Don't forget the confidence factor

6th November 1998 at 00:00
How can we expect higher educational standards if we pay so little attention to child psychology, asks Patricia Broadfoot

The impending publication of GCSE and A-level performance tables has made me think of those superficially less-significant school reports which most young people received in the summer. Although they lack the strategic importance of public exam results, the impact of the different subject grades on a pupil, coupled with a range of other assessments and comments, can be just as significant.

At the end of last term, like hundreds of thousands of other parents, we received the statutory annual report for our 10-year-old daughter. As required by the Government it contained "brief particulars" of progress in each national curriculum subject. However, it also contained, as schools have discretion to do, her teacher's assessment of her "effort" in each subject.

Presumably, the thinking is that parents will either be reassured, where the school deems effort to have been "excellent"; or will do something about their recalcitrant offspring where it is not. And yet my normally happy-go-lucky 10-year-old was reduced to tears by her report. It judged her effort to have been "B" in most subjects ("works conscientiously most of the time") - rather than "A" ("trying her best at all times").

Several classmates had a similar reaction. Surprisingly perhaps, it was the judgments about effort, rather than achievement, that upset them.

Despite all the talk of raising standards in primary schools, and Government initiatives designed to improve teaching quality, remarkably little attention seems to be given to learning and the motivation that underpins it.

Motivation, as anyone who has ever tried to make a child do something they don't want to do, makes all the difference. However, the emphasis on measures such as national tests is, arguably, actively undermining the potential of many children to succeed. This is because confidence is crucial to learning, A recent major review of research into the connection between assessment and learning (1) shows an incontrovertible link between how pupils perceive themselves as learners and their subsequent capacity to achieve. It suggests that pupils whose belief in themselves is eroded by negative feedback from teachers soon learn that it is better not to try -then they can avoid experiencing the sense of failure associated with doing their best and not succeeding.

Further evidence to this effect comes from a long-term study of individual primary pupils at Bristol University. We have documented how pupils gradually come to view themselves in a particular light (2). Even before they leave primary school, a significant number have decided that they are not "brainy" and have largely stopped trying. This tendency appears to be increasing, as more emphasis is placed on formal testing and the reporting of comparative results.

In England, we expect children's levels of "ability" to show a considerable range and it does. In other countries where all children are expected to master a given set of objectives each year, this range is much less (3).

My Bristol colleagues Andrew Pollard and Ann Filer (4) have documented how children's efforts may vary from year to year depending on their relationship with the teacher and, especially, how far she is able to give them confidence in their own ability.

As a society we are increasingly recognising that an individual's capacity to perform (in sport or at work) depends largely on how they feel about the situation they find themselves in. And yet, ironically, in the world of education, remarkably little attention seems to be given to the impact of pupils' psychological state on their capacity to learn.

By contrast there is much talk of "ability". This is a profoundly unhelpful concept which is rooted in the now largely debunked practice of intelligence testing. Nevertheless its legacy allows our education system to fail too many pupils by convincing both them and their teachers that their apparent inability to make progress is due to some innate limitations.

We need to recognise that what makes one child a keen and successful student and another passive and relatively less-successful has at least as much to do with that pupil's emotional intelligence as it does with more well-recognised intellectual abilities. Each of us could produce an anecdote about an individual judged to be a failure at school who later revealed unrecognised talents.

As we struggle to define what Tony Blair's "third way" means for education, a central theme ought to be how to prepare young people to want to be effective and active lifelong learners. This will mean schools and teachers taking as much responsibility for the level of a pupil's effort as they currently do for achievement.

It means being sensitive to the devastating effect even a positive, but relatively critical, assessment of an individual's effort can have on a generally well-motivated and successful child like my daughter. It means recognising that the quality of our learning is inseparably related to how we feel about it.

Patricia Broadfoot is professor of education at The Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.

"Even before they leave primary school, a significant number decide they are not brainy"

1 Black, P and Wiliam, D (1998) Inside the Black Box available from King's College, University of London School of Education

2 The final report of The Primary Assessment, Curriculum and Experience (PACE) project which ran from 1989 to 1997.

3 The Quality of Primary Education: Children's Experiences of Schooling in England and France (QUEST) project - report also available from the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

4 The Social World of Children's Learning by Andrew Pollard with Ann Filer, Cassell 1996

Aldershot, Ashgate.

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