Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Adolescent Academic Avoidance

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Teaching was explained to me as an art form and a mystery. It draws to the fact that the student is a blank canvas waiting to be transformed into a painting; yet the mystery is the artist does not have complete control of how the canvas will transform the paint. Each canvas will take the colors applied by the artist and may change it just a slight shade, or the canvas could be completely resistant to all paints thus remaining blank. It is this blank canvas or resistant student that keeps teachers up at night wondering, “How can I get through to this student?” Is it the pedagogy, or is it that the student has had years of practice of creating academic avoidance strategies? Or more importantly is there a correlation between the two? This is the question that a recent article in The Journal of Educational Psychology entitled “The Classroom Environment and Students’ Reports of Avoidance Strategies in Mathematics A Multimethod Study.”

The researchers observed 1,17 sixth-grade elementary students and 65 sixth-grade classrooms in the Midwestern states to support their hypotheses

It is predicted that perceptions of an emphasis on mastery goals in the classroom are negatively related to the use of avoidance strategies, whereas perceptions of an emphasis on performance in the classroom are positively related to the use of avoidance strategies…It is also expected that nonsupportive instructional motivational discourse will be associated with higher reports of avoidance strategies with perceptions of a performance goal structure. (Turner, et. al. 00 p.1)

The researchers seemed to approach the constructivist philosophy as a potential panacea to student avoidant behaviors. These hypotheses are in support of the teacher who is focused on the classroom’s zone of proximal development. This means the teacher supports scaffolding transference and encourages student autonomy (Ibid p.10). One might agree that making learning relevant through the setting of goals, creating student dialogue and molding students to become thinkers as opposed to performers should be a goal that teachers set for their students.

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During the course of the research they did find that “[s]tudents reported using avoidance strategies significantly less in classrooms perceived as emphasizing learning, understanding, effort and enjoyment” (Ibid p. 10). So while this supported the researchers initial hypothesis, they could not demonstrate that a classroom environment perceived to be performance centered using less personalized motivational tactics did not necessarily lessen student avoidant behaviors.

Unfortunately, as a teacher learning and incorporating constructivist practices in my classroom, I was disappointed to see that the hypotheses were not supported. Often I have observed that when I give instruction the student cannot completely grasp or is resistant to the concept I am trying to impart; however, when the student returns to his/her peers and receives the same suggestions, albeit in a different level of language, how to better understand the concept, I have seen the student thrive and continue the assignment reinvigorated. Before I read this article, I was sure that through a democratic pedagogy where the teacher is perceived as a supportive facilitator as opposed to a dictator of answers students would in fact display fewer reasons to not accomplish goals set for them.

Additionally the article left me with many questions about the role of educational psychology in creating blanket practices to avoid student apathy. While I believe it is the teacher’s job to learn about and model motivation, I wonder how can teachers find a formulaic approach to motivate their students? This is where I thought the study lacked a lot of impact. While they addressed the ethnic make-up of the students, there was little in the way of individualized factors among the students. Diversity in learning is not just subjected to racial, ethnic or class background, but rather each student brings with them different values and traumas. How can a teacher compensate for these factors in a diverse classroom?

While this study affirmed my lofty expectations and desire to work towards a democratic pedagogy, it also reaffirmed to me that I will have to be vigilant in monitoring what it takes to motivate the individual student.

Turner, Julianne C. et. al. (00). The Classroom Environment and Students’ Reports of Avoidance Strategies in Mathematics A Multimethod Study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 4, 88 � 106.

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