Facilitating Learning

Studies have shown that children tend to lose interest in learning as they progress through school (e.g., Brush, 1980; Eccles and Midgley, 1990; Harter, 1981, 1996). Also, over time children appear to decrease their beliefs that they can learn well, that they can perform well, and that they can behave well (Simmons et al., 1973). Research addressing the processes that contribute to such perceptions among children and youth was the focus of several workshop participants.

Workshop participant Carol Dweck, of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, reported on her research on children and motivation. Her research examines the factors that cause some children to avoid risk and to break down in the face of a challenge, while others, who might not be thought of as academically talented, seek challenge, enjoy effort, and maintain effective strategies to deal with difficult tasks. Dweck’s research clearly shows that intellectual ability is not a sufficient explanation of these observed differences.

These orientations are not individual traits or characteristics but rather learned ways of approaching challenging tasks. Opportunities and reinforcements provided in classrooms and the teaching and management styles of teachers likely influence these orientations. Research points to ways in which school may unintentionally encourage a helpless orientation in some students and how school policies and practices might be reformed to emphasize a mastery orientation toward the acquisition of academic skills and achievement, according to Dweck. In many ways, schools increase students’ fear of failure. Incentives or material rewards



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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop Facilitating Learning Studies have shown that children tend to lose interest in learning as they progress through school (e.g., Brush, 1980; Eccles and Midgley, 1990; Harter, 1981, 1996). Also, over time children appear to decrease their beliefs that they can learn well, that they can perform well, and that they can behave well (Simmons et al., 1973). Research addressing the processes that contribute to such perceptions among children and youth was the focus of several workshop participants. Workshop participant Carol Dweck, of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, reported on her research on children and motivation. Her research examines the factors that cause some children to avoid risk and to break down in the face of a challenge, while others, who might not be thought of as academically talented, seek challenge, enjoy effort, and maintain effective strategies to deal with difficult tasks. Dweck’s research clearly shows that intellectual ability is not a sufficient explanation of these observed differences. These orientations are not individual traits or characteristics but rather learned ways of approaching challenging tasks. Opportunities and reinforcements provided in classrooms and the teaching and management styles of teachers likely influence these orientations. Research points to ways in which school may unintentionally encourage a helpless orientation in some students and how school policies and practices might be reformed to emphasize a mastery orientation toward the acquisition of academic skills and achievement, according to Dweck. In many ways, schools increase students’ fear of failure. Incentives or material rewards

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop for achievement may communicate the wrong message to students and may decrease their effort. Praise of achievement rather than effort may run counter to developing an appreciation for learning in students, as it may cause a child to believe that intelligence comes in fixed amounts and that the goal in academic settings is to document it. Ultimately, this sets the child up for a helpless attribution when faced with challenging tasks. Workshop participants were also concerned with the current self-esteem movement among educators and how this might, paradoxically, develop a helpless orientation in students. There was concern that by misrepresenting children’s abilities, educators make them vulnerable to a helpless attribution when they fail. Dweck suggested that educators should not deny that there are skill differences among children. She recommends that educators praise children for their efforts to achieve, using a form of praise that would not require them to misrepresent a child ’s skill level. In a context in which teachers praise student effort (instead of student achievement), children do not fall apart when they are told they have skill deficits. Dweck’s research is also relevant to the controversy surrounding tracking and its negative effects. Taking an approach that emphasizes learning as a process of continual skill enhancement, educators could envision tracked sections as fluid and temporary. As such, students flow in and out of tracked sections as their skills improve. Students are not stuck in tracks, and tracks do not dictate a child’s future academic course. This conception of tracking might have the added benefit of lifting much of the stigma associated with low-tracked sections. In addition, more students may benefit from a structure in which they can seek temporary, focused assistance with especially challenging academic tasks, according to Dweck. RESEARCH ON MASTERY AND HELPLESS ORIENTATIONS Two orientations toward challenging academic tasks emerge from the research of Dweck and colleagues—mastery and helplessness. Her research has examined the psychological underpinnings of these orientations and how they unfold as children are confronted with failure in intellectual achievement situations. Mastery-oriented students approach challenging tasks as a chance to learn—an opportunity to gain new skills and expand knowledge. Children with a mastery orientation believe that intelligence is something one cultivates—a potential that one can fulfill and develop over time. These children believe that everyone can become more skilled through effort, hard work, and persistence. For them academic tasks measure their present skills only. These views free children up for learning.

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop Children with a helpless orientation behave differently. Dweck found that when such children fail at a task, they blame their ability and downgrade their intellectual self-evaluation. Furthermore, these children give a negative prognosis of their own intellectual performance. By contrast, when mastery-oriented students fail at a task, they become more task focused, intensify their efforts, and give themselves positive feedback and instructions. Mastery-oriented students show more positive affect after a failure, saying things like “I love a challenge.” Dweck concluded that students with a helpless orientation attribute failure to themselves. In their academic work these students emphasize performing well and documenting their competence and try to avoid situations where they might be challenged academically. Children with a helpless orientation see intelligence as a fixed trait and believe that each test and each academic challenge measures not only their current skills but also their global intelligence and future intelligence. Believing in intelligence as a fixed trait sets these children up for failure and makes them vulnerable to feelings of helplessness. OTHER PERSPECTIVES A somewhat different approach to motivational issues has been adopted and applied in the research of Doris Entwisle, of the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. A life course perspective adds a depth of understanding that would not have been possible were it not for the attention paid to development and transition and the contingencies imposed by particularly stressful environmental contexts. Using the life course perspective, the research of Entwisle and her colleagues (1997) has uncovered factors that play an essential role in school performance—factors that are missed by research that does not take into consideration developmental issues. In their research on the influence of employment on school completion among a sample of students in Baltimore, they discovered that there are different patterns of work behavior for students who drop out of school. Traditionally, the relationship between school and work was thought to operate in only one direction—work undermines school performance, causing students to drop out. According to Entwisle, this is an oversimplified explanation. Findings from the Baltimore study indicate that the work patterns of those who are permanent dropouts are different from those who drop out of school temporarily. While students who work many hours a week are at high risk of dropping out of school, they are less likely than students who acquire jobs with good pay to become permanent dropouts. Entwisle theorized that the better-paid students may believe they are fortunate to have decent jobs and may opt to sacrifice

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop education credentials to build up the human capital and work experience valued by employers in the sales, clerical, and craft sectors of the job market. Other findings from the Baltimore study demonstrate the impact of short-term disruptions in school attendance (e.g., summer vacation) on academic skills. These disruptions may contribute, over time, to poor school achievement (Entwisle et al., 1997). Examining seasonal learning patterns and performance on standardized reading and math tests, Entwisle found that students in Baltimore performed at about the same level, regardless of socioeconomic status (SES). However, when children were tested after returning from summer vacation, the middle- and low-SES group (at or below the poverty level) had virtually no gains in scores compared with the high-SES group, who experienced substantially higher scores (nearly 47 points). The researchers found that sustaining and augmenting academic gains during the summer is very much influenced by a student’s socioeconomic background. Factors like parent and teacher expectations of student academic performance and the material resources (e.g., games, trips) that high-SES parents can provide may be the reasons for these differences. According to Entwisle, high-SES parents seem to be more able to provide depth and an extra dimension to their children’s education, which help to sustain their level of learning over the summer months. Summer instruction and remedial help alone, however, may not close the gap between low- and high-SES children (Carter, 1983, 1984; Entwisle et al., 1997; Klibanoff and Haggart, 1981). Summer school for low-SES youngsters has not worked (Entwisle et al., 1997). Some very elaborate programs have shown no effects (Carter, 1983, 1984; Klibanoff and Haggart, 1981). Summer programs may also fail to the extent that they are perceived as stigmatizing. Schools are segregated on the basis of race and social class partly as a consequence of residential separation. In tracing the historical roots of urban education, Kantor and Brenzel (1993:373) have noted: As the pace of suburbanization accelerated after 1950, distancing the white middle class from the city, the class and racial composition of city schools was altered, and the connection between race, income, and school location was tightened. In the process, city schools became more and more associated with low educational achievement, and the inequities between city and suburban schools became more clearly marked. Margaret Beale Spencer, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, noted a serious limitation in the literature on student school performance in its disregard of the unique needs of urban minority students. The primary problem with this literature is the lack of attention

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop paid to developmental processes and how they matter to young people who are often growing up in high-risk environments. For example, there is very little treatment of the issue of racial stigma as it relates to the development of black children. Spencer argued that without a clear sense of the complexity of child development, researchers do not always ask the right questions or use the appropriate methods. From Spencer’s research among black preschool students, important thematic findings have emerged that are relevant to school performance and student resiliency. She defines resiliency as good outcomes (e.g., academic success) in a context of risk. This definition highlights the importance of context and that there is sometimes a less than ideal match between individuals and their environments. According to Spencer, in practical terms this means that individuals in high-risk environments must deal with stresses that others with whom they are being compared (e.g., regarding academic performance) do not experience. Research that compares these groups is inadequate if it does not take into account the differences imposed by high-risk settings. Spencer’s research findings indicate that racial and cultural identities contribute to positive school outcomes among black children in preschool and primary school (Spencer and Markstrom-Adams, 1990). Children with a positive racial identity were better able to understand racism and values concerning color and race and to maintain a healthy sense of self. Spencer asserted that racial identity may have a positive long-term effect on children. In conducting a follow-up study with this group of children (at ages 6 to 12) Spencer found that children with a positive racial identity had fewer behavior problems and psychopathology (Spencer, 1986); this she attributes to their greater ability to handle the stress of dealing with their identity in a hostile society. Spencer argued that children who receive no race socialization or training are at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the stress associated with racial stigma. She suggested that children without a strong sense of racial identity develop what she refers to as a “reactive racial identity.” Children with a “reactive racial identity” realize that identifying with a group is important, and they know that society sees them as being part of a group; they do not, however, have a deep structured understanding of what it means to claim a specific racial identity. According to Spencer, not only does this leave the child with slim resources for dealing with stress, it can also have a devastating impact on school outcomes and academic performance when, for example, students associate performing well in school with “acting white.” Parents are largely responsible for racial socialization and training. Most of the children in the study did not, however, receive race training from their parents. There is also evidence from Spencer’s research that “reactive racial

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop identity” encourages what she calls a hypermasculine orientation. It is characterized by a heightened state of readiness seen as necessary to keep the threat inherent in high-risk environments (both psychic and physical) to a minimum. Hypermasculinity may be manifest in aggressive behavior or bravado and is, for those who adopt it, a means of protecting their mental and emotional health. A hypermasculine orientation becomes patterned over time as identity, which then becomes linked to opportunities and outcomes that can be either adverse or productive. Adverse outcomes undermine successive stages of development throughout the life course. In a random sample of 561 (70 percent male) young people involved in a summer academy designed to furnish academic support to failing students, Spencer found that the young men who elected to participate in an outdoor program for 2 weeks scored higher on help-seeking and help-accepting behaviors than their cohorts who chose not to participate (controlling for scores at baseline on these measures). The temporary separation of these youth from the high-risk environment that encouraged a hypermasculine response as a coping mechanism was the reason for the change in help-seeking and help-accepting behaviors, according to Spencer. Spencer called on educators to confront issues of racial identity and to realize their impact on school performance. As children mature, they become aware of teachers’ perceptions of their behavior. According to Spencer, black children often respond to negative feedback by adopting an oppositional stance. By the middle school years their social bonds to school may weaken as a response to what they perceive as a hostile, stigmatizing environment. In doing this, children turn off opportunities for learning and advancement. Over time this causes them to fall further and further behind in school. Spencer encouraged the development of alternative theoretical frameworks that are sensitive to the context of developmental processes for minority children. Educators and researchers should not adopt models that assume that all children’s development and the environments they grow up in are alike, she observed. Intervention strategies should reflect the realization that minority children carry a burden associated with being identified as a minority. Researchers should put aside their discomfort in dealing with issues of marginality and race and examine the consequences of growing up in a high-risk context. Workshop participants emphasized the point that resiliency abounds in most risk-filled environments. The most vexing problem for researchers and those who design and implement programs is identifying the factors, deliverable through an intervention, that enhance resiliency. There is some indication from research that what may work best for mi-

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EDUCATION AND DELINQUENCY: Summary of a Workshop nority children in high-risk contexts are programs that are multidimensional and culturally sensitive. Spencer described a program in Philadelphia that provides training and education to students in special-education classes using monetary incentives and employment to encourage academic achievement. Graduation rates in this program are 94 percent, whereas the graduation rate in the school system in general is 35 percent. A month following graduation, 93 percent of program students were engaged in full-time stable employment. Evaluation of this program is ongoing.