Secondary school experiences

This section focusses on the perceptions of students of their teachers’ pedagogical practices, to find out to what degree the participants believed their poor academic achievement was/is influenced by their teachers’ pedagogical skills. The school adolescents started by explaining the instructional techniques and methods that are employed in the classroom and the impact

Classroom-based social capital 95 of the teaching outcomes. They identified the specific experiences that may have contributed to their poor academic performance, in particular in mathematics and science. They identified two aspects of teachers’ pedagogy that are related to effective classroom learning and academic outcomes of students. The first dimension is the instructional pedagogy associated with the teaching practices that draw students to learning and enable them to understand and engage in learning (Darby, 2005). The second dimension is identified as relational instructional pedagogy (Spires, 2015). Since learning is highly relational, this teaching approach emphasises the interpersonal skills of teachers, explicitly focussing on the quality of teachers’ interactions with students to develop classroom communities that promote academic, social, and emotional growth (Spires, 2015). Through the relationships, teachers foster a caring and supportive (instrumental) environment and an inclusive classroom, which is focussed primarily on learning and access to resources that promote academic success.

Instructional pedagogy

Peter made a comparison between primary and secondary Catholic school:

In primary school, everyone is friendly. But, in secondary school, they [the teachers] start forgetting about being Catholic. They want children to do well without any support. They are strict. Secondary school is tough. (Peter)

The above quotation indicates the transition into secondary school when students come from an environment that is often smaller and supportive to larger secondary schools, where teaching often shifts from focussing on nurturing the whole child to the teacher-centred environment. The participants highlighted aspects of the curriculum with which they felt they needed extra support in the secondary school context. Specifically, the discussions focussed on the type of support they considered necessary, especially with respect to the opportunity to learn mathematics and the sciences. The school adolescents identified the specific teacher qualifications, characteristics and classroom practices that are perceived to be an indicator of their learning. The limited learning opportunities were defined in terms of lack of access to academic resources such as qualified teachers to teach them, inappropriate instructional practices and unchallenging teaching practices.

Lack of quality of instruction received

Unqualified teachers

Some teachers are good. Some teachers are not good. They just take untrained teachers. So, they don’t help you with your work. Some ofthem, when you ask them for help, are not good at explaining. That is why I struggle sometimes. (Peter)

Some of the teachers can’t teach. We need teachers that are more qualified in our schools. (Jamal)

Qualified teachers were defined in terms of their academic knowledge and how they applied it in practice. These practices often restrict the flow of individual knowledge (human capital) necessary for improved teaching and learning (Daly et al., 2011). However, it was noted that teaching practices varied from teacher to teacher and different students defined them subjectively. Ruth made comments about the difficulty in learning some subjects:

Some subjects like science I found difficult. Some subjects are easier than others. I wotdd have liked the teachers to help me more with mathematics and science. (Ruth)

The school adolescents put more emphasis on the lack of academic support from their teachers. The participants explained it as the teachers not making an effort to clarify and explain what had already been said. For example, Benjamin talked about his learning support teachers and the quality of instruction and assistance he received. He explained as follows:

They [learning support] don’t make an effort to explain for those of us who do not understand. There is learning support after school, but they help me only with the easiest and quickest homework.

Benjamin was attending both homework club and a fee-paying supplementary school. As he put it, “I am in the middle with my English”. It was clear that Benjamin was struggling with his academic work in both mathematics and science. He said his learning support helps him only with homework that was easy.

I can do it by myself. I need help like one-to-one support, proper help from a qualified teacher. Now, I go to Saturday school to get help. (Benjamin)

In Benjamin’s experience, learning support was available but, he found the tutor was not well-versed on what he needed help with in his academic work. He expressed his conviction that higher-quality and more accessible tutoring would be important in helping him achieve success. The school adolescents often referred to the way the teacher presented the content of science or mathematics in a way that had no meaning for them. Specifically, they expressed dissatisfaction with the support strategies provided at mainstream schools.

In terms of teaching strategy in subjects like science, the supplementary school teachers pointed out that teachers’ characteristics are critical. As part of the teaching quality framework, teachers’ characteristics such as race, cultural background and gender play a significant role in the learning of science for minority students. Emphasising the importance of students’ cultural and social backgrounds, researchers argue that teachers need not only science resources but also cultural and social resources to teach minority and diverse students. In this view, cultural, social and linguistic resources are integral parts of effective science teaching practices— African teachers state that African students want to see social, cultural and linguistic knowledge connected to science, in which case they will be more likely to understand and show an interest in learning the subject.

In exploring further why the school adolescents needed academic help, an Eritrean science teacher from a mainstream school added his view:

You know, the problem is the science and mathematics programmes just do not provide students with opportunities to learn with understanding in this country.

The supplementary teacher here explained how the teaching of mathematics and science in the U.K. could be seen as theoretical rather than practical. He explained that teachers need to have an in-depth knowledge of the subjects they teach that translate into meaningful learning. Other research further argues that in teaching science, the problem is linked to instructional practices that “are related to teacher quality because teachers who are highly qualified have strong pedagogical knowledge and strong mathematical knowledge” (Johnson & Kritsonis, 2005:4). The school adolescents have described their lack of access to experienced and qualified teachers. This, in turn, gives them fewer opportunities to take more challenging and intellectually stimulating courses, as Jamal put it. Similarly, recent research reports that British schools still suffer from the “expertise gap” in technical subjects such as mathematics and physics (Allen et al., 2016).

Another barrier to improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education opportunities is a lack of connections with diverse learners. One example is the lack of exposure (African science teacher reference) to sensitive cultural practices and access to academic resources such as expert teachers who understand the various cultures and backgrounds of the students they are serving. The supplementary science teacher suggested that STEM experiences need to be related to the actual lives of the students and their interests. In addition, minority students need access to a high-quality curriculum, and “classroom practices that foster equity and connections” to real-world experiences (Kaiser & Wilkins, 2010). In light of all these inequities of opportunity faced by East African and linguistic minority students, the achievement gap is better understood as a manifestation of an underlying cause—the opportunity gap (Flores, 2007:20). The findings demonstrate that one of the main indicators of the mathematics and science achievement gap might be related to lack of access to learning opportunities. Interestingly, mathematics was one area in which only Idris expressed some degree of confidence. As he put it, “I am good at mathematics. Mathematics is easy”.

In addition to the issues and challenges related to mathematics and science education discussed above, the school adolescents also complained about not having a regular teacher. The school adolescents in both Catholic and community schools stated that they had a considerable number of supply teachers who were unable to provide the academic support they required. Similar comments were also made by Somali mothers in North London. The mothers complained that they met different teachers when visiting their children schools. Similar evidence has shown that students who attend school in the poorest and most socially deprived areas are less likely to be taught by subject specialists and more likely to experience changes of teachers (Allen et al., 2016).

Theresa raised some concerns about the lack of Black female role models in science:

We Black girls lack accomplished women in science. Schoolgirls start losing interest by the time they reach secondary school because they think science and engineering are not for them. They see no role models and receive no encouragement.

So far, the discussion interviews have indicated that the high incidence of students seeking mathematics and science help from outside school is due to structural barriers facing second-generation students, including lack of access to high-quality teachers, resources and advanced coursework, which limit opportunities for success in the study of STEM fields. The participants explained how teachers’ knowledge influences their instructional practices and how it affects their learning. As a community worker stated, this lack of quality of teaching practices ultimately affects attitudes of East African students towards science, as well as decreasing their achievement (Kanter & Konstantopoulos, 2010). The findings indicated that instructional strategies of teachers play a part in forming attitudes of students towards and perceptions of science and mathematics.

Furthermore, a first-generation1’ Ethiopian also expressed his view that the lack of confidence can also contribute to second-generation young people being less likely to choose a science- or mathematics-oriented career. In addition to the structural barriers (such as EAL classes and streaming), the findings indicate that East African students also face psychological barriers to pursuing STEM education. They attributed this to the lack of role models, qualified teachers or access to academic support in schools. Similarly, (Macdonald, 2014) reported that schools play a significant role in students’ decisions to study STEM subjects. Being aware of these factors could play a critical role in helping teachers and policymakers improve the success of Ethiopians and Eritreans or other disadvantaged minorities in STEM education. Theresa was the only participant who expressed that she was already pursuing a career in science or a related field. The findings, thus, also raise the question of whether targeted academic and culturally responsive outreach programmes are available to assist East African students in navigating a system that is currently providing no role models or ambassadors.

The third theme mentioned by most school adolescents was unchallenging courses. The teachers’ strategy was described in the following ways: “academically unchallenging”, “too easy” (Simon), “lack of homework” and “not intellectually stimulating” (Jamal). They also stated that teachers do not give them a lot of work. Simon, Omar, Jamal and Yusuf described teaching practices as intellectually unchallenging. As discussed in Chapter 47 (Messele, 2020), Milner similarly argues that, due to deficit thinking, “teachers may not give students opportunities to engage in critical thinking” (Milner, 2012:707). Similarly, teachers may believe the students are not academically able, and thus, fail to teach with rigorous standards and high expectations.

Another issue with traditional teaching methods is a lack of differentiated instruction. Omar described his course in the following way:

Because now I have a lesson called Business Studies at school every Friday, I have to go. But the man makes me write out of the book. So basically, he gets the book, photocopies the book and you write down what is in it and then give it to him. That is my coursework for the year. So, I told my father. My father called the school. Father said he didn’t like what I did even if I got an A grade out of it. He wants me to graduate with honours, and to know what I am talking about most of the time. He doesn’t want me talking gibberish. So, I decided to move to a different Business Studies class.

In Omar’s and Benjamin’s experiences, it was evident that the teaching practices described used a somewhat behaviourist approach. The main element of pedagogy most frequently cited as a concern by school adolescents was the lack of one-to-one support in terms of understanding mathematics and science subjects. The primary focus of the discussion was to find out the existing barriers in the learning process of mathematics and science.

Their learning style preferences were identified as interactive teaching methods that offered them one-to-one support and emphasised interaction with their teachers. Benjamin, Jamal and Peter preferred an interactive teaching style or a “constructivist approach” or “student-focussed” approach (Belanger &• Longden, 2009:5). Interactive teaching methods are ones that help address the challenges students face in learning mathematics and science and enable them to benefit from a variety of teaching methods that address their different learning styles. A previous study indicated that “pupils achieve more when learning in classrooms where they are actively taught by their teacher rather than children working on their own” (Sylva, 1994:154). This study, thus, explores the existing challenges the school adolescents face in learning.

The participants identified specific types of teachers’ qualifications that are associated with their seeking extra academic help in their mathematics and science courses. Teachers’ qualifications (credentials) such as their knowledge of the subjects of mathematics and science were identified as poor, and students found their teachers to be unknowledgeable. A lack of subject-matter knowledge, specifically, was associated with students’ poor academic performance in mathematics and science.

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