Assumptions of Excellence: Effects on UTS Students

by Clare Fiala, Ruqayya Hirji, Sam Howard, Shangi Vijenthira, Jing Yi Wang & Sarina Wong

 

A. OVERVIEW

University of Toronto Schools, or UTS, is a prestigious independent secondary day school located in downtown Toronto and known for its competitive admissions process and enriched and accelerated academics, as well as  generations of outstanding graduates including two Nobel Laureates, 20 Rhodes Scholars and numerous leaders in many industries.

UTS has about 600 students, grouped based on age so that F1 corresponds to grade 7, F2 grade 8, M3 grade 9, M4 grade 10, S5 grade 11, and S6 grade 12. UTS’ curriculum is accelerated on the assumption that its students learn and apply faster than the Ontario curriculum expects. For example, F1 students are required to complete the grade 7 and 8 science and math curricula in one year, so that they can have more time later on to take more grade 11 and 12 courses than usually possible. This leads to assumptions and expectations of UTS students being “better” or smarter than others. This project aims to identify how these assumptions affect UTS students.

The overall research question: How do institutionalized forces including merit produce the ideal UTS student?

Our group’s research question: How do UTS students conceptualize institutional assumptions of excellence and what are the embodied effects of these assumptions?

B. PROJECT RATIONALE AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

Over the past 6 months, since yPAR meetings started, the group has looked at various areas of UTS and its surrounding community, trying to find where inequities are or could be within the school, to focus on our overall research question: how do institutionalized forces including merit produce the ideal UTS student?

Our conversations have mainly centred around inequities in the admissions process, wealth disparities, the availability of opportunities, the idea/image of an ideal student and stress. A common finding regarding the last topic was that we as students feel stress because of institutional assumptions and expectations, especially relating to excellence. UTS’ catchphrase is “A Tradition of Excellence in Education”. The repercussions of this phrase are important to study because dealing with the word “excellence” and the expectations it entails have influenced the student experience. We agreed that the embodied effects of expectations set out for us were commonly in the form of negative impacts on mental, emotional, and physical health, leading us to focus on this issue from the student perspective.

Through these findings we wanted to look at the impacts of these expectations and assumptions and how they shape the rest of the student’s life at UTS, in the aspects of wellness (mental/physical/emotional health) and performance. We hoped to analyze the data and find any patterns, to see if one area of the school contributes more prominently to the effects and impacts on students than another. With our research and the data we collected, our goal is to share our research and findings and bring awareness to UTS’ community of students and teachers. Through all our research objectives, our main objective was to simply to make the lives of UTS students better, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling, and to help the UTS community become more equitable in the process.

C. LITERATURE REVIEW

Despite UTS’ high standards for academic achievement and plentiful success, recent students often report that these high standards may have negative effects on health and self-esteem of its students, as well as on the overall student experience at UTS.  The potential harms of such an academically rigorous school like UTS have been postulated and recorded in many pieces of literature. In the literature reviewed, there were two main themes, relating to the pressure to be “the best” and its effect on self-esteem of students.

Gaztambide-Fernández (2009) has argued that students are expected to engage in the plethora of curricular opportunities that resource-rich private schools can provide, and that once engaged, it is assumed that there are enough opportunities for everyone to engage and find a niche within which they can be the best, which would allow them to gain materialistic status and image. Gaztambide-Fernández (2013) found that, to keep up the standard of excellence—and the the school’s reputation—teachers, students, and administrators in elite schools place an enormous amount of pressure upon one another to ensure that excellence, as defined by academic and extracurricular success, is achieved and maintained.The most important thing missing from the literature was the students’ perspective. This gap needs to be filled because, as the subjects of these research, student input to the existence and effects of pressures being studied on their mental health is critical to the accuracy of the research and to any attempt to change the way elite educational institutions are run.

D. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Discourse of distinction (the best of the best, Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández)

Distinction is one of the fundamental concepts that shapes students’ experience at elite schools, and a theory studied extensively in elite school students is the discourse of distinction. This theory outlines how distinction affects the interpretation that students have of their elite schooling experience. It focuses both on the concept of distinction as being different from other students, but also being superior. This discourse is one of the foundations of the elite schooling experience, and shapes how students experience their schooling in and elite and competitive environment. It allows students to justify their status and how among elite students, the distinctions are unequally distributed among them based on race, class, gender, and socioeconomic status. This discourse is institutionalized, both in the form of predetermined hierarchy and the physical spaces and layout of the school.  Hierarchy exists in many elite schools in the form of how students perceive themselves among their peers, and thus how they act around them. Furthermore, there is the institutionalized hierarchy in terms of students in leadership positions. The physical layout of the school also facilitates this hierarchy in terms of student offices for certain praised extracurriculars.

This theory helps us understand our findings of students at UTS and how they experience assumptions of excellence. There is such a diversity of students at UTS that the way they interpret their distinction is can affect their experience drastically. Students are always feeling pressured to be better than others, and battle for positions such as director of the school play, Secretariat of the local Model UN, School Captain, and House executive like Prefect. Students who hold these positions see themselves in a superior light. There is an established hierarchy, enforced by the constitution and the tier system, that all students respect as a measure of distinction. In addition, the physical space of UTS makes it obvious where the priorities of the school lie. Once you enter, you can immediately see 2 spaces; the guidance office and the auditorium. This physical layout seems to prioritize the music program and university admissions over other things, such as the drama or visual arts program, and the athletic facilities. Where students spend their time in the building shapes their experience and how others see their distinction. Excelling in a sport or drama for example is not as prioritized as excelling in music or getting into an ‘good’ university.

Another theory that can help us understand our research and findings is Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Hegemony describes how dominance can be perpetuated by consent rather than force. In other words, people come to agree with ideas and actions that may work against themselves and/or others. In the context of our school, hegemony refers to hierarchical ideas and actions we accept, for example, that good grades reflect intelligence, that we tend to shape our lives and ideals around.

E. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS

We have been able to research through a myriad of research methods. Through our research and findings, we had hoped to accomplish many things. Our first objective was to ask a diverse pool of students through an anonymous survey to thoroughly understand how students across grades, genders, and interests feel about the expectations and assumptions of excellence put on them. Our second objective was to use a focus group to gain more detailed information to see how a specific group of students feel about these assumptions.

Anonymous surveys on Google Forms were used to collect data in the first stage of research. We chose to use surveys because they provide an initial view of the situation from a wide range of people - in the end, nearly a quarter of the student body responded. Students were informed via email. We chose to maintain complete anonymity in order to allow the students to express their views without fear of repercussion. Google Forms consolidated much of our data into graphs, giving us an easily understandable and visual representation that allowed us to understand the issue better from different points of view within the school, and to facilitate focus group discussion in the next stage of research.

In the next stage, participants were recruited to participate in two focus groups with a PhotoVoice component. They were advertised to the student body through email and posters. We chose to use focus groups so that we could have a discussion among students, allowing them to analyse the survey results. This provided us with a greater depth of data, as participants were able to answer questions in greater detail and we as facilitators were able to ask follow-up questions. We added PhotoVoice, a research method developed in the 1990s involving photos expressing issues, to provide another way for participants to express the situation and allow them to further discuss and analyse it. We trained the participants to take photos related to excellence at UTS and write captions explaining their thoughts. We also want the photos to be shown to the student body and administration to keep the school up to date on our research of it.

F. PARTICIPANTS AND ETHICAL CONSENT

Ideally, we wanted our pool of participants to encompass as many people and opinions as possible to give us as wide a perspective on our research question as possible. In the end, our pool of participants comprised two parts: 133 anonymous student respondents from F1-S6 in the survey, one quarter of the school, and 3 students for the focus group. Below is a graph showing the grades of respondents for the survey. Participation was similar across all grades though we received the most responses from M4 and the least from S6.

Initially, we had 8 focus group volunteers from grades F1 - M4. However, many had to drop out due to commitments and refusal of parental consent due to concerns about recording information. We were left with 3 participants, one girl in F1 and two girls in M4.

We recruited participants for both components in several different ways. Emails were sent to our school announcement forum asking for anonymous respondents to the survey. Focus group participants were recruited via emails sent to the forum as well as posters displayed around the school (see appendix). Assent and consent forms (see appendix) were required for participation and detailed the research as well as how the data would be used. We gave our focus group participants snacks and community service hours as incentive to participate.

G. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION

Results of the survey were consistent with our predictions: an overwhelming majority of the UTS students - 96.2%-  find that there are expectations and assumptions put on them. 93.2% also find that an assumption is UTS students are excellent. When prompted to define the word “excellence”, definitions involving “being good at everything” to putting in “a lot of effort” and having high grades (several survey respondents indicated grades above 95%-97% as ideal). The most identified causes of these expectations and assumptions were found to be family, peers, and staff - 85.9%, 81.3%, and 70.3%, respectively. Some of these expectations were found by focus group participants to be not only unrealistic, but also impossible because the expectations themselves created a contradictory catch-22 situation, a difficult circumstance from which there is limited escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. Students in the focus group reported the expectations to be students who achieved “success” through not only academics (measured by grades, as dictated by “UTS culture”), but also through extensive participation in various extracurriculars, in order to be “well-rounded”. However, focus group participants and survey respondents described that they are being expected to achieve all this success without spending a lot of time, yet dedication and time is incredibly integral to achieving success, creating this paradox, the catch-22. One student hypothesized that perhaps because UTS students are considered “genius’”, they are expected to work at a higher and faster level, therefore is assumed that students do not have a life outside of the school building and thus have no reason to be busy, stressed, or unable to complete work -- despite the fact that all the extra-curricular activities, together with schoolwork, make students extremely busy and stressed, another example of this Catch 22 situation. Worsening this situation is the assumption described by two survey respondents, that UTS students are smart and therefore “must not have any issues that make you less ‘smart’ like developmental disorders” or “any mental illnesses”. However, “in reality these affect many UTS students, who get no support in handling it”.

Focus group participants agreed that UTS students need to be “everything”, “perfect” and “put together”, “all the time”, so that they can attend a “good” university -- university acceptances, in one participant’s words, are seen as “the final destination” and determinant of career path and success; attending college, taking a gap year, or joining the workforce are options that are looked down upon. The consensus was that consequences of not following the traditional post-secondary path are exaggerated in the minds of UTS students. One participant’s example was that attending Ryerson University instead of the University of Toronto is thought of as “terrible”, when in reality it likely would not significantly affect a student’s career. They found that students are cultivated to value STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - above other disciplines potentially due to the difference in salary and level of required education, and that in UTS’ culture, any other field is of less value and not a viable career choice.

In addition, the prestige of the UTS name seems to have amplified the gravity of meeting these expectations, especially in comparison to other UTS students. The focus group participants found that pressure and assumptions stem from UTS’ reputation as an elite and prestigious school, with students “marketed as really smart” and “oUTStanding”, and from peer competition. One participant described competition as “a double-edged sword”, with a fine line between friendly and antagonistic competition, and often driven by the self, trying to do better than others. This, they found, generally decreases self-esteem because, in reality, it is impossible to beat everyone. Participants in the focus group agreed that there was much more competition at UTS compared to elementary school, although they attributed it in part to the increase in competition as a result of growing older. This confirms the existence of the discourse of distinction at UTS, and the attempt to be “superior”. One participant encapsulated this as the need to be “little Einsteins”. All these expectations and assumptions and the catch-22 nature of them have had, from the students’ perspective, a significant negative effect on UTS students. Consensus among focus group participants was that academics are the focal point of expectations and stress at UTS, though there is pressure, coming from both one’s self and others, to have “all-around excellence”. While some participants and survey respondents cited the expectations as a source of motivation and self-esteem, most say that there were no positive effects, and offered instead several negative effects, notably increased stress - experienced by 92.1% of survey respondents, worse or less sleep - experienced by 74.8% of survey respondents, poorer mental health - experienced by 70.9% of survey respondents, all of which are caused by the attempt to meet expectations, and decreased self-esteem if one fails to meet the expectations. These negative effects pervade all grades, since consensus was reached across all respondents and participants in every grade. These effects corroborate commonly-accepted beliefs held by academic researchers and published in literature on the effects of high-achieving “elite” schools. Furthermore, these results reflect how students internalize the assumptions of excellence and outlines the work needed to eradicate or at least minimize these negative effects.  

The general assumption of excellence, they found, increases self-esteem because when reminded of it, students feel good. The most substantial positive effect of the assumptions was shown to be increased motivation to do well and compete, with 65.4% of survey respondents experiencing this. Focus group participants agreed that the pressures may be positive because they help prepare students for pressures later in life, in post-secondary school and careers where consequences are great if one fails, so it is “almost a good thing” that learning coping strategies starts early at UTS.

Overall, participants found that since being able to attend UTS is a privilege due to its monetary cost and competitive admissions process, there is a sense of needing to live up to that and not let the opportunity go to waste. Each individual at UTS comes into the institution with diverse backgrounds and their own beliefs, values, perceptions, etc. However, upon entry and association with UTS, these individual beliefs, values and perceptions seem to become dominated by the new assumptions of excellence that have now become the cultural norm, without understanding that these assumptions themselves are artificial externally imposed ideals. These expectations and assumptions were described as coming from one’s self as well as peers, an example of hegemony because of the domination of one idea of excellence over the original pre-UTS community. The process of internalising these beliefs and expectations appears to begin in admissions, with the rigorous testing process helping to re-establish UTS’ reputation of academic elitism from administration and current students, for potential students. Our study seems to show that solving this issue of assumptions of excellence fueled by this cultural hegemony requires a massive paradigm shift or rewriting of the dominant cultural narrative of distinction to create a new cultural norm that better serves the students and the UTS community.

H. ACTION AND KNOWLEDGE SHARING

Our research was focused on the opinions of students at UTS on expectations of excellence. The majority of students felt that these expectations existed, and we had our focus group participants express their opinions on expectations through PhotoVoice. We plan to display these photos and their captions in the school’s front foyer at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, since  This will bring more awareness to the fact that everyone has some type of expectation placed upon them, and hopefully make students feel less inferior compared others who are seemingly “perfect”. Although our focus groups were a way for us to conduct research, it also had an impact on our participants. They were able to gain the knowledge from our survey data about how the student body feels about expectations, and this can help them realize that the “perfect” student does not truly exist. Almost everyone responded that they felt some sort of negative consequence from expectations.

We will share our findings using PhotoVoice and presentations. We will be working with teachers to allow them to be aware of how expectations affect students at UTS. This is important for them to understand since this creates empathy and a productive connection between them and students. We have also presented the contents of this brief to guests from the school and from the media in a presentation and celebration at University College in Toronto, on May 25, 2016. Our presentation included our process, findings, and action that we took. Our findings were discussed at the a Canadian Society for the Study of Education panel on June 1, 2016, as well. This creates a better understanding of student life in elite schools such as UTS.

I. CONFLICTS, CHALLENGES, GAPS, QUESTIONS, AND FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES

While pursuing our research, we encountered several conflicts, challenges, gaps and questions. A main challenge was time constraints. As UTS students, we constantly deal with numerous demands on our time and had the challenge and balancing this research with our co-curricular and academic pursuits

Another challenge arose with our lack of knowledge in pursuing research. This was the first time we had been exposed to conducting research in the social sciences and we grappled with issues such as research design, action and knowledge sharing and theoretical framework. This created many questions in our research which we resolved with varying degrees of success. Negotiating group relationships also required time and skill.

Another group of challenges involved sampling; students and parents had concerns about what it might mean to participate. There was a high rate of attrition from the focus group. This decreased our sample size from six to three people, which affected the range of data we were able to gather through photovoice and the focus groups. Two of the 3 participants were in M4 which may have resulted in the senior view dominating the F1’s junior view.

We see many future opportunities in sharing our research. Much of this is discussed in the knowledge sharing section. However, a specific opportunity for sharing our challenges and gaps is with next year’s cohort of UTS yPAR. We can share our difficulties and how we resolved them with the next cohort in an attempt to make their research process easier and concerns about the project.

A large future opportunity comes from creating offshoots of our present research to gain a clearer picture of the effects of excellence on students at UTS. Some ideas for future research include: how excellence is experienced by diverse student populations or different supports for the health concerns mentioned in the findings.  This will enable an improvement of the student experience and create a more positive student climate at UTS.

J. closing

Our group focused on the question “How do UTS students conceptualize institutional assumptions of excellence and what are the embodied effects of these assumptions?”. This was one of the three subtopics of how institutionalized factors produce the ideal UTS student and focuses on how expectations contribute to shaping the ideal UTS student.

We began by calling upon previous research on the topic. We conducted two focus groups and sent out a survey to collect data on this topic. By using specific questions, we found that the catch-22 paradox exists within our student group. Students are expected to spend very little time becoming excellent, and are considered “Little Einsteins”. This expectation is unrealistic, as suggested by the catch-22 paradox.

Afterwards, we decided to share our research findings. The incorporation of PhotoVoice was to allow our focus group participants to express their experience with expectations at UTS. A vast majority of results suggested that expectations negatively impact students, although there are also positives. This was reflected in the PhotoVoice submissions, and after presenting these to the school, we were able to spread the knowledge that the nobody can be the “ideal UTS student”.

Our research conclusion was that the “ideal UTS student” does not exist. Although many students appear “ideal” on the outside, they are dealing with expectations with negative consequences as well. We hope that our research and actions can help our school diffuse the expectation of students becoming the “ideal UTS student”.

In summary, our research showed that

  • UTS culture expects students to be “Little Einsteins” without putting in much time or effort, which is an example of the catch-22 paradox;

  • Expectations predominantly cause negative effects such as decreased mental health, as expressed on our survey results and PhotoVoice captions;

The “ideal UTS student” we discussed does not exist.

K. Selected references

Levine, Madeline. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Seaton, Marjorie, Herbert W. Marsh, and Rhonda G. Craven. "Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect: Generalizability and Moderation— Two Sides of the Same Coin." American Educational Research Journal (n.d.): n. pag. Harvard University. American Educational Research Journal, 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

Gaztambide-Fernandez, Ruben A. The Best of The Best becoming elite at an american boarding school. Harvard University Press.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. A., Saifer, A., & Desai, C. (2013). “Talent” and the Misrecognition of Social Advantage in Specialized Arts Education. Roeper Review, 35(2), 124-135. doi:10.1080/02783193.2013.766964