The perception of education

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Conflict can arise in schools when communication is not open

When dealing with schools, perceptions are important. Much conflict arises from the differences in perceptions of various parties. Such conflict can be between parents and their children, parents and teachers, teachers and students, parents and other parents and between students. In managing conflicts within schools and school communities, perceptions matter.

Perceptions arise in overt and also in non-obvious ways. Consider the following example. A teacher was taking a class where the students were reluctant to contribute verbally, for fear of being incorrect. The teacher said to the class by way of instruction:

I want you to write down an answer. If you get it wrong it does not matter. If you get it right – that’s great. The main thing is to write some response.

He was trying to encourage academic risk-taking.

He then asked the first question and each of the students wrote their responses down onto mini whiteboards that he had purchased for the students. He then asked the students to hold up their whiteboards. The teacher’s response to the answers, all of which were correct, was, “Brilliant!” “Awesome!” or “Excellent!” He then asked a second question but this time one of the responses was not correct. The teacher paused and slowly said, “o…k…a…y”.

If you get it wrong it does not matter. This stated position was not the practiced position. A student would perceive that correctness is more highly desired that a brave attempt that is incorrect.

In this way, the subtle nuances of what teacher’s value can be conveyed in mixed messages, an overt message of safety in academic risk-taking and a covert message of “rightness matters more than wrongness”.

Perceptions also affect how parents interact with schools. Perceptions in this regard arise from a combination of their direct and indirect experience of schools. This experience can come in the form of personal communications (face-to-face and electronic), the correspondence between school and home (through letters, newsletters, permission slips and the like), open days and through the comments made by their children and the comments made by other parents.

Perceptions can make parents feel excluded or included, as well as valued or devalued. Perception can therefore encourage parents to interact with staff and school administrators or perception can make them hesitant and defensive.

Parent perceptions can be influenced by the child and how their perceptions of school are conveyed to the parents. For example, a child with stomachaches every Monday can find school makes them feel anxious. This perception can arise from a feeling of uncertainty, insecurity or performance pressure. Since perceptions affect behavior, understanding the difference between words and feelings is crucial to understanding perceptions and managing conflicts.

It is important that teachers and parents mediate their first ‘responses’. That is, when children talk to teachers and parents there can be a tendency for the adult to complete the sentences of the child or to talk even before the child has finished. This second-guessing, or assumption about what will be said, denies the child a voice, but gives a perception to children that they are not worth being listened to. In this way many children can become frozen, in a world ‘other defined’.

It is not uncommon, for example, for a child to say, “Today I got in trouble for no reason”. The typical adult (parent or teacher) response to this is “What did you do?” In this response is the hint of blame, which can be perceived by the child as an attack. Their response will almost always be defensive. When children become defensive they become closed and the opportunity to become known, validated and understood diminishes. Instead, the child learns to not trust the world, to build walls and to become resentful.

Perceptions about schools are of concern to parents and they are also of concern to schools. This can be seen in the response to the MySchool website and the data it gives to parents. Similarly, school websites seek to create perceptions about value, the robustness of pedagogy and the wide-ranging opportunities available in schools. Despite this marketing aspect to perceptions in education, parents and communities develop perception based on their own experiences and through word-of-mouth. In this way, all the marketing spin in the world will be a waste of money if school administrators are not open to listening to the reasonable views of parents.

In this regard, schools should understand the legitimate role that parents and guardians play as advocates for the children in their care. A desire for more communication should be welcomed as an opportunity for partnership and growth, rather than as an attack on professional integrity.

Perception begs the question as to whether there is ever an objective truth or whether life is a series of versions of events. “Facts” are far more about personal experience and person interpretations and meaning.




Mohan Dhall
Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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