Why is it that some pupils achieve and others don’t? I have briefly touched on some of these both in this blog and elsewhere and I remain a fervent believer that the handicapping of academic achievement is as much caused by external (social) factors as it by internal (e.g. genetics/personality) factors. I have discussed issues such as social class and cultural capital before, so I want now to turn to more psychological factors that might impact on success and failure within a school setting.
The contributions of psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh have been somewhat neglected by educators, especially in the UK. Even though Herb Marsh is director of the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre at Oxford University and is probably one of the most prolific researchers into the study of academic self-concept, his theories (supported by a wealth of empirical data) have generally failed to permeate down into the classroom. Similarly, while Martin has become highly influential in the area of student motivation in his native Australia, few UK teachers are aware of his contribution.
Martin views academic achievement in evolutionary terms – achievement and success is something that evolves through our constant attempts to learn. During this process students will encounter both success and failure and future achievement is, in part, influenced by how we react to this. Such success includes things like marks, literacy, numeracy, effort, persistence, engagement, participation, cooperation, etc. and a students’ mastery of all or some of these have a cumulative effect on future success. Therefore, those students who make gains early on continue to sustain and increase those gains while those students who are slow to master them have a harder time catching up – essentially, the stronger get ever stronger while the weaker only get weaker. This phenomenon in education has been described as the ‘Matthew Effect’ by psychologist Keith Stanovich, specifically in relation to reading where Stanovich states:
“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do”
(in Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
So how do students succeed and why do some fail?
In the same way, failure can also be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’
Furthermore, Martin has developed what he described at the ‘The Motivation and Engagement Wheel’, an attempt to integrate the psychological influences on success and failure. Positive thoughts and positive behaviours logically lead to a higher degree of success as well as increased resilience and buoyancy (the ability to bounce back following set-backs and the ability to see failure more positively). Negative thoughts (such as anxiety and uncertain control) and negative behaviours (such as self-handicapping) not only lead to academic underachievement, they also sustain it.
Although Martin never explicitly relates his work to Dweck’s Mindset theory, integrating Dweck’s view of implicit theories of intelligence would certainly complement and extend the work of both Martin and Dweck. For those unfamiliar with implicit theories of intelligence, Carol Dweck has suggested that individuals tend to hold specific views concerning the nature of intelligence. These implicit theories of intelligence are described as either entity theories (where individuals view intelligence as innate and academic ability as fixed and beyond their control) or incremental (where individuals view academic ability as malleable and based on effort rather than innate ability). If we view entity theories as maladaptive cognitions and incremental theories as adaptive cognitions, we can assume an evolutionary path from the former to the latter (and sticking to the principle that thoughts influence behaviour) we can attempt to move our students away from destructive negative self-concepts towards more adaptive ways of thinking.
Part of our roles as teachers should be to identify and attempt to correct these maladaptive views of self in relation to learning. Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary and cumulative nature of motivation, engagement and self-concept, for many teachers (especially at secondary level) the damage becomes more difficult to repair as learners have already established fairly concrete views of themselves and have fallen so far behind their peers that ‘catching up’ seems impossible.
Within a culture obsessed with ranking children against their peers and schools against each other, we perhaps begin to lose sight of the individuals in our classrooms. Martin suggests that pupils should be measured against themselves, in terms of ‘personal bests’ (PB) in the same that athletes not only rank themselves against others but also rank their current performance against their previous performance.
Allowing pupils (especially the ones more vulnerable to negative self belief) to view their own progress far from the spotlight of others’ success could provide the first step on the road to overcoming the negative consequences of failure.