Adele Thomas, Associate Professor at Brock University in Ontario Canada, studied current research pertaining to the thoughts children have about their ability and achievement and how these thoughts affect their motivation to learn. Almost all students, she maintains, begin school eagerly and with an innate belief in their ability to master even difficult tasks.
In fact, Thomas reports, most kindergarten or first grade children will actually rank themselves at the top of the class regardless of the way their teacher ranks them. Essentially, children are optimistic about their ability to learn and consider themselves smart.
Thomas notes, however, that by second grade, children become sensitive to social comparisons and tend to measure success by how well they compare to their peers rather than by how much they have actually learned. When students experience difficulty in school and fail to achieve at the rate of their peers, they begin to feel ashamed.
Further, if they are inclined to believe that intelligence is fixed and, therefore, unaffected by effort, they may conclude that they are not as smart as other students. They may also believe that too much effort will be regarded by others as evidence of low ability.
Threat to self-esteem
Those who succumb to this rationale begin to view academic situations as a threat to their self-esteem. They become increasingly concerned with performance rather than with what they learn and this, in turn, can lead to counterproductive behaviors. Defensive strategies used to counteract a student’s fear of failure too often lead to avoidance, minimal effort and a devaluing of the importance of academic tasks. Rather than risk being considered “dumb”, older children in particular would rather be regarded as indifferent or delinquent.
Sometimes children come to believe that they have no control over their achievement; they are described as exhibiting “learned helplessness”.
These children tend to show little enthusiasm, are easily discouraged and do not put forth the effort necessary to be successful in school. Clearly, it is difficult for teachers to turn around children who believe they have no control over how well they do in school, or who feel compelled to protect their self-esteem by not trying hard and not becoming actively involved in learning.
Thomas writes that teachers are unable to protect students from failure. Nevertheless, they need to be able to help children reinterpret and evaluate their experience in a way that is encouraging and helps them avoid the negative consequences of failure.
Thomas notes that in contrast to those with learned helplessness, mastery-oriented learners persist on difficult tasks by trying new strategies and sustaining themselves with positive “self-talk” in which they praise their own efforts and encourage themselves to continue trying.
They take responsibility for their learning and credit success to hard work, skill and ability, and they believe that with continued effort they will succeed in the future.
Research efforts have been made to identify teaching strategies that will discourage the negative reasoning which is at the core of learned helplessness.
Retraining students’ interpretation of their abilities
In an intervention method called “reattribution training”, students are taught a positive self-talk strategy and a more flexible, effective interpretation of their performance and ability.
The procedure used in reattribution training involves:
-Helping students become aware of the way they talk to themselves during difficult tasks.
-Discussing positive and negative attribution: explaining how positive thinking affects our self-esteem and helps us to try harder.
-Modeling (by teacher or peers) of positive attribution during games or puzzles.
(Thomas recommends that teachers avoid success-only tasks – mastery orientation requires ongoing encounters with challenges of moderate difficulty. Contrary to previous beliefs, the small-step, success-only approach to learning does not develop a mastery orientation.
-Practicing this strategy with academic tasks once the positive self-talk routine is familiar.
Importantly, teachers involved in these studies report that even primary students have no difficulty with the concepts of self-talk and attributions. Thomas cautions, however, that reattribution training is not a substitute for appropriate, individualized instruction. Rather, we should ask children to master only those tasks which match their current achievement level.
Thomas also cites research by Brophy et al. indicating that the comments made by teachers in presenting tasks can affect student expectations. Introductory remarks that relate tasks to the interests of the students or teacher, or that lead students to anticipate a pleasant experience in acquiring a skill, encourage a mastery orientation and increase student involvement in the task.
On the other hand, remarks that promise rewards or emphasize the task’s importance in passing a test, for example, or that warn of failure, tend to orient students toward performance in a win-lose situation rather than directing their attention to what they are learning.
Thomas reports that research by Robert Slavin and others indicate that classroom organization practices also communicate different achievement expectations and information about students’ ability.
Competitive classes contribute to fixed concepts of abilities
Competitive classes, which emphasize the “best” student work or which group students by ability, may be partly responsible for developing fixed concepts of intelligence and negative attributions for those not at the very top of the class.
On the other hand, cooperative learning, self-recording contracts and choice of activities all help students develop goal setting skills and encourage involvement with their learning. These methods help the students focus on task mastery.
The ability to learn needs to be understood not as an entity fixed at birth, but rather as something that is acquired incrementally through effort. Studies show that direct teaching through modeling of positive self-talk together with practice on challenging tasks is an effective way to develop a mastery orientation towards learning. However, this training must be carried out over a considerable period of time and the tasks used to challenge the students must be carefully selected to ensure that they are appropriate for the students’ current skill level.
Teachers can also help students acquire a mastery-oriented perception of their ability by discussing their own motivational development – how they took responsibility for their learning without fear of failure.
Group discussion can be helpful in pointing out that success does not necessarily mean finishing first or being able to do things easily. Such discussions help students focus on accomplishments that are based on steady effort. Biographies, used to supplement content area studies, can serve as role models, helping students to understand that high ability or achievement is the result of dedicated persistence on a task.
“Ability and Achievement Expectations: Implications of Research for Classroom Practice” Childhood Education Summer 1989 pp. 235-241 and “Relationships between teachers presentation of classroom tasks and students engagement in those tasks” Journal of Educational Psychology August 1983 Volume 75 Number 4 pp. 544-552.
Published in ERN September/October 1989 Volume 2 Number 4