Conceptions of effort among students, teachers and parents within an English secondary school

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Otago]On: 07 September 2014, At: 23:18Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Conceptions of effort among students,teachers and parents within an Englishsecondary schoolAndrew Stablesa, Kyoko Murakamib, Shona McIntoshb & SusanMartinba University of Roehampton, Roehampton, UKb Education, University of Bath, Bath, UKPublished online: 13 Jan 2014.

    To cite this article: Andrew Stables, Kyoko Murakami, Shona McIntosh & Susan Martin (2014)Conceptions of effort among students, teachers and parents within an English secondary school,Research Papers in Education, 29:5, 626-648, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2013.878376

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  • Conceptions of effort among students, teachers and parents withinan English secondary school

    Andrew Stablesa*, Kyoko Murakamib, Shona McIntoshb and Susan Martinb

    aUniversity of Roehampton, Roehampton, UK; bEducation, University of Bath, Bath, UK

    (Received 21 March 2013; final version received 19 December 2013)

    Effort and ability (understood as potential, intelligence or achievement) areconcepts widely used in the everyday language of schooling in Britain but eachterm lacks clear definition of its use in the school context. Meanwhile, theassessment of effort, alongside that of achievement, remains widespread. Thisarticle reports on an exploratory case study of conceptions of effort among threemajor actors in an English secondary school. Qualitative and quantitative datafrom questionnaires and interviews with teachers, students and parents at anEnglish comprehensive school were collected. Analysis reveals that understand-ings of effort are not uniform. Rather, effort is a shorthand term, which canbe used variably, therefore can be construed as a tool of negotiation, or a formof investment in a set of aims distinctive to each group or individual case. Thereis a strong case for more sustained research into the operationalizing of such keyconcepts in schools and other professional and workplace settings.

    Keywords: effort; ability

    Introduction

    Try not to think of understanding as a mental process at all. For that is the expres-sion which confuses you. But ask yourself, in what sort of case, in what kind of cir-cumstances, do we say, Now I know how to go on (Wittgenstein 1967, S154)

    As part of our going on in school, what does it mean to make an effort? Theassumption is that such concepts have universal, shared meanings. Wittgensteinreminds us that conceptual understanding is always contextual, and that meaningsare always meanings within the contexts of broader language games, or forms oflife. Very little work has been done to date on the construal of key everydayconcepts in professional practice (as opposed to academic discourse), such as theconcepts ability and effort that are part of the everyday language of schooling.Previous research, also funded by the British Academy, showed how trainee teachersfrom different subject backgrounds construed the concepts literacy and numeracysomewhat differently (Stables, Martin, and Arnhold 2004), but in general this hasnot been a recognised focus of educational research.

    The issue of how actors within an institution construe key operating concepts isan important one that deserves much greater research attention. To that end, the

    *Corresponding author. Email: edsawgs@bath.ac.uk

    2014 Taylor & Francis

    Research Papers in Education, 2014Vol. 29, No. 5, 626648, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2013.878376

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    mailto:edsawgs@bath.ac.ukhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2013.878376

  • present research is regarded as an exploratory study. Using one school as a typicalcase (in many key respects), we sought to gain an understanding of how the majoractors within the organisation operationalised effort. The intention was not to clar-ify the meaning of effort as an essentialised concept in order to facilitate its use in,for example, assessment. Rather, we were interested in the degree to which concep-tions cohered, the ways in which they differed and whether those differences wereconsistent between groups of actors (teachers, students and parents). Overall, wewere interested in whether there is a consensus about effort in a school, whetherthat consensus aligns with the meaning accorded to the concept in foundational dis-ciplines, specifically philosophy and psychology, and how different parties construeand operationalise effort for their own purposes and in differing contexts. Finally,the research allowed us to explore suitable research methods for gathering such dataand draw conclusions, albeit provisionally, about the conceptions of effort held bythree different sets of actors.

    Background

    In the everyday language of schooling in Britain, two concepts are widely used thatare regarded with scepticism by academics: one is ability (often as a proxy forintelligence, potential or actual achievement); the other effort. Regarding the for-mer, there is an extensive literature to support the problematisation. In the lattercase, the term simply seems largely to have dropped out of academic usage. Aca-demics, however, ignore at their peril the explanatory power of certain constructs inthe popular and professional imaginations. Without such problematisation, dogmaticassertions can go unchecked. Consider, for example, the following:

    Praising a persons intelligence only decreases the amount of effort that that personwill exert in the future Praising effort leads children to believe that they are in con-trol of their performance So please, stop praising intelligence. (Livanis 2007)

    Livanis assumes that the obvious antidote to assessing intelligence is to assesseffort instead, thus effectively essentialising both concepts. He assumes that Prais-ing effort leads children to believe they are in control of their performance. Whilethese assumptions are highly questionable, the assessment of effort, alongside thatof achievement, remains a very common feature of life in British secondary schools,although we have little idea what exactly different actors mean by the term,let alone whether it remains an intellectually robust and valid construct.

    Much of the recent debate in the US, to which Livanis refers, centres around thework of Carol Dweck who has reported in, inter alia, Scientific American. Dwecksconcern is to replace a fixed mind-set with a growth mind-set (Dweck 1999,2006, 2007; Mueller and Dweck 1998) and one way [of doing this] is by tellingstories about achievements that result from hard work, while simply telling childrenthat they are smart may be counterproductive (retrieved from www.sciam.com 30January, 2008). Whilst Dwecks own approach is more nuanced than that suggestedby Livanis, therefore, it is easy to see how it might be interpreted as a sign thateffort can be seen as a necessary corrective, if not a cure-all. There is an elementof essentialisation of both effort and intelligence here, which the present authors findproblematic, notwithstanding the value of attempting to move assessment and evalu-ation of students from evidence of their merely being smart.

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  • In short, where effort has been a focus of research, it has largely been taken asan unproblematised factor rather than a contested concept. While there is thus littleresearch into student, teacher or parent conceptualisations, there is, however, evi-dence of cultural differences in the extent to which success is ascribed to effort. Thisfalls short of analysis of the concept in use, but has bearing on such an analysis. Forexample, there is a difference between dominant Western and Asian perspectives,with Asians typically citing effort rather than ability as the strongest determinant ofsuccess (Kinlaw, Kurtz-Costes, and Goldman-Fraser 2001). In the North Americancontext, effort is often not seen as the primary educational value (Clifford 1986).Covington and Omelich (1979) suggest that western students tend to scorn thosewhose academic failure follows significant effort, and that it is more socially accept-able not to try hard than to try hard and then do badly.

    Also, several studies show that effort and ability can be cited variously asexplanatory factors of success and failure, and that social class, gender and ethnicitycan all play their parts in this. For example, Urdan (1997) found that 13/14 year-oldstudents friends orientations toward academic effort and achievement were impor-tant in orientating students towards task goals, whereas associating with negativelyoriented friends encouraged extrinsic and effort avoidance goals. The positive orien-tation of friends was more important for boys than for girls.

    Dwecks concern, as noted above, is to replace a fixed mind-set with a growthmind-set (Dweck 1999, 2006, 2007); however, Schmitz and Skinner (1993) haveshown that while effort is generally good for task performance, for highly anxiouschildren, more effort leads to worse performance (Schmitz and Skinner 1993,1024). Not only was anxiety (high arousal, in Kahnemans terms: see below) foundto be negative, but also increased the time needed to complete homework assign-ments (1017). Thus over-conscientious students take longer, to less effect. Otherresearch painting a mixed picture of the value of effort will be considered below.

    There have been no published empirical studies focused specifically on theassessment of effort in schools. Nor has it has been a topic of interest within philos-ophy of education. Even psychology largely gave up on effort in the early twentiethcentury. It seems as though, just as constructs such as will became unpopularwithin both philosophy and psychology during the twentieth century, as they restedon outdated assumptions about the integrity of the human psyche and were notamenable to rigorous analytic procedures, so effort has simply gradually fallen intodisuse as a working construct among psychologists and philosophers as a generalterm of personal orientation and has only continued in use in more highly specifiedand restricted contexts, such as that of schooling.

    Established psychological and philosophical perspectives

    In The Psychology of Effort (1897), Dewey defines effort as the critical point ofprogress in action, arising whenever old habits are in process of reconstruction, orof adaptation to new conditions (55). On one level, this is arguably not a definitionat all. It tells us when effort occurs, not what it is. On another level, this unsettlesassumptions that constructs such as effort are expressions of autonomous rationalagents. Deweys pragmatic formulation paved the way for a gradual critical decon-struction of effort discourse, and the severing of any necessary connection betweeneffort and moral impulse, or even personal intention. Indeed, in other work, Deweyis critical of the idea that work inspired by effort alone is to be commended:

    628 A. Stables et al.

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  • Practically, the appeal to sheer effort amounts to nothing. When a child feels that hiswork is a task, it is only under compulsion that he gives himself to it. At every let upof external pressure his attention, released from constraint, flies to what interests him.(Dewey 1975, 5)

    On neither version of Deweys account should effort be confused with attention.However, in the most recent major work centrally devoted to defining effort as aconstruct (Kahneman 1973), attention and effort remain mutually interdependentconstructs. Indeed, in many contexts, momentary capacity, attention, or effort are interchangeable, each controlled by feedback from the execution of ongoingactivities (Kahneman 1973, 13).

    Physiologically, Kahneman strongly associates effort with arousal. The bodyresponds in much the same way to challenging tasks and stress. Furthermore,although [I]n general, we decide what aims we wish to achieve, arousal andeffort are usually not determined prior to the action; rather, the activities in whichwe engage determine the effort that we exert (14). Specifically, we need hard tasksto work hard at them (ibid.). There is an obvious educational implication here. How-ever committed the student is, she will only be able to rouse herself fully in responseto challenging demands and opportunities; we do not find it easy to work harder atboring tasks. Kahneman does not explore this, but this resonates a view that learningoccurs as students struggle with tasks that they were previously unable to achieve. Itplaces the emphasis more on the teacher to try hard to scaffold learning than onthe student to try hard to do well in whatever task is presented.

    Overall, it is clear from Kahnemans extensive study that effort is not a simple,unproblematic construct with obvious educational implications. However, thefollowing are considerations for educators:

    (1) It is difficult to devote a great deal of effort to simple tasks; on the otherhand, high arousal level increases performance more on simple th...

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