News about celebrations and other events at Nordic schools often focus on a controversy over individual elements, such as whether a hymn can be sung or how the Christmas recital is organised. However,a new PhD thesis shows that when lower-secondary school pupils and teachers are asked about the significance of school-wide events, they take a broader perspective. Common events at school are important for students both socially and academically, if they are well organised.
In her doctoral dissertation, JustEd member Pia-Maria Niemi, University of Helsinki, studied school-wide events from the perspective of Finnish schools. The study consisted of survey forms completed by eighth and ninth grade pupils from three lower-secondary schools as well as interviews of this same group.
In addition, teachers from one lower-secondary school were interviewed. The primary findings are that events organised for the whole school bear both academic and emotional significance, as they on one hand maintain tradition and on the other are social occasions in which traditions can be rethought and the everyday boundaries of the school transcended.
Events for the whole school reflect the school atmosphere
Pupils and teachers alike consider school events important in many ways. Instead of individual elements, one of the main factors influencing experiences of school-wide events is how the social community in the school functions and how the school-wide events reflect and support it.
A good school spirit and a sense of membership are built of many different factors, and the key issue is that the classes and the school as a whole work together.
“For the pupils, the most important thing about school-wide events is their social significance and atmosphere,” Niemi states.
According to the study, it is important for the pupils that the school also hosts events which break up the routine and where pupils can meet their peers from different classes.
The study also showed a strong link between experiences of celebrations and other such events, and the school spirit and general atmosphere. The pupils who described their school spirit as good also stated that they enjoyed school events and believed school-wide events to be significant factors in generating the overall atmosphere.
Correspondingly, the pupils who felt the atmosphere at their school was poor also felt that school events were uninteresting and unimportant. Niemi also noted that performing at a school-wide event elicited nervousness from pupils, and many of them were highly worried about embarrassment.
These results highlight the need to pay special attention to how events are organised and how consciously school functions are constructed to consider and support school spirit. Attendance alone is not sufficient to generate a school-wide sense of community.
Attention to arrangements and praise in addition to content
According to Niemi, school-wide events are considered socially important at schools, but they are often organised in a hurry, with the most responsibilities falling on the same people or groups time and time again.
Both teachers and pupils considered it particularly important that pupils be involved in the planning and organisation of the events. Many pupils stated that school events are often organised according to a set pattern, with the school’s music and drama groups in charge of providing entertainment and most pupils only attending as the audience.
In addition to the division of labour, a common complaint was a lack of engagement among the audience, which was thought to have a powerful impact on the atmosphere of the event.
“In the descriptions given by the pupils, members of the audience could be very engaged in the event, or disconnected and absent, staring at their phones. In the worst cases, members of the audience would heckle the performers during the event,” Niemi explains.
Based on these results, Niemi suggests that schools employ a range of different methods to prepare their events. She also encourages schools to involve their pupils in a discussion about the significance and history of the school-wide events as well as the role of each individual in the overall event.
It is also important to highlight the positive role of the event and its extensive significance for the school spirit. The pupils and teachers organising the events must be made aware of this and given praise for their work.
Pia-Maria Niemi defended her doctoral dissertation Creating A Sense of Membership in Basic Education: The Contributions of Schoolwide Events at the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences on 10 December.
The dissertation abstract can be accessed through the e-thesis service.