Missing the point school

One in four pupils in the Norwegian secondary education system regard schoolwork as fairly pointless, according to two researcher at the University of Stavanger.

A number of children have problems with understanding the relevance of their studies, and question the value of what they are learning.

Assistant Professor Elin Thuen and Professor Edvind Bru from the Centre for Behavioural Research at the UiS have studied pupil attitudes to the content of lessons and what these mean for concentration.

- As many as 25 per cent of 15-year-olds find it hard to see any relevance in their schoolwork, and about 40 per cent say that lessons are fairly uninteresting, says Prof Thuen.

- A clear division emerges between primary and secondary school, with pupils find their education less and less relevant the older they get.

- The more pointless schoolwork is felt to be, the harder it is for pupils to find the necessary concentration, adds Prof Bru. That applies particularly to those who had problems from before.

He believes that a lot of theory makes it tougher for youngsters with attention difficulties to cope with the learning process.

- They often prefer to devote their energies to creating disruption in the classroom. To prevent pupils fighting, the teacher must get them to regard school as meaningful.

Nor are the consequences of more or less irrelevant lessons confined to those on the receiving end, Prof Thuen observes.

- It’s not easy to teach a class where the pupils find it hard to concentrate every single day. Teachers often regard attention difficulties as a bigger problem than misbehaviour.

Prof Bru maintains that more weight must be given to utility and relevance if children are to experience schoolwork as meaningful.

- The Norwegian secondary school is heavy on theory. The timetable is stuffed full, the textbooks are often difficult to read and much of the teaching material is abstract.

Many pupils fail to see that what they learn at school will be of any use to them, he adds, and mentions religious philosophy, algebra and history of literature as examples.

The danger with an education system weighted overmuch towards theory is that pupils constantly feel failures. They can quickly lose confidence in themselves and the value of their lessons.

- Studies have shown that Norwegian schoolchildren do not think their education has much value, compared with their counterparts in other countries, says Prof Bru.

- Such attitudes pose a challenge for our education system. Politicians like to believe children learn if they get enough theory. But they only absorb what seems relevant to them.

- Perhaps we should have a system where pupils learn a lot about a bit less, rather than a little about everything, he adds, and calls for a critical review of textbooks.

Not only is the content of secondary school lessons in Norway heavy on theory, but the teaching methods applied are often boring.

- Lessons are still characterised by little pupil involvement, a lot of writing on blackboards and much use of textbooks, says Prof Thuen.

- Our data indicate that pupil concentration is at its lowest when the teacher addresses the whole class, but perks up when working alone or in groups.

- More use of practical examples allows teachers to bridge theory and practice. Good professional support is also important. Pupils must be encouraged to ‘discover’ the meaningful in what they do.

Good relations between pupils and teachers also play an important role, Prof Thuen emphasises.

- The most important influence on concentration and a sense of relevance is the emotional support provided. Pupils are readier to do what they’re told if they think the teacher cares about them.

- One in three secondary school pupils feel they get little emotional support from their teachers. That’s a disappointing figure, given how important this is for the way children experience schoolwork.

Prof Bru believes it is food for thought that such a large number of pupils think their teachers are not concerned about them.

- Teachers need more resources, and some of them must change their attitudes, he says.

- We also need further research in this area.

Pupils want to participate more in taking decisions, and exert greater influence on what and how they learn. The study conducted by Prof Bru and Prof Thune found that 21 per cent of 15-year-olds are dissatisfied with this aspect.

- Exerting influence is just as important for motivation and commitment as support and relevance, says Prof Bru.

- We believe Norwegian schools face a quality challenge in getting pupils to express their views about what they learn.

- Giving pupils a more meaningful experience doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get bored. But they can’t be bored every day. School mustn’t rob them of their inner drive, the very desire to learn.

Text: Silje Stangeland
Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen