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Listen to the learners

Research among children shows they have firm ideas on how to improve their education, report Margaret Maden and Joan Ruddock

Good teachers have always paid close attention to their pupils' responses to different teaching styles, to the hidden curriculum, and to the values of both classroom and school. However, the current insistent clamour of nationally-advocated ways of teaching could easily drown these essential exchanges between teacher and learner.

Recent research in Australia looked at differences in the way that principals, teachers, parents and pupils see the goals of effective schools.

Tony Townsend, of Monash University, found that students' views were markedly different from everyone else's. He concluded that schools may not be responding to the perceived desires of students, and suggested that they increase opportunities for students to voice their concerns and to play a bigger role in decision-making.

In this country, we have data from Homerton College in Cambridge and from the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University. It reveals that the pupils' agenda for school improvement complements, but is often different from, that constructed by policy- makers.

Many practitioners will recognise that if we are concerned with pupils' achievement we should take our agenda for school improvement, in part at least, from their accounts of their own learning.

Michael Fullan's work on school improvement initiatives found that their success is often chequered. The Canadian professor argues that the problems of schools are complex and intractable and that strategies for improvement may not always focus on things that will really make a difference.

We agree with his analysis.

But whereas policy-makers' solutions emphasise the importance of such issues as whole-school planning, teacher collegiality, and working partnerships with other agencies, we suggest that taking account of pupils' own views about their learning might really make a difference.

What pupils say about teaching, learning and schooling has, in any case, a common-sense persuasion. It reveals the problems they experience as they try to manage their own learning. They do this in spite of competing pressures from the world outside school and in the face of institutional regimes that do not always reflect the increasing maturity of young people in the 1990s.

Young people are observant and often capable of analytic and constructive comment. They usually respond well to the responsibility,when it is seriously entrusted to them, of helping to identify aspects of schooling that enhance or get in the way of their learning.

For several years, at both Keele and Homerton College, we have been concerned with these issues and, with the help of hundreds of schools, we have pursued investigations which begin to throw light on some of the intractable problems identified by Michael Fullan.

As a result of this work we have now selected three practices which pupils tell us they would like in their schools: * First, they would like commitment to schoolwork to be more legitimate among their peers. Currently, working and talking about work is not seen as "cool"; * Second, they call for more formal opportunities for pupils to support each other in their learning; * Finally, they want more help with the problems they have catching up when they have missed work - whether for an odd day or longer periods, and whether through illness or choice.

Pupils have said that responding to these three issues would (or in some schools and colleges, does), help to sustain their engagement and raise their achievement. They have also talked about their need to understand better what working hard, or working harder, means in different subjects, and to be given a clearer sense of the standards used for judging work of quality.

These are specific and highly practical matters which the Nuffield Foundation is helping us investigate during the next year. We aim to identify good practice in schools which have established systems to meet one or more of the three issues that the pupils have highlighted.

We hope to provide an account of situations and issues that teachers can identify with, and offer sufficient depth in the analysis, and the links to other research, so that teachers who want to take up some of the ideas can do so in an informed way, and adapt the work to their own particular circumstances.

Our project is not designed to establish correlations nor to assert quantifiable associations between the range of strategies described and specific academic outcomes. However, we shall be seeking, through the pupil and teacher interviews, to explore some quite complex ideas - and we also want to understand their pedagogic significance.

We hope that any schools with experience or strategies that fit one or more of the three concerns pupils have expressed - making work more cool, catching up after absences, and helping students help each other - will get in touch with us, and help others with the all-important business of school and classroom improvement.

Margaret Maden is professor at Keele University, and Jean Ruddock is professor at Homerton College, Cambridge. The Nuffield Foundation (Pupils' Agenda) Project can be contacted either at Homerton College, Cambridge, CB2 2PH, or at the Centre for Successful Schools, Education Department, Keele University, Keele, ST5 5BG

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