Tuesday, July 8, 2008


School systems have tried to inject billions of dollars into alternative programming to increase academic achievement for defeated and discouraged students (Sagor and Cox, 2004). Sagor and Cox (2004) have stated that little success can be attributed to specific programming and pilot programs designed to help remediate those students experiencing school failure. Why is it so difficult to engage defeated and discouraged learners?

Educators refer to Psychology to investigate those theories that apply to student motivation and behaviour to address students who may be at risk of leaving school early. Many motivational theories can be examined that may be applicable to defeated and discouraged students however one motivational theory that has gained recognition in the past has been developed by Dweck and Elliot (2005) and is referred to as “Acheivement Motivation with Competence as the core” (Dweck and Elliot, 2005: 3).

Dweck and Elliot (2005) explain that the weakness of achievement literature has been the ability of the researchers to define the word “achievement”. The authors state that there is no conceptually constructed meaning of achievement and that the achievement literature lacks cohesion, and clear sets of parameters for researchers to build on (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). Without clear guidelines, developing a clear theoretical framework is near impossible especially when achievement theory has incredible potential to explain more than motivation for school, work and sport (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). Implementing this broader framework for achievement motivation researchers can begin to understand other issues in this domain (flow, creativity, cognitive strategies, self-regulated learning, coping and disengagement, and social comparison).

In order to address this weakness, Dweck and Elliot (2005) have proposed competence as the “conceptual core” of achievement literature (Dweck and Elliot, 2005: 5). The definition of “competence” as defined by Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary is “a condition or quality of effectiveness, ability, sufficiency, or success”. By defining competence, researchers can then begin to understand such questions as, how is competence measured or evaluated. How are individuals motivated with regard to competence? How does competence effect defeated and discouraged students in determining their motivational levels for remaining and achieving in school?

Levels of competence can be measured with “concrete actions” (a toddler putting a peg in a hole) to specific outcomes (grades on a test) to identifiable patterns of skill and ability (playing baseball) to overarching characteristics (intelligence) to the “omnibus compilations” (life) (Dweck and Elliot, 2005: 6). This ability to measure competence than leads researchers to direct specific tasks and develop standards for those tasks, measure change over time or use normative comparisons (Dweck & Elliot, 2005).

Dweck and Elliot, (2005) have also noted that competence is an “inherent psychological need” of human beings (pg.6). Competence or incompetence is the driving force to accomplish specific tasks in our lives (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). Actions that are as simple as tying our shoes requires us to believe that we are either competent or incompetent at this activity which will effect whether we complete the task or not. This is also true for situations in our life that are social or publically based like preparing a speech to give to co-workers. Teachers can apply this theory to understand the underlying psychological processes in relation to competence that are occurring for defeated and discouraged students when examining their behaviour and desired learning outcomes.

Competence motivation can effect emotion and well-being in either a positive or a negative fashion through trying to attain competence and avoid incompetence (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). The emotions exhibited after a person feels they have competently completed a task could be one of joy and excitement. The opposite can also be true. Those who feel they have been incompetent at a task may feel discouraged, or anxious (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). Dweck and Elliot (2005) also states that people’s approach to a task may bring positive feelings, however the positive feeling like relief may have come out of avoiding incompetence by not completing the task. If the person has these prolonged feelings it may lead to the individual avoiding events at all cost in order to feel a sense of relief for not having to complete the task.

Researchers have found that avoidance of tasks in comparison to approach orientated motivation leads to decreased over all well being of the individual (Dweck & Elliot, 2005). The pursuit of avoidance goals do not provide individuals with the richness of experience that is required for them to grow and prosper. Defeated and discouraged students would be continually seeking experiences where they would feel competent but these situations may in fact be those situations that are negative for their long term well being. (Stealing, lying). School work and relationships with teachers would most likely have been negative throughout their school experience and the level of competence in this area would be very low thus leading to avoidance motivation which could effect whether they remain in school or not.

The question that remains is “How do teachers develop competence in defeated and discouraged learners?” Sternberg (2005) defines the development of competence as “the ongoing process of the acquisition and consolidation of a set of skills needed for performance in one or more life domains...” (pg. 15). Competence measured on a continuum includes those people just learning new skills at one end and the expert who has a deeper level of understanding and is efficient at applying the knowledge they possess at the other. This is relevant for teachers to understand that all of their students are on the continuum, which means teachers must evaluate where their students lay on that continuum. This is definitely not to say that defeated and discouraged students are at the beginning of the continuum on all skills, some skills they will be at the “expert” end. The teacher’s responsibility is to find the skills that the student is competent at and those tasks that students avoid due to fear of incompetency and develop interventions that focus on creating an increased level of competence in those skills that will help the student become successful.

Sternberg, (2005) has developed an acquisition model of competence explaining how abilities develop into competencies and competencies into expertise. Sternberg (2005) notes that individuals are in continuing stages of development and will differ in the time it takes to attain competence of a particular skill or ability. The capability for individuals to become competent is not necessarily some fixed prior level of capacity (IQ measure) but occurs through “purposeful engagement, involving direct instruction, active participation, role modelling, and reward” (Sternberg, 2005: 17).

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