18 November 2007

A Mastery Girl in a Performance World

The major theory behind my dissertation work is Achievement Goal Theory. Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

I've recently been thinking about this in a bit broader terms. Do schools as entities also put forward a particular goal structure---and what might be the impact to kids? The educational research is replete with studies showing that the greater the performance focus, the greater the student dissatisfaction with school.

Here's a hallway bulletin board from my school:

What does this communicate to you?

Personally, I feel very uncomfortable with the message. "Simple" or "easy" tasks are to be valued. "Good grades" should apparently inspire gratitude---but why? Does this idea reinforce that grades are given via some mystical process, not earned by learning? Are teachers who do these things to be considered "nice"?

I guess I'm just a mastery girl working in a performance school world. It makes me sad to think that messages like the one above are all over the building---and yet the faculty is clueless as to why student dissatisfaction with their experiences at the school increases over time (as indicated by survey data from all three grade levels).

Although my research will be looking at grading practices through the lens of mastery and performance goals, it is certainly not the only area where we as teachers communicate our values and goals to students. What does your classroom and school say about what you value?


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Excellent observations and questions, SG.

One of the associated ironies: scratch an underachiever and you'll often find a kid who values learning and could give a rat's patooka about grades. (I think it's a family trait!)

Maybe we need some more of those Latin mottoes that inspire the nobility of learning for its own sake. You know, inject the concept into school culture.

You've got me seriously thinking about the whole system as it relates to your questions...

The Science Goddess said...

Someone pointed out the idea of a "ghostwalk" last year. You stroll around the school when the kids (and perhaps staff) are gone and see what sorts of impressions are left. In my school, there are no student products in the classrooms and nearly every teacher has an area for publicly posting grades. How very different that school would feel if we had evidence that kids were at the center of things.

Clix said...

Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

Immediate response: "Shyeah. I wish.

Then: "HOW?"

Then: (like Mr. Hooper in Christmas on Sesame Street) "Are you sure?"

The Science Goddess said...

Educational research-wise, it's pretty clear that teachers both set and influence the classroom goal structure. Your expectations and procedures, policies and practices, plans and management are all ways to communicate that structure to your students.

Anecdotally speaking, I'm seeing that a teacher can definitely shift the goal structure. I know I have kids who have performance goals. I hear them wanting to compare scores on tests or try to just copy answers of their neighbor's lab sheet. But I continue to be overt about the value of learning, reinforce it with my grading policy, and so on. As compared to previous years, I have far less overall "performance" behaviors in my classroom.

Anonymous said...

What clix said.

And two more things:

One. I've attended classes at Dartmouth and the Univeristy of Chicago, and graduate classes at Harvard, and most of my fellow students very much valued performance. "What do we have to know for the test?" is very much not limited to high school or to unsuccessful students.

Two. I teach junior honors physics, and I try to run the class on a mastery basis. But just about every one of my students is trying to build a record for their college applications. They care so much about grades. So I try to make my assessments reflect their understanding. But I know I do a very imperfect job.

The Science Goddess said...

Colleges and universities are very much performance oriented---and the literature definitely supports that such a goal structure exists there.

Grades aren't bad things---it's a matter of what they mean or represent. In your class, they may very well represent mastery, based on how you evaluate students.

The bigger question is simply around "What's important?"

Clix said...

Well, actually, SG, yes, I did pick up on your idea that what we do is what produces a culture of mastery... or not. But still: how? What are some of the practices/procedures that lead to mastery rather than performance?

And I'm beggin' ya, don't throw me some koan like "well it's different for every teacher; you must find the mastery culture within yourself" or I'll sit here and POUT. 8^{

The Science Goddess said...

Yes, Grasshopper. The path to true Mastery enlightenment lies within yourself.

Just kidding.

However, without knowing what sorts of practices and procedures you have in place, it's hard to provide useful guidance. How much differentiation do you do? Within a class period, do you provide opportunity for some individual, small group, and whole class work? Do you use varied assessment methods? (The more ways kids have to "show what they know, the greater the mastery emphasis.) Do you use extrinsic rewards for "good" performance? This could be anything from a gold star, to posting grades, to using zeros in the gradebook. The more of these, the less the mastery emphasis. Do you tell your kids outright that in your room, demonstrating learning is what you value most?

The bottom line is the more student-centered the efforts, the more mastery will be emphasized.