A look into the influences on teenagers in democratic schoolsA Thesis by Autumn Philpot
This is the Written Thesis prepared by
Thesis. High school diplomas are awarded by The New School only after diploma candidates have successfully defended the following Thesis: “I am ready to assume full responsibility for myself in the community at large.”. . .
250120 The Written Thesis (The Paper).
a) Written Thesis. Once a Thesis Advisor has agreed to assist the student, the student shall write a paper which will constitute part of the student’s demonstration of the Thesis set out above. The paper may be of any length and contain any material appropriate or persuasive regarding the Thesis. . . .
issue that has come up many times in the past at school, and seems to be
a real sticking point this year in particular, is the issue of
adolescence. Teenagers who begin attending The New School after the age
of 13 have shown a pattern of behavior that has become a concern to
people at school. Many of these students have strong reactions to the
school in the first few months of attendance. Some students have reacted
to The New School as though they have no control over their own
activities. They seem to approach it with disdain and contempt,
sometimes lashing out at the people who try to help them. In other
cases, students have felt comfortable at school right away, and not had
much difficulty adjusting to it. These students get involved in
conversations and activities at school without much second thought. A
third pattern that I noticed involves students who just disappear; they
'fly under the radar' so to speak, and don't do much at all. I began a
quest to see what, if anything influences the teenagers at school in one
direction or another.
I am a student who began attending TNS when I was older than thirteen, and I didn't react well to the school in my first few years. I noticed this as time passed, and I watched other teenagers come and go. Through this sea of students, I began to see patterns. For many students under the age of 13, their parents had stronger feelings about the school than the child did. It seemed if a student under 13 was pulled out, it was most commonly because their parents thought that 'learning' couldn't happen at TNS or that the student should prepare for college, etc. But the people between the ages of 13 and 17 who left had a large number of things that seemed to make them feel uncomfortable at school and which caused them to leave in spite of their parents wanting them to stay. Students, who thought that life and the world are bad, didn't seem to do well at school. Students who didn't have confidence in themselves and their ability to think and speak didn't do well. These along with several other patterns led me to wonder what actually had effects on the students at school.
What causes students at The New School to react to the school so differently in the first few years, some violently, some well, some not at all? I hypothesized that a student's age, whether it is their current age or the age they began at TNS, their length of time at school and their parent's attitude towards learning are four main influences on a student's life at school. More specifically, that if a student attends school for more than 2 years, they will be more involved at school and in learning generally, and if a student is between the ages of 13-17, there will be many things that have strong effects on them that do not so strongly affect those in other age groups. I decided to compile a survey to find out what things were affecting students so much at The New School.
Very simply, I had a result; some students, for various reasons, do not do well at The New School. What I needed to know was what produced that result. What variables might affect any given person? How do these variables correlate; as one changes does the other change? In other words, I had a set of qualities that I had noticed in people at school, and I wanted a way to test and check those qualities against each other to see if the patterns that I saw matched up with what other people said affected them. The tools of surveys and statistics seemed to me to be most useful in my studies.
My sample consisted of groups of students from two different schools. My main focus has been and continues to be TNS, but I was also curious about other schools similar to The New School. The other school that I surveyed was a democratic, free school in Marlboro, Maryland, called the Fairhaven School. The actual sample consisted of most of the current students at TNS; many of whom are between the ages of 13-17. I also collected surveys from students under the age of 13, and over 18. Some diplomates and all of the current staff members agreed to complete the survey as well. At Fairhaven, I collected roughly 25-30 surveys but, many of them were not completed or filled out improperly, and I ended up with only about 12 of which I could use. Those consisted almost entirely of students between the ages of 13-17 with very few older or younger students. No staff members opted to fill out the survey, but I did receive information from one diplomate of Fairhaven School.
In the survey that I made to gather data on my hypothesis, I centered the questions on nine major variables; “Images of Self”, “Social” (Relationship with Friends), “Relationship with Parents”, “Past School Experiences”, “World View”, “Current School Involvement”, “Emotional Control”, “Learning Abilities”, and “Parent Learning Attitudes”. In the "Images of Self" questions, I hoped to delve into the self-confidence, or lack there of, in these students. I wanted to know whether students think they are good at articulating, understanding, and digesting information and conversations in which they are involved. In this section I wanted to see if students who have attended democratic free schools longer would be more confident in their appearance and abilities. The dialectic atmosphere at democratic free schools (The New School in particular) and the support given by staff and other students may encourage a belief in their own capabilities. I supposed that people who attended a democratic free school after they had already decided on their opinion about themselves would feel less comfortable with themselves, less confident.
In the "Relationship with Friends" section I hoped to see if teenagers feel as if they have people around them that they can talk to and trust. The questions asked whether people think that their friends treat them well, or if they feel separate from people. I surmised that students who feel that they don't have anyone that they can go to and with whom they can discuss what they are thinking, will feel less confident and pull away from other people. They would feel as though they aren't good enough or smart enough to join in on conversations, classes, and curricles at school. On the other hand, someone who has at least one friend at school would be more likely to talk to other people and get involved in conversations that their friend was involved in as well.
The "Relationship with Parents" section is similar to the "Relationship with Friends" section. The "Relationship with Parents" section looks into the student's support system. If the student feels as though their parents will back them up at school, offer help to problems, and trust the student, the student will feel more capable at school. Even if the student has times when they are 'lazy' or 'bored' they still know that their parents will keep them at the school and not allow them to just drop out. Of course this could also cause indignation in the student towards the parents and/or school. But indignation can be dealt with when the student is still attending. If, on the other hand, the parents are unsure and don't decide that their child will stay or be successful at The New School, it would depend on the student to be stubborn in his commitment to TNS in order to get the support that the student may need. But if the student gives up, and the parents give up, then there is very little hope that the student will stay or have positive reactions to TNS. So the questions in this section focused on communication between the teenager and their parents. I supposed that if the lines of communication are open and strong in the student-parent relationship, then the student will do better at TNS.
In the "Past School Experiences" section I focused on whether the teenager was encouraged to think on their own, if they were interested in the topics they studied, and if they had problems with being told what to do at their previous schools. Experiences that a student has at other schools are liable to skew their way of looking at all schools. They may resent all school or authority and therefore resent TNS from the get go. On the other hand, the student may see TNS as an escape from imprisonment in traditional school. Both of these would be dangerous ways to approach The New School. It is necessary for the proper functioning of the school that the students be willing to do the work necessary to run the school. If the student resents all school, or if they are just running away from a particular school, they are not likely to be interested in the functioning or proper order of TNS. They are more likely to sit somewhere and do things that amuse them until they get bored enough to leave. My hope was to see if the patterns of behavior differed between those of the students who had sought out something better than their previous environment and those who were running away from bad experiences.
In the" World View" section my questions dealt with whether or not the students think that being happy or good is possible. If a student thinks that life is hopeless and that people are bad, they are not likely to try to reach out to other people and become a member of the school community. It seems as though they would rather spend time with people who agree with them and not question if what they think or say is actually true, especially when other members at school often insist that students explain why they hold the beliefs and thoughts they do. The challenge to their basic world view is threatening, and therefore frightening. As a result of this fear, the students may avoid being around the people who would challenge them. This would be an example of students 'flying under the radar'.
In the "School Involvement" section, I hoped to see if the student had ways to talk, work out problems, and get things done in school. If a student is written up in JC often, the chances are high that they aren’t having an easy time adjusting to the school. Similarly if they don't ever attend classes, curricles, School Meeting or Tribunal, they may not be familiar with the workings of the school, let alone understand and use them well. This could cause a sort of "us versus them" feeling for the student who sees other people working in and with the school, while they perceive themselves as on the outside looking in.
"Emotional Control" focuses on how each student perceives their ability to control their emotions. Several of the questions deal specifically with whether or not the students think that any emotions can be predicted or controlled. I suspect that most of the students who feel uncomfortable or unable to get involved at school will feel that they don't have control over their emotions. Some students who have greater control over their emotions are able to hold offices at school, engage in difficult conversation, and think about the things that they do. This is an example of a student who is proactive rather than merely reactive to their situation. Students who think they are controlled by their emotions are often those who are written up in JC and who use other emotionally controlled people to solidify their opinions.
The "Learning" section focused mainly on what the student's level of confidence is in their ability to get involved in and follow conversations. Similar to the "Emotional Control" section, I suspect that any student who doesn't feel as though they can understand difficult conversations will not have an easy time adjusting to a democratic free school. Most of the learning at school comes directly from conversation, personal drive, and interest. If one doesn't believe that they are capable of learning or thinking well, that person will not be able to get the things they believe they want, because they are not likely to seek it.
The "Parent Learning Attitudes" section is similar to both the "Learning" section and the "Relationship with Parents" section. If a student's parent thinks that traditional objectives and methods are best, the student, unless they oppose their parents, will not get what they are looking for at a democratic free school. But if the parents think that the student is capable and should seek to learn on their own, they will be supportive of the school and encourage the student to engage in and benefit from the school. I believe that students under the age of 13 will be more influenced by their parents than a 17 year old, but that the influence will be there no matter what the age.
In order to understand how the students experienced these factors, I developed a self-report survey of 83 questions. I took a variable that I wanted to explore and wrote a question that I thought would tap into how a student thought about that variable with regard to themselves. For Self Perception, I asked "When I look in the mirror, I feel physically attractive," and had the student respond by circling whether they "strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree" with that statement. There were four choices as a response as opposed to five, because it didn't seem prudent to have a middle choice. If I had included a "maybe" in the responses, it is likely that the majority of the responses would be maybe. With four possible responses, the student must choose whether they agree or disagree. In order to test and re-test responses to a given question, I reworded the question so that it asked the same thing in different ways. Some of the questions would be worded in a negative way, the others positive. The series of questions were spread through out the survey in hopes that it wouldn't be obvious that the questions were the same. I then saw whether the students answered all three variations similarly or if they responded differently. To make these questions able to be compared mathematically, I took each question, and to the responses I gave number values. "Strongly agree" received a 1, "agree" a 2, "disagree" became 3, and "strongly disagree" a 4. The score for that question set would be the average of the answers to the three variations of that question. (See Appendix B.)
PROCEDURES: Data Analysis
I broke the data that I had collected into 5 main groups for comparison. The breakdowns are: Student's Involvement at their Current School, Student's Age when First Enrolled, Student's Current Age, the Number of Years the Student has attended, and Student's Parent's Attitude Towards Learning. The other variables, Involvement at Current School, Student's Self Perception, Relationship with Friends, Student's Opinion of their Emotional Control (if they believe they are reactive or proactive) Student's Attitude Towards Learning, Student's World View, Relationship with Parents, Parent's Learning Attitudes, and the Student's Past School Experiences were compared within these groups. For instance, the data was grouped according to the students' current ages: under 13, 13 to 17, and older than 17, and then analyzed across the variables, and then the data was regrouped according to Parents' Learning Attitudes, either positive or negative, and then analyzed again, and so on for each grouping. This was done for each of the five breakdowns. For each of these groupings, I hoped to find which variables were related to one another and how strongly they might influence each other. This relationship between variables is known as the correlation.
Using Excel for Windows, with the help of friends, I separated the five main breakdowns with the variables into several different tables for comparison. I compared the variables using two forms of analysis, the Student Newman Kuhls test, and the Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient. In order to begin the analysis, I had to find something called the variance. This is a number that shows how much, on average, individual responses are likely to vary from what is considered an average response. To do this, I took one student's answers to the entire survey and averaged their responses for each variable. Then, I squared that average. I then took each student's average in a group (ex. Students under the age of 13) and averaged all of those. I did the same thing with the student's averages squared. With that information I used the following formula to find the variance:
X=the average of all of the averages of student's responses in a variable group, X^2=the previous average squared, and n=the number of data points (or students) who responded in each group. Although not important in itself for my question, it was necessary to find the variance so that I could use the two other formulas that would help to show the strength of correlation between the different variables in any group.
The next analysis was the Student-Newman-Kuhls test. This formula is a bit more complex:
In this formula, X refers to the average of all the averages of students' responses for a particular variable group, as above. But in this formula, we are comparing two different variable sets, such as comparing a student's Involvement at School, (which can be referred to as A) and their Attitude towards Learning. (which can be referred to as B) 'S with' is the variance between the groups A and B. The Student Newman Kuhls test is used to get a number that can then be compared to those in a chart that show whether or not there is a correlation between any two variables. Because I had several pairs of variables to compare, I used the Student Newman Kuhls test which was designed for this purpose.
I used another type of analysis called the Spearman Rank test:
This shows the strength of the correlations between variables. I used this formula because of the number system that I applied to the data. The numbers weren't based on a quantity but a quality, and so it was necessary for me to use a formula that would compare the ranks of the variables as opposed to the values of the responses. For instance "strongly agree", being given a 1, and "agree" a 2, didn't mean that agree was twice the value of "strongly agree".
Because these formulae show only the strength of the relationships between variables and assume that the relationships are linear, I graphed the data to be sure other kinds of relationships weren't being ignored and to confirm whether they had a positive or a negative correlation. (See Appendix B.)
Using this method of data gathering and analysis, several interesting correlations began to emerge, some of which point in a direction that I may have expected, and others that I didn't see coming at all.
I found a strong relationship between a student's involvement at their current school and their attitudes towards learning for students who have attended for 2-5 years (r = .643, P < .01), which I had expected. There was a very strong correlation between the student's involvement at school and the student's attitude towards learning for those who saw their parent's attitude towards learning as a positive one (r = .652, P < .001) In conjunction with this finding, for those students whose involvement with their school was perceived as being negative, there was also a strong negative correlation between a student's attitude towards learning and their relationship with their parents (r = -.38, P < .10). These correlations imply that a relationship between a student's reaction to learning can be affected by their number of years attended, and the student's and their parent's attitudes toward learning. In other words, the longer a student attends, the more positive their relationship to the school, and vice versa. Also, if the parents have a negative attitude towards learning, the student also has a negative attitude towards learning. This is certainly interesting; it helps point towards something that can and should be paid attention to by members of the School Meeting in hopes of helping students adjust to The New School.
A relationship that showed to be the opposite of what I had expected involved the students under the age of 13. I had thought that for these students there would be strong correlations between their parent's attitude towards learning and their attitude towards learning. This turned out not to be the case. The only variables in the data from the students who are currently under the age of 13 that had any correlation at all were the Involvement at the Current School and the student's World View. In other words, a positive world view was associated with positive involvement in school and a negative world view was associated with negative involvement in school. Even this correlation was a very weak one according to the formulae that I used (r = .351, P < .20). I hope to look into this further at a later date, because this suggests that students under the age of 13 are not strongly affected by any of the other variables that I investigated. Their relationship with their friends, their views of themselves, almost none of the things for which I saw patterns in teenagers seemed to have any correlation with each other for those who are not yet teenagers.
One thing that was extremely interesting and surprising was this; no variables have any correlation for the staff members, except their relationship with their parents and their attitude towards learning. I certainly didn't expect that the Staffs' relationships with their parents would affect how the Staff Members look at learning. I expected something along the lines of their Involvement with The New School having an affect on their attitude towards learning, just as students' involvement in school seemed related to the students' attitude towards learning, but it in fact had absolutely no correlation. This seems to show that the Staff Members play a very valuable role in the school; I believe it shows that they provide the sturdy foundation that students can see and mimic. If a staff member's attitude towards learning can be unaffected by most things in their relationship to the school, it then allows the students to experiment with different ways of being at the school, without the school falling apart. (For the full list of notable correlations, see Appendix A.)
Of course, all this is speculative for several reasons.
For one, as I explained earlier, the sample of people was very small, and may not provide enough information to allow for any certainty in accepting or rejecting the assumptions. For instance, some of the correlations had the possibility of being wrongly accepted 20% of the time according to the tables used to determine acceptability. A larger sample size might have led to a lower level of false positives. But it does point in interesting directions for further study.
There is also the margin for human error. The work that I, and several other people, have done to gather this data has taken a long time, and mistakes may have been made in the transfer of data to computer, from person to person, and in the computation itself.
Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that the survey I used was a self report survey, where opinion and misgivings can cause people to be dishonest by accident and on purpose. Some of the questions asked about how students saw what their parents did and thought, and that too has the possibility of being biased.
Also, because my sample of people was so small, I was inclined to use some surveys that were not completely filled out. Twelve surveys were so incomplete that I couldn't use them, but some were missing 5-10 answers, and I decided to use them anyway. This was because with such a small sample size to begin with, if I were to remove those that were not entirely completed, the sample would be far too small for the analysis to be in any way accurate.
Finally, I plan to use the data that I have now, and add more surveys to look into different aspects of the information. For instance, I hope to compare The New School to Fairhaven and both to a traditional school and see how some of the factors used to group the data (ex. Number of Years at School and Age at Enrollment) might interact with each other. This initial study was intended to discover which relationships bear further examination.
I first became interested in why teenagers have strong reactions to The New School right around my third year of school. I had at that time begun looking at myself in a more objective way, and doing more things that interested me. I began noticing the patterns that I have described, mostly in my friends and myself. I wanted to know why my friends and I didn't do things at school. I wanted to know what sort of things influenced our decisions. Thinking about this stirred my interest in psychology. I decided to take a college course on the subject, to try to see what it was all about. Sadly, the class left me with more questions than answers. I still didn't have any information to point me in the direction that I wanted to go. So I decided that rather than depending on someone else to tell me what was going on, that I would try to find out for myself.
What I found was that for students who are under the age of 13 there is very little correlation amongst the variables. This is similar for those over the age of 17. People between the ages of 13-17, like my friends and I used to be, are strongly affected by most of the interactions of the variables that I investigated. The things that seem to stabilize a student's experience at The New School are: attending school for more than two full years and having parents whose attitude towards learning is a positive one and similar in most regards to the learning approach at TNS.
Further statistical analysis will need to be done in order to better understand how the groupings themselves may interact with one another. There are other avenues that need to be pursued, such as the collection of observational data, which will be needed to balance the self report surveys which have already been done. Perhaps further investigation will help in finding ways to address students' difficulties at the school. Until that point, this data may help determine which variables are most in need of attention and lead the way to further discussion and analysis.
* r is the Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient. The larger the value (the closer it approaches one), the stronger the relationship between the ranked variables.
** P is the probability of being wrong when asserting that a correlation exists. The lower the P value the better the chances of being correct when deciding to accept the implied correlation as being valid. A value of .20 means a 20% chance of asserting there is a correlation when there actually is none.
of questions used in the survey
Here are examples of the questions for two variable groups, Learning and Involvement at Current School.
ATTITUDE TOWARDS LEARNING
+ . I like to think about new things, even when they are difficult to understand.
+ . I like to think about things that are sometimes hard to understand.
- . I would rather talk about something I know than something I don't know about.
+ . I want to receive a diploma from TNS
+ . I want to go to college.
- . I would rather have a full time job than go to college.
THE NEW SCHOOL
INVOLVEMENT IN TNS
+ . I attend School Meeting regularly.
- . I am frequently written up in JC.
+ . I enjoy being involved in discussions at TNS.
+ . I often work on my own at TNS.
+ . I attend different discussions at TNS.
+ . I attend Friday tea regularly.
Above are the actual questions as they appeared in the survey. Note the similarity in the questions. The plus and minus signs before each question refer to whether or not the question has a positive or negative connotation.
Examples of Tables
Shown above is an example of how I set out the data in Excel. Across the top of the table are all of the question numbers for my survey. Those are separated according to their variable group. Down the right hand side is all of the students listed according to their assigned number followed by all of their responses to the survey. These are separated by their Parent’s Attitude towards Learning, positive attitude and negative attitude.
Circled above, on the left, is the average of each student’s responses to the survey questions in a variable group. On the right side are those averages squared
Circled here, on the left, is the average of the student’s averages. In the variance formula, this is called X. To the right is the average of the student’s averages squared. In the variance formula, this is called X^2.
Example of the Statistical Analysis Tool for Excel
Above is a copy of a tool that was created for me by John Hiner Jr. On the left the two columns represent two variable groups, A and B. The numbers are the averages of the student’s responses for the variable groups. These were used to calculate the Student Newman Kuhls test statistic, “q”, which indicates whether a correlation exists or not.
On the right, the variable groups A and B were ranked from lowest to highest. The interior columns represent the differences between the two variable groups ranks. These values were used to calculate the Spearman Rank Correlation, “^rs”, which indicates the strength of the correlation.
Here is an example of a graph created by plotting the data from two variable groups that shows a positive relationship.
Here is an example of a graph that shows a negative relationship.
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