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Their voice: Student perceptions of the sources of alienation in secondary school
Karin Oerlemans and Heather Jenkins
Whilst the alienation of adolescents affects them in their home and social life, it is the effect on their education that is the particular concern of this study.
Mau (1992) examined the validity of the multidimensional concept of alienation in the school context, and focused on the four dimensions of powerlessness, social estrangement, meaninglessness and normlessness. Powerlessness refers to the student's feeling of lack of control over their lives. Social estrangement, combining Seeman's (1975,1979) constructs of self-estrangement and isolation, refers to the student's feelings of isolation, which can be a physical isolation or a mental or emotional withdrawing of themselves from their situation (Carlson, 1995). Meaninglessness refers to a student's feeling of irrelevance to what is happening to them right now. With alienated students the only relevant time is the one that is happening 'right now', "the past is done and the future is mostly unimaginable" (Lindley, 1990, p. 27). Normlessness refers to a student's rejection of society's rules and norms.
Within the school context adolescent alienation is often exhibited in behaviours such as self-isolation, failure, violence, absenteeism, truancy, and dropping out (Mau, 1992; Zubrick, 1997).
In Western Australia it is the law that students attend school to the end of year ten. Yet in the recent WA Child Health Survey of schools 3 per cent of students were absent for at least one day per week, or 20 per cent of their schooling. A further 11 per cent missed at least half a day per week. Of the total number of absences over 14 per cent were unexplained, that is without a medical certificate or note (Zubrick, et al., 1997). When students were asked how they felt about school, one in five responded that they disliked or "hated" school. The study involved no correlation between those students who hated school and those who did not attend.
West Australian adolescents also have discipline problems at school. The WA Education Department's expulsion and suspension statistics show that about 5 per cent of students were suspended from school in 18 months (West Australian, 1997). Suspensions were given because of behaviours such as verbal abuse, damage to property, violation of school rules, and for more serious offenses such as selling drugs and physical assault. Again no correlation has been done between those who have been suspended, those who do not attend and those who are alienated from school.
However, an earlier study in American schools, found there was a significant correlation between those adolescents who had problems with school, and those who truanted and eventually dropped out (Whelage & Rutter, 1986), that when controlling for academic function, that is ability, expectation and outcomes, truancy emerged as the most significant predictor of an adolescent dropping out of school. Other significant predictors proved to be those adolescents who had had discipline problems, and, less significantly, those who were frequently late and those who worked outside of school at a job. These studies indicate the significance of truancy and discipline problems as important indicators of adolescent alienation and form part of the conceptual framework for this study.
The principal at this school had expressed concern about the number of students who were absent and the number of times these students were absent. Absenteeism was considered to be the most important factor influencing student learning outcomes. It was thought that these students did not value their education highly and that therefore they were not coming to school.
This paper discusses the outcomes of the study in relation to Mau's (1992) four dimensions of alienation and passes on some of the student's recommendations for a better school.
In order to get the adolescents' independent views the interviews were conducted on a one-to-one basis. Interviews were taped with the adolescent's permission, and this allowed for the collection of their stories on the effect of the school processes and environment on themselves and others from their point of view. The interviews allowed adolescents to express their feelings, attitudes, and perceptions on the topic. The interviews were semi-structured, all adolescents were given the same set of initial questions, but there was also opportunity for clarification or elaboration, or the following up of any unanticipated comments.
Sources of alienation for adolescents may also occur within their family and home environment which impacts their schooling. Although issues external to the school environment did arise within the course of the interviews, these were not followed up, as they were considered beyond the scope of the proposed research topic, and adolescents during the interview were directed away from any responses in this area and towards the issue of their attitudes to school and the causes for their absenteeism that are school r elated.
The students in this study also perceived the school to be an unfriendly and hostile environment. There was the perception that there was a lot of fighting at the school, intolerance, and that there was one group of students in particular, who were classified as trouble makers, they are really tough you know, that were responsible for this.
The students commented on some of the other negative attitudes that they felt prevailed at the school such as teasing and gossiping. Yet the students had the perception that they could not approach the teachers with their problems, that they would be ignored, or told to ignore it. The students felt that many of the teachers had little control over the students and needed to learn how to handle difficult students better. Some of the teachers were seen as sarcastic, grumpy, pushy or had lost interest in their work.
These students felt they did not belong to the school. The school was not seen as a place they wished to attend. Many preferred to stay home, go to the beach, or be with their friends out of school. These students expressed many feelings that indicated some level of social estrangement from their schooling. Those who were identified as being trouble makers, although not interviewed, are also expressing some level of social estrangement, as they used their disruptive behaviour to express their feelings about not belonging, or not being able to identify with the school.
One impression many of the students gave was that while schooling would help them prepare for work, it wouldn't be this year. The students expressed a lack of immediacy, they did not feel that school was meeting their needs right now, and they seem unable to connect what is happening to them right now with their future. Students indicated that this year was a waste of time, but next year would be more helpful, the courses available had more relevance, and they would, as one student expressed it, learn things.
Students also expressed concern about the size of the school, how the school ignored their interests and that the school's structures and timetabling policies prevented them from participating in subjects they enjoyed further, I'd like to do more (art and design), but it doesn't fit with the timetable. Students expressions of powerlessness revolved around their inability to make a difference and their perceptions that the power is held by the teachers and the school administration.
However, a number of students indicated that they felt that some of the rules were not that important, such as back chatting to a teacher or not leaving the school grounds at lunch time, and that it was alright to ignore these rules, as one student commented, as long as it's (not) going to hurt somebody or injure them or something like that, then it's all right.
The student's understanding of rules and norms was expressed in the sense of protecting the individual from harm or as rules for the individual. There was no conception that the rules were an expression of the values and norms of the school community, and that the rules are there for the promotion of the community and for those who participate in it. Perhaps this is because schools use rules in a negative sense, the emphasis being on discipline, rather than using rules for the promotion of a sense of community.
Some of the most alienated students were not at school to vocalise their views, but by their absence they have expressed their opinion, they do not feel that school was worth persevering with. Six of these students were not interviewed because they were absent during the course of this study and had been absent for most of the year; and a further seven of the most alienated students were considered to be in limbo by the school. This means there were 26 students who could be classified as expressing alienation from their schooling.
The image conjured up by the students' opinions is one of a school that is not meeting students needs, but that is also not listening to the students, perhaps does not know how to listen to the students, or how to interpret what these students are saying. This study may help the school in listening to those who are alienated with their schooling by giving voice to their disaffection, and interpreting their expressions of alienation. Although this is a group of students who are often in trouble with the school's discipline team, they are still worth listening to, the school is also there for their education and needs to meet their educational needs.
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|Please cite as: Oerlemans, K. and Jenkins, H. (1998). Their voice: Student perceptions of the sources of alienation in secondary school. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/oerlemans.html|