The following note (over 4,000 words) was offered as a stimulus for discussions on academic ethos in my school more than a year ago. It ranges widely not only over a number of educational questions such as discipline, learning, and grades, but also issues of management and leadership – all of which affect the academic and general ethos of the school. Looking at it again after a year leaves me with a vivid sense of modesty about my ability to influence the pace and direction of change in my school.
The note began life as an attempt to respond to worries about the prolonged absence of final year students from class, but has ended up trying to look beyond particular circumstances at the general ethos that is creating these absences. It is motivated by an “idealistic” desire to see a school to which both students and teachers feel enthused about coming to learn about the world, and eager to reflect and act, and reflect again on what they are learning about. It calls for a redefinition of “success”, both institutionally and individually, that is more focused on the processes and ends of education, and less on rewards such as grades and the competition to gain them. Consequently, it seeks to challenge many of the core assumptions that we embody in what we do as educators. It concludes with a list of recommendations that I hope will eventually lead to an articulation of a firmer but happier ethos to support our vision and mission as a school, but more immediately to a re-examination of some of the action plans that have arisen from the strategic planning process.
It is well to bear in mind that in Turkey, the conduct of all schools and universities is closely controlled by the Ministry of Education in Ankara. The system of control distinguishes between the types of schools for some purposes, usually between private and state schools, and professional schools and others, and schools teaching some courses in English and those with none. But for other purposes, usually those having to do with the ideological purposes of education, there are no distinctions. For instance, ALL students who are Muslims must study Religion, and ALL Turkish citizens must take National Security and a subject called Ataturkism and the History of the Turkish Revolution. The Ministry has rules not just about curriculum, but also about assessment and the administration of tests and exams, about dress for teachers and students, about pastoral aspects of schooling, about discipline for both teachers and students, and many more than I can remember right now. More information about the Turkish education system (as well as a clear impression about its nationalist-ideological orientation) can be obtained from the Turkish Ministry of Education.
The absence of large numbers of IB final year students from classes this year is a problem which we have discussed recurrently, but as yet without a solution. It is a problem that I myself face in class, along with most of my colleagues.
Of course, the proximate reason for their absence from class is the 45 day university entrance exam preparation leave given to all final year students by the Ministry of Education. But in the case of IB students, the fact that they have already entered college has removed any incentive for them to be in class at all, particularly because they are aware that nothing short of failure to obtain the TURKISH diploma will stop them from entering university. They may have also calculated that they will most likely pass most of their subjects on a year's basis, given the grades that they have earned in semester 1. I am myself finding it difficult to persuade my students to hand in work that will compensate for their bad performance in the mock exams. I myself have had attendance ranging from 10% to 60% this semester, rarely ever above this, with students sometimes staying away even when they are in school.
Teachers who take their profession seriously tend to feel distressed when they prepare for classes with their usual care, and students refuse to turn up without valid excuse. The distress is even more severe when the school not only seems unable to get them to remain in class, but actually allows them to leave during the day on the strength of a request purportedly signed by the parent – a practice that I now understand extends as well to Grade 10 students wishing to leave after each day’s common exams to prepare for the next one.
All of this is only a more extreme manifestation of a problem that already exists in this school to an extent that is worrying even without the recent additional aggravation of the 45 day rule. Students have long been allowed, as a matter of their right, to remain away from school on the basis of a signed piece of paper claiming to be permission from the parent. In Grade 11, even when they come to class, they frequently seem unwilling and unprepared to engage with the activities the teacher has designed as part of the lesson. They have made a habit of coming in late. The procedures of recording absence and lateness, or of getting a note from the Dean’s office in the case of late entry to class, seem to be designed to no purpose other than to generate paperwork, since none of the information appears to be actually used to track the problem of absence or lateness, or take corrective action.
These are symptomatic of a much deeper problem, the like of which neither I nor any of my other colleagues seem to have encountered to the same extent previously. I have been speaking individually and collectively to my own students, as well as my colleagues and to other IB students, about this remarkable lack of motivation. From my discussions with them, and on the basis of my observations over the past few years, I have been able to distil the following picture regarding the motivation of IB students in their final year in school. This is not in any sense the “whole story”, but I think it deserves careful even if critical consideration. It would be easy to dismiss this analysis as cynicism and negativity, but I have invested far too much energy and good will in this institution to accept such an accusation. Moreover, it is not attempts (of which this is only one example) to be a part of the solution, but our collective failure to address and deal firmly with the problem, that is most likely to breed cynicism. Much of the analysis below will apply with minor modifications to the regular students as well. Therefore the recommendations that follow do not on the whole distinguish between IB and regular students.
1. Almost everything we do in school is perceived as a step towards the next stage. The final stage is perceived as entry into university. In the perception of students, the purpose of school has been fulfilled once they have been accepted into university. That is why, once the Overseas Guidance Counselors begin their advisory sessions on university entrance, the role of the teacher is reduced to providing the recommendations and grades necessary for this purpose. Beyond this, the classroom takes second place, usually as an annoying distraction from the main goal of gaining university acceptance.
2. Almost any activity that students undertake with teachers in school that counts towards fulfillment of the final purpose of university entrance is valued in terms of a number. The numbers become the proximate purpose of any effort that students invest in their academic life. Students are encouraged by their peers and parents and teachers to compete on the basis of these numbers. Success becomes identified with getting the highest number possible, while failure is abhorred and feared, despite the fact that nothing can be learnt without failure. They are consequently prepared to do anything that gets them the higher numbers with the least possible effort, including cheating, plagiarism and getting work done by private tutors. As a result, very little that we teachers do with students is valued for its own sake, and most of it only for the sake of the grades that we give them. The point of coming to school then becomes getting the desired number, not learning about the world. An externally supplied motivation replaces, and hence undermines, the intrinsic satisfaction of learning something that is challenging and doing it well. The process of learning itself becomes one of learning only to avoid failure, or of compensating for failure in other ways. Despite our professional experience and judgment, we too are complicit in this identification of learning with a number, since when we speak of students at level meetings and elsewhere, we do so mainly in terms of GPA’s and grades.
3. There are exceptions – such as participation in the International Youth Award Scheme and CAS activities – that appear to break this pattern of only working for grades. But there are probably other pay-offs for the students, which may explain why many of them find it worthwhile engaging in these activities even if there are no grades for them. It is noteworthy that students seem to be the most serious about those activities even where they are not graded, but where the students are publicly representing either themselves or the school, or where they know that the school values the activity very highly, such as MUN.
4. As a private school, we strive to be sensitive to the needs of our clientele, viz. parents and students. In our anxiety not to displease them in any way, we tend to internalize many of their psychological views: that, for instance, if anything is worth doing, then it must be rewarded with a grade, or that success in learning is defined by high grades, even where the grades are not related to criteria and standards defining the quality of the performance being assessed. We implicitly accept these beliefs and embody them into our practices, even when our professional experience has shown us repeatedly that these beliefs are false, because we may have never examined closely the question of extrinsic motivators like grades and rewards and their relationship to learning.
5. Setting and maintaining high and clearly understood standards of performance and norms of behaviour is something we all claim, and sometimes strive, to do. But we generally seem unwilling to resist the pressure from students and parents to relent on these standards and norms, and seem eager to find reasons (some would say excuses) not to apply them. The Ministry rules and guidelines – as currently interpreted – seem to do very little to help us insist on the high standards we need to maintain to back up our claim of being one of the best schools in the country. Consequently, our effective standards are lower than what we would like them to be. Students realize that the school will tolerate and let them get away with the merest pretence of learning.
6. The same applies to behaviour: there is no clear message about the limits and consequences of bad behaviour, whether it is with respect to uniforms, class behaviour, or behaviour outside class. With different teachers and administrators adopting different standards of strictness with regard to the aspects of performance and behaviour that the school considers important, students quickly interpret these differences as meaning that nothing is really important, and consequently a significant minority of them tend to treat the school with contempt and disrespect when we occasionally do insist on compliance with rules and standards. By failing to deal firmly with them, we unwittingly allow this loutish minority to set the tone and agenda for the entire student body.
As a school we have one of two options:
1. Admit that the problem is structural (outside the intentions or actions of any individual) and that nothing we can do within the existing structural constraints of rules and policies set by the Ministry, YÖK and universities is going to make a difference. Then teachers, parents, students can all be more relaxed about their expectations. Teachers, in particular, need not try and find more and better ways to motivate their students, but can consider their professional responsibilities as having been fulfilled if they have provided their students every opportunity to learn and to exhibit their learning, whether or not this opportunity is seized by students. The responsibility of performance in the IB and the Turkish diploma – beyond the teaching and proper organization of the required assessments – will be for the students to take, and teachers need not feel burdened with a sense of guilt and failure if their students have decided not do as well as they possibly can. The school administration need not strive to get students to be in class when their statutory rights allow them to stay away. Students can choose as in a restaurant or a club from a large menu of academic and social activities to the extent that they feel able and willing to engage with them. But unlike in a restaurant or club, students are obliged to come to school. Moreover, teachers will not be disposed to teach at their best if students behave like guests at a restaurant. This is where our problems start.
2. Accept that we can do something about the problems, even if they are structural, by
• Continuing to pushing against the constraints, by exploiting loopholes in them that serve our purpose, and dialoguing with the Ministry to remove the constraints when they don’t;
• clarifying our policies and expectations, and especially our uniqueness, to parents, teachers and students; emphasizing what is different from our bench-mark schools about the excellence of our program. (This requires a detailed and accurate comparative knowledge of our respective strengths and weaknesses.)
• being more active, communicative and vigorous in implementing policies and expectations that have been agreed upon as creating what we consider to be the right ethos for this school;
• making our classes and activities more challenging and stimulating (by which I do not necessarily mean either difficult or entertaining); more focused on learning, even through mistakes and failure, not ridden with anxiety about competing on grades and other extrinsic motivators;
• having students make more decisions and exercise more choices, but holding them responsible for their consequences;
• being open to constructive criticisms and dissent from faculty and students.
Currently we seem to fall between these options. Our intentions are probably closer to option 2, whereas our practice is closer to option 1. I know from personal observation and experience that a lot of administrative energy is invested in pushing against the regulatory constraints, but there are others that I have tried to suggest in my analysis above that are often not even acknowledged – how we use grades, for example, or the ways in which we discourage intrinsic motivations by replacing them with the extrinsic ones of grades, prizes and rewards. Do we consistently teach our students in ways that engage their curiosity, with knowledge and skills that are relevant to the world that they will encounter once they leave the school? Do we deal firmly with the minority of students who disrupt our attempts to create a better ethos in the school? Do we allow students to participate in decisions about discipline, and hold them accountable for breaches of discipline?
I believe we are attempting to close the gap between options 1 and 2 – between our practice and our intentions – by conducting a comprehensive strategic planning exercise for school improvement. Yet we feel helpless about a severe problem of student motivation that is demoralizing most teachers and sending messages to the rest of the student body that are undermining much of what we are trying to achieve through strategic planning. For some, this is leading to a certain cynicism regarding the strategic planning exercise itself. For others, at the same time, the extensive consultation, discussion and thought that are being invested in the strategic planning exercise are also raising expectations that the problems that I am addressing now will disappear as a result of this exercise. Whatever we do, the strategic planning will ultimately be tested in the classrooms and corridors of the school by what our students and we are actually able to achieve in terms of learning, attitudes and action.
The analysis that I have provided above suggests that our flaccid ethos of easy achievement and self-satisfaction is not going to be remedied merely by shifting the timing of submissions of various IB assessments, as has been suggested by some, or shifting the mock exams back to January. It has to begin by repositioning – in the minds of parents, students and teachers - what we do as a school as being worthwhile for life beyond the school, including life at the university. We also need to discourage the perception that the ultimate goal of school life is entry into university. This is not just a problem of communication and perception, but one of leadership, implementation and action, i.e., changing our reality.
In the short to medium term, we need to encourage certain practices and discourage others in a clear, vigorous and consistent manner. Let me conclude this note then with an illustrative list of what I believe we can do (and if we can’t, we need to ponder why not). I will of course be damned with the faint praise of “idealism”, as I often am. I may also be accused of a reluctance or inability to grasp certain local realities, even of cultural insensitivity. But I firmly believe that education in the widest sense is nothing but the human effort to achieve the best that we are capable of doing and being by the constant transformation of the world and of ourselves. The surest way to condemn our students to lifelong self-imprisonment within the given realities of their world is to teach them by our own example to choose not to transform our own, but to always adjust “pragmatically” to it.
1) Let us develop alternative criteria for success as a school, which emphasize enthusiasm for learning, commitment to doing one’s best, service to the community, and excellence in the arts and sports and academic achievement. We must change (and persuade our parents to accept) our definitions of the success of the school from being centred on university exams and IB exam results to being centred on enthusiastic learning and doing.
2) We need to de-emphasize university entrance, and re-emphasize learning as an art or skill, as the purpose of what we do in the classroom and elsewhere. We should convey the message that the purpose of school education is to develop the ability to make sense of and function successfully in the world beyond school, including but not only in university. Success at university entrance – whether through exams or acceptance - or indeed in university itself, should be a by-product, and not the purpose, of what we do in the school. Our self-definition as a university preparatory high school does commit us to try and make it possible for our students to be successful at university (and let us develop measures for monitoring the success of our graduates). But this is not the same thing as success at university entry or IB exams, although successful performance in the IB diploma is known to correlate well with success at university. This in turn can only be part of our larger purpose of enabling our graduates to live fulfilling lives, constantly learning productively from their world and contributing positively to their communities.
3) The Overseas Guidance Counselling Office has an excellent record of getting our students into universities abroad irrespective of their actual record in school. It is precisely this strength that should enable us to help our students to be secure in the assurance of gaining acceptance to a university, and focus more firmly away from the process of university entrance and more towards taking advantage of our educational program and preparing themselves more fully for the demands of life in university and beyond. We need to stop the practice of sending applications for early decision, at least until we are able to shift the focus of students away from university acceptance to engagement with the program of the school. If teachers are to write recommendations, then they should be empowered to withdraw them when circumstances justify withdrawal, because that is the ethical thing to do. We should counsel teachers on the recommendation process, and if there are teachers who cannot be trusted to exercise the power of withdrawal wisely, we should not have them write recommendations.
4) We need to stop trying to help students with the university entrance exams in the classroom. These exams are much more a filter for the university admissions process in the country than it is a test of preparedness for academic life in university. Therefore it has as much or as little to do with the educational process of schools as the lottery of success in the jobs market. Past attempts have repeatedly shown that students have much greater confidence in the dershanes to deliver this help, and that they do not want it from the school. If students or parents complain, it would be more honest to explain to them that university entrance exam preparation is not our function or purpose, and why we do not acknowledge ranking in the university entrance exam league tables as a measure of our success. We need to differentiate ourselves in terms of function and purpose from the dershane more clearly to our parents and students. Our Turkish University Counselling Office has major strengths in its contacts with local universities and dershanes, and in its capabilities for statistical analysis. Its task should therefore be re-designed to continue to assist students with university entrance exams and with the local university admissions process in other ways, but also to act as a research analyst to support research on and evaluation of various curricula and programs within the school, including action research by teachers themselves.
5) For the foreseeable future, and as long as it is out of kilter with the curriculum of the entire high school program, the university entrance exam system will continue to be a process of filtering out university applicants in the competition for university places, and will therefore continue to compel students to stay away from school as much as possible. While I have argued above that it is not our function to devote our educational resources to prepare them specifically for the university entrance exams, I also maintain that we should, under present circumstances, allow our students the support and opportunity for success in it. Now that we have official precedent, we should plan ahead on early (April) closure of classes for final year students, to enable them to attend dershanes or prepare for IB exams. We should seek official sanction for this. This will stop the pretense of having students in school when they are not. Students may come in for review and exam preparation after this, but only during their scheduled classes, and by prior appointment. They should not be allowed to remain in school merely to “hang out” with friends.
6) We cannot dispense with grades or GPA’s, but we should not allow the process of learning to be dominated by the obsession with grade outcomes. We can use grades to stimulate but not overwhelm learning, by
• using grades sparingly and with discretion
• identifying clear, consistent criteria of performance that are as transparent as possible, and in which students have had some role in creating;
• treating the process of assessment as a matter of judgment and discrimination rather than a mechanical system of calculation;
• providing frequent opportunities for students to assess their own work, and to try and improve their work;
• rewarding only the best work with grades, and allowing plenty of room for learning through mistakes without fearing penalties.
• supplementing grades with evaluative comments on the quarterly reports on various aspects of our students’ learning.
7) We should reduce rules to those that we can enforce consistently, simplify those rules and then enforce them vigorously and consistently. We should have students participate in setting the rules and penalties for their breach. We should also deal firmly and vigorously with the minority of students who undermine authority and impair any attempt to build up a positive ethos in the school.
8) This should not be done by administrative action alone, but by helping students reflect on matters of discipline and school ethos by examining questions of discipline and learning and action with our students. The students must be taken seriously and not simply be asked to comply with administrative fiat – which does not mean that we abdicate our authority of competence as adults and teachers. The respect of students for authority cannot be sustained merely through a demand for obedience, but by their serious and well-considered understanding of the need for ethical commitment and self-discipline. Let us constitute a permanent student forum for this purpose.
9) Although ideally, teachers would not need to police compliance with rules, in practice, the administration would need to hold teachers, deans and their assistants accountable for enforcing rules, and follow up promptly, vigorously and in a transparent manner with action once a breach is reported. Some disciplinary powers should also be delegated to teachers instead of having everything go through the discipline committee.
10) We need to stop allowing students to remain absent from classes indiscriminately. The administration ought to inquire into the reasons for absences, and persuade parents that their children’s interest is served by having them come to school, not stay away from it. The administration should be seen by parents and students as well as by teachers to question doctors’ certificates when there is reason to believe the certificates are fakes. We should stop allowing make-up exams as a matter of routine or right.
11) Let us stop graduating students who do not meet certain minimum behavioural and academic criteria. Every year, a few students have not even earned their Turkish diploma at the time of graduation. By allowing our worst students to stand on the same platform with our best, and having them perform the same “sacred” rite of passage, what message are we conveying to our stakeholders?
12) Lastly, I would urge the administration to encourage a culture of openness in communication and discussion regarding educational as well as administrative, leadership and motivational issues. This is admittedly difficult, given the potential for causing personal or cultural offence from carelessness of expression rather than deliberate intention. But a refusal to allow full discussion and debate on deeply felt issues, from a desire to avoid causing offence, is likely to encourage mistrust, rumour-mongering and sycophancy, apart from causing silent rifts between different cultural communities in school. Open forums to discuss issues of education and ethos more broadly, and where it is clearly understood that criticisms are not intended or phrased to cause personal or cultural offence, can not only reduce the feelings of isolation from which many teachers suffer, but also encourage active learning and intercultural encounters among teachers themselves. Furthermore, if we feel that the administration or our own colleagues are able to respond well to those who are prepared to express their views and criticisms constructively and in good faith, then that is more likely to generate an atmosphere of trust within the school. The opening up of the full faculty meetings to suggestions from faculty is a small step in the right direction. But often, such discussions cannot be effectively conducted within the format of our usual meetings alone. In-house electronic message boards may be an alternative.