Schooling And Development Research Paper

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Up until the mid-1970s, neither the general public nor the social sciences could agree on whether schooling has a significant impact on cognitive development, how large this impact is or may be, and which variables are responsible for any potential effects it may have. For example, even in 1975, Good et al. asked skeptically, ‘Do schools or teachers make a difference? No definite answer exists because little research has been directed on the question in a comprehensive way’ (Good et al. 1975, p. 3). Things have changed since then, because the findings from numerous empirical studies have banished any serious doubts concerning whether schooling impacts on both the cognitive and motivational development of students.

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This research paper will report the arguments questioning the importance of school for the mental development of children and adolescents and assess their scientific validity; present the empirical evidence on the strong impact of school on cognitive development, while simultaneously showing the limits to its generalizability; and sketch the findings on the role of school in motivational development. The final section presents some conclusions on the relations between cognitive and motivational development under the influence of school.

1. Scientific Doubts Regarding The Impact Of Schooling On Cognitive Development

Compared with the impact of social origins and/or stable individual differences in intellectual abilities on cognitive development, that of schooling was long considered marginal. Nonetheless, the Coleman Report (Coleman et al. 1966) was still a great shock to many politicians, educators, and teachers when it concluded, ‘that school brings little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context’ (p. 325). Just as radically, Jencks et al. (1972) confirmed ‘that the character of schools’ output depends largely on a single input, namely, the characteristics of the entering children. Everything else—the schools’ ‘budget, its policies, the characteristics of the teachers—is either secondary or completely irrelevant’ (p. 256). According to their findings, elementary school contributed 3 percent or less to the variance in cognitive development, and secondary school 1 percent or less.

Even though both Coleman et al.’s (1966) and Jencks et al.’s (1972) general statements were modified and differentiated slightly in comparisons between private and public schools, between middle-class and lower-class children, and between the effects of different school variables, the final conclusion remains unchanged: ‘Nevertheless, the overall effect of elementary school quality on test scores appears rather modest’ (Jencks et al. 1972, p. 91). Viewed from the perspective of the beginning of the twenty-first century, such statements and conclusions are, without exception, underestimations of the impact of schooling on cognitive development in childhood and adolescence.

There are various reasons for these underestimations. First, two aspects of cognitive development that should be kept strictly separate are frequently confounded: the growth and acquisition of competencies, knowledge, and skills on the one side compared with the change in interindividual differences in cognitive abilities on the other. We now know that schools are necessary and very influential institutions for the acquisition of that declarative and procedural knowledge that cannot be learned in the child’s environment outside school, but that the quantity and quality of schooling has only a limited power to modify individual differences in abilities.

Second, Coleman et al. (1966), Jencks et al. (1972), and many other studies, compared very similar schools in the USA or other industrialized countries. Naturally, such schools reveal more commonalities than differences due to the similarities in teacher training, curricular goals, educational traditions, the budget of the educational institutions, the state-regulated quantity of teaching, and standardized achievement tests. The methodological problems in such research did not become evident until the publication of findings from cross-cultural studies. These showed that when schools in the Third World—or even achievement measured in ethnic groups with no or very low school education—are taken into account alongside schools in industrialized countries, massive effects of the quantity and quality of instruction can be ascertained (Anderson et al. 1977).

The third reason for underestimating the impact of schools was that scientific interest in educational sociology focused on the role of social class and the family in mental development, whereas developmental psychology was dominated by Jean Piaget’s constructivist model. Whereas theories of cognitive development deal with general mechanisms of thought, action, and experience, models of school learning in the strict sense are concerned with the acquisition of specific skills and small bits of knowledge. Piaget and his co-workers emphasized ‘that this form of learning is subordinate to the laws of development and development does not consist in the successive accumulation of bits of learning since development follows structuration laws that are both logical and biological’ (Inhelder and Sinclair 1969, p. 21).

2. Empirical Confirmation Of The Impact Of Schooling On Cognitive Development

In many social scientists, the skeptical attitude toward the role of schools in recent decades has been overcome to a large extent (although not completely) by the results of numerous empirical studies. This applies not only to the acquisition of specific cognitive competencies but also to the promotion of intelligence.

After reviewing the relevant literature, Rutter (1983, p. 20) came to the conclusion that ‘the crucial component of effective teaching includes a clear focus on academic goals, an appropriate degree of structure, an emphasis on active instruction, a task-focused approach, and high achievement expectations.’ Although recent years have seen increasingly strong criticism of Rutter’s description of the successful classroom, it is broadly confirmed empirically that active teachers, direct instruction, and effective classroom management on the one side accompanied by active, constructive, and purposeful learners on the other side are necessary conditions for the effective acquisition of competencies, knowledge, and skills. Naturally, a major role can also be assigned to intrinsically motivated, self-organized, and cooperative learning (Weinert and Helmke 1995).

Nonetheless, the impact of schools on cognitive development ranges far beyond teaching declarative and procedural knowledge and also includes the promotion of intellectual abilities. For example, Ceci (1991) summarized his state-of-the-art review as follows:

Of course, schooling is not the complete story in the formation and maintenance of IQ-scores and IQ-related cognitive processes … Children differ in IQ and cognitive processes prior to entering school, and within a given classroom there are sizeable individual differences despite an equivalence of schooling. … Thus, the conclusion seems fairly clear: Even though many factors are responsible for individual and group differences in the intellectual development of children, schooling emerges as an extremely important source of variance, notwithstanding historical and contemporary claims for the contrary. (p. 719)

Looking at the available data from industrialized countries, the Third World, and, above all, cross-cultural studies on the impact of schooling on cognitive development in general and the effectiveness of specific features of schools in particular, substantial effects can be ascertained on intellectual abilities; on metacognitive strategies; on the acquisition of verbal, mathematical, scientific, logical, and technological competencies; and on various forms of domainspecific and cross-domain knowledge. These findings provide unequivocal support for Geary’s (1995) hypothesis that schools are necessary cultural conditions for the acquisition of those abilities and skills that cannot be learned in the child’s immediate environment: this means almost all the cognitive competencies necessary for a good life and a successful career in our modern scientifically and technologically shaped world.

Up to which level cognitive development is enhanced and which competencies are acquired depends strongly on the quality and quantity of schooling. This is confirmed by findings from a number of large-scale international studies that not only compared school achievement but also assessed important features and variables in the individual national school systems. A current example is the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA; see Baumert et al. 1997).

In association with numerous national and regional studies on educational productivity, school effectiveness, or school improvement, it has been possible to identify a variety of combinations and configurations of variables in the school system, the individual school, the classroom, the teacher, instruction, and the school context that impact on various dimensions and aspects of the cognitive development of students. At the same time, these findings have also led to scientific suggestions for improving school systems.

Alongside mean effect sizes, the long-term effects of exceptional schools and teachers are of particular interest. For example, Pederson et al. (1978) reported the strong long-term effects of one excellent teacher in a single-case study. Compared with the students of other teachers, the children she had taught in their first two years at school were significantly more successful in their later academic careers as well as in their later jobs. More detailed analyses of this effect revealed that this teacher attained above-average effects on school performance in the first two school grades as well as on her students’ attitudes toward work and their initiative, but no great increase in intellectual abilities. Even more important than the direct teacher effects were the indirect effects of a good, successful, and positively experienced start to school on all the children’s further cognitive and motivational development.

Although it has to be said that this is only one single-case study, its findings could be replicated as a trend, though not so emphatically, in several representative longitudinal studies (Weinert and Helmke 1997). However, great methodological care is necessary when gathering, analyzing, and interpreting longitudinal data. Only multilevel analyses (that view teacher or instruction variables as being moderated by classroom contexts, and classroom effects as being influenced by features of the school, the school system, and the sociocultural environment) permit valid estimations of the effects of certain clusters of variables on students’ cognitive development and growth in knowledge.

Such studies have shown that individual variables make only a very limited contribution to explaining the variance in student outcomes. There are many reasons for this: one of the most important is the complex ‘multideterminedness’ of students’ academic achievement. Haertel et al. (1983) characterize the ensuing theoretical and methodological problems as follows:

… classroom learning is a multiplicative diminishing-returns function of four essential factors—student ability and motivation, and quality and quantity of instruction … Each of these essential factors appear to be necessary but insufficient by itself to classroom learning; that is, all four of these factors appear to be required at least at minimum levels for the classroom learning to take place. It also appears that the essential factors may substitute, compensate, or trade-off for one another in diminishing rates of return. (p. 75)

3. The Limited Impact Of School On The Modification Of Individual Differences In Cognitive Abilities And Competencies

Of the four essential conditions for classroom learning identified by Haertel et al. (1983), only two (the quantity and quality of instruction) are under the control of the school and the teacher. The other two (ability and motivation) are features of students. Already when entering school, children exhibit large interindividual differences in both their cognitive competencies and their motivational tendencies.

Through genetic factors and through covariations between genotype and environmental influences, interindividual differences in intellectual abilities already become moderately stable early in childhood. Round about the seventh year of life, astonishingly high stability coefficients of 0.5 to 0.7 are already found, despite the relatively low reliability of many tests at this age level. Assuming that more intelligent students learn, on average, more quickly, more easily, and better than less intelligent students under the same conditions of instruction, it can be anticipated that interindividual differences in mental abilities and cognitive development will not diminish under the influence of school but become increasingly more stable. This is also supported by the results of many empirical studies: For example, during the course of elementary schooling, stability coefficients in verbal intelligence tests increase to about 0.8, nonverbal intelligence to 0.7, mathematical competencies to 0.7, reading and writing to 0.7, and the development of positive attitudes toward learning, self-confidence, and test anxiety to 0.6 in each case (Weinert and Helmke 1997). This recognizable trend in elementary school continues in secondary school, with stabilities in IQ scores already attaining values between 0.8 and 0.9 from the age of 12 years onward, thus permitting almost perfect long-term prediction.

These and other empirical findings can be used to draw some theoretical conclusions on classroom learning that may be modified, but not falsified, by variations in school contexts:

(a) Cognitive abilities and competencies develop dramatically in childhood and adolescence—not least under the influence of the school. At the same time, interindividual differences already stabilize at a relatively early age and then remain more or less invariant.

(b) This trend applies not only for intellectual abilities but also for the acquisition of cognitive competencies and domain-specific knowledge. This is particularly apparent when the knowledge acquired is cognitively demanding. In this case, it is necessary to assume a relationship between the level of intelligence and the quality of the knowledge (‘intelligent knowledge’).

(c) Naturally, the stabilities in individual differences are in no way perfect, so that changes can be observed in students’ relative positions in the ranking of abilities and academic achievements. However, very strong changes are often an exception due to idiosyncrasies rather than the rule.

(d) All attempts to level out these individual differences in cognitive abilities and competencies that stabilize during the course of schooling and to make achievements and achievement dispositions equal for all students have generally been unsuccessful. The same applies to the concept of mastery learning when practiced over a longer period of time and on demanding tasks.

(e) Of course, very significant changes in individual differences result when students are taught for different lengths of time and/or with different achievement aspirations in various subjects or the same subject. Whereas, for example, some students broaden their basic knowledge of the world only slightly through the physics they learn at school, others acquire a high degree of expertise in the subject. Despite the doubtful validity of the claim put forward in the novice–expert research paradigm that intellectual abilities and talents are irrelevant for the acquisition of expertise, the extent of deliberate practice seems to be decisive for the achievement of excellence.

(f) Regardless of the level of individual abilities and regardless of the stability of interindividual differences in ability, it is still necessary for all students to acquire all their cognitive competencies through active learning. Many studies have shown that the quantity and quality of instruction are useful and, in part, even necessary for this.

4. The Impact Of Schooling On Motivational Development

The available statistical meta-analyses confirm the belief shared by most laypersons that student motivation is an essential personal factor for successful learning at school. However, motivational tendencies and preferences are not just conditions of learning but are also influenced by learning and teaching in the classroom. Their systematic promotion is simultaneously an important goal of school education.

To analyze motivational conditions and consequences of school learning, it is necessary to distinguish strictly between dispositional motives and current motivation. Whereas motives (e.g., achievement motive, affiliation motive, attribution style, test anxiety, self-confidence) are understood as personal traits that are relatively stable and change only slowly, motivation concerns current approach or avoidance tendencies that not only depend on dispositional motives but are also influenced strongly by situational conditions (stimuli, incentives, rewards, threats, etc.). Naturally, the long-term modification of motivational development through the school predominantly involves the students’ dispositional motives, attitudes, and value orientations.

School enrollment between the fifth and seventh year of life seems to be a sensitive period of development for this. The cognitive competencies acquired during preschool years enable first graders to compare themselves with others, to make causal interpretations over the differences and changes in achievement they register, and to form anticipations regarding future achievements. At the same time, the school class offers a variety of opportunities for comparisons on the levels of behavior, achievement, evaluation, and ability. Teachers play an important role in this.

Almost all preschool-age children are optimists: They look forward to attending school, most anticipate that they will do well, they have only a low fear of failure, and they believe that they will be able to cope with all the demands of the school. This morethan optimistic attitude changes during the first two years at school. In general, children become realists, although most of them continue to hold positive expectations regarding their own success. This basic attitude stabilizes during the further course of schooling—naturally, with large interindividual differences due, in part, to personal academic successes and failures, in part to a stable anticipation bias (Weinert and Helmke 1997).

This general developmental trend is modified more or less strongly by specific features of the school, the classroom, the teacher, and the methods of instruction (for overview see Pintrich and Schunk 1996). A few examples of this will be given below. These come either from studies in which the motivational effects of teaching and learning were observed in the classroom, or from studies assessing the effects of planned interventions.

Personal causation (the feeling of being an origin and not a pawn) is an important motivational condition for successful classroom learning. If students are to experience personal causation, they must have opportunities to (a) set themselves demanding but realistic goals, (b) recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, (c) be self-confident about the efficacy of their own actions, (d) evaluate whether they have attained the goals they have set themselves, and (e) assume responsibility not only for their own behavior but also, for example, that of their classroom peers.

Psychological interventions designed to enhance the ‘origin atmosphere’ in the classroom and increase the ‘origin experiences’ of the students have led not only to the intended motivational changes but also to broad improvements in average academic achievement. Similarly positive outcomes are reported from studies designed to improve the goal orientation of learning, to strengthen achievement motivation, and to modify the individual patterns of attributions used in intuitive explanations of success and failure. For example, efforts have been made in both classrooms and individual students to modify the typical attribution style for learned helplessness (attributing failure to stable deficits in ability and success to luck or low task difficulty) so that given abilities and varying effort as a function of task difficulty become the dominant personal attribution patterns.

Positive modifications to student motivational development depend decisively on the teacher’s attitudes, instructional strategies, and feedback behavior. As a result, many intervention programs for enhancing motivation focus on both students and teachers simultaneously. For example, a large study of ‘self-efficacious schools’ is being carried out at the present time in Germany. It is testing the assumption that enhanced self-efficacy beliefs may affect not only teacher behavior (by reducing burnout syndromes and enhancing a proactive attitude) but also student learning (by increasing motivation and achievement).

For several decades, theories of learning motivation have been dominated by the assumption that basic needs are satisfied through achievement, social support, rewards, self-evaluation, and so on. Frequently the motivational mechanisms were those underlying expectancy value models, cost-benefit calculations, or instrumental behavior models. In comparison, intrinsic motives for learning have played a much smaller role. Intrinsic motivation addresses needs and goals that are satisfied by the process of learning itself and by the possibility of experiencing and enjoying one’s own expression of competence and increasing knowledge in a preferred content domain. In this theoretical framework, working and learning are not a means to an end, but are more or less an end in themselves; learning activities and learning goals are not clearly distinguished (e.g., exploratory drive, experience of flow, effectancy motivation, etc.). Underlying these concepts is the assumption ‘… that intrinsic motivation is based in the innate, organismic needs for competence and self-determination. It energizes a high variety of behaviors and psychological processes for which the primary rewards are the experience of effectance and autonomy’ (Deci and Ryan 1985, p. 32).

The reason for a careful consideration of intrinsic motivation is that in educational philosophy intrinsic motivated learning and behavior are regarded as the most important goals of schooling. The worry is that strengthening extrinsic motivation by making external incentives and rewards available is likely to be detrimental to achieving this goal. The ideas underlying such fears come from the results of some studies investigating the ‘overjustification effect,’ which show that the use of rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. However, the results of several recent studies indicate that this fear is unjustified. Further- more, the relation between dispositional motives, actual motivation, and learning activities is not simple and linear but is influenced strongly by inter- connections with cognitive processes, metacognitive strategies, and volitional skills.

5. Conclusions

Schools are cultural and educational institutions for promoting cognitive development and imparting those competencies that the child cannot acquire within the immediate environment. Throughout the world, schools fulfil this evolutionary, psychological, and cultural function more or less well. The quantity and quality of instruction are a major source of the variance in the genesis of interindividual differences in cognitive competencies. Moreover, the development and promotion of competent, self-regulated learning is an equally important goal of schools in modern societies. The development of intrinsic and extrinsic motives becomes particularly important here in association with metacognitive and volitional competencies. This is why recent decades have seen not only studies examining which relations can be found between the classroom atmosphere, the teacher’s behavior, and the subjective experiences of the students on the one side and their motivational and cognitive development on the other side, but also numerous programs designed to promote motivation systematically that have been tried out with, in part, notable success.

The relation between cognitive and motivational development and their interaction are of particular interest in both theory and practice. This is just as true for the influence of academic success on the development of a positive self-concept as for the importance of the self-concept for individual progress in learning (Weinert and Helmke 1997).


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