Monthly Archives: May 2013

Can your students float?

In recent years education has started to investigate the rather complex topic of ‘resilience’ in academic achievement. Much of this research is looking at how certain groups (for example, pupils with learning7855033-man-floating-with-life-vest difficulties or ethnic minority groups) deal with adversity within an educational setting. While definitions of resilience vary, it is widely assumed that the term refers to an individual’s capacity to deal with acute and chronic adversities which can be seen as major assaults on the ability to succeed.

Of equal importance is an insight into how our students cope with the pressures of day-to-day academic life – everything from coping with minor setbacks and dips in motivation to being awarded a low grade on a piece of homework.

Academic ‘buoyancy’ describes a students’ ability to cope and bounce back from these everyday pressures and setbacks. While some may argue that academic resilience is synonymous with academic buoyancy, the distinction does provide a useful way of separating the ‘big’ issues (such as gender, ethnicity and special needs requirements) from those ‘seemingly’ insignificant issues that appear to be influenced by individual personality factors rather than more wide-ranging global ones.

As educators we often overlook the impact of minor setbacks on our students and how such seemingly insignificant factors (such a low grade on an essay or the frustration a student feels at their assumed inability to meet or exceed a target grade) can negatively effect their self-esteem and academic self-concept. Andrew Martin of the University of Sydney and his colleagues have suggested that academic buoyancy can be predicted through the identification of five motivational factors: confidence (self-efficiency), coordination (planning), commitment (persistence), composure (low anxiety) and control (low uncertain control). It would be assumed that the level of academic buoyancy would then relate directly to academic achievement seeing as buoyancy is more concerned with isolated poor grades and dips in academic performance rather than chronic underachievement. The extent to which one is related to the other (i.e. does it make a significant difference?) would certainly prove to be an interesting area of investigation and could pave the way for useful intervention protocols.

All this suggests that academic achievement is as much about personality as it is about any kind of innate intelligence or inborn academic ability (a view supported by Harvard University psychologist Carol Dweck in terms of her ‘implicit theories of intelligence’) and that those educators who primarily teach older adolescents have to overcome factors within students that might have been instilled at a much earlier stage in their education. A second related conundrum would be the precise environment in which such concepts arise and how much a student’s academic self-concept is moulded through the educational system itself.

The prickly issue here is the possibility that what we as teachers ‘do’ in the classroom might have less of an impact on learning than we would like to believe and that the student is more in control of learning that we are. Doubly problematic is the possibility that our attitude towards learners might have a greater impact on success or failure than how we teach. There is little new here – the consequences of labelling have been widely investigated by the likes of American sociologist Howard Becker for many years, yet education appears to employ strategies that reinforce these possibly damaging practices.

Is it therefore possible that the way we treat our students is far more important than how we teach them? Should we be identifying characteristics within ‘types’ of students (such as academic buoyancy) that could assist in their journey through education and determine to some degree how and why some succeed while others don’t?


Academic Self Concept and Achievement

Why is it that some learners achieve and others don’t? Interestingly we all seem to have our views but, unfortunately, these views have never really solved the problem. Is it something about the learners themselves or something about us as educators? Why is it that boys don’t do as well as girls and Afro-Caribbean boys do worse still? Perhaps it’s something about ‘the system’ and the way it might favour certain groups of learners at the expense of others?

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid (Attributed to) Albert Einstein.


I’m certainly far from convinced that Einstein is responsible for the above quote, but the sentiment is authentic enough. I would also reject the view that the system is deliberately favouring some individuals over others. I would also argue that not everybody could be a genius (at least not in the way we understand the term).

Nevertheless, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that academic achievement is at least in part due to the way in which individuals see themselves as learners. Psychologists refer to this as ‘academic self-concept’, the labels we hang around our necks (and the chips that reside on our shoulders) about how we view ourselves academically and how we think others see us. This could certainly go some way in explaining why the groups we label as underachieving (such as working class boys) continue to underachieve despite a variety of ‘interventions’. Do the interventions themselves simply reinforce the self-concept that says ‘I’m so stupid that my school has to intervene to prevent me from becoming even more stupid’?

More chickens and even more eggs.

ImageOxford University Professor Herbert Marsh has spent decades investigating this very issue. That is, to what extent does academic self-concept predict academic achievement? Problematically, the whole academic self-concept idea also throws up an annoying chicken and egg situation in the guise of the question ‘what came first, the achievement or the self-concept’? In other words, does a low academic self-concept sprout from early academic failure? It appears that the two are intricately entwined and feed off each other.

Does all this really matter anyway?

Yes it does. Each year I see students who should be achieving but are failing to do so. These are usually the ones who employ a variety of tactics to avoid damaging their self-esteem; they miss tests, don’t do homework or blame illness on getting a bad grade on one of the tests they did show up for. This so-called ‘self-handicapping’ is commonplace amongst those who don’t see themselves as academically able. These are the students who will tell you that they’re too stupid for Sixth Form or that they’re going to fail all their exams. Unfortunately, the self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in and low-and-behold they fail all their exams – usually because they saw no point in doing the work because they were going to fail anyway.

Are these learners resistant to convectional interventions?

Unfortunately I have no answer for this (yet). What I do have are many questions with only partial answers.

I’ll have to get back to you as and when this develops.