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?