Teaching students to fend for themselves


Rose Ashton-WeirHow long will it be before a student sues their university for failing to get them into their dream job? We are now seeing in Australia the first case of its kind in which a former student is suing her high school for failing to get her into law at a prestigious university. How long then before this type of litigation replicates itself at a tertiary level?

A former Geelong Grammar student, Rose Ashton-Weir, has launched a legal action in VCAT against her alma mater. The basis of her lawsuit is that the school failed to adequately support her during her time at the school.

Media reports of the hearing include a claim that negative feedback over an essay left her confused and made her doubt her ability. It is also reported that Ashton-Weir was placed on internal suspension while at the school and that her reports indicated she did not complete her school work.

The emergence of this type of litigation is a bad sign for education in Australia. Litigation is the most extreme form of a negative student culture.

Commenting on the Ashton-Weir case, Michael Stuchberry wrote in The Drum about his experiences as a high school teacher with students who expected to be spoon-fed and made threats when they did not immediately get the materials and advice they wanted.

If students of this caliber are indulged at high school then they are likely to be problematic at a tertiary level.

There are numerous similar writings from other high school teachers identifying the entitlement mentality displayed by some high school students. Similarly, there have been writings by several academics that have discussed and analysed a growing number of pushy and demanding students.

I would think that these students are greatly outweighed by a larger number of reasonable and considerate students. Nonetheless they definitely have an impact on the experience of teaching.

The danger is that students that have unreasonable expectations and who make illegitimate demands will eventually push a lot off capable teachers out of education. Yet, students of this ilk cannot exist without a cultural and institutional framework that validates their behaviour.

Indeed, our broader policy moves on education set student expectations. For example, what is the take home message from the existence of websites like 'My Schools' or 'My Universities'? What are we to make of the focus on 'teacher effectiveness'? We seem to have drifted away from notions of student responsibility and towards a belief that the teacher is the single most important determinant in student outcomes.

By mainly focusing on teacher 'outcomes' we might be sending the wrong signals to young students. Teachers do need to be supportive, but students have to take responsibility for their own learning. Self-sufficiency is an important skill. Moreover, given the type of work environments they will encounter in the future, their capacity to work independently and respond appropriately to feedback is crucial.

To this end, negative feedback is a valuable part of the education process. Students need a basic framework within which to evaluate quality in their work and learn from setbacks.

Another undercurrent in the Ashton-Weir litigation is the notion of a market mentality in education. That is, that education is a commodity and that the student is a consumer. There are different views on this; to some the student is the 'consumer', while to others the student is the 'product'.

The market mentality does have something to offer in education. Students need to be prudent in their choices, and to think about education as an investment is not a bad thing.

Yet, there are shortcomings in this approach. Education is fundamentally a public good. It is also a very human process, and communications are not always perfect. Nor is it easy to measure value in education; a lot of the benefits from education take a while to appear.

In the long run we need to think about the message our policy debate on education sends to students. We need to think about identifying and communicating legitimate expectations and behaviours. If we can get the balance right, we can produce mature and sensible students who are suited to careers that involve life-long learning. 

Dilan ThampapillaiDilan Thampapillai is a Lecturer with the School of Law at Deakin University. Prior to becoming an academic he was a lawyer with the Attorney-General's Department and the Australian Government Solicitor. Dilan specializes in intellectual property, free speech and public law. 


Topic tags: Dilan Thampapillai, education



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Existing comments

The problem, Mr T, is not with the school or the parents. The problem is with places like the one in which you work which churns out lawyers by the bucket load away past any reasonable societal demand. These people have to find something to do so they take on ridiculous cases like this one in the hope that it will be settled out of court with a nice 30 per cent for them. Bravo the school for standing up to this nonsense.
Frank | 24 May 2012

A thoughtful article Dilan. As someone who has been a 'student' and 'teacher' I can see both sides of this debate. Students do need to take responsibility for their own learning. But they can only do that with the right leadership in the classroom. Teachers need to be professional at all times, to treat each student's autonomy with due regard and to maintain a sense of 'equality' in the classroom. Students learn 'by example'. And before we can teach, we must reach. The 'sense of entitlement' felt by the student in the article arises from a number of factors: what society tells her, what her family tells her, what her school tells her. Appropriate boundaries at the start of her education, and a continuation of those boundaries, may have avoided this unfortunate situation.
Pam | 24 May 2012

Every six months or so we have 'private education supplements' in our newspapers which are essentially advertising lift outs for expensive private schools. When these schools charge up to $30'000 per year and make extravagant claims as to their teaching quality and outcomes then maybe they have to also take some responsibility when their 'customers' don't receive the service offered. I have little sympathy for either party but I don't think this is a black and white case.
chris g | 24 May 2012

Whatever the outcome of the case, I'd say the girl has made herself unemployable. I doubt she or her mother have thought this through.
ErikH | 24 May 2012

Education is a two way process with its Latin root being 'duco ' to lead, not spoonfeed. Students must be shown how to take responsibility for their own learning at a very early stage in the process. Some schools and teachers have failed to grasp this concept so it is not surprising that they encourage the mentality of blaming others when one encounters problems in the learning process.
Denise | 24 May 2012

different students can have different experiences at school. bullying is a particular issue. i think it's wise to investigate the real story behind this student and judge both sides equally. agree with the philosophy you have written down. what actually needed is the real background story to know who's right and who's wrong.
AZURE | 24 May 2012

An interesting situation indeed, and entirely predictable under the circumstances. Education has been raised to commodity status, and private schools are the trend setters here, boosted by Howard's denunciation of the public school system, which has been amplified by Rudd and Gillard, and was never seriously challenged by Beazley as he slept through years of Opposition. Although I hope she wins her case, it is a shameful situation to have arrived at, driven by government policy and the selfishness of parents who think they can queue-jump their children to a guilded life while the public school studnets can do their housework and fix their Porche 4WD. Enough! And what of some of these private school parents? I know some teachers who work in exclusive girls, and an exclusive boys,schools and both have pathetic tales of parents doing essays, getting a bad mark and complaining about it.
janice wallace | 24 May 2012

Interesting! I've been a migrant who had to go to 'school' to learn English, then taught a LOTE. I managed to get out before things became too much of an issue. I saw good Anglo-Saxon teachers in HS, well-prepared and enthusiastic who invited me to watch their lessons without hesitation, being pushed out of the school by demanding children and parents. I have been forever grateful to them. Parents & children never seem to have learnt that teachers cannot do their learning for them. Immediate gratification is the name of the 'game'. Also, "my child is a genius" was another trend that seemed to have no end. Coming from Europe, I (as an adult)just put my head down and tried my best, succeeded, went to Uni, where again I put my head down, did rigorous work, and got my degrees. At no time did I look at the teachers (I went to study!); there were 40 students in the room, for crying out loud! At HS, it was the same. I asked for comments, never took a negative one as an insult, and just got on with the bloody hard work, since I had to read things twice (english not being my first language) and spent more time at it. You'll be surprise the difference it makes to a teacher when children (or parents) praise what they have done! But no-one seems to talk about this or cares. This is a shame. There are a lot of good teachers out there who won't be there much longer. As for "equality", "due regard", "reaching out", "engaging" - they have always been there. You have to blind not to have seen them. All teachers go out with some kind of ideal, they have to learn to adjust to the circumstances of the school, then teach. as i found out, they don't want increasing amounts of money, they want some respect and appreciation for what they do. When respect is shown, believe me, it makes all the difference in the world!!
Nathalie | 24 May 2012

Janice Wallace: not 'raised to commodity status', lowered to commodity status.
Gavan | 24 May 2012

Are some lawyers so seduced by money that they are incapable of knocking back a fee. The lawyers involved here need to grow up and politely show this kid and her supporters the door.
john frawley | 24 May 2012

You can have the Mighty Ocean pour on you - but if all you hold up is a thimble..........
Gillian | 24 May 2012

I am a former teacher . I am not at all suprised at this development.My wife had an encounter with a student recently who alleged she had not been taught some work(she was failing) I have no doubt inattention(talking ) was the reason for poor performance.

I had to consider the consequences of writing nagative reports when I was teaching in High School, in retrospect that was a very sad state of affairs. The pressure to pass unsatisfactory students was immense and quite unprofessional in my opinion.The school's academic and sporting reputation was so important to the management , often so strongly influenced by parental pressures that we at the chalk face were placed under unseemly pressures to "perform".If a student is failing, it is often the teacher's fault.Often the failing is because the student feels they have to be "spoon fed" or they are just bone lazy.Sadly these days parents are only too ready to accept their little darling's version of events.Certainly when I was at school, half a century ago,if I complained to my parents, their response was always you must have deserved it!Students need to accept responsibility for their learning and their failures .
Gavin | 26 May 2012


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