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School Climate

One of the most important influences on self-esteem is the school climate. Schools can contribute to student self-esteem by creating a climate characterised by democratic procedures, student participation in decision-making, respect, fairness, self-discipline, interaction and flexibility. Recent research indicates that ‘autocratic’ schools have a debilitating effect on student self-esteem while a 'democratic' climate has facilitating effects, and when choice and freedom are denied, self-worth is threatened.

Advocates of student participation believe all students will eventually reach a stage where they cannot depend on others for being told what to think and do. They will be best prepared for important decision-making later if they have learned to make judgements and decisions which are truly their own, and where the teacher has encouraged them to make such decisions in an informed, reasonable consistent way. At school the students will be faced with different values; teacher values, parental values, peer group values and those of their community. What the school can do is to make the student fully aware of the diversity of opinion, to help the student reflect on his diversity and to become capable of assessing and deciding for themselves what is true or false, right or wrong. This can be done by independent judgement and active participation. Since questions of values are matters of controversy, teachers are often concerned to avoid the charge that the teaching process is one of subtle indoctrination. But this ceases to be so when independent judgement and active student participation is encouraged. In other words, it is a contradiction in terms to say that a student is both autonomous and indoctrinated.

In a school, students are not objects to whom things happen, but are people who are encouraged to be actively shaping their own school experience. It is a profoundly important principle that students, like adults, can learn by doing. The way to become responsible citizens is to practise making increasingly responsible decisions and learn by one's successes and mistakes. Unfortunately, a considerable minority of students in schools have a negative attitude towards school, and student participation is an important factor in increasing student commitment to schooling.

Significant change in schools is only brought about when the teacher ceases to be a dispenser of arbitrary knowledge and the pupil ceases to be a mere passive recipient going through the motions of following a predetermined course. Recognising an active role for students in defining the culture and organisation of the institution of schooling has been a major omission which has long term consequences for schools as institutions and the kind of messages they give to students about citizenship. Unfortunately, the role of the student has become an increasingly passive one and divorced from action. Student Participation adopts an approach that builds a valued role for students, and that develops models for community participation. It fosters responsibility, independence and productive capacity.

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Teachers need to consider students' views toward content and methodology when making curriculum and methods decisions. Unfortunately, research continues to show that the needs of students are not being taken into account by teachers who, in spite of the strong, child-centred and action-oriented policies existing in social studies curriculum, continue to employ teacher-centred instructional practices. In Australian schools, a principal has a high degree of autonomy. It is their prerogative what they do regarding involving teachers, parents and students in decision-making. A great deal of cynicism and apathy will be born if a facade of democratic governance is preserved while all important decisions are taken elsewhere. This is likely to produce alienation. In a school we must not only ask to what extent its organisation should be democratic, we must also ask what contribution it makes to education for democracy; in the development of rational autonomy - to produce thinking people who can participate as decent, law-abiding, respectable and conscientious citizens in our community.

Empowering Students

in the Classroom

The notions of respect, validation and success have been identified as the foundations necessary for student empowerment. Recent writings suggest further empowerment can be achieved through teachers engaging in a number of processes which can be used in the classroom context to share their power. Teachers can adapt methods of negotiation, risk-taking, decision-making, choice, independence, responsibility, collaborative learning, participatory leadership and the teaching of social skills.

The increasing centralisation of the curriculum and assessment has left little room for students to participate in governance and in deciding what is to form the basis of their work in schools. Students can either go along with the curriculum decided on their behalf or oppose it. Since Boomer (1978) there has been little deliberation about negotiating the curriculum, about peer assessment or student conducted action research to make education more accountable. Such an approach to curriculum and accountability emphasises the separation of schools from the rest of society, and a lack of trust in the educational process. With the current trends towards a tighter and more inclusive central control over the curriculum, we must continue to insist upon a real scope for innovation and experimentation at the local level.

If students are to be active learners, critically examining problems of school life, dealing seriously with ambiguity, conflict and contradiction, at a minimum they require opportunities to express themselves frequently (orally and in writing) and to receive prompt, detailed feedback on their views. If students are to engage in honest critiques of one another's ideas, they must learn within an atmosphere of co-operation and trust, not competition and individual isolation.