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Old Questions for New Schools: What Are the Students Doing?

by John Wallace & Helen Wildly - 2004

This study was conducted in a lighthouse school with a long and successful history of restructuring. In this article we describe our (surprising) impressions of shadowing Jake, one of the highest achieving students in the school. We present a researcher's account of Jake's classroom experience over the first four periods of a single day and an analysis of what happened in terms of the idea of studenting. We employ an actor-oriented view of studenting, comprising four aspectspacing, attending, conforming, and selecting. We contrast this with a structure-oriented view of studenting and draw parallels with the notions of students-as-participants and students-as-beneficiaries in school reform. Finally, we discuss the problems and possibilities of engaging and involving students in the process of reform.

This article is about one of our favorite schools. Waverley High School─ a small school in rural Western Australia─ was the base for our research into school reform over several years during the 1990 s. Over this time our attachment to the school grew and each visit was like a small homecoming. After the 3-hour drive from the city, we were greeted by staff with a welcoming coffee and a chat about the drive, the weather, the grapes (Waverley is in a wine region) and current happenings in the school (such as the school dance, the new library building, and the new system of reporting to parents). Cathy, the principal, showed genuine delight at our presence in the school. She and the other staff members offered their assistance and helped us plan our research activities for the day. During the day, we interviewed several of the staff during their free periods and sat in the staff room listening to the usual friendly banter. Often, teachers invited us into their classrooms to watch a lesson or two. At some time during the day, we tried to organize an hour or so with Cathy to catch up on her latest thoughts about how the school was going. Cathy offered her views in an open and forthright way. We tried to coincide our visits with staff meetings so that the day often finished in the library with the 17 Waverley staff members discussing matters as diverse as assessment policy, the school camp, and student-centered teaching strategies. At such meetings our presence was acknowledged formally and informally and our opinions sought on various matters. Although the school day finished around 4 p.m., it was often difficult to get away because Cathy and other staff members wanted to talk about the meeting and say their farewells. As we drove back to the city, invariably we talked about our good fortune at having chosen such a wonderful school for our research.

Waverley is a wonderful school. A founding member of the National Schools Project (subsequently called the National Schools Network) in Australia, Waverley has received accolades for its restructuring efforts and its attempts to implement more student centered approaches to teaching and learning. The school was one of the first in Western Australia to use student outcomes as a basis for monitoring and reporting student achievement. As a lighthouse school, Waverley was in the spotlight of restructuring and school reform over several years. Staff from Waverley were invited to present workshops at state and national conferences. One staff member received a travel fellowship to visit schools from the Coalition of Essential Schools in the United States. During this time, Cathy received one of two statewide awards for principal of the year. The school was regularly visited by staff from other schools, academics and school administrators.

Our interest in Waverley began in 1992 when the school was considering an offer to join the fledgling National Schools Project (NSP). We were interested in the NSP idea of encouraging and assisting schools to devise and implement different forms of work organization. After working in and around schools for two decades, we were beginning to appreciate the complexity of the reform process and the need for forms of research, which brought meaning to this complexity. We wanted to spend time in a school immersed in the process of change and observe and record events as they happened. A fortuitous friendship with one of the staff members at Waverley led to contact with Cathy and an invitation by the staff to conduct our research at the school in return for our critical friendship.

Our visits to Waverley became frequent and enjoyable. We published widely on the Waverley experience with school reform (Louden & Wallace, 1997; Wallace & Wildy, 1992, 1994, 1997; Wildy & Wallace, 1997, 2002) and shared those accounts with our friends at the school. Initially, our focus was on the staff and the process of changing the working environment. From there, at the invitation of staff, we began to make forays into classrooms. We observed the teachers working together and wrote about their decision- making processes. We tracked the evolution of the school’s goal to develop students who were responsible, independent learners. We watched as staff invested considerable energy in developing new strategies for student centered teaching. We noted the formation of a new student consultative committee and the school’s efforts to involve students more in the organization of the school. We were present when the school decided to block-timetable the curriculum areas of art and technology to try and integrate some previously separate subjects such as home economics, business studies and manual arts, music, art and craft. We reported on efforts to implement student outcomes in classrooms and to change from an A, B, C, D, F grading system to a profile of student progress. We offered our critical feedback to the school on a number of the things that we had observed.

We were impressed by the way that the staff recognized each other’s capacity and preparedness to change. People were encouraged to deal with change in their own way and differences were respected. We saw that teachers at Waverley struggled with changes to their practice, even after several years. Even experienced teachers were sometimes stretched in the face of poorly motivated and socially immature students, low energy levels and the culture of traditional teaching practices. We also wrote about Cathy’s critical role in the changes at Waverley. We were impressed with the way that she gave teachers the autonomy to make decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment─ authority that many had not had in previous teaching experiences. She held up the vision to the staff and promoted it to the school community. We liked the way that she respected the difference in readiness to change among staff and helped teachers who needed more support.

A consistent theme throughout all of our observations was that, in spite of its problems, Waverley was a school making a determined effort to get better. Our judgment was that the school had made changes, which were making a difference to teachers and students. It was a good school to be working in─ open to scrutiny and welcoming of outsiders such as ourselves. We felt that this was about as good as it gets in a school. Our descriptions of life at Waverley also seemed to be consistent with accounts of schools undergoing reform in other places. However, as we thought about these things, we began to wonder what else there was to say about Waverley and school reform. We had been studying the school for a number of years and were wondering if our eyes were becoming a little tired. In our search for a different angle, we made an arbitrary decision that one of us ( JW) should shadow a student, to attempt to see the school through a different set of eyes. Cathy─ cooperative as usual─ arranged for me to accompany Jake, a 10th-grade student, for the day. She obtained permission from Jake’s teachers and when we arrived at the school prior to the first period, she presented me with his schedule for the day. What follows is my account of Jake’s classroom experience over the first four periods of that day and my analysis of what happened. After all the enthusiastic things we had written about the teaching in this school, we were surprised with what we found when we turned our attention to what one of the students was doing.



I met up with Jake as he and his classmates were entering the science room. As a former teacher of Grade 10 science, I sat down opposite Jake in the familiar setting of the laboratory. The science lesson began with a valency test. The teacher gave the students a few minutes to revise and Jake, who was sitting on his own, flicked through his notes.

‘‘What is the valency for silver, potassium, chloride...? It is very important that you know this stuff otherwise you will be stuck when it comes to the next topic,’’ said the teacher as he ran through a dozen or more test items. I was not surprised when Jake scored well on this test of rote learning because he was one of the more successful students in the class.

The teacher handed out a sheet describing an experiment titled ‘‘Are All Metals Crystalline?’’ He proceeded to describe the procedure of the experiment, which involved students placing a small piece of copper into some silver nitrate solution. He warned students about the dangers of using silver nitrate. Jake joined another student to do the experiment and they lined up with others to get the equipment. Jake and his partner handled the procedure quite easily and noted that some silver crystals deposited on the copper and the solution went green. It was an interesting chemical effect, but I wondered whether Jake understood (or was interested in) how this effect connected with the chemical structure of metals.

I found myself getting fidgety as Jake finished the experiment early and had to wait for about 10 minutes while the teacher helped other students with the procedure. There was further delay as one of the students spilled some silver nitrate and the teacher supervised the cleanup. The teacher then called the students to the front of the room where he briefly explained the principle behind the experiment and generated a couple of chemical equations on the blackboard. He followed this with three simple demonstrations to illustrate the crystalline structure of metals. Jake watched and appeared to be listening as the teacher talked about the chemistry of metals for about fifteen minutes. Occasionally, some students were distracted by a few students who were pushing one another at the back of the group. With about 10 minutes remaining before the end of the lesson, the teacher told the students to return to their desks and work on their homework. Jake, who had completed his work the previous evening, talked quietly with another student until the period finished.

My reaction to this lesson was one of familiarity and surprise. Familiarity, because I spent 15 years of my career teaching high school science. I understood the craft and content of teaching Grade 10 chemistry and was sympathetic with the problems faced by the teacher as he tried to teach the class. Surprise, because I expected that Jake’s learning would be more continuous, more exciting and more engaging. Although the lesson contained many of the elements of ‘good’ science practice, this seemed to me to be a most unremarkable way to spend an hour of one’s time.


I arrived at the next period hopeful that it would be a more enriching experience. Perhaps, social studies is a more interesting subject than science. The lesson began with the class seated in a circle. The teacher reminded the class that they needed to choose some aspect of the topic ‘‘Cooperation and Conflict’’ for independent study. He asked the students to describe which aspect they had chosen to study for this topic. The students responded one at a time around the circle with topics such as the Crimea War, The Battle of Hastings, and South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Jake said that he was going to study the Trojan Wars. The teacher then asked students to explain what they were going to do that day. Jake said that he was going to look up the causes of the Trojan Wars. Others suggested various activities including constructing explosion charts for their topic, mapping exercises and consulting library indexes.

I had observed this teaching strategy on previous occasions and was impressed with the way that it provided students and the teacher with an opportunity to communicate their ideas and plans for the lesson in an accepting environment. This seemed to be a good beginning and I was interested to see how things would proceed from here. Several students, including Jake, asked to go the library. There, Jake searched through the shelves until he collected a pile of books. He and a friend sat together in the library and Jake browsed through his books looking at the pictures and reading items of interest on the Trojan Wars. Occasionally, he would show pictures from the books to his friend and they would talk about what Jake was reading. He told his friend about his recent trip to Greece and read aloud a story to his friend from one of the books about Helen of Troy. Jake did not do any writing during the period but seemed pleasantly engaged.

Pleasantly engaged─ this term seemed to be an apt description of my own feelings during this lesson. Like Jake, I enjoy browsing through books in libraries. It is a relaxing way to pass the time, to escape from other pressures. When I tired of watching Jake, I too browsed through some of the books from the shelves. The time went slowly and pleasantly. But, again, I began to wonder about Jake’s experience during the lesson. It didn’t seem to be as boring as the science lesson but it wasn’t particularly focused either. These could have been books on any subject of interest to a teenager─ basketball or surfing for example. Jake had negotiated permission to organize his own work for this period. However, there seemed little obvious connection between Jake’s browsing and the social studies topic Cooperation and Conflict.


By now the day was beginning to drag a little. I wasn’t very optimistic about a change of pace when I saw that the English class was working on an independent assignment related to the novel The Chrysalids. Most of the students had gone to the library with the teacher while Jake and a few other students stayed in the classroom. For his assignment, Jake had chosen a theme, ‘‘Disabled People: Rejects of Society,’’ which was related to the novel. He was going to use a video of a disabled comedian to show to the class and was planning to conduct a discussion with the class about disability.

I was impressed by the creativity of Jake’s choice of topic. For the remainder of the lesson, Jake wrote down several questions related to the video and the topic of disability. He intended to use these questions to generate a class discussion about the video. Occasionally, he would wander over to some of the other students to ask them what they were doing. When he finished listing questions, he pulled out a library book on the Trojan Wars and browsed through it until the end of the period.

This period went particularly slowly. Jake did not seemed to be meaningfully engaged although he clearly understood that doing the assignment was a necessary and important task. In this period before lunch, he was more interested in filling in time than working. Like Jake, I looked for ways of occupying myself, making notes, reading, chatting to students and wondering what to make of these data about Jake, which seemed so thin.

After the lunch break, I made a brief visit to see Jake in the woodwork shop. The shop was as I remember workshops from my own school days─ full of activity, noise and dust with student projects in various stages of completion. Jake was in the process of measuring some pinewood for a compact disk carry box which he had designed himself. He seemed engaged with the task and worked methodically measuring, cutting and papering in the 20 minutes I was there. I didn’t stay for long because I felt out of place in the midst of such busy-ness. However, once again I wondered about what kind of experience this was for Jake. What kind of learning is taking place here? Does my comment about the unremarkable hour spent in science also apply to woodwork?


So ends my description of a day in the classroom with Jake. Driving away from Waverley that day, Helen and I began to talk about my experience and to compare it with our earlier observations of classroom life at the school. We had previously visited classrooms at the invitation of our friends on the staff and had written sympathetic accounts of their attempts to introduce student-centered approaches (Wallace & Wildy, 1997). These were the same teachers I had observed while shadowing Jake. Looking at these earlier lessons through the eyes of the teacher, they seemed to us to be commendable attempts to make the classrooms involving and interesting places. There was evidence of teachers experimenting with their practice and negotiating the curriculum, of students taking responsibility for their work and of the use of alternative forms of assessment. We saw many similarities between our own descriptions and those of others who were studying the classrooms of restructured schools (e.g., Wasley, 1991). But this time, as I tried to put myself in the shoes of an individual student, I told Helen that I had a different kind of feeling about the classroom experience. With Helen’s agreement, I attempted to make some sense of what I had seen.

My overwhelming reaction was surprise at how mundane Jake’s day appeared to be. In spite of sincere attempts by his teachers to engage him in interesting and challenging work, the moments of genuine engagement during the day were few. The science teacher had organized a potentially interesting set of experiments and demonstrations to stimulate discussion on metallic structure. The teacher had sound content knowledge and a good rapport with the class. Jake was clever enough to realize that he should obtain a good result in the test. He completed the experiment in an efficient manner and attended to the teacher during the demonstration but his level of engagement was low. For much of the period, he marked time─ waiting for the teacher, for his fellow students, for the end of the period. The social studies and English teachers had negotiated some self-directed tasks designed to increase Jake’s responsibility for his own learning. Sitting the students in circle was an effective strategy for helping the teacher to understand what the students were doing. However, when Jake worked on his own, there appeared to be little direct connection between his activity and the goals of the course. There is little doubt that Jake understood what he needed to do to complete the requirements of the assignments and that they would be done on time. However, during these periods, Jake seemed more interested in passing the time than completing the task. In the woodwork class, Jake was building a carry box. The students had designed their own boxes within the parameters set by the teacher. Jake was busily engaged during the lesson. He was following a well-trodden path that he understood well. Like the English and social students assignments, Jake realized that he needed to complete the project to a standard and a timeline established by the teacher.

Wondering what Jake would have to say about his experience that day (and how it might compare with my analysis), I sent him a copy of the preceding text and asked him for his reaction. I did this with some trepidation for I was concerned that he might interpret my tone as critical. Shortly afterwards I received in the mail the following written response:

When I read your description, it does seem to be a pretty boring day. Sounds like a Tuesday to me. Tuesdays are pretty average─ 3rd best/ 3rd worst [out of a five day cycle]. I think that it is a reasonably accurate summary . . .

I was fairly engaged with the valency test because I wanted to keep up with my high scores 10/10 in the previous tests. I like doing symbols. I don’t really like the practical side, that’s probably why I wasn’t interested in that particular lesson.

In the second period, social studies, I thought that I was quite engaged by the topic─ it is one of my favorites. I really enjoyed that book on the Trojan Wars and for a couple of days after that we read the whole book. Because it was the first period of the project, for me the important thing to do was to browse and find the background information. I did see the relationship with the topic afterwards. As I became more into the topic, I made more connections with cooperation and conflict. The next period in English was pretty much as [you] explained it. I had simple things to do.

Sometimes I do get excited by class. Definitely, it depends on what we are doing. I don’t think that learning at Waverley is boring─ not as boring as it could be, that’s for sure. I like the responsibility I guess. I like the way that you are left alone and checked on now and then, compared to [elementary] school where they hold your hand all the way. I prefer to work on my own because in groups I often have to spend a lot of time keeping other people on track and working.

I think I would like to see the more dramatic side of it and the creative side, not writing all the time. Sometimes the opportunity is there to do this sort of thing. Some teachers try to include interesting activities to cater for people like me. Mr H [social studies teacher] does that. That day didn’t have any really creative work to do─ it was a pretty standard, boring sort of day. I’m sorry the day wasn’t a more interesting one for you and for me!

While Jake didn’t take exception to my analysis─ even to the point of agreeing that it was a rather boring day─ he seemed apologetic that he wasn’t able to provide me with a more exciting experience. His comments were focused not so much on what he had (or had not) learned but on how he went about doing his work. He mentioned the importance of maintaining high scores in his valency tests, his dislike for practical work, his preference for working alone and being given responsibility. Finally, and importantly, Jake mentioned the role of teachers in creating the environments within which he operated. He clearly has a deep respect for his teachers and an expectation that they make appropriate pedagogical decisions.

I too have a deep respect for Jake’s teachers. They are among the best I have seen. The teaching strategies employed in these lessons are pedagogically sound and in keeping with the philosophy of the school. What is still so puzzling is that Jake’s experience seemed so lacking in excitement, in apparent learning. One possible explanation is that Jake had a poor attitude to school. However, this was obviously not the case─ Jake was academically successful, personally reflective and came highly recommended by his teachers. He represents, what Rop (1999, p. 224) ironically calls, a ‘‘successful, satisfied student.’’ Another explanation is that this has been a bad day for Jake. Not so. ‘‘Pretty average,’’ according to Jake, ‘‘3rd best/3rd worst.’’ Moreover, my casual observation of other students in the class seemed to confirm my overall impression about these lessons. Somewhere in this equation, there appears to be something about the life of a student that transcends pedagogy and content, that goes beyond the different reactions to individual teachers.

As I thought about this issue, it occurred to me that in many respects being a student is not unlike many other activities that people engage in─ such as maintaining the garden, completing a tax return, or arranging a dinner party. Each has an imperative (sometimes internally driven, sometimes externally driven); each has a set of rules and conventions which need to be attended to; each task is assigned a priority within people’s lives; the requirements of each task need to be balanced against the time available; and each requires attention to the needs of other people. There are times during each task when people become highly engaged by the task─ such as when buying a new shrub, calculating the taxation refund or welcoming guests to the party. Sometimes, the task takes on an urgency─ such as when the neighbor complains about the creeper on the fence, or the tax auditor calls, or you need to entertain a client. But, for much of the time, the task involves mundane─ even boring─ routines that we normally understand and accept as part of the stream of the task─ for example, weeding, searching for receipts, or washing the dishes.


Being a student─ a task I call studenting─ is also different from these essentially adult activities in several important respects. For example, students are children supervised by adults who determine the content as well as much of the process of the task. Students have to be at school. Students’ work is also evaluated in formal and often quite public ways. However, like the other tasks I have mentioned, studenting has a combination of attributes, which I have called pacing, attending, conforming and selecting.


Pacing means getting the job done in the time available. It means deciding what needs to be done and then allocating the time to ensure that it is completed. There are several examples of pacing in Jake’s day. In the science lesson, Jake did not feel the need to work on his homework assignment during the last 10 minutes of the period because he had completed a large part of it the previous evening. In the social studies lesson, Jake acknowledged that he was comfortable with his future capacity to produce a project on the Trojan Wars and he worked through this lesson by browsing through books and reading to his friend. Similarly, in English, Jake understood what was required to complete his assignment on the disabled but chose ‘‘simple things’’ in the period prior to the lunch break. In woodwork, Jake chose an appropriate pace of work to complete the project within the time allocated by the teacher. Pacing means that there are also hurried times when people push themselves to meet deadlines. However, there appeared to be few such times during Jake’s day. As he revised his notes prior to the mini science test, he felt the need to cram some facts about ionic valency because he ‘‘wanted to keep up with [his] high scores in previous tests.’’ No doubt, on other days, I might have observed a greater sense of urgency in Jake’s work. But the net effect of pacing on this day was that Jake could choose to be minimally engaged in learning.


Attending means obeying the formal and informal rules and conventions of the school. Students interpret these rules in many ways. As one of the highest achieving students in the school, Jake understood that he was expected to do well in class, to attend to the teacher, to work quietly, to understand what content needed to be learned and to follow instructions. Even in the so-called student centered settings, attending is still a feature of studenting. Jake would not be allowed in the science laboratory or woodwork shop, for example, without an understanding on his part of the rules governing his behavior. These powerful conventions mean that much of what goes on in schools takes the form of routines to be followed rather than exceptional experiences. Sitting in the circle at the commencement of the social studies lesson might be an attending routine for this subject. Waiting for the teacher in science or working quietly in the library are other examples of attending routines. The effect of these routines is that they encourage comfortable and predictable patterns of student behavior rather than exciting new learning.


Conforming is another aspect of studenting. It means understanding and fitting in with the peer group. Some students seem more susceptible than others to the influence of peers but peer pressure exerts itself in many ways, both subtle and obvious. Jake achieved better results than many of the others in his class and he often chose to work alone rather than spending ‘‘a lot of time keeping other people on track and working.’’ In the science classroom, he said little during the demonstration at the front of the room because the other students were not interested in discussing metallic bonding. In the social studies class, he sat and talked with a friend who was also browsing through library books. Together they constructed an acceptable pattern of behavior for the period that did not include urgent attention to the assignment. Like attending, conforming operates to even out the behaviors of students so that their school experiences are usually unexceptional.


A further aspect of studenting is called selecting. In each of the lessons described above, the teacher was doing his job. Metallic structure, cooperation and conflict, The Chrysalids, and carry boxes form an essential part of the teaching agenda at this time of the year for 10th grade. This agenda is time worn─ proven over the years to be necessary for the integral transmission of these subjects. For the students, the topic is neither here nor there─ metallic structure could just as easily be the chemistry of digestion or The Chrysalids could be Robinson Crusoe or any other piece of content specified in the syllabus or selected by the teacher. Teachers teach this material in the hope that students learn. What Jake did in all of his lessons is select those bits of what the teachers prescribed that he wished to learn. In the English and social studies classrooms described earlier, Jake also selected the pace with which he wished to learn. The net effect of selecting is that the agenda set by the teacher and seemingly packed with good learning experiences is not translated in the same way by students. Selecting means that teaching does not always equal learning.


As Helen and I discussed these ideas, it occurred to us that the domain of students rarely arises in the school reform literature. Teachers are busy reforming things that teachers notice─ timetables, content, pedagogy, staff meetings─ rather than things that students notice. It may be that the things teachers think are important are not important to students. Maybe, students are connoisseurs of other things that remain largely unrecognized giving rise to the phenomenon of studenting described previously.

The notion of studenting is not new in the educational literature. It was first introduced by Fenstermacher (1986), who used the term to describe the various tasks that a student performs in order to learn. Fenstermacher acknowledged that studenting involves more than that which takes place in the classroom─ including getting along with teachers, peers and parents, and handling the non-academic aspects of school life. However, his fundamental premise was that studenting is about mastering the processes of learning and that the task of teaching is to enable studenting:

The teacher’s tasks include instructing the learner on the procedures and demands of the studenting role, selecting the material to be learned, adapting that material so that it is appropriate to the level of the learner, constructing the most appropriate set of opportunities for the learner to gain access to the content, monitoring and appraising the student’s progress, and serving the learner as one of the primary sources of knowledge and skills. (p. 40)

Fenstermacher (1986) drew a direct link between the range of activities connected with teaching─ explaining, describing, defining, referring, facilitating and encouraging─ with activities associated with studenting─ practicing, seeking assistance, reviewing, checking, locating and accessing. One of the major achievements of teaching, according to Fenstermacher, is the attainment on the part of the student of the rules, procedures and skills of studenting.

Fenstermacher (1986) takes of view of studenting which might be called structure oriented (Giddens, 1984), where the action of the student is regarded as a function of the position of the actor in a social setting; in this case a setting largely constructed by the teacher on behalf of the student. The teacher performs certain roles within that setting and the student is expected to respond to this treatment in appropriate ways. By contrast, our own view of studenting might be called actor-oriented (Giddens, 1984). According to this perspective, actions are related to the intentions, beliefs and capabilities of the actors; in this case the students themselves. Thus an actor-oriented perspective on studenting─ incorporating attributes such as pacing, attending, conforming and selecting─ seems, in this case, to be more cynical, sometimes more subversive and certainly less connected with the overt rules of the classroom than a structure-oriented view.

Another version of an actor-oriented view of studenting is captured in Fatima’s rules ( Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Larson, 1995), an unstated set of understandings about how students conduct themselves in class. Costa’s (1997) account of students playing by these rules brings to mind my own observations of Jake’s behavior in the science lesson:

[Students] are not working on chemistry; they are working to get through chemistry. The subject does not matter. As a result, students negotiate treaties regarding the kind of work they will do in class. Their work is not so much productive as it is political. They do not need to be productive─ as in learning chemistry. They only need to be political─ as in being credited for working in chemistry. (p. 1020)


It is a strange irony that at the time of the study, Waverley was a school deeply immersed in reform. The school’s reform goals were concerned with developing students as responsible, independent learners. Staff invested considerable time and energy in learning and practicing student centered teaching strategies. Some of these goals and strategies were in evidence in the actions of Jake’s social studies and English teachers. And yet, in spite of his teachers’ best efforts, Jake still seemed to be minimally engaged by his classroom experience. There appears to be a mismatch between student centered teaching─ premised on a structure-oriented view of studenting─ and student-centered learning─ premised on an actor-oriented view of studenting.

One explanation for this irony is that Waverley’s rationale for school reform, while based on laudable aims of student centeredness, was actually little different from the structure-oriented view of teaching (and hence studenting) described by Fenstermacher (1986). Teachers were still selecting content (albeit in a more democratic way), constructing the classroom environment (albeit in a ‘‘student-centered’’ way), and monitoring and appraising student progress (albeit using an outcomes approach). While students may have been the focus of this activity, it was still the teachers who decided what was best. This raises the question of whether the democratic goal of student centeredness was being pursued in a nondemocratic manner requiring students to be passive recipients rather than active questioners of the goal.

Thus, the desire to think about students in a student centered way does not always translate into the reality of students as actors in the change process. Jake liked ‘‘the way [he] was left alone and checked on now and again’’ so that he could get on with the business of studenting. Fullan (1991) describes this circumstance in the following terms:

When adults think of students, they think of them as the potential beneficiaries of change. They think of achievement results, skills, attitudes and jobs. They rarely think of students as participants in a process of change and organizational life. (p. 170)

The distinction of between students as beneficiaries and as participants is significant. Using the image of students as beneficiaries requires that teachers undertake school reform with the best interests of students in mind. Using the image of students as participants requires that students become directly involved in school reform. As Corbett and Wilson (1995) point out, the former is better than not using any image of students at all, but the latter represents a better chance for reforming schools.

What might be the effect on the task of studenting of adopting a students-as-participants image of school reform? A merging of the actor- /oriented view with the structure-oriented view outlined by Fenstermacher (1986) might be one possibility. As more attention is given to a reciprocal understanding of roles in the classroom, the activities of pacing, attending, selecting and conforming may appear to be more congruent with teaching and with learning. By this view, school reform goes beyond simple consultation to incorporate ongoing opportunities for students to provide input into changes, work out the meaning of changes, adopt new roles and provide feedback on how things are going (Wilson & Corbett, 2001). As Willard Waller (1932) put it 70 years ago, these teaching acts call for ‘‘a working out by teachers and students together of a definition of the situation in terms of the needs and desires of all concerned’’ (p. 311). Such working out requires constant attention to process as well as product, to the way in which students learn as well as what they learn; and understanding and responding to the act of studenting from a student perspective, not simply from a teacher perspective.

In all of this, we need to recognize that the student as participant view of school reform remains elusive. With little scope to negotiate the fundamentals of schooling─ such as compulsion, subject disciplines, the social distance between teacher and student, the adult-child relationship, and the sorting and custodial function of schools─ and recognizing that the experiences of students can never be fully understood by the teacher (Ellsworth, 1992; Wallace & Louden, 2000), the two images of studenting are not easily reconcilable. It may be that the conclusion we came to before our study of Jake─ that Waverley is as good as it gets in a school─ remains true. We might agree with Jake’s English teacher, who, after reading this paper, commented to us:

As a school, we do focus on student learning. The whole purpose of what we have done over the past five years has been aimed at improving student learning. We may be judged as not succeeding in this primary aim─ and that is important feedback. But not succeeding is different from the implication that we have been concentrating on things peripheral to what we are paid to do. No matter how far we have gone over the past five years─ and we have gone a long way─ we still have a considerable distance to travel before we achieve the type of school we want.

As teachers ourselves, Helen and I are sympathetic with what the teachers at Waverley were trying to achieve and remain optimistic about their endeavors. As researchers, we have spent our careers writing in respectful ways about teachers’ knowledge and about the difficulty of school reform. As parents with children of our own, we recognize much about Jake’s experience, which is familiar. When we asked our own children about school, they rarely talked about learning. Rather, they talked about whether the teacher was in a good mood, what their friends were doing in class and how many assignments they were getting. These are all related to the act of studenting rather than the act of learning. Our experiences with Jake have raised some interesting questions about school reform. We expected that the classrooms of this reform-minded school would be different but now we are not so certain. We learned something that we didn’t mean to learn when we shadowed Jake and we are still figuring out what it means.


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Costa, V. B. (1997). How teacher and students study ‘all that matters’ in high school chemistry. International Journal of Science Education, 19(9), 1005–1023.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 4, 2004, p. 635-650
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11530, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:32:39 PM

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About the Author
  • John Wallace
    Curtin University of Technology
    E-mail Author
    JOHN WALLACE is Professor of Science Education at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. He has interests in teacher learning, case methods in teacher education, and school reform. His most recent (coedited with W. Louden) books are Dilemmas of Science Teaching: Perspectives on Problems of Practice (RoutledgeFalmer, 2002) and Leadership and Professional Development in Science Education: New Possibilities for Enhancing Teacher Learning (with J. Loughran RoutledgeFalmer, 2003).
  • Helen Wildly
    Murdoch University
    E-mail Author
    HELEN WILDY is an associate professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. She has interests in educational leadership, professional standards and school reform. Recent publications include ‘‘‘Circumstance and Proper Timing’: Context and the Construction of a Standards Framework for School Principals’ Performance,’’ with W. Louden, in Educational Administration Quarterly, and ‘‘School Restructuring and the Dilemmas of Principals’ Work,’’ with W. Louden, in Educational Management and Administration.
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