Asking the right questions

I am fortunate to have my twin two-year-old grandsons spend several hours at our house once a week. Being freed from the responsibilities and anxieties of being a direct, daily caregiver has allowed me to appreciate more fully all the new things that naturally seem to flow out of them; yet, I have noticed how dramatically this flow ceases when an unfamiliar person enters their immediate environment. They freeze: verbalizations and physical movement stop as they study that new person. Fairly quickly, however, they resume playing when they see this person interacting with familiar faces. They have scanned the environment and determined it’s safe to play.

After observing this dramatic change in their behavior, I wondered how those without prior experience with them might assess the progress of their development. Without factoring in the context and influence of the environment, an accurate evaluation is impossible. Moreover, reaching conclusions about their growth and learning without accounting for its context would be unfair to them.

Social psychological research has demonstrated how the words "it depends" should be attached to any statement made about a person's abilities and behavior. This robust empirical finding, however, hasn't migrated to the field of education. We take test scores and most of our data about student performance and draw conclusions about what students can or can't do typically without providing qualifications or clarifications about what could be influencing what we observe.

Walk into any classroom when a test is being administered, and it appears as if the conditions are the same for all students. We don't see, nor do we understand, what is going on inside the students. The fact that we can't see what is going on doesn't diminish the profound effect that prior experiences, relationships and feelings about oneself has on the results of a test.

Adding qualifications or clarifications to test results is a challenging, if not impossible task given the number of students in a school and the limited space given to recording results. Although it may be impractical to explore what's going on inside each student and adding that to our assessments, I recommend that one very basic category of psychological need be explored and assessed: a student's sense of belonging.

Our own experience and common sense should tell us that feeling safe, secure and accepted is a prerequisite for learning. My grandsons broadcast this to me in dramatic fashion, but students, as they grow older, become better at concealing it from adults. However, their not broadcasting how a sense of not belonging affects their performance doesn't mean it’s unaffected. 

My recommendation for improving any assessment of student learning and performance is simple: Ask students some questions to determine their sense of belonging. This might require more time than many teachers feel they can afford. Making this investment of time, however, is worth it. It can provide information that will increase the accuracy of assessments. More importantly, teachers can use this information to take specific steps to help students feel safe and accepted.

The questions can be short and simple. It would be preferable to interview each student individually. Teachers could swap classes with a trusted peer with each interviewing the other's students. This would allow students to be more candid and students could be assured that their answers would remain anonymous. Once word got around to students that teachers care enough to find out how they feel about school, they probably would be willing to forego recess or stay after school, especially if the teacher framed it as "help me to help you." So time taken away from instruction could be minimized.

If individual interviews with each student are not possible, a form with the questions could be printed and distributed to students. They could answer using a four-point scale: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree and strongly disagree.

Here are some questions to use:

Complete the following sentence: For me, school is place where...

  1. I like attending on most days.
  2. I like my teachers.
  3. My teachers accept/like me.
  4. My teachers want me to succeed and do well.
  5. Most of my classmates accept/like me.
  6. I can depend on my classmates to help me if I have a problem.
  7. If I have a problem with my schoolwork or other students, I know I can find at least one teacher who cares about me and wants to help me.
  8. If I told my teachers that I was moving away and leaving the school, they would probably be sad and would tell me that they would miss me.
  9. If I told other students that I was moving away and leaving the school, they would probably be sad and would tell me that they would miss me.

When students feel like they belong, they learn more. We shouldn't leave it to chance that they do. A student's sense of belonging is too fundamental for all learning to remain hidden from educators. Assessing it by asking students how they feel not only provides a more accurate assessment; it is a powerful first step in demonstrating to them that they do belong and that teachers care about them.

I once asked a group of faculty members to raise their hands if they cared about every student in the school. All hands were raised. Then I asked if every student knew that fact and no hands were raised.  Their challenge, I said, was simple but profound -- communicate the care that was already there.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, which sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012), Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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