Pupil motivation has more impact on success than socioeconomic status, McKinsey finds

Students need a grounding in direct instruction before they can progress to inquiry-based learning, says new McKinsey report on Pisa data

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Pupils’ mindsets have significantly more influence on their levels of attainment than their socioeconomic background, a new analysis suggests.

And giving teachers a computer to use in the classroom is far more effective than giving similar technology to pupils, the study shows.

This was found to be true across all income levels and geographical regions.

Analysts from the management consultancy firm McKinsey and Company examined the results of 15-year-old pupils in the 27 EU countries and 12 non-EU countries that participated in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study.

“Europe is a large and diverse region,” the analysts write in their report, “and the Pisa results reflect this, with performance ranging from poor to great.”

What motivation looks like

However, there were a number of consistent findings. Across Europe, pupils’ mindset explained a greater proportion of their Pisa score (29 per cent) than their home environment.

In other regions, too, mindset had between double and triple the effect of home environment on Pisa results. “Mindsets matter everywhere,” the McKinsey analysts say.

Certain types of mindset were particularly effective. Those pupils who were able to identify what motivation looks like in day-to-day life – including doing more than is expected, and working on tasks until everything is perfect – were the most likely to succeed. This was true even when controlled for socioeconomic status, location and type of school.

Pupils who had a strong sense of belonging to their school, who had low test anxiety and who believed that schoolwork would be useful for their future careers also performed well, as did those who believed that they would succeed with sufficient hard work.

“To be clear, mindsets alone cannot overcome economic and social barriers,” the analysts say. “Our research does, however, suggest that mindsets matter a great deal, particularly for those living in the most challenging circumstances.”

'Too little teacher-directed instruction'

The analysts also found that pupils performed best when taught through a mix of teacher-directed and inquiry-based instruction. If all European pupils were taught using a combination of these two methods, they say, their average Pisa scores would be between 3.7 and 4.2 per cent higher: equivalent to more than half a school year’s worth of learning.

“Currently, over half of European students are receiving too little teacher-directed instruction,” the McKinsey report states.

“Students cannot progress to inquiry-based methods without a strong foundation of knowledge, gained through teacher-directed instruction.”

And while the analysts found that use of technology at home was associated with the highest performance in science tests among 15-year-olds – even after controlling for socioeconomic status – the same correlation between technology use and high results did not exist at school.

Instead, the impact of technology use among pupils during the school day was mixed: between -16 per cent and 12 per cent, depending on the type of hardware used.

More significantly, the analysts found that giving the technology to teachers to use was far more effective than giving it to pupils. In non-EU countries, adding one teacher computer per classroom had more than 10 times the impact of adding a computer for pupils to the same classroom.

“We believe that these three findings provide important insights into how students succeed,” the analysts say, “and that European educators should incorporate them into their school-improvement programmes to deliver the progress that their students deserve.”

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