Action research: are students rational?

I’m conducting action research in the classroom in a couple of different projects. This post is about my rationality project. Some time ago, I speculated that some students may be rationally disengaged – that they are maximising their outcomes by disengaging. I wanted to test this, and today I set out to do so. I surveyed my students to try to gauge their values, attitudes, goals, etc., and then compare their responses to their behaviour to see if their actions aligned with their mindsets. Some interesting initial results emerged. All students report that they value their education and want to do well at school, and most provided very strong responses on these questions. Even the misbehaved and disengaged students. This supported previous surveys I’ve conducted, but nonetheless I was surprised, because some of the students appear like they just don’t care. How do I square this circle?

Further, many students, particularly the more disengaged and chatty students, see little to no value in off-task talking with their classmates. Yet these are the ones that do it most. The better behaved students reported greater perception of value in off-task talking with classmates, yet they engage in this behaviour to a far lesser extent. The results for the disengaged and engaged students were true even when they saw little value in the teaching. That is, there is little value in talking to friends in class, even when the teaching is bad. This shocked me. I could totally relate to the perspective that disengaged students want to disengage when the teaching is bad, but, at least in their perceptions, they don’t actually want to do this.

What do I make of all of this? A few things:

*The more disengaged students tend to be the lower ability students. Quite often these students concede they they don’t understand what is going on. Perhaps the classroom for them is a place of not so quiet desperation – they want to do well but it goes over their heads.

*Lower ability students tend to have less self-control and less foresight. They are less capable of sticking it out in difficult circumstances, and see less future value for doing so. Despite this, these students did think about their futures and wanted to do well in them.

*Engaged students may feel confident enough to talk to their peers in class and not feel left behind. They are on top of things, and may be so ahead that they talk to their friends either about the topic or because they are waiting for the rest of the class.

So, are my students rational?

I need more information, but my sense is that the more able students are more rational (this is seen in research), have better foresight and can better connect current action with future goals. Less able students are less rational and have less self-control, but they are also responding to their environment, and if the environment is too difficult, this increases the return to slacking off – at least in the short run. Short run considerations will be relatively more important for these kids compared to top kids, at least in their perceptions. There may also be a difference in mindsets – whether they have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. This will determine their perceptions of value and returns from doing hard work to overcome the knowledge gap. If they don’t think they can improve, they will slack off when something is difficult.

The teaching take-away is to simplify the lesson, provide glossaries for all students, assume a basic level of understanding and slowly build in complexity from there. And for students with less self-control, a seating plan will help. Engaging teaching will also help too, but it must be accessible to all. Keeping the lesson more concrete and less theoretical or abstract will also help. More able students can be given extension exercises involving abstraction and theory. In other words, start basic and build the complexity. Don’t assume even a basic knowledge of your topic.

These findings, and the related project I am running alongside this one, both point to the power of great teaching. I knew it was important but the research indicates that it is more important than I gave it credit for. I’ll discuss this next time and discuss more results as they come in.


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