With an educational model that struggles to match the profile of its students and respond to their interests, it is unsurprising that educational results have been slow to improve, especially in high school. Solutions to change this scenario have been much discussed among adults involved in education, but such debates often forget to consult one important opinion: that of the students.
In order to identify what young people think of school and what they would like their schools to become, Porvir, a program of the Instituto Inspirare, in partnership with the Rede Conhecimento Social (Social Knowledge Network), created the “(Re)Constructing Our School” survey, which listened to 132,000 students and alumni, aged 13-21, from all the states of the country. “The survey encouraged young people to imagine a school other than the one they currently have. They provided ideas about a school that does not yet exist and expressed the wish for a more flexible curriculum, where they can choose part of the course, and the ability learn in a more hands-on manner, rather than just sitting in class,” says Anna Penido, director of the Instituto Inspirare.
– See the results of the survey here
To achieve this X-ray of what students think about school, the study used a methodology entitled “PerguntAção” (“Question and Action”) involving pupils in all stages of the process, from mobilization to results analysis. As part of this process, a group of 25 young people from all the regions of Brazil helped develop the questions and disseminate the survey.
The results show that students want more afterschool programs and activities that involve technology and arts. Improvements in the school meal and sports activities are were also ranked in the top. When asked about classes and teaching material, four out of ten are satisfied. At the same time, 70% of them say they enjoy studying at their schools and 72% say they are learning things that are useful for their lives. “They say ‘I believe the school needs to prepare me for the future, but it’s not possible the way things are’,” says the Inspirare director.
Rodrigo Hermogenes, 20, from São Paulo (SP), who contributed to the research process, believes these numbers are a reflection of the role of the school in areas that go beyond formal education. “Even though the school and the classroom environment is boring, the teaching materials are poor and the methodology isn’t great, we create relationships with our friends, the coordinator, the secretary, the ladies in the canteen, the cleaning ladies and even the teachers themselves,” he says.
The online survey was accessible from April 28 to July 31 and included 20 questions with sub-themes and response options that replaced traditional research language to bring them closer to the reality of the respondents. For some topics, the students were able to choose between a number of alternatives. “It’s tranquil, it’s favorable” (lyrics from a recent hit song) meant excellent, “It’s ok, but…” replaced good, “It’s more or less” was regular, “Has to improve” replaced poor and “It’s pretty tense” was a way of saying that something was very poor.
Even though the school and the classroom environment is boring, the teaching materials are poor and the methodology isn’t great, we create relationships with our friends, the coordinator, the secretary, the ladies in the canteen, the cleaning ladies and even the teachers themselves
When discussing the perception of young people in relation to their current school and how it stimulates learning, Rodrigo says he was encouraged to reflect on new ways of learning. “This helped me to think about my own capacity for change,” says Rodrigo, who completed his high school education at a public school. He says the ideal school should be an open, welcoming space, with fewer walls or fences, which is capable of interacting with its surroundings. Other students who participated in the survey shared a similar view, with four out of ten young people saying they believed the ideal school should interact with the community. Six out of ten young people also said that their dream school should feature visits, tours and outdoor work.
Activities involving interaction with the community and the visits of social organizations remain limited, but young people want to have more experiences that go beyond the school walls. “The traditional school stifles us a bit. You don’t just learn in the classroom, staring at the teacher and learning content that’s delivered without reflection,” says student Larissa Cabral, 20, who is currently in the fourth period of a social sciences degree at the Universidade Federal de Goiás (Goiás Federal University).
While students expressed a desire to interact with the environment, they also reflected on their own school setting. The young people interviewed in the survey believe that the traditional classroom is outdated. They want to learn in a mixture of external and internal areas, with a range of environments and furniture, including options such as beanbags, benches, cushions and sofas. “They are asking for the right to move their bodies. I think with this kind of set up they are expressing a desire to reorganize [the school] when they wish, at fluid times and in fluid spaces,” says architect Beatriz Goulart.
They are asking for the right to move their bodies. I think with this kind of set up they are expressing a desire to reorganize [the school] when they wish, at fluid times and in fluid spaces
According to Beatriz, these results demonstrate the desire for school architecture that values dialogue. While the architect mentions that a beanbag can mean comfort, pleasure and relaxation, rows of desks send a message that says “be still, pay attention and look at the blackboard.” She also says that “for relations to be more homogeneous and horizontal, spaces have to be more varied,” which gives a clue to the kinds of dialogues the students wish to have at school.
Those who responded to the survey were asked to imagine four educational environments: a school that makes them learn more, one that respects individual differences, one that is innovative and one which makes them happy. When asked what should be the focus of educational institutions, the most frequently mentioned option was “Prepare for ENEM and the vestibular (the university entrance exams)”, followed by “Prepare for the job market.” Jacqueline Ferraz Alves, 16, a student at a private school in Lages (SC) who was one of the young people that helped develop the survey, explains why this should be one of the main goals of a school. “Many students these days stop studying and go to work. There they experience a totally different reality,” she says, when discussing the role of the school in providing support for young people facing the challenges of the future.
According to sociologist Miriam Abramovay, this reflects a message that young people hear at home and at school. “From the moment they enter the first year of elementary school, they are being prepared for the vestibular or ENEM and to go to university. What adults say most often is to become independent and start working as soon as possible,” she says.
For the same reasons, the sociologist says it is difficult for young people to imagine how the school can focus on artistic abilities, human or social relations or dealing with emotions (other options presented as possible focuses for a school in the survey), “as they were not raised to think in this way.” “For them, focusing on other things means not learning, taking ENEM or going to university. At the same time, they also complain of the current nature of their school. Being young is very contradictory,” she says.
The sociologist Helena Singer, national Strategic and Innovation Actions director of SESC, believes that this trend is not necessarily contradictory, as there are ample opportunities for learning outside the classroom, through research, exploration, surveys and a range of productions. “No school should have training for tests as its objective, and it is certainly not the objective of the students. Obviously, when they say they want to be prepared for the world of work and prepared to continue their studies or carry out their plans, the school needs to meet these needs, preparing them for life today and giving them tools for continual development. But you don’t do this by training for exams,” she says, adding that non-traditional forms of education can ensure student learning.
Content and curriculum diversity
The new educational formats imagined by young people require diversified content. On the one hand, for example, they understand the importance of mathematics for continued learning. On the other, however, when they think of a school that respects individual differences, they want their school to help them develop relationship skills and to learn more about politics, citizenship and human rights.
To have access to this content, they say that some subjects should be optional and others compulsory. The division between subjects should be decided by the school. “Young people want diversification but they need adults to organize their lives. This is especially true in the educational model that we have today, where there is a lack of a plan to help students become autonomous,” says Italo Dutra, a professor at the Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia de Brasília (the Brasilia Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology).
Connecting education to such diverse interests, according to Dutra, is feasible even with the current difficulties education is facing, notably those related to infrastructure and teacher training. “Experiences in São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and in the northeast of Brazil show that it is possible to meet individual interests. Parts of the curriculum are organized by projects or themes and allow for student participation in its creation.”
Practical activities and teachers
Critical of lecture style classes in which they are required to adopt a passive role, the students expressed a desire to learn through more practical and interactive methods. A total of 36% of participants said that schools that contribute to learning should offer “practical and problem solving activities.” This opinion is even more clearly expressed among older students because, as Antonio Batista, research coordinator of Cenpec (Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas em Educação, Cultura e Ação Comunitária) (Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action) says, “your patience ends up running out (laughs)”. According to Antonio, as time passes, there is a greater desire for more responsibility and the ability to make choices. “Young people are building their identity and want to learn about themselves. When they are not engaged, as in the case of a lecture style class, a highly theoretical lesson or one which has nothing to do with their lives, they become distant.”
This does not mean that the teacher’s knowledge should be ignored. Even when imagining an innovative school, only 14% of young people said they would like to learn only with colleagues, or have a teacher as a mere mediator. For Batista, this behavior is natural. “Today’s schools are based on texts, whether on the computer, tablet or board and the teacher has the role of transmitting knowledge so they can be understood. In Brazil, the teacher figure is the one that contributes most to creating the ‘school effect’ as the more capable he or she is, the better the results”.
Young people also have a strong desire to see the inclusion of more technology in schools. They mentioned technology when they reflect on learning methods, resources and content. The survey found that they want to use it inside and outside the classroom. For the director of the Instituto Inspirare, this reflects students’ desire to connect school with their reality. “It is as if they are saying: “I live in a digital world and the school is analogue,”” says Anna. “There is a serious dissociation. It is almost as if the youngsters, when they get to school, enter another universe. What they are saying is: why can’t my school connect with my world without changing its role?” she says.
They talk of projects, artistic and sporting activities, and of spaces where they can carry out activities outside school, and technology. These things are not unknown and they have already experienced them in school. Perhaps this future is closer than we think
For those who think that the dream school is a long way from becoming reality, Anna points out that many of the demands made by the young people in the survey already exist within institutions, but need to be leveraged and incorporated into the school routine. “They talk of projects, artistic and sporting activities, and of spaces where they can carry out activities outside school, and technology. These things are not unknown and they have already experienced them in school. Perhaps this future is closer than we think. If each school can identify and improve what they are doing, focusing on what has produced results and what can generate engagement among students, it will be easier to identify how change can occur.”
The complete survey report, published on Thursday 22 September, can be found at porvir.org/nossaescola. Those interested in listening to the opinions of their students can access and download the survey questionnaire too. Mova Filmes and Inketa helped to distribute the results, and produced vídeos and a virtual platform to facilitate access to the survey data.
* Translated by James Young