Issues in Educational Research, 8(2), 1998, 117-129.

There are aliens in our school

Karin Oerlemans
Heather Jenkins
Curtin University of Technology, Perth

The alienation of adolescents is generally considered undesirable. It is seen as a negative aspect of young people's lives, leading to behaviours such as drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and involvement in other forms of deviant behaviour. Adolescents spend a significant amount of their time at school, and it is the role of the school that adolescents are prepared for society and future employment. Yet as many as thirty percent dropout of school before the completion of year twelve and a significant proportion of those before the completion of their compulsory ten years of schooling. Moreover, adolescents who have been alienated often become adults who are socially alienated, live in poverty and are politically powerless.

This article contributes to the understanding of adolescent alienation by examining some underlying theoretical constructs defined by Mau (1992) associated with the global concept of alienation. Greater understanding of the constructs enables educators to explore the issue of adolescent alienation in schools within a conceptual framework derived from the literature and leads to evaluation of interventions that have been tried with alienated adolescents in junior high schools both in Australia and overseas.

The article finishes with the suggestion that educators use the constructs of alienation as a checklist to help them evaluate new programs before costly implementation and to identify missing or inadequate components in their efforts to address adolescent alienation successfully.

The notion of aliens amongst us, as visitors from outer space, has become very popular since the first "UFO landing" in Roswell in 1947. Many web sites on the internet give detailed information about purported sightings, landings and abductions. The recent movie, Men in Black, is a lighthearted look at the concept of aliens living amongst us. The aliens are human look a likes, or wearing human body suits so that they can blend in and live amongst us and we do not know.

Actually, many teachers do know that we have aliens in our schools and classrooms. They come in a variety of forms, some sit and stare at us, giving the feeling that they are looking right through. Other aliens climb the walls, throw abuse, disrupt our lessons, and when it all gets too much they leave, sometimes for a while, sometimes disappearing from our schools forever. Only these aliens are not from outer space, they are from the neighbourhood, and they are not really aliens, just young people, alienated from a system that is intended to educate them.

Schools in Australia face an increasingly difficult task in responding to the needs of adolescents. Adolescents face the increasingly difficult task of making a success of themselves both at school and afterwards. Whilst almost eighty percent of students interviewed in the recent WA Child Health Survey (Zubrick, et al., 1997) said that they liked school, even if only "a little", one in five said they disliked or hated it. And although governments wish to encourage students to stay on till year 12, thirty percent leave before then, and about a third of those leave before completing their ten years of compulsory schooling (Dwyer, 1996).

The alienation of adolescents in schools has been discussed in the literature over the last three decades, and has variously been described as students exhibiting poor attendance, failure, feeling a lack of control over their own situation, being unable to keep class or school rules, not having a sense of belonging, or a combination of any of these (Carlson, 1995; Mau, 1992). Alienation has been associated with disruptive behaviour (Zubric, et al., 1997), absenteeism (Reid, 1981), and dropping out (Whelage and Rutter, 1986). The issue of adolescent alienation is one that concerns many administrators, teachers and school pastoral staff and is a continuing and frustrating problem (Morton, 1989).

In the past many adolescents who chose to leave school early found work, either as apprentices or in the service industry. Now, with record levels of youth unemployment, many adolescents who leave school and who have been alienated often become adults who are socially alienated, live in poverty and are politically powerless (Dwyer, 1996; Rohrman,1993). Schools need to find alternative solutions, rather than allowing these students to fall through the gaps in our educational network. This article contributes to the understanding of adolescent alienation by examining some underlying theoretical constructs associated with the global concept of alienation. Greater understanding of the constructs enables educators to explore the issue of adolescent alienation in schools within a conceptual framework derived from the literature and leads to evaluation of interventions that have been tried with alienated adolescents in junior high schools both in Australia and overseas.


Alienation as a concept was first used by Karl Marx, to describe the powerlessness of the workers in relation to the means of production (Seeman, 1959, 1979). Seeman (1959) delineated this concept of alienation as it was used in sociology - that is powerlessness, and included four further meanings of alienation, namely meaninglessness, self-estrangement, isolation and normlessness. Powerlessness refers to an individual's feelings of lack of control over their situation (Seeman, 1975), their feelings of helplessness, the feelings that they cannot understand or influence what is happening to them (Dean, 1961).

Meaninglessness refers to an individual's feeling a lack of relevance or a sense of incomprehensibility. Self-estrangement describes an individual's lack of engagement with their surroundings and activities. Isolation concerns an individual's feelings of exclusion or rejection by their society (Seeman, 1959) or feelings of separation or rejection from the group or from their peers (Dean, 1961). And normlessness pertains to an individual's unwillingness to abide by society norms, the loss of commonly held standards and the use of any means to achieve what is desirable (Seeman, 1959,1975). Normlessness could also be described as having a purposelessness, that is the absence of any values that give purpose or direction to life, and may also include a conflict of norms, such as the conflict between the need to be cooperative and also be competitive (Dean, 1961).

Mau (1992) has examined the validity of the multidimensional concept of alienation in the school context, and focused on the four dimensions of powerlessness, social estrangement, meaninglessness and normlessness. Powerlessness refers to the student's feeling of lack of control over their lives. Social estrangement, combining Seeman's self-estrangement and isolation, refers to the student's feelings of isolation, which can be a physical isolation or a mental or emotional withdrawing of themselves from their situation (Carlson, 1995). Meaninglessness refers to a student's feeling of irrelevance to what is happening to them right now. With alienated students the only relevant time is the one that is happening 'right now', "the past is done and the future is mostly unimaginable" (Lindley, 1990, p. 27). Normlessness refers to a student's rejection of society's rules and norms. Within the school context adolescent alienation is often exhibited in behaviours such as self-isolation, failure, violence, truancy, and dropping out (Mau, 1992).

Alienation as a process

Though the constructs of alienation are described as being distinct and separate, the boundaries are not fixed, and an adolescent may exhibit normlessness and powerlessness, yet still feel they belong to the school and are part of their peer group, that is, not suffer from social estrangement. However, the different distinctions of alienation are important as they imply different strategies for intervention. An adolescent who has feelings of powerlessness is going to require a different form of intervention, to one who feels that what they are learning in class is irrelevant (Newmann, 1981).

Perhaps it is best to describe alienation as a process (Carlson, 1995), or contextually relevant rather than a personality trait or a state of being (Dean, 1961). Alienation can be influenced by a variety of factors, including factors from the home, school and from within the adolescent themselves. What is alienating will also depend on the context and the circumstances, as it is not a static phenomena (Cumming, 1996). It may even be said that whilst all adolescents experience potentially alienating contexts, there appears to be a threshold below which the adolescent is no longer able to tolerate what is happening to them, and they exhibit behaviours commonly associated with alienation (Tripp, 1986).

Carlson (1995), in her study of an Australian high school investigated the feelings and actions of students identified as alienated from physical education. Using the findings of the research she developed a model for explaining the process of alienation, focusing on three constructs of alienation, meaninglessness, powerlessness and isolation. She described alienation as the "persistent negative feelings some students associate with actively aversive or insufficiently meaningful situations" (p.467), that is, students find class or school 'boring'. Adolescents need to find meaning in what they are doing. An inability to make personal meaning from the curriculum, leads to normlessness, which Carlson describes as lack of participation, or faking, which in turn leads to isolation in the classroom, a further lack of success, feelings of powerlessness, and thus alienation.

Carlson's (1995) alienation-nonalienation model is adapted from Finn's (1989) participation-identification model. Finn (1989) in a study on school dropout literature, described two models for explaining the developmental process of alienation. Only the second model, the participation-identification model used one of Seeman's constructs of alienation, that of belonging, the positive rubric for self-estrangement. The first model is a frustration-self-esteem model, which focused on an adolescent's reduced self-esteem and increased problem behaviours as a result of unsuccessful school outcomes. In this paradigm, school failure, as a result of the school not providing an adequate instructional or emotional environment, leads to an impaired self-view, as the result of frustration or embarrassment, which leads to an increase in disruptive behaviours or juvenile delinquency, which in turn leads to the student rejecting the school context, which they see as being responsible.

The second model Finn (1989) has described, is the participation-identification model, which focused on an adolescent bonding or identifying with school, both behaviorally and emotionally. Identification is seen as the positive rubric as opposed to the negative alienation or withdrawal. According to this paradigm students who identify with school have an internalized concept of belonging and value success in school relevant goals. Finn (1989) has found it is better to focus efforts in educational reform on increasing students' development of identification with school, rather than focusing on the negative aspects of reducing alienation and concomitant problem behaviours of truancy, delinquency, failure and dropout.

This conceptual framework, which is prevalent in much of the literature on adolescent alienation and education, should inform our best practice in schools. It is this that should be the basis for many reforms and attempts at dealing with adolescents who display behaviours commonly associated with alienation. Viewing alienation as a process, and using Seeman's constructs in an educational context can also help in evaluating existing educational interventions for dealing with alienated adolescents. This procedure has been used in examining a number of interventions that have been tried with adolescents both here in Australia and in the United States.

Programs for intervention

There have been many programs designed to ameliorate the incidence of adolescent alienation. However, efforts to ameliorate alienation have rarely addressed all aspects of alienation. Interventions generally focus on one or two constructs of adolescent alienation, that is powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness or self estrangement, or on the manifestations of alienation, such as absenteeism and dropping out. Strategies include alternative or vocational programmes for adolescents who are less academically able (Bauer and Michael, 1993; Power, 1986), remedial programmes (Howard and Liner, 1990; Phelps, 1994), new administration techniques (Baker and Sansone, 1990; Phelps, 1993), counseling (Edwards, 1995), work experience programs (Netolicky, 1997), parental and community involvement in the adolescents schooling (Baker and Sansone, 1990; Rohrman, 1993), and others.

The following Table represents our classification of some school programs for young adolescents according to the four dimensions of alienation defined by Mau (1992) and includes the main area of focus for each intervention. Interventions included in the list were chosen primarily using an ERIC search. Descriptors used to identify recent programs for intervention included alienation and secondary education. An array of interventions that have been written focus on American minority groups such as the Hispanics and American Negroes. Programmes chosen for inclusion were those that were considered to have some relevance to Australia and encompass the scope and diversity of approaches that is available in interventions that address adolescent alienation.

Table 1: Grid showing placement of school programmes addressing alienated adolescents using Mau's (1992) four dimensions



Main area of focus


Cumming, 1996

(see below)

Bauer & Michael, 1993

Cumming, 1996

Donlan, 1990

Firestone, 1989

GRECA, 1995

Howard & Liner, 1990

Johannessen, 1991

Lindley, 1990

Netolicky, 1997

Orr, 1987

Power, 1986

Tripp, 1986

Vocational Education

(see below)

"Curriculum in an hour" (see below)

The need for Relevance

Middle schooling

Remedial education

Engaging students, remedial education

Interesting curriculum content

Work experience

Vocational Education

Vocational Education

Work experience

Social Estrangement Cumming, 1996

Edwards, 1995

Firestone, 1989

GRECA, 1995

Rohrman, 1993

(see below)



Middle schooling

Fostering belonging


Baker & Sansone, 1990

Bauer & Michael, 1993

Cumming, 1996

Orr, 1987

Phelps, 1994

Rohrman, 1993

Dropping out


(see below)

Dropping out

Rural Dropout Prevention


The programmes described by Power (1986) and Tripp (1986) were included because they describe two Australian initiatives. The other significant Australian report is by Cumming (1996). This is a report of a Commonwealth-funded Project of National Significance and is described in greater details below. The list is by no means exhaustive and represents only a small sample of the many intervention strategies that have been tried. However, it provides a useful means of recognizing the primary dimensions addressed among the diverse individual interventions.

The construct of alienation that is most often targeted is that of meaninglessness, that is strategies are employed in order to make education more meaningful to the student, often in order to stop students from absenteeing or dropping out. This is done, in its simplest form, by introducing alternative teaching methods or activities into the classroom.

One such example of this is the work done by Donlan (1990). Donlan, in his work with at-risk students, focused on the meaninglessness that some students experience when at school. He found that many students were alienated because of the sequential nature of instruction. It is assumed that most complex processes can be taught through sequential, logical and systematic teaching. However, students, who fail to attend on day one, come back and are confused by what is happening on day two, become frustrated and skip day three, return on day four to more confusing instructions and a request for work from day one, and a warning not to fail on day five, are not going to find school a meaningful experience (Donlan, 1990).

He introduced into his classroom a strategy he called "The entire curriculum in an hour". It focused on making each lesson a complete entity, including a full range of activities, such as reading, writing, listening and speaking. Each lesson would also include literature, language and composition and one or two pieces to be graded on the spot. This method was employed with students who were absent a lot, who refused to do any homework, who had short attention and memory spans and who required routine yet also variation. He found this method successful, in that the discipline problems became less and attendance increased.

This approach, of attending to meaninglessness through adapting the curriculum, is also popular, because it is usually the cheapest and simplest to implement. Many teachers are able to take what they have to teach and adapt it to the situation. Most teachers do this everyday in their classrooms, and are able to do this for a special group of students who are at-risk of dropping out through problem behaviours, persistent absenteeism or failure.

The dimension of meaninglessness is tackled not only at the individual or classroom level but also at a whole school level of intervention. An example of this is of a high school in Australia described by Power (1986) who introduced an alternative vocational education program. This was initially introduced into years 11 and 12, then year 8 and finally years 9 and 10. These courses were designed to help those students who were deemed to be at risk of becoming alienated whilst at school and who would probably face difficulties in the transition from school to work. The courses focused on teaching life skills, vocational education and personal development as well as some basic competencies. It sought both to make school more relevant to the students and foster a greater sense of belonging. A study of the year 8 students by a local university, however, found that although the classes had been successful in improving students self-esteem and attitudes towards school, the intellectual needs of the students were at present being imperfectly met.

However, another study of alienated adolescents in educational programs associated with detention centres (Stone, 1997) has demonstrated that unless the affective dimension is addressed first, it is impossible to meet intellectual needs. Ideally, all the needs of an adolescent should be met.

From alienation to engagement

One comprehensive Commonwealth report which has described a number of strategies tried throughout Australia is From alienation to engagement by Cumming (1996). This is a report of the Student Alienation During the Middle Years of Schooling Project which was started in 1994 and involved 17 schools as well as three field studies, two in city school districts in Adelaide, Melbourne and another in the West Australian rural based Geraldton. Much of the research under review in the report is school based research, with teams of teachers working in partnership with external researchers, using an action research model. The main objective of the project was to explore the nature of alienation in the middle years of schooling, that is from age 10 to 14, and to trial and evaluate programs and approaches designed to cater more effectively for different learning styles.

Many of the strategies tried were in response to issues associated with student alienation, such as irrelevance of the curriculum, discipline problems, and absenteeism. Strategies for intervention included making the curriculum more relevant for students, negotiating curriculum content with students, integrating the students' concerns within the curriculum, allowing students to participate in decision making processes, empowering students to take responsibility for their own actions, and on an organizational level creating a middle schooling structure.

The outcomes showed the complexity of the issue of adolescent alienation. Individual changes to the curriculum, teaching methods, and school organization and environment were not conducive to sustained change. Teachers involved in the reforms found that initiating and sustaining improvements was a long-term and difficult task. Teacher research was work intensive and time consuming and the quality of the outcomes was influenced by the nature and extent of training and support that was provided for the participants.

The programs that proved to be most successful were those in school communities that had a shared vision for helping adolescents and where the principal was an active participant, through advocating, negotiating and supporting greater organizational flexibility in the school. The report recommended further research into the area of holistic approaches to middle schooling and that further extensive school-based research be undertaken in order to empower teachers to transform the middle years and to meet the learning needs of students during these years.

Successful programs

Throughout the literature the most successful programs have some common characteristics. They have focused on the adolescent and acknowledged that the school has a dual role to play in addressing the needs of adolescents. The school staff have recognized that the school is part of the problem, but have also recognized that they can make a difference (Harte, 1995). Programs that have tried to address the four dimensions of alienation as defined by Mau (1992) have also proved successful, but have only been sustained where they have met with the committed participation of the principal (Cumming, 1996).

Holistic approaches have been most successful, that is strategies that have involved the whole school, and all different areas of the school, such as the administration, teaching staff, pastoral staff, parents and the community (Baker & Sansone, 1990; Cumming, 1996). From the students' point of view the programs that have been most successful have been those that have improved students' sense of belonging, which is the positive rubric for Mau's (1992) social estrangement; allowed students to actively engage in the curriculum, thereby empowering students and addressing the issue of meaninglessness; and have a practical orientation, include some non-school options, such as work experience, pre-vocational and life skills training, which again address the issues of meaninglessness (Cumming, 1996; Dwyer, 1995; Finn, 1989; Power, 1986; Slee, 1991; and others).

The area of alienation that is appears to be least addressed is that of powerlessness. Few interventions offer a real sense of power to the student. Most students are chosen to go into alternative classes, and there is little if any real choice in curriculum and content, this control being held by teachers and school administrators. However, a study by Lewis, Lovegrove and Burman (1991) found that as students matured they were less interested in power sharing, allowing teachers the pre-dominance of decision making, as long as this was balanced with the recognition of the students' basic rights and fairness in treatment. It seems then schools must focus on creating an environment which recognizes both the basic rights and the educationally relevant needs of students and improves their sense of belonging so as to counter feelings of alienation.


With decreasing education budgets and rational economists demanding greater returns for their money it is necessary to consider the sustainability of a program. If schools are going to make a difference in the area of adolescent alienation it is not enough to focus only on successful programmes, programmes need also be sustainable over a period of time.

The issue of resources is important when considering implementing an intervention program for at-risk students (King, 1994). Costs may include extra expenditure for new staff to run the programs, the cost of training, the cost of resources, the cost of additional time from existing staff, and one cost that is often hidden is the cost to volunteers, as many programs are initially run with the help of some volunteer labour. Costs are usually financed from an already stretched education budget and it is helpful to think in terms of a per capita cost analysis, how much is each intervention going to cost per student. These considerations must have an impact when taking into account the outcomes of a program (King, 1994).

Strategies for intervention can only make a difference to alienated adolescents if a clear government policy priority is established that ensures the professional development of teachers and the proper researching of schools (Dwyer, 1996). The Cumming's report (1996) identified three areas that needed greater funding, the middle years of schooling (especially in the area of technology), the individual learning needs of adolescents, and the training and professional development of teachers. There is a need also for schools and those responsible for the education of all, to consider how to most effectively and efficiently use limited resources to better address the needs of all alienated adolescents.


There are now many interventions available in the literature on alienation. Many programs have been tried with adolescents who are alienated from school, or who exhibit one of the behaviours often associated with alienated adolescents, such as failure, violence, disruption, absenteeism, truancy and dropping out. Many of these programs have been designed to fit the needs of the educational institution. However, the most successful programmes are those which focus on the need of the adolescent (Cumming, 1996) and on increasing the adolescent's development of identification with school (Finn, 1989).

In this article we have analyzed some of the intervention programs within a conceptual framework defined by Mau's four dimensions of alienation, that is powerlessness, meaninglessness, social estrangement and normlessness. By focusing on the adolescent's needs and using Mau's constructs teachers may be better able to find intervention strategies that best suit the need of the adolescent.

This conceptual framework may also be used by teachers as a checklist to help them evaluate new programs before costly implementation and to identify missing or inadequate components in their efforts to address adolescent alienation successfully. After all these aliens are not simply visiting us, after which they will go away; rather they are here to stay, and there's another batch waiting in the wings, unless we can design an education system that is truly for all.


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Please cite as: Oerlemans, K. & Jenkins, H. (1998). There are aliens in our school. Issues in Educational Research, 8(2), 117-129.

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