The contribution of students as researchers (STARS) to students’ learning and to school development can have numerous benefits. David Lucas and Dr Margaret Wood recount their experience at Deptford Green secondary school

The students as researchers (STARS) project was launched at Deptford Green school in 2003 and began by targeting students in Year 9. The project was launched in an assembly and thereafter 56 Year 9 students volunteered. The project started small with 18 of these students selected from across the ability range. These students then attended a training day held off campus to practise their teamwork skills and aspects of research project design, including research ethics, research methods, data analysis and evaluation.

STARS is a strategy within citizenship which takes a strong focus on young people bringing about change. It arose from the work of the school council in that STARS became the vehicle for taking forward some of the issues and concerns debated at school council meetings. A report written by David Lucas for the school management team in December 2005, highlights the vision behind STARS at Deptford Green and its role in promoting student voice:

‘Students are key stakeholders in education. It is important that they have a voice in school life. Deptford Green school council has been running for a significant amount of time and has always commented upon curriculum, building and social aspects of school life. The citizenship department opened up new channels of communication with the school council and the leaders of the school. It was often difficult to take some of the students’ ideas forward as the requests were not researched enough. To give students a more direct impact on the school, students as researchers (STARS) was created led by David Lucas. They would be given the skills and information that would enable them to undertake the research, make recommendations and finally see what effect the research has made in school life.’

The STARS project within citizenship uses a very active learning methodology. Indeed it would be rather paradoxical if a strategy such as this didn’t put the young people themselves in the driving seat in terms of their learning, so harnessing their motivation to find out and investigate the issues and then plan for change. ‘Change-action’ is the carrot that motivates students to plan and carry out their research enquiries and a powerful tool for promoting engagement in learning.

Why then might the fairly standard adolescent mantras of ‘It’s boring’ or ‘Why do we have to do this?’ ‘What’s the point?’ be absent from the STARS lessons? One reason is that the young people see this work as a way to ‘really make a difference within the school’ and a vehicle which gives them ‘the ability and the power to make changes’. There is evidence from the students themselves that they perceive the STARS work to be a means by which they experience empowerment. The evidence for their change-action focus is impressive, both in terms of influencing change in the school and in the community. The young researchers have for example:

  • presented their research to peers during assemblies
  • investigated and reported on leisure facilities in the area. Their feedback to adults from the community including a representative from the local council was followed by a major financial investment by the council into developing leisure facilities in the local park
  • organised a recycling scheme in school
  • investigated problems with the toilets and heating problems in the sports hall and got these fixed
  • researched, designed and implemented change to three classrooms
  • been the catalyst for a road improvement scheme to include pedestrian crossings near the school and netting put in place by two different railway network companies to prevent birds perching above the pavement as it passed below a railway bridge. The result of these change actions is that travel between the two school sites is a safer and far more pleasant experience for students.

STARS in action: change in learning

There is also evidence that not only is STARS acting as an important force for change in the school and the local community but it has also made an important contribution to students’ learning and attitudes towards their learning, and is relevant to learning across the curriculum. Two important aspects of this are:

  • It presses the right buttons
    The students’ research has an action component which is seen by staff and students as very important and motivating. This presses the right buttons for students because it is relevant, it is rooted in real life issues and concerns, and it is a vehicle for an exciting learning experience to which they can see the point.
  • It encourages the development of high-level learning skills
    Students learn to think critically about a range of issues and to stand back and take time to consider the possible implications and outcomes. In these ways they learn to reflect and this is the other side of the change-action coin. The focus is not just on ‘doing’ but on careful, systematic strategies to develop critical thinking skills and to learn through reflection. They reflect, for example, on a range of views and interpretations of experiences and examine issues of bias and opinion in relation to the questions they ask. Empathy is developed as they learn to see issues from people’s differing perspectives, and thereby leading to awareness that we all interpret reality in our own different ways. They learn to take a measured and balanced view and that compromise is sometimes needed.

Students learn about responsibility and develop confidence. This is an important dimension of active citizenship. Students learn how to investigate, what questions to ask, how to interrogate and make sense of what the data is saying and finally how to disseminate this to others and to formulate proposals for action.

They learn how to relate to others, to listen to others, to engage in informed discussion and debate, to speak to an audience and get their key points across.

The change action tree and the STARS programme

How does the STARS programme work and what learning strategies are used? It begins with a visual representation of the ‘problem’ or issue and an exploration of the underlying issues before considering a range of possible outcomes. Thus the young researchers do some initial reconnaissance investigatory work to map the territory before focusing down on an aspect they would like to try to change. This is aided by a visual strategy – the change action tree.

The change action tree provides a means for a visual cognitive mapping of the issue as a prelude to focusing down on a specific aspect(s) for the investigation. It is done as a discussion activity to ‘brainstorm’ the topic, begin to tease out the issues, examine what the data might look like, reinforce the need for a balanced view, and formulate the research question.

The image of the tree provides a good visual anchor for setting the agenda through exploration and mapping of the change action project, formulating the research question(s) carefully rather than rushing straight to the data-gathering stage.

Research work takes place within citizenship lessons and the great benefit here is that these are timetabled in three-hour morning blocked sessions in order to allow concentrated time for in-depth work. There is at least one such three-hour session each half term.

The investigation into perceptions of safety and use of the underpass might begin, for example, with students marking on a map of their local area those places where they feel unsafe. They might then walk around the local area with their teachers and be given digital cameras so that they can take photographs of some of the spots they have marked on the map. It must be emphasised here that this is always under close teacher supervision at all times.

This work is collaborative and can be undertaken as a class investigation with different groups researching specific aspects of the same topic. Alternatively, different groups of students may wish to design their own enquiries. In working with others, the STARS learn to work as team members, to agree and contract to ways of working and responsibilities, to pool their strengths, learn from one another, be organised and finally to prepare their dissemination strategy together.

In addition to citizenship lessons, smaller voluntary focus groups of students as researchers meet once a week. These students concentrate on specific projects, where over a longer period of time they can carry out in-depth questionnaires, interviews and observations. They are taken out of lessons as the school feels this research must not be seen as an add-on extra but an integral part of school improvement.

When questioned, students said that they felt more motivated and inspired because the work took place during the school day, making them feel like their work was valuable and important to school life. The school sees it as a key part of the drive for improvement and therefore valued and deserving time. However, the period when students are taken out of lessons is rotated so that the same lesson is not missed each week.

The research within citizenship is time-limited and tightly framed so that the work develops through three phases across the termly blocked sessions: the first phase is identification of the topic, formulation of the question(s) for investigation and project planning; the second phase is for data gathering and analysis; and the third phase is dissemination. Students decide on the way of communicating and presenting their research which they feel will be most appropriate to their specific projects, for example this may be via a PowerPoint presentation.

Having completed their research, students have given presentations to audiences with an interest in the research topic. These have been given to audiences including the local police, peers, SMT, heads of year, other members of staff, the road safety officer, members of the community, school governors, local councillors, local authority representatives, and the MP.

All have attended to hear what the concerns are, what the young people have found out and their recommendations for change. For example, the research the young people conducted into how three classrooms used for English lessons in the lower school could be improved was presented to the senior management team via a PowerPoint presentation in which the young researchers set out their vision to transform these particular classrooms. The students set out how they had researched the topic, gathered their data and used the change action tree methodology to plan and take the ideas forward. They gathered data from the internet, from visits to other schools and from parents, students and teachers and they analysed this data and formulated recommendations which were realistic and within budget.

The student researchers therefore had to do costings and learn to adapt their ideas and compromise where necessary in order to stay within the budget. The result was that the classrooms were adapted and refitted, carpeted, refurnished and decorated according to the young researchers’ recommendations.

Data for school improvement

The research undertaken by the young people provides important data for school improvement and school self-evaluation and this was explicit in the report on this work submitted by David Lucas to the SMT: ‘Not only were students empowered through this programme but students were acting as agents in the school’s self-review process. Students were encouraged to monitor, evaluate and review aspects of school life enabling them to promote improvement strategies’.

It is worth demonstrating in more detail two examples of change-action.

Making lessons more interactive

‘We were trying to make lessons interactive to get pupils engaged in the lessons, to make it better for teachers to teach and learners to learn.’ (Year 9 young researcher)

The issue of how to make lessons more interactive arose at a school council discussion and STARS became the vehicle for taking this forward. The student researchers designed, distributed and analysed questionnaires to find out from staff and students if there was agreement and clarity about what is meant by ‘interactive’ learning. This was the starting point for investigating the issues involved in making lessons more interactive from students’ and teachers’ perspectives.

Data was also gathered through lesson observations and the outcome was a report on their findings on interactive learning for staff to consider at a staff development day. A booklet entitled Go Interactive was compiled by these students as a resource of practical ideas, classroom activities and useful websites for staff to draw on when planning lessons. The aim of this resource was expressed in the preamble to the booklet: ‘We, the Students as Researchers, think that interactive learning is the best way to learn! Interactive learning is about attitudes and activities. Here is a list of some of the things we like teachers to do. The rest of this book has lots of activities you can use to make learning interactive. We hope you do!’

The STARS have also researched behaviour in the school with the aim of finding out about the causes of bad behaviour and coming up with recommendations as to how behaviour might be improved. Data was collected through lesson observations and interviews with students and staff. The research provided some important insights into students’ experiences and their views about what the school could do to improve behaviour. Some of the factors which can lead to bad behaviour were identified as:

  • students copying bad behaviour as it is considered ‘cool’
  • large classes and increased noise levels can be contributory factors.

Some possible strategies to improve behaviour included:

  • make lessons more interactive to involve students more in active learning
  • encourage good behaviour more through the rewards and incentives system
  • provide anger management training and behaviour mentors for students
  • provide more training for teachers on ways of dealing with bad behaviour and demonstrate more consistency in terms of the approaches used in line with school policy.
  • support, advise and help students with their behaviour difficulties.

One Year 9 student researcher commented that ‘young adults have different views and perspectives on things’ and perhaps they reveal these more candidly to peers than they would do to teachers or other adults. The recommended strategies tell staff what would help students and may be the starting point for developing policies and approaches which have the backing and support of the whole school community. For example, the booklet Go Interactive offered a number of ‘Tips on attitude of teachers from a pupil’s point of view’ which included:

  • ‘We like it when teachers are firm but funny.’
  • ‘We don’t like it when teachers shout at us for no reasons and for the simplest thing.’
  • ‘We don’t like the activities and fun parts to take place all at once. Like the end or the start, we like it to be spread out so pupils don’t get bored.’
  • ‘Teachers should try and get everyone involved in the activities – the teacher should also get involved!’

A number of suggestions followed for strategies to encourage pupils to get more involved in learning.

Some key lessons have emerged from the STARS experience

  • Evidence-based school improvement
    Kellett (2005:129) affirms the ‘valuable contribution to school development and improvement’ which pupil researchers can make. Deptford Green school has shown it is serious about the role of student voice in building a school culture informed by the hopes and needs of its diverse student population. Students have lots of good ideas which should feed into school improvement, but sometimes these may not be well thought through or researched sufficiently to convince staff that the ideas and views are representative of the wider student body nor grounded in a research evidence base. STARS has been an important strategy to address these issues.
  • It takes trust and a willingness to learn from each other
    The young people have contributed lots of ideas to help to improve the school in lots of different ways including the physical environment and the learning experiences. This provides the school with important data to inform improvement but is premised on staff being open enough and willing to enter into dialogue with the students and to learn from the students. At Deptford Green the school has plans to build on this work by ensuring student voice informs the development of plans to implement the outcomes of the school strategic review.
  • Communication: students need to be kept informed One key issue identified by the students was that to have maximum impact on the wider school culture then two aspects are vital: – that the STARS are kept informed about the ongoing impact of their work, for example on the development of school policy and teachers’ classroom practice

    – that the wider student body receives regular updates and feedback on outcomes and impact if they are to maintain interest and believe that the school is serious about student voice. There might be any number of strategies a school could use to make this happen – a school newsletter, an information item in assembly, feedback from school council members, a posting on the school website, an item on a STARS noticeboard – but the important thing is that the wider student body is kept informed and involved.

Year 9 STARS were asked about how their booklet Go Interactive on interactive learning had influenced teachers and how its ideas were drawn upon in lesson planning. They said that they felt that the booklet needed more publicity within the school to make peers aware of what STARS had produced and its intended purposes. They would also have liked ongoing communication from staff about how the ideas and strategies it contained were being developed and implemented.

  • The importance of research training for students
    If students are to have a direct impact on decision-making and policy development they need to have a strong voice which is representative of the diverse student population and carefully researched. To deserve the title ‘research’ the students need to be properly trained in research skills and, at Deptford Green, Schools Council UK is involved in this training.
  • ‘Mainstreaming’ this work
    That STARS work can make a powerful contribution to children’s learning is clear. Students think creatively about issues, they problem-solve, they collect and analyse data, they work with others in teams and they develop presentation skills. These are just some of the benefits. These are generic transferable skills which are useful across the curriculum and for lifelong learning. ‘Mainstreaming’ involves recognising this and planning to build on these in designing learning across the curriculum.
  • Raising expectations
    It could be said that in the ‘change-action’ orientation there is an expectation built into the STARS work that things will change for the better as a result of the students’ research. It could therefore be argued that this may set up an unrealistic expectation in some cases and consequent frustration and demotivation if the hoped for change is not possible or if the change takes place but the benefits don’t follow as anticipated. But surely this is another valuable aspect of the learning process and an opportunity to reflect on the reasons why and sometimes to realise that the desired change is part of a bigger, more complex, scenario.

An assumption often made about research is that it is something designed and done by adults, being ‘too hard’ for children and young people. The STARS work disproves this misconception for, by engaging young people as active researchers, they can be empowered to have a voice in the school and the community and to influence change.

Kellett, M (2005) How to Develop Children as Researchers. London: Paul Chapman.

Pattisson, P and Barnett, A (2006) ‘A School for Citizenship’ in Managing Schools Today 15(3) 51-57.

David Lucas is a co-author of this article and at time of writing was an assistant head at Deptford Green school. David left the school in December 2006 to take up a new post. Dr Margaret Wood is a senior lecturer at York St. John University where she and a colleague are developing ‘Young People as Researchers’ project work with schools.