School & District Management Opinion

PISA, Internalizing Failure, and Barriers to Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — February 06, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Jonathan J.B. Mijs, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Harvard University, and Tyler S. Thigpen, a Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Resident at Transcend. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at //twitter.com/jonathanmijs. Follow Tyler on Twitter at //twitter.com/TylerThigpen

World rankings like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have emerged as the litmus test on how schools are and are not helping students succeed. Politicians, educators, and specialists dwell on American students’ laggard position or Singapore’s success. But what do students think of their own performance? And what can we learn about learning environments and long-term achievement from students’ self-perceptions of success or failure?

In recent research, Jonathan Mijs (this blog post’s co-author) details how students from various countries understood their own academic performance, particularly in instances where they did not score well on tests or coursework. Comparing 128,000 students across 24 nations in Asia, Europe, and North America revealed that students’ responses were only loosely connected to the country in which a student lives, their school’s resources, or that student’s social background. Rather, these students’ attributions of failure show a close correlation to the way a student’s school is organized.

The study identified two significant factors. The first is the extent to which students are stratified by different ability tracks within a school (e.g., honors vs. vocational). The second is the extent to which the school population is segregated socioeconomically. Regardless of students’ factual school performance, those who attended highly stratified, segregated schools were most likely to think only they were to blame for their failure. Conversely, students in less stratified, socioeconomically integrated, schools tended to attribute their academics to a range of factors within their control (effort, talent) and beyond their control (teachers, bad luck).

These findings indicate not only the impact of school tracking and segregation on students’ real chances to do well in school, but also on how students learn to understand their own competencies and how they deal with setbacks. Mijs’s explanation is that students in stratified and/or segregated school settings are insulated from the diversity of students’ backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives; a homogenous environment may inadvertently contribute to the perception that academic failings are solely due to one’s lack of work ethic and inabilities academically. Conversely, a more integrated school system may help students develop a more balanced way of thinking about, and dealing with, academic setbacks.

These findings reveal some of the structural barriers to deeper learning that confront the U.S. educational field, which is more stratified and segregated than anywhere in the developed world. In order to provide conditions for deeper learning, schools need to foster critical reflection, promote collaboration, and support the development of an academic mindset. This includes equipping students with the tools to carefully confront academic setbacks, without internalizing failure. An abundance of research, including earlier posts on this blog, has emphasized failures as opportunities to learn: we’re human, mistakes are in our nature, we excuse others for their offenses. But these findings suggest that many students are not extending themselves the same courtesy. School leaders have more work to do in cultivating environments that encourage nonjudgmental communication, and foster students’ confidence in their potential.

One opportunity for school leaders is to take a step back and look at their school’s structure. Presently, the school leader who wants diverse classrooms struggles against competing priorities: one, parents want ways for students to strengthen their CVs through successful completion of higher-level (honors, AP, etc.) coursework; and two, some parents do not want mixed-ability classrooms for fear that lower-performing students will drag down the top-performing ones.

But how reliable are these assumptions? Many cases have emerged--e.g., Valor Collegiate, Building 21, High Tech High, New York’s School of One--of administrators finding ways to allow for academic distinctions and rigor as well as to mix students of various ability levels in classrooms, and their efforts have been successful. Research also shows that diversity within schools is associated with positive learning outcomes for top students, including improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and higher academic achievement.

These findings provide another data point that bolsters the emerging conversation around integrated schools: stratified, segregated American school structures are hindering progress toward bringing together a diverse society to solve global problems. If we are to equip students with the skills and experiences to do so, we need to create the kinds of environments in which students can develop empathy, and learn how to fail without giving up. This is self-efficacy.

Thus, for policymakers considering the conditions most ripe for learning, the next step will be to explore the ways in which schools can be structured to be most beneficial for students. Because understanding the difference between failing a math test and declaring oneself a failure is a distinction that’s too important for us to ignore.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.