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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006
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Alienation among relief teachers servicing government metropolitan primary schools

Ralph G Lunay and Graeme Lock
Edith Cowan University
Research suggests that the relief (substitute) teacher should be viewed as an extremely important educational resource. Reviewed literature spanning the better part of twenty years indicates that in parts of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, many students spend as much as one full year (or more) of their K-12 education having curriculum delivered to them by these individuals. Unfortunately, the literature also indicates that many relief teachers are still viewed by many as less than 'real' teachers in terms of perceived competence, skill and capability. In addition to this, the existence of a number of pervasive, enduring systemic problems has been identified as being present in the educational systems of the above three regions, which have been seen to impact negatively on the relief teacher, making the difficult job they do, even more arduous. There is reason to hypothesise that as a result of exposure to these problems, relief teachers could be expected to suffer from feelings of alienation and further 'disconnection' from tenured colleagues, and that this may further marginalise them from the rest of the greater educational community. Research which attempts to further explore this issue has recently been completed in Western Australia. The study was qualitative in nature and utilised semi-structured interviews as the main data-gathering tool. Twenty relief teachers servicing Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools were interviewed. The findings of the current study showed conclusively, that feelings of alienation exist among the participants. Ninety five percent of the cohort identified feeling alienated as a direct result of working as relief teachers at Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools. This paper summarises the major findings of that study.


Research in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has for some years shown that the teaching profession in these countries carries higher levels of stress, job dissatisfaction and consequent 'drop out' rates than many other skilled occupations. Some parts of these countries now appear to face significant problems regarding falling numbers of tenured educators (Bruce & Cacioppe, 1989; Gonzales, 2002; Woods, 2004). There is reason to speculate that partially as a result of this, the importance of the relief teacher as an educational resource is increasing.

However, whether or not the reliance on relief teachers is increasing, previous studies have indicated that relief teachers are already playing what should be considered a crucial role in the ongoing education of many primary and secondary students. At present, students in many schools spend as much as one full year (or more) of their kindergarten to year twelve education in the company of relief teachers (Abdal-Haqq, 1997; Brace, 1990; Edelman, 2003). This, in itself, highlights the great importance of the need for these educators to be capable, competent and effective in moving curriculum forward.

Unfortunately, relief teachers are still often seen by the broader educational community as having lower status regarding their capabilities as professional educators (Black, 2002; Cardon, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001). A review of the available literature on the subject of relief teachers identified several recurrent themes, which when analysed further, could reasonably be expected to produce strong feelings disconnection from tenured counterparts and the broader education community in general. Negative perceptions from tenured colleagues, students and school leaders, coupled with low expectations (Abdal-Haqq, 1997; Black, 2002; Cardon, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001), immediately marginalise the relief teacher from the outset. Lack of in-service training and professional development opportunities (Crittenden, 1994; Lunay, 2004), real problems with in-class and administrative back up and general lack of respect for the difficult job they do, are other major issues facing these educators (Black, 2002; Crittenden, 1994; Gonzales, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001; Shilling, 1991). These are often additional to the well-recognised problems faced by the teaching profession in general.

As a result of the above issues, there appears to be reason to speculate upon the possibility that relief teachers suffer from greater feelings of alienation than tenured teachers, although the literature revealed that no empirical data which directly addresses this issue is available. However, the problem is inferred in much of the research. If indeed, these feelings do exist, questions need to be asked which address how much effect this has on the ability of the relief teacher to function at full capacity, what problems or issues contribute to these feelings, and importantly, what can be done to assist in the overall reduction of this estrangement and disconnection.

Research that hopefully goes some way to answering these questions (in Western Australia at least), has recently been completed. This article briefly summarises selected major findings that have emerged from this study, and highlights a series of recommendations which if implemented, might provide much needed support for what is an arguably important yet undervalued educational resource.

Conceptual framework

Alienation is recognised as being very complex in aetiology, with probable 'roots' in a person's bio-psycho-social background (McInerney & McInerney 2002, p.456), and can certainly be 'triggered' by numerous and varying situational factors. In extreme cases, severe feelings of alienation can express themselves in physical illness, psychological disturbance, or combinations of both (Bess, 1998; Bjorkquist & Kleinhesselink, 1999; McInerney & McInerney, 2002).

Oerlemans and Jenkins (1998) contended that alienation as a concept was first used by Karl Marx, in describing the powerlessness of the worker in relation to the means of production - specifically with regard to the imbalance of power between the workers themselves and 'big business' owners of the time. They also indicated that alienation as a sociological concept was delineated by Seeman (1959), who added several other broad constructs/dimensions (see below). This, in effect, brought the concept into a 'modern' framework, with subsequent research by psychologists and sociologists recognising alienation as a 'real' and quantifiable construct. Carlson (1995, p.467) in citing Dean (1961), Calabrese (1984), and Seeman (1959), contended that alienation (when viewed from a social science perspective) could be expressed in one of three psychological constructs.

For the purposes of this study, 'alienation' was defined as 'persistent negative feelings that some relief teachers may experience during the course of their work within Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools'. These feelings may be expressed as powerlessness, meaninglessness, or isolation, and may in fact be expressed in combinations of these constructs/continua.

As previously stated, the logical implication of exposure to the problems identified by the reviewed literature is that they themselves could be expected to provide the platform from which feelings of alienation among relief teachers may develop. However, the lack of a conceptual framework in the literature, which specifically relates to the study of alienation among relief teachers, meant that some degree of disconnection between the reviewed literature and the desired conceptual framework of this research was apparent.

To address this problem, a psychological alienation-non-alienation model was adapted from Finn (1989) and Carlson (1995) that allows any identified alienation amongst the target population to be explicitly expressed along a combination of the above three continua. The development of this model was considered essential, in order for 'alienation' to be properly quantified, permitting in essence a conceptual framework that would allow proper evaluation and synthesis of the study's findings.

Figure 1 shows in diagrammatic form, the psychological model of alienation adapted for this study.

The intrinsic factors listed in the model include personal or situational variables that may reasonably be expected to impact in some way, on the relief teacher's perception of his/her work. These include (but would not be limited to) self-efficacy, ability, personal reasons for relief teaching, general level of job satisfaction as an educator, self-esteem and long-term professional goals. The above factors should be viewed as more or less constant and would not be expected to change on a short-term basis. They could, however, be expected to have some kind of impact on the individual, possibly predisposing that person to feelings of alienation (or non-alienation) even before walking into a placement at the start of each day.

Extrinsic factors are those variables that impact the relief teacher as a result of external influences beyond his/her control. These can be further divided into two groups.

  1. Fairly constant and unchanging: These include difficulty of access to professional development; pay, conditions and procurement of employment; and the nature of casual work.

  2. Situational factors (constantly changing according to placements): These include school environment variables such as expectations of the relief teacher; staffroom dynamics; level of administrative and in-class support; specific classroom management challenges; and other issues specific to a particular placement.
The above factors, (of course unique in combination to each relief teacher) combine to form some kind of meaning for each individual, and it is from this point that the process of feeling alienated or not begins to develop. Each personal experience could be seen to generate certain feelings (either positive or negative) which are expressed along a continuum of the three constructs of alienation discussed earlier. The culmination of this process either results in feelings of alienation, or feelings of non-alienation. The model suggests that this process is an ongoing cycle, with resultant positive or negative feelings feeding back to a point where making meaning of the situation begins once again.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Psychological model showing process of alienation / non-alienation among WA relief teachers
Adapted from Carlson (1995) & Finn (1989)

A brief overview of the research

The aims and objectives of this research were to determine and confirm sources of alienation among relief teachers servicing Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools; to investigate other possible sources of alienation not yet identified by the reviewed literature; and finally to determine what (if any) support strategies are actually offered to relief teachers by those schools. These aims and objectives were then distilled into two broad research questions.
    1. Are relief teachers servicing Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools feeling alienation as a consequence of their work?
    2. If alienation is confirmed, what do Western Australian government metropolitan primary school relief teachers identify as contributing to these feelings?

  1. What identified support strategies/systems have been offered to relief teachers servicing Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools?
The study was qualitative in nature and utilised semi-structured interviews as the main data-gathering tool. A total of forty six potential subjects were invited to participate in this research and ultimately, twenty relief teachers servicing Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools were interviewed, representing a participation rate of slightly less than forty four percent. In all cases these individuals used relief teaching as their main source of income.

The number of schools serviced by each respondent ranged from two to more than twenty, with sixty five percent indicating that they had serviced more than ten schools during their relief teaching careers. Seventy six separate schools were serviced by the subject population, which represents slightly over twenty three percent of the total number of Western Australian government primary schools situated in the greater Perth metropolitan area (three hundred and twenty four).

Research findings essentially fell into five distinct sections

Further coding revealed themes relevant to each section, and in many cases, more specific sub-themes emerged.

This article deals only with the latter three sections (along with a series of recommendations for further action) - those which directly address the research questions of the study. Demographic information and the identified positive aspects of relief teaching (as discussed by the respondents) form the basis of another paper. Each section is dealt with separately, and includes an overview of the major findings, along with a brief discussion which helps to further contextualise those findings. In some instances, (to preserve the voice of the respondents) specific words used by the interviewees also appear in the text of the subsequent discussions and are indicated as such by the use of single quotation marks.

Discussion of findings

Alienation as identified and discussed by the subject population

A central aim of the current research was to firstly ascertain whether or not the subject population believed that they felt alienation as a result of working as relief teachers, and if they in fact did, how it was expressed. This formed part a) of the first research question.

The current research identified that ninety five percent of the participants cited feelings of alienation. They attributed these feelings to being exposed to major systemic problems or 'issues' which appear to be embedded in the school (or in some cases, the broader educational) system itself.

The expression of these feelings varied considerably, with various combinations of constructs being quoted by the respondents. However, further analysis revealed that either singularly, or in combination with other constructs, feelings of isolation were by far the most dominant expression of alienation, with eighty five percent of the cohort quoting this construct. Sixty percent experienced feelings of powerlessness whilst working as relief teachers, and thirty percent identified meaninglessness in various contexts. Figures 2 and 3, summarise these findings in graphical form.

Further analysis concluded that some caution needs to be exercised when attempting to generalise these findings over broader sections of the relief teacher population, especially in light of the relatively small size of the surveyed cohort. That alienation exists (at least partially as a result of working within the current system) among the subject population is indeed without doubt. However, the conceptual framework indicates that feelings

Figure 2

Figure 2: Alienation as expressed over the combinations of constructs.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Total number of respondents who identified each alienation construct

of alienation can be 'triggered' and expressed in different ways, can be changeable in frequency and intensity, depending on an almost limitless set of variables, each of which would of course be peculiar to each individual. In other words the above findings need to be viewed as extremely situational in nature, and likely to change over varying timeframes. A single (very subjective) 'snapshot' might be an appropriate metaphor when placing these findings in context.

Issues identified by respondents, which lead to feelings of alienation

The second aim of this research was to identify the systemic problems encountered by the participants, which they believed either 'triggered' feelings of alienation, or in some way exacerbated existing feelings. This aim formed part b) of the first research question.

A review of the available literature relevant to the current research identified the existence of several major systemic problems, which have been present for some considerable time in the education systems of the three countries from which the literature was sourced (Abdal Haqq, 1997; Black, 2002; Cardon, 2002; Crittenden, 1994; Gonzales, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001; Lunay, 2004; Shilling, 1991).

The research findings established strong positive links between respondents' feelings of alienation and the problems identified by the reviewed literature. In addition to confirming these links, three additional problems/issues were identified which do not appear to have been flagged by the literature, and are considered 'new' findings in the context of the present research.

The coding process identified the existence of four themes, and upon further analysis a total of twelve sub-themes emerged from the data. Figure 3, graphically represents these findings, and portrays each sub-theme within the context of the four emergent themes, in addition to listing the number of respondents who identified each.

1. Specific in-class challenges

Seventy five percent of the respondents identified a combination of negative classroom experiences as contributing to feelings of alienation. The three sub-themes to emerge from this data included behaviour management challenges (quoted by 50% of respondents), and a perceived lack of lesson planning information and/or the resources needed to implement these (quoted again by 50% of interviewees). A smaller third sub-theme, centring on lack of other important classroom information was quoted by 15% of the respondents. This included information such as class timetables, student-specific behaviour management plans, students at behavioural risk and so on. In all cases, the literature variously identified these sub-themes as issues that have been known about by education systems for many years, yet still continue to impact negatively on relief teachers.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Major systemic problems encountered which lead to feelings of alienation in the subject population
(by specific sub theme)

2. Relationship issues

The issue of negative relationships with tenured colleagues and an array of other educational stake-holders was quoted by seventy five percent of the respondents. Again, three sub-themes were identified within this theme and included relationships with the educational community, which was identified by seventy percent of the participants. This sub-theme, on its own, was quoted as leading to feelings of alienation by more respondents than any other single problem/issue. The issue of how relief teachers perceive the way in which other staff 'treat' them during the course of their work with various schools was widely acknowledged as concerning by the literature (Black, 2002; Brace, 1990; Crittenden, 1994; Gonzales, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001; Simmons, 1991). The general inference that appeared to be drawn from previous studies in this area was that relief teachers were seen by other staff as outsiders, and that high degrees of indifference or even unfriendliness were sometimes displayed to these individuals during the course of their placements. Whilst most of this would appear to be unintentional in nature, no great leap in logic is required to hypothesise that significant feelings of alienation could be expected to result in relief teachers who face this type of situation.

The remaining sub-themes included poor relationships with the wider educational bureaucracy (namely the Western Australian Department of Education and Training), quoted by twenty percent of respondents, and interestingly, a perception by ten percent of respondents that some relief teacher placement agencies (used by these individuals to provide daily work), regularly sent them to more 'challenging' schools because they were male. These latter two sub-themes were considered by the researcher to be 'new' findings, because they do not appear to have been identified or discussed in any previous research relating to relief teachers or teaching.

3. Relief teacher image and perception

Some considerable thought was given to the possibility of including this issue as an additional sub-theme relating to relationship issues, because in some ways the two showed strong links to each other. One could argue that 'poor image' and the consequent negative perceptions of relief teachers' capabilities may well lead to poor relationships with other educational stake-holders. However, this was viewed as too simplistic, as many other situational factors could well come into play. This theme, therefore, was also treated as its own sub-theme.

The reviewed literature identified and discussed low expectations and general 'negative' perceptions held by much of the educational community towards relief teachers. This general attitude once again, appeared to be quite common across the US (Abdal-Haqq, 1997; Cardon, 2002; Hardman & Tippetts, 2001) and was quoted by Black (2002) as being similar in nature in the UK. In Australia, this attitude is inferred in Crittenden's (1994) study, although not directly stated. The results of this research would seem to firmly support contentions made by the reviewed literature.

Sixty five percent of respondents variously identified feeling alienated as a result of what they perceived were 'negative' attitudes displayed towards them by some tenured staff. This general feeling appeared to centre on perceptions of not being regarded by others as 'real' or capable teachers, and that at best, they were 'tolerated' by other staff because no 'real' teachers were available to do the job. Respondents variously felt that this attitude was more prevalent in tenured teachers; however, the data uncovered instances of this negativity being displayed by other staff, and in one instance by a school principal.

4. Equity with tenured colleagues

This was the largest theme to emerge from the data, producing five sub-themes and being identified by ninety percent of respondents as fostering feelings of alienation.

The issue of 'broken' employment and pay, inequality of access to various leave benefits along with the broader problems associated with casual work was the strongest sub-theme to emerge, with sixty percent of interviewees identifying these problems. Issues revolved around the 'feast or famine' nature of relief teaching, the uncertainty of working on any particular day, and several distinct concerns regarding payment for services rendered. The problem of being able to access professional development (PD) was mentioned by thirty percent, and in all cases the central contention revolved around the issue of not being offered this in line with tenured counterparts (at no cost to recipients).

A further ten percent of respondents identified the issue of being assigned playground/yard duty simply because they were the relief teacher, rather than the fact that they were replacing a rostered staff member, as leading to feelings of alienation. This relates somewhat to the fourth sub-theme, which identified general duty of care issues. Again this was identified by ten percent of respondents, and centred around three specific experiences, which placed each relief teacher at considerably more risk of unintentional duty of care breach, because they were unfamiliar with students, procedures and rules.

The remaining sub-theme to emerge from the data was the issue of access to 'duties other than teaching time' (DOTT). This issue has not been flagged by the reviewed literature, and is therefore considered to be the third (and final) sub-theme to be viewed as a 'new' finding. In all Western Australian government schools, tenured staff are allocated several hours per week to research and prepare lessons, or undertake other non-teaching duties. Thirty five percent of interviewees quoted 'rarely' receiving this time during the course of their placements, and that instead, they were often removed to other classes for the duration of this time, to allow extra DOTT to be used by those teachers. Perceptions of 'feeling used' and 'used for everything' appeared to be the common feeling amongst this cohort, leading to feelings of alienation.

Identified support strategies offered by schools to relief teachers

The third major aim of the current research was to ascertain whether any of the schools serviced by the respondents actually provided identifiable support strategies to relief teachers, and if so, what these strategies were. This aim forms the basis of the second research question.

The reviewed literature, in addition to identifying some of the major problems experienced by relief teachers during the course of their work, also highlighted certain strategies (or reforms) many of which could be initiated at a school level, and which if thoughtfully and judiciously executed, need not cost much (if anything) in the way of additional funding (Brace, 1990; Crittenden, 1994; Edelman, 2003; Gonzales, 2002; Hardman and Tippetts, 2001; Lunay, 2004; Potter, 2001; Simmons, 1991).

One hundred precent of the participants variously identified support strategies being offered to them by some of the schools they serviced. However, the type and quality of these were seen to vary considerably between interviewees, producing rather 'fractured' data. This was particularly evident when respondents discussed the frequency of provision of these services, with interviewees citing 'occasionally', 'sometimes', 'some schools', 'one school', 'both schools', 'rarely', and in one case 'good overall'.

A total of five sub-themes, representing five distinct support strategies were identified by the respondents, showing that some schools do appear to be cognisant of at least some of the problems regularly faced by relief teachers, and have attempted to devise strategies which reduce their impact.

Fifty percent of respondents quoted having been provided with lesson plans or information at some of the schools they serviced, although the quality and/or frequency of provision appeared to be quite low in most cases. Twenty percent reported various provision of information specific to the class that they were teaching, including seating plans, behaviour management policies and other information considered necessary to keep the class running smoothly. Again, the frequency of supply of this information was not seen as high by these interviewees.

A further thirty percent of respondents indicated that they had been provided with school based 'survival' packs at various placements. These information sheets variously provide basic orientation information including campus 'mud maps', daily routines and so on. Once again, overall frequency of supply was seen as quite low. Forty five percent of the interviewees indicated that they had been 'officially' met by a school staff member, and in some cases, escorted to class. This 'meet and greet' strategy is widely acknowledged by the reviewed literature as important in enhancing the professional standing of the relief teacher, and certainly requires little in the way of extra resources or effort to implement as a matter of course. The frequency that this strategy was offered, appeared to vary considerably, and seemed from the respondents' point of view to range from 'informal' to 'formal' in nature.

Support from other (tenured) staff was quoted by another twenty five percent of respondents as variously being offered to them during the course of their work. The type of support was seen to vary considerably between informal 'head through the classroom door' to more formal 'buddying up', although all appeared to be informal in origin, rather than part of any officially sanctioned support strategy. Again the frequency of this support was seen to be fairly low. Figure 4 below, summarises these findings in graphical form.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Support strategies as identified by the subject population


A series of recommendations based on the findings of the current study are presented below. These are divided into three categories: recommendations for future research; recommendations for schools; and recommendations for educational districts/bureaucracy. Each category is discussed separately. At this point it should be clearly understood that all following recommendations need to be viewed within the (previously discussed) limitations of the current study, and in particular, the bounds and constraints of a relatively low sample size.

Recommendations for future research

The findings of the current research have conclusively shown that feelings of alienation exist within ninety five percent of the participants, and that these feelings are at least partially generated by exposure to specific problems that exist within the schools that they service, or the wider education system within which they operate. There is a distinct possibility that these findings might well be representative of the broader relief teacher population, however, some caution should be exercised in making this claim without further study. Recommendations for further research include the following.

Recommendations for schools

The current research established strong positive links between respondents' feelings of alienation and many of the systemic problems within the educational systems identified by the reviewed literature. An additional three problems were also identified by respondents, which do not appear in previous research. In light of these findings, several recommendations can be made, which if implemented by schools might be expected to significantly reduce relief teachers' feelings of alienation.

Recommendations for educational districts and central office

Some findings of the current study point to the issue of feelings of alienation among relief teachers as transcending the individual school setting in some instances. This implies that intervention at a school district or even central office level may be warranted. As a consequence, several recommendations for this section of the educational system can be put forward.


The findings of the current study show conclusively, that feelings of alienation exist among the respondents. Ninety five percent of the cohort identified feeling alienated as a direct result of working as relief teachers at Western Australian government metropolitan primary schools. By far the most common manifestation of these feelings was a sense of isolation, with eighty five percent of all respondents experiencing this construct either singly or in tandem with other constructs. A sense of powerlessness was quoted by sixty percent of the cohort, whilst thirty percent indicated feeling varying degrees of meaninglessness, whilst working in a relief teaching capacity. Strong positive links between these feelings and exposure to a range of (mostly) previously identified major systemic problems within the broader educational system have also been shown. Four themes encompassing specific in-class challenges, relationship issues, relief teacher image and perception, and equity with tenured colleagues were identified, and these subsequently produced twelve sub-themes. Three of these sub-themes have been considered 'new' findings because they do not appear to have been previously identified or discussed by the reviewed literature. They include relationship problems with the wider educational bureaucracy (quoted by twenty percent of the cohort), negative relationships with some relief teacher placement agencies (quoted by ten percent), and problems accessing time allocated for lesson planning, locating resources and other related non-teaching duties. This sub-theme was identified by thirty five percent of respondents. The existence of the majority of these problems/issues has been identified in all three countries from which the literature was drawn, and in many cases their structure and aetiology appear very similar. The study also found evidence of the existence of some support strategies put in place by a number of schools in an attempt to address some of these problems, although the quality and frequency of these was seen to be quite low in most instances.

A series of recommendations also emerged from the research, with most centring around the need for further research into the issues related to relief teachers and teaching, and called for both schools, and the wider educational community itself to become more cognisant of the relief teacher's value as a capable, competent educational resource, and consequently, to provide the appropriate mechanisms and support.

Looking beyond the context of the present research, it is perhaps fair to say that the issue of whether or not relief teachers are feeling significant alienation as a result of their work may not be the most important point at stake. The notion of any student in any school being provided with the best possible educational opportunities must be of paramount importance to the teaching profession. As such, the notion of the relief teacher being viewed as a mere stand in for the 'real' teacher during periods of absence (extended or otherwise), needs to be dispelled sooner rather than later. Relief teachers need to be provided with the tools, opportunities and professional recognition to be able not simply to keep the class occupied for the day, but to move the curriculum forward in the same way as the students' regular classroom teacher. If these tools are provided, not only will the relief teacher be better at their job, feelings of alienation will probably reduce naturally, meaning every educational stake-holder wins.


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Lunay, R. (2004). Challenges facing the relief teacher and some simple suggestions for fostering improvement. Subjournal, 5(1), 21-32.

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Authors: Ralph Lunay works for Edith Cowan University (Perth, Western Australia) as a sessional lecturer in the School of Education and has recently completed a Masters Degree in Education His areas of teaching include pedagogical strategies, classroom management and language studies. He also works as a relief teacher for government schools throughout the metropolitan area. Email: vtwin@iinet.net.au

Dr Graeme Lock is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University. He is currently Director of the Primary Program and coordinator of the Diploma of General Education course being taught in Singapore. Email: g.lock@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Lunay, R. G. & Lock, G. (2006). Alienation among relief teachers servicing government metropolitan primary schools. Issues In Educational Research, 16(2), 171-192. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/lunay.html

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