what they can do to overcome or mitigate their weaknesses.
– Andreas Schleicher
Read More: Making a difference to student wellbeing
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