Focus groups are a deceptively powerful tool. They test our films and literature, guide what we eat and use, define the policies we live by and help to form the rules of society. Their influence is everywhere. Yet schools have been slow to harness this power. Thankfully, this is changing.
Focus groups have been tried in schools before, of course. In the 1990s, the charity Kidscape advocated in favour of "bully courts" where, with guidance, students determined the fate of those who had bullied others. But the idea is now gaining wider attention. Researchers such as Neil Duncan - a reader in education for social justice at the University of Wolverhampton - have suggested that engaging with "switched on" pupils may be a quick and effective way to test the social and environmental temperature of a school and, it is hoped, address issues raised by the students.
The US government held its annual bullying summit in Washington last August, bringing together researchers, practitioners, advocates and policymakers to share good practice and discuss the effectiveness of interventions. Student-led focus groups were discussed and shown to be effective in challenging antisocial behaviour. The argument in support of student-led interventions (rather than those led by staff) was straightforward: pupils are less likely to break rules that they have had a hand in making.
So how can schools use focus groups in a productive way? One option is the Delphi method.
The general principles underpinning this approach are simple. A panel of experts is identified and asked a series of questions about one or more issues. Panels can be questioned two or more times but the panel members do not meet each other. A facilitator asks the same questions of each panel member, summarises the answers and then asks each panellist to revise or further expand on his or her replies in light of the collective response.
The idea is that the experts reach a consensus without being pressured to conform in a face-to-face setting. The facilitator is required to sift out irrelevant information and present only those comments related to the issue or issues at hand. The onus on panellists is to reflect on their initial thoughts and the anonymised ideas of other panellists.
It may seem a laborious process but the key is to find a small group of experts who can represent the thoughts and feelings of the majority. It has proved successful, too: it is a method that has been used a great deal in business.
Finding a `switched on' student
The Delphi method could be extremely useful in secondary schools, colleges and universities, bringing an end to large-scale student well-being surveys that significantly interrupt the curriculum and overburden staff with complex analyses.
The key to success, however, is finding the right panellists. How do you find a "switched on" student? Is it the most popular person in the class, or the one who's neither an insider or an outsider in the peer group?
Ideally, a panellist should be a student who is able to give a broad overview of the feelings of the cohort, present both sides of an argument and offer suggestions about how things could be improved.
The best panellists are those who can empathise with their peers and understand how a course of action might harm some more than others. Thus they should not be conspicuous students but perhaps those who sit back a little. They should not draw attention to themselves, but they should not be loners either. Ultimately, we are looking for young people who occupy the middle ground.
Facilitators also need a particular skill set. They need to be able to ask questions devoid of bias (as far as possible). They must practise open questioning. Their questions should be simple and use prompts such as "Why?" and "How?" to gain additional insight.
Remember, the idea is to ask questions of the panellists that will reflect the opinions of their peers. "How do you think the class would respond to.?" or, "What do you think your peers would say if.?" can be useful formats.
No one is claiming that student involvement like this will solve all behaviour problems in a school. What it can do is facilitate productive conversations with the experts on student behaviour: the students themselves. And when it comes to finding solutions, that is often the best place to start.
Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University London and a visiting professor at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Strathclyde
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