Conducting educational research – are teens more problematic?

I recently conducted a small-scale exploratory study with some year 12 students. I wasn’t totally sure of what I really wanted to accomplish with the study or what to expect but I hoped that I could at least try to establish relationships between a number of different measures.

There were two main points I was particularly interested in:

1. If students could choose their own target grade, how close would this be to their actual target grade?

2. How do the constructs of Academic Self Concept (ASC), Academic Buoyancy (AB) and Implicit theories of Intelligence (Mindset) relate both to each other and the accuracy of target grade predictions?

The three constructs were measured using established and validated likert-scale questionnaires and were administered to 41 year 12 students following the completion of consent procedures.

There was an anticipation that the three constructs would correlate significantly and that those who scored highly on all three constructs would be more accurate with their target prediction. However, while there was a small positive correlation between ASC and Mindset (i.e. those participants who scored highly on the measure of ASC were more likely to have ‘growth mindsets’), none of the other measures appeared to correlate. Furthermore, the majority of target predictions formed a cluster around the “C” grade.

As I’ve already mentioned, this was very much an exploratory study using a small unrepresentative sample. Nevertheless, the results did get me thinking about a number of problems related to carrying out studies with teenagers and their self-concepts, and while this might not be directly related to the task in hand (and certainly won’t explain the results) I began to look back on a previous, half-abandoned project on teenage self concept.

As most parents of teenagers will confirm, adolescence brings with it a period of heightened self-consciousness unseen in younger children. Teenagers become overly, at times almost pathologically, preoccupied with the way in which others interpret their actions and behaviour. In developmental psychology terms this is known as egocentrism and is considered a normal healthy stage of development.

The American developmental psychologist and writer David Elkind expanded on this idea in the 1960’s in a manner that allows us to at least attempt an explanation for the seemingly egocentric nature of teenagers. Once children are able to distinguish between their own thoughts and the thoughts of others (often referred to as mentalizing) they become preoccupied with the fear that the thoughts of other people are focussed on their own behaviour and appearance – what Eldkind calls the imaginary audience. The imaginary audience is seen by the teenager as scrutinising their every move, being critical of their behaviour – the way they dress or their haircut and so on. This fear leads to increase in self-consciousness in terms of the ways in which others (especially their peers) see them. Of course the view held by the teenager is more likely to be imagined than having any existence within reality, nevertheless, it is real for them and no amount of persuasion will convince them otherwise.  A related concept, according to Elkind, is that of the personal fable. Personal Fable describes the teenagers obsession with their own uniqueness and the belief that they are in some way special, leading to the view that ‘nobody understands me’. While Elkinds’ theory has been expanded and developed since the 1960’s we can already see how the way in which teenagers behave is closely linked to the way in which they are developing socially and emotionally.

More recently, researchers have suggested that the these twin concepts of imaginary audience and personal fable represent the teenagers search for identity in the midst of a rapidly changing set of social circumstances – greater independence, the move from primary to secondary education and the increase in pressure from parents and peers. When the young teenager begins to development close relationships outside the family she finds herself torn between her new social life and the desire to remain connected to the family, leading perhaps to anxiety and fixation on one to the detriment of the other. While we can attempt to support the teenager and suggest that she divide her time equally between the two, there is a real possibility that her egocentrism and centration prevents her from dealing with, what is to her, a major all-consuming dilemma. In order to resolve this dilemma our teen is likely to engage in daydreaming as way of placing herself within a number of different social contexts and interactions involving various groups of others, simultaneously she may also employ the concept of personal fable (the emphasis on her uniqueness) as means to separate herself from her family. Indeed this complex and often agonising search for identity may lead to periods where the teenager separates himself from both his family and his own social groups, and while such behaviour may seem unusual, it is rarely detrimental.

So what impact (if any) does this have on the researcher who has chosen teenagers at their focus? My concern is that the objectivity of any self-completed questionnaire is compromised even if basic criteria regarding anonymity and confidentiality are adhered to. There might be a danger that teenagers will attempt to safeguard their self-esteem even with the guarantee that no other person will have access to their personal results. High achieving teenagers might be reluctant, therefore, to accurately reflect their ability for fear of being seen as arrogant while others might not want to underestimate their ability for fear of being seen as stupid. As many researchers in the areas of ASC and related concepts rely heavily on the use of such measures, do we need to question the validity of any results.

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