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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Listening to students on social responsibility

by Marian Dodds

"To be honest, I had never really thought about what social responsibility meant, before this group."

How often do we assume that our students understand the language we speak? In one school, the staff on the Social Responsibility Committee decided to invite students to voice their perceptions. Thirty-eight students participated in four focus groups. Their responses were recorded, and a team of student volunteers from the groups clustered the data and created a summary to present to the committee. Staff members were impressed by the maturity and honesty shown by the students, and the students were pleased to have been asked what they thought. As a result, students now sit on the committee, and plans are under way to implement a number of their suggestions to decrease bullying and create a welcoming environment for incoming Grade 8s.

Here is the process used to give students a voice and welcome them as partners in creating a school that models social responsibility:

Goals of the focus groups
• To clarify how students view the concept of social responsibility.
• To elicit suggestions from students on ways they see themselves and their peers becoming engaged in social responsibility at school.

Plan of action
• Four multigrade focus groups of 8–10 students each were convened.
• Each group met for an 80- minute period with the facilitator/recorder.
• The same questions were used with each group.
• Each student responded in turn to each question.
• The facilitator/recorder transcribed the responses.
• Student volunteers clustered and summarized the data.
• A summary report was presented to the Social Responsibility Committee by the facilitator and several students.

Background on focus groups
Focus-group interviews are a method of action research developed by social scientists in the 1930s. The term focus group was coined in 1956. It is defined as "a carefully planned discussion designed to obtain perceptions in a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment." Focus groups are used in a variety of settings to:
• obtain general background information on a topic of interest.
• generate impressions of programs and services.
• learn about how the participants talk about the topic.
• diagnose the potential for problems with a new program.
• assess needs.
• stimulate new ideas and creative concepts.

Researchers suggest that the ideal group size is from 6 to 12 people and that 3 to 4 groups be facilitated in order to gather enough reliable data. Questions should be ordered from general to specific and then back to general. There should be 5 to 10 questions, and they should be unstructured and open-ended.

Participant selection
Teachers of social studies in Grades 8–11 and English/ Communications 12 recommended one male and one female student from each of their classes. The students were ones the teacher viewed as confident enough to fully participate in a group. The students were not to be the top academics or the most involved. The names were forwarded to the facilitator. A final selection was made by the counsellors. Consideration was given to gender balance, family backgrounds, ethnicity, and levels of involvement in school activities in order to create groups representative of the student population. Students selected were then invited to participate in one of the groups. Prior to the focus groups, each student was given the social-responsibility performance-standards matrix to review, along with the questions.

Focus-group questions with student-created summaries
1. What does the term social responsibility mean to you?
• It means working together.
• Valuing diversity.
• Respect.
• Taking action.

2. How important do you feel social responsibility is? Why?
• It is morally necessary for a society.
• Without it, we would have chaos.
• It is the foundation for positive action.

3. What examples of socially responsible behaviour have you observed at our school?
• Our school is friendly.
• Clubs and student council are active.
• We do a lot to raise awareness about issues in addition to fundraising for causes and volunteering.
• Teachers are involved.

4. Are there any specific behaviours that you feel need to be improved at our school?
• Bullying.
• Disrespectful behaviour.
• We need to improve our school environment by cleaning up after ourselves.

5. How can the school staff support students to be socially responsible?
• Be approachable.
• Punish in different ways.
• Be aware of what is going on.

6. Under what conditions would you be willing to take leadership in social responsibility?
• Bully prevention.
• Making assemblies more interesting.
• Taking action for positive change.

7. What suggestions do you have to get students to become activists for social responsibility?
• Actively involve students in class.
• Include more current events.
• Provide more opportunities for involvement.

8. Do you have anything else to add?
• This is a great school!

Focus-group testing is a constructive way to sample the concerns of students and ensure that school initiatives will be working in a positive direction.

Marian Dodds is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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