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When being top is not seen as best

Marilyn Osborn finds disturbing differences in English and French children's attitudes to learning.

To my mind a good teacher should help us and make us work hard so that we can go up to the next class." "A good teacher should devote herself to all the pupils, even the best ones. She must at least finish the syllabus for the year."

These are responses from French children aged 9 to 11 when asked to define a good teacher. The emphasis on hard work and curriculum coverage contrasts sharply with English primary children's concerns with having a teacher who does not make them work too hard, who allows some play, and who organises lots of enjoyable activities in class.

We know relatively little about how children see their schools and their teachers. Still less is known about international differences in children's educational experience, their attitudes to school and their motivation towards learning. Yet politicians and policy-makers frequently compare standards of educational achievement in different countries without attempting to understand the context in which these occur.

What factors influence children's motivation towards learning? What can we learn from a greater understanding of how pupils experience school in different social and national contexts? These are questions which we are addressing in a study entitled QUEST (Quality of Experience in Schooling Trans-nationally) under way at the University of Bristol in collaboration with Christ Church College, Canterbury.

The schools which took part in the first phase of the study last year were chosen to represent a geographic, socio-economic, and ethnic mix and were drawn from two contrasting regions in each country. Questionnaires were completed by 800 children in the top two years of primary schooling in England and France with both a teacher and a researcher present to help with difficulties.

Although, on the whole, children in both countries felt fairly positive about their schools and their teachers, it was striking that French children were more positive about school, more enthusiastic about teachers, and more likely to see teaching as useful to them. French children also appeared keener to do well in class.

Sixty-four per cent of French children strongly agreed with the statement "I like my teacher" compared with 30 per cent of English children. Eighty-six per cent agreed strongly that they wanted to do well at school compared with 66 per cent of English children. Twice as many French children felt strongly that they "really enjoyed" most lessons.

French children were also far more strongly motivated by a desire for praise from the teacher, by wanting to be the best in the class and to get a good mark.

Our study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, suggests many English children did not want to be best in the class, and felt lukewarm about getting a good mark or even about obtaining teachers' praise. The importance of a work ethic seemed more firmly entrenched in French schools and internalised by children.

French children consistently wrote that they wanted a teacher who made them work hard while English children wanted teachers who did not give too much work and who were fair. On all these indicators national differences were even more significant than gender or socio-economic differences.

The QUEST findings suggest that the lower motivation of English children and their reluctance to be seen as swots is at least in part a result of peer-group pressure from "anti-school" pupil sub-cultures which do not appear to exist to the same extent in French primaries.

Although, in England, primary teachers and teaching methods are being blamed for most of our social ills, it is highly unlikely that these differences in pupil motivation are mainly a result of teaching methods or of the personality and motivation of teachers. Our previous research suggests that English teachers place far greater emphasis on a learner-centred pedagogy and are far more concerned than French teachers to make schoolwork interesting and relevant and to engage children.

Paradoxically, it is in England where teachers try hard to develop positive relationships with pupils that a negative sub-culture opposed to teachers' values emerges. In France, where teacher-pupil relationships are more formal and based on greater inequality in authority, children express a stronger liking for teachers, a greater degree of consensus with teachers' values, and more positive feelings about school.

Factors outside the classroom appear to be highly important. Pupils' motivation and attitude to school are likely to stem from the culture of the wider society as reflected in familial values.

In France, educational success and intellectual endeavour are more highly valued in the wider society. French pupils are motivated by the long-standing existence of a publicly understood learning pathway and consequently have a clearer perception of the school's main function as a learning one. There is no doubt, however, that the distinct separation in pupils' minds of "work" and "play", and the explicit and immediate feedback which they receive also emphasises the school's educational function. The lesson for English education seems to be that changing teaching methods alone will not necessarily produce higher standards. There is a need to work on peer-group values within the school and on attitudes in the wider society by harnessing the media in an approach that is more supportive of learning and educational success.

As the National Commission on Education suggested, school ethos may also make a considerable difference. The creation of a school climate in which there are high and consistent expectations of all pupils and a clear and continuing focus on learning, in which success is valued and rewarded, and a sense of pride in the school is created, may also be vital. "Policy borrowing" by simply importing the teaching methods of another country without considering the wider cultural context is unlikely to resolve the problems of any educational system.

Dr Marilyn Osborn is a research fellow at the School of Education, University of Bristol. The other QUEST researchers are Patricia Broadfoot, Claire Planel, Keith Sharpe, and Brigitte Ward.

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