Students: How They View Learning And Their Schools

School renewal, reform, restructuring-all are aimed at changing schools to increase their effectiveness, assessed in terms of students' success as learners. In these efforts to improve schools and, thus, to enhance learner outcomes, constituents in and associated with the school community-teachers, administrators, superintendents and central office, school board and parents, and the business sector-have been invited to share their views. Interestingly, little information has been solicited from students-the presumed beneficiaries of school change-about their views and assessments of their school-life experiences.

One group of educators has been looking into this topic.

In 1990 representatives from nine of the U.S. regional educational laboratories initiated collective activities to study and report on school restructuring. Subsequently, this Restructuring Collaborative, including staff from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), has been meeting twice a year to learn with and from each other about processes and practices, tools and techniques for examining

  1. the culture and process of school change,
  2. the identification of student outcomes, and
  3. the daily life of students in school.

The third item on this list, the daily life of students in school, has been the focus of the Restructuring Collaborative for some time. Staff from collaborating laboratories and some of their regional practitioner colleagues have been meeting in schools as research teams to explore students' views of school. The schools selected for this research effort have been engaged in school restructuring-defined by Corbett (1990) as changes in the rules, roles, and relationships of the school community's members-in order to realize a change in results.

A desired result, common to these schools, has been changed relationships so schools become more student-oriented. In addition, the goal is to become environments in which all members of the school community are honored, celebrated, and cared for. School staffs have wondered what students think about such restructuring efforts; thus they have encouraged the Collaborative's preparations, planning, and collection of student data.

This paper reports on two of the schools in SEDL's region. One is an urban elementary school of modest resources that has a long history (sixteen years) of restructuring. Its mission has focused on multiculturalism: honoring the diversity of students, staff, and parents and increasing appreciation for what each person brings to the school community. The school serves 400 students, 65 percent of whom are African American, 25 percent white non-Hispanic, and 10 percent Hispanic.

The second school considered here is a high school (grades 9 through 12) where enrollment ranges from 2,500 to 2,800, depending on the seasonal patterns of migratory workers. The overall student population is 98 percent Hispanic, with 80 percent characterized as low income. The secondary school has undertaken its restructuring more recently than the elementary school. The staff are completing the third year of an initiative to change the attitudes and relationships of the students, the parents, and the 160 professional staff, in order to create a more caring and academically productive environment.

In each of the two schools, researchers selected students to be interviewed, structuring the groups carefully to achieve a representative balance in terms of race and/or ethnicity, aptitude and achievement, age, and gender. In the elementary school twenty-eight students, four from each grade of the K-6 school, were selected; the students reported that they felt "special" to be visiting with the interviewers. In the high school also, twenty-eight students, all seniors, were chosen as respondents. Seniors were selected because they had experienced all three years of the restructuring effort.

Items common to both the elementary and the secondary interview protocols included definitions of a successful learner, as well as how the school and the teachers contributed to students' success. Interviewers obtained information through a face-to-face interview with each student in which the interviewer took notes on the student's responses. In the elementary school, interviewers "scripted" verbatim the students' remarks, explaining to them, "I'll be glad to be your secretary."

After the responses were transcribed and organized by question and grade level in the elementary school, the teachers and researchers reviewed the data and participated in group discussion and interpretation of the students' comments (Hord & Robertson, 1994).

At the conclusion of the high school data collection, the interviewers, who had made careful notes of the students' responses, were organized into teams, and the items on the interview protocol were divided among the teams. Each team analyzed and synthesized the students' responses on the particular items for which it was responsible. All team products were then combined into one report by two members of the Restructuring Collaborative. This document was subsequently incorporated into a case study of the high school students' views of schooling (Hord, 1995).

This paper presents a brief summary of students' responses from each of the two schools, followed by an analysis and discussion of the two sets of data.

Voices from the Elementary School

Across the grade levels, teachers reported that they could frequently hear themselves in their students' responses. "I could hear myself encouraging [students] to succeed . . . and I heard them talk about 'doing my Dibert [Elementary School] best.' "

Successful Learners

Overall, the Dibert students' definition of "successful learner" reflected a passive learner and a norm of conformity. At every grade level students described a successful learner as one who is quiet, does his/her work, doesn't disturb anyone, follows directions, and follows the rules. This definition was accompanied by the students' expressed reliance on the teacher for judgments of their work: "How do I know I'm a good student? . . . My teacher tells me so." Their responses did not reflect teachers' celebration of their ideas, critical thinking, or student behaviors that demonstrate active, self-directed learners. However, students did perceive themselves as creative and felt good about themselves. Their responses indicated that they think about what they want to do and be "when I grow up." These futures include being a "dentist to make sure children's teeth are strong," "taking care of our air and water," "being a lawyer to protect the innocent."

Classroom Relationships

Student's feeling of well-being seemed to be linked to the school norms, articulated by teachers, of ensuring that every child is respected and honored. Students also expressed positive remarks about their teachers as persons who help them to learn. Students viewed school as people-centered, and they frequently spoke in terms of their friends, teachers, and principal. They also recognized the hierarchy of authority in the school as sifting downward from principal to teacher to student.

Students felt that teachers genuinely care about them, and they felt supported by their relationships with teachers and the principal. The teachers declared that they all "own" all the students. Every teacher "is a teacher to all children. . . . It takes a whole village to raise a child," they reported. This attitude probably contributed to the students' views. Students also expressed warmth and caring in their interactions with their classmates.

In addition to speaking about caring about each other, students commented that they learn best when they help each other and cooperate in class. "[Helping each other] is what we teach at Dibert," a teacher explained. Students think it's important to learn and achieve. They are positive about homework and see value in it.

The School Community

First graders as well as sixth graders seemed to be comfortable in reflecting on their classroom and school experiences and in communicating their reactions. Because there is a daily "morning meeting" of all students and staff and parents who drop by, students at all grade levels have the opportunity over time to become acquainted with each other. Since the purpose of this meeting is to celebrate students' accomplishments, it fosters respect and appreciation for others in the school. Students spoke candidly about teachers, classmates, administrators, and parents. Students and staff refer to the "Dibert family," a term that seems to represent the warm feelings and caring attitudes apparent in this school. For example, third graders expressed a desire "to take care of second graders."

This elementary school began to re-invent itself a decade and a half ago and has been maintaining its particular school and classroom culture for quite a long time. Not only do the students speak with one voice in terms of their perceptions and opinions, but the staff speak in unison also. The staff have developed and shared a clear vision of what they wish their school to be for children, and they have used that vision as a framework for decision making about school and classroom practices. The staff's values and beliefs appear to "flow through" the students, who, in their comments and remarks, reflect the same values.

We turn now to the high school, where change efforts for three years have also focused on attitudes and relationships.

Secondary Students Speak

Responses from twenty-eight Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School (PSJA) seniors were reported by Hord (1995). The responses have been grouped into categories similar to those of the elementary school data: learner motivation to succeed, teacher actions in students' learning success, and the school's contributions to students' learning.

Learner Motivation to Succeed

All students who were interviewed judged themselves to be successful in school. However, three different perspectives emerged from their explanations of how they have achieved success, suggesting that they were motivated in three different ways. The first perspective was a rules/expectations orientation, in which students had figured out what "I need to do to get a good education. . . . I am not involved in trouble or fights." The researchers identified these students as people who are also motivated to reach goals.

Other students appeared to have a reward orientation. They study a lot and do their homework. They also know how to get others to help them when they need to. This approach typically results in good grades for these students. They earn credits, reach goals, and graduate.

A third perspective revealed by student responses was a future orientation. Some students appeared to be persuaded to work hard or driven to success by their interest in "getting enrolled in post-secondary education," by their appreciation for how education can be used to make a new life, and by their understanding of how information can be taken (from high school) into the "real world." Of the three motivations for success in school, this third one is quite divergent from the other two in that it focuses on delayed, rather than immediate, gratification.

Teachers' Actions

Students were asked, "What are your teachers doing to help you learn?" and "What do you wish they were doing?" Responses fell into four categories. The interpersonal category, concerned with student-teacher relationships and a caring school climate, garnered the most responses. Teacher actions included "giving pep talks, being there for the kids, making us feel comfortable, relating to us, coming down to our level." These responses seemed to reflect the efforts of the faculty over the past three years to change attitudes among staff and students, to build strong relationships among members of the school community, and to develop a caring environment.

The second most frequently mentioned category was academic. This category included a wide variety of teacher behaviors, such as designing interesting real-world lessons, tutoring the students and helping with homework, and supplementing the standard textbook chapters to make them more interesting.

A third category, applications, revealed seniors' concerns about the future as they were about to leave high school. They saw teachers as providing vocational ideas, preparing "us for life out there," and "helping us to make choices for after high school." Finally, motivations as a category included teachers' encouragement of students. "Yes, you can do it," they would say. The teachers related their own personal experiences to make the point with the students.

School Climate

The students' responses about ways in which the school was helping them to learn also fell into several categories. First, the students said, the adults in the school seemed to be caring and understanding. For example, they took extra time before weekends to caution the students about becoming involved in dangerous activities. Other students reported about meetings with counselors who provided help to those students who might, without that help, have been expelled from school.

The students observed that the school was safer and more orderly than it had been two years earlier. They explained that troublemakers had been removed and that the school had worked to decrease gang violence. In addition, the appearance of the school was more attractive, partially as a result of reducing vandalism.

Togetherness in the building among both the faculty and the students, and in connections of the community with the school, was cited. Parent meetings, more parental involvement, "Community Day," etc. reinforced and further developed school and community connections. The students believed that the PSJA motto, "Together We Make a Difference," had substance and was not just a slogan.

While less mention was made of direct academic contributions that the school was making to enable student learning, a few students observed that there were classes to prepare them for taking the state graduation test, programs that resulted in particular credits, and rewards related to grade point averages. Overall, the students communicated that they felt comfortable in the school and were part of its daily life "in a way that enabled them to focus on learning."

A Brief Comparison of the Students' Responses

Both PSJA secondary and Dibert elementary students were very comfortable, open, and candid in their remarks and reactions to the questions posed to them. For the most part, all of the students were positive and supportive of their school, teachers, and schoolmates. The elementary students, unlike the secondary students at PSJA, who could articulate very clearly the behaviors and actions of teachers and others in the school, tended to be more global in their responses. And, unlike most of the high school students, the K-6 students had spent their entire school life in Dibert, and thus had no basis for comparing it with another school. The Dibert experience was their only experience.

Successful Learners

The elementary students looked to the teacher as the ultimate judge of their success and assumed that if they did their work quietly and without interrupting anyone, they were a "good" or successful student. That is, they focused on their input into the process of learning rather than considering the output, or the product that resulted from learning.

Like the elementary respondents, the secondary students took their cues for success from the rules and regulations of the classrooms and the school. They knew how they needed to behave - for example, they had to stay out of fights - to be judged as successful. Further, like the elementary students, they acknowledged the power of doing homework and how it helped them to learn, but they extended this idea, recognizing the results of studying and doing homework - that is, good grades and high school credits.

In a major way, students in these two schools reflect the traditional passive student who is socialized to conform. This makes good sense in schools today, where safety and order are not always present. But, as our schools are encouraged to develop students who are higher-order thinkers, problem solvers, and independent and cooperative learners, school staffs may want to think further about how they might organize classrooms and design instruction to engage students in more active learning modes.

The secondary students spoke about the future, as did the elementary students. But, whereas the younger students talked about how they might contribute to the social good in their future (by saving the environment, by serving in the medical and helping professions), the seniors commented on ways in which their high school education would enable them to "make a new life" and how they could apply what they learned in high school to the "real world."

The Actions of Teachers

Again, the generalized level of elementary student responses limited an understanding of the particular actions or behaviors of the teachers. The students reported that teachers helped them to learn, but they were not specific about how this occurred. Further, they revealed that they knew the teachers cared about them and supported them, but specific examples were infrequent.

Like the elementary students, high school students commented on the interpersonal dimension as well as the academic actions of teachers, but the older students were better able to give examples. They saw the teachers developing applications of classroom work to the students' lives in the future, after they were out of high school. Finally, secondary teachers in this school, like the elementary teachers, actively encouraged students to "do their best" at whatever they were doing.

The School's Influence

Both elementary and secondary students in these two schools characterized the school as a warm and caring place and the adults in the building as expressing those attributes and promoting that kind of climate. The students at each level referred to the unity - "togetherness," as it was cited by the high school report - that existed in the schools and how that was fostered: in the elementary school through Morning Meeting, for example, and in the high school through various kinds of meetings and group activities. "Together We Make a Difference," the PSJA motto, and the "Dibert family" concept were referred to again and again.

Elementary students in their interviews frequently spoke of violence in their neighborhoods. While the younger students did not give attention to safety and order at the school, the secondary students were quick to say that the school had become a safer and more orderly place (than it had been). In summary, the students from each of the schools viewed their school as an appealing and "good" place, a place that was supportive of them and caring about them, and a place where they wanted to spend their time.


The inquiries in these two schools employed the qualitative research mode - that is, a few very open questions were posed to elementary and secondary students:

  • Are you a successful learner?
  • What does it mean to succeed in school?
  • How do you know if you are successful?
  • What are teachers doing to help students learn successfully?
  • What is the school doing to help students to be successful learners?

The students were given no structure or guidance; thus, their responses were simply whatever they chose to say. The interesting thread woven throughout all the responses was students' focus on the interpersonal or affective domain. The caring and concerned relationships of teachers and students were expressed by students from both schools, and these qualities recurred in the responses to each of the three questions. While "doing my [academic] work" to meet the expectations of the teacher and the schools' regulations was part of the students' discourse, it appeared to be of secondary importance to them.

A growing body of literature from the corporate sector has focused on creating workplace cultures that value individual staff members, their contributions, and their relationships with each other and with management (Covey, 1989; Senge, 1990; Wheatley, 1992). Studies of school culture and its influence on the relationships of students and adults in the school are on the increase also (Boyd, 1992). It is possible that the Dibert and PSJA schools' data offer further credence to the importance of the affective dimension, no matter where or at what age one is doing his/her "work."

It is not appropriate to overgeneralize the results of these studies, based as they are on small samples of students in only two schools. But, overall, the students interviewed in these current study efforts communicated a positive view of life in their schools. The student data have been reviewed by each of the schools and are confirmed in the outcomes of the two restructuring efforts, which focused attention and action to improve interpersonal relationships among the schools' constituents.

The educators in these schools, however, are also aware of the work yet to be done to achieve an increasingly more pleasant and productive environment for the students and staff. The staffs of both schools plan to expand their databases by collecting information from additional students. Then they will use the student responses as part of the data to help shape their planning for further improvement. Because the current samples are small, and because of the exploratory nature of the initial data-collection efforts, no attempt was made to compare student subgroups (gender, race/ethnicity, achievement level). An expanded database, would allow the consideration of such factors.

For the cross-laboratory Restructuring Collaborative personnel involved in the study of these schools, it has been rewarding to design and successfully use the data collection and analysis procedures described. No standard procedures have been adopted for all schools; the needs of particular schools have so far best been served by using different methods. The results of the studies of these two schools are not unlike the preliminary findings of other Restructuring Collaborative site investigations. They indicate that many classrooms and schools are becoming more interesting and challenging environments for learning, but they also recognize that much remains to be done to provide all students with stimulating and relevant educational experiences.

The Dibert and PSJA stories are but two cases that will become part of a book (under development by the Restructuring Collaborative) that will cover a dozen such studies. The larger sample size will allow comparisons, themes, and generalizations to be more easily developed. Until that effort is completed, these preliminary results are offered for the review and reflection of "school improvers," in the hope that the information and insights herein will contribute to the continuing work of educational reform. In this way, schools at various levels - elementary and secondary - can learn with and from each other to improve their practices.


  • Boyd, V. (1992). School context: Bridge or barrier to change? Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
  • Corbett, H.D. (1990). On the meaning of restructuring. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools. Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • Hord, S.M., & Robertson, H.M. (1994). Children's voices from the rainbow school. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
  • Hord, S.M. (1995). Speaking with PSJA high school students. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
  • Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday Currency.
  • Wheatley, M.J. (1992). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by Shirley M. Hord, Senior Research Associate, Services for School Improvement.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 5, Number 3, Students: How They View Learning And Their Schools (1995)