The role of academic risk

Academic buoyancy is related to psychological risk, that is, those things that have the potential to make us feel vulnerable (including uncertainty). Risks can be academic specific, as we can see in older students' reluctance to verbally respond to questioning for fear of giving the incorrect answer or having attention drawn to them. Even attempts to promote a have a go attitude do little to improve the situation because fear of failure has become too embedded within modern culture. However, academic and non- academic risk factors both play a part in academic buoyancy and, therefore, educational attainment. In addition to fear of failure, other academic risk factors include academic specific anxiety and uncertain control, while non- academic risk factors include emotional instability and self-concept, all of which are discussed in detail later. The more academic risk factors a student displays, the higher the level of disengagement and the lower the levels of class participation. Educational aspirations also fall, along with enjoyment of school. These, in turn, negatively impact academic buoyancy.

Teenagers are perhaps the one group who are more likely to display an aversion to academic risk (although they display higher levels of risky behaviour beyond the classroom). Teachers of teenagers witness this everyday in their own classrooms when students remain silent rather than volunteer answers or ask questions. Some might claim they don't know the answer to a question when in reality they do. How and why this behaviour arises is complex, but is certainly related to self-esteem, need for cognitive closure and the desire to avoid looking unintelligent. While self-esteem itself has negligible impact on actual learning, it can lead to behaviours that inhibit certain academically positive behaviours, including attention and confidence. Students might even employ specific tactics in order to safeguard their sense of self-worth. These tactics, generally referred to as self-handicapping strategies, act to sabotage learning while keeping self-esteem in check (Chapter 7).

Components of academic buoyancy

Buoyancy, therefore, isn't a single trait or skill - it's the coming together of a number of components that allow students to persist for longer and bounce back when things get tricky. It's also most certainly an attitude or state of mind, a belief in the ability to succeed, sometimes against the odds. In this respect, academic buoyancy is certainly not non-cognitive, because of the type of thinking it entails, such as planning and decision-making as well as wider metacognitive strategies. Indeed, to describe it as such is to not fully understand its complex nature.

Early research attempted to identify components that either raise or lower levels of academic specific resilience. Findings indicated that academically resilient students displayed higher levels of self-efficacy, master orientation, valuing of school, planning, study management and persistence. Lower levels of academic specific resilience were found to be related to anxiety, uncertain control, failure avoidance and self-handicapping.

From these findings, Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh extracted the following five important components of academic buoyancy, that is, academic-specific resilience (Martin & Marsh, 2008). These components are referred to as the 5Cs and consist of:

  • • Confidence (self-efficacy)
  • • Coordination (planning)
  • • Control (low uncertain control)
  • • Composure (low anxiety)
  • • Commitment (persistence or conscientiousness).

But there is still one component missing, one that isn't currently included within the model. We have seen that that resilience isn't only about the individual but includes aspects of the wider environment - families, teachers, church groups and non-family significant others. The model, therefore, needs one addition:

• Community.

This sixth C takes buoyancy out of the individual and recognises that individuals are part of much wider networks, from classrooms to whole schools. This is the case for both wider aspects of resilience and more specific targeted aspects such as academic buoyancy, supporting the view of Karen Hughes (professor of public health at Bangor University) that the characteristics of the systems around young people are what determine how resilient they are and how resilient they become (Hughes, Ford, Davies, Homolova & Beilis, 2018).

The strength of this model is that it identifies very specific skills and dispositions linked to academic resilience. Rather than being presented with a single concept, academic buoyancy can be deconstructed into its constituent parts and each one tackled separately. Chunking large problems into more manageable smaller ones is a major thread running through this book - everything from breaking up large goals into smaller sub-goals to chunking information in order to get around limitations of short-term working memory.

This strategy makes interventions both straightforward and targeted and can be easily embedded into the school culture.

These components also represent different types, in that, for example, confidence represents a sub-category of self-concept, persistence a personality trait and coordination a learned skill. As a result, they all require different types of nurturing, from building more positive self-concepts to study skills and helping to build self-efficacy. Any program that intends to raise levels of academic buoyancy will need to focus on all these factors.

The components can also be viewed as a series of positive habits that can be enhanced and imbedded within individual practice. They are also underlined by goal pursuit and the formation of adaptive habits. Habits play a major role in ensuring that we arrive at our destination; however, they can also take us in some unexpected directions. Effective and buoyant students, therefore, share a number of habits that contribute indirectly to their success and this relationship will be discussed in the following chapters.

It's worth noting at this point that academic buoyancy interventions shouldn't be viewed as an alternative to resilience programmes or strategies designed to build character (character traits are subtly different to personality traits) and there is no reason why interventions shouldn't run alongside each other and be incorporated into a single institution-wide project. Academic buoyancy pertains to small-scale, everyday challenges and neglects wider aspects related to deep psychological problems, equality of opportunity, poverty and social justice, all elements contained within those resilience programmes with a good evidence base and an understanding of the conceptual and theoretical components that have emerged from decades of research into adversity.

What we also have to take into account is that exposure to adversity shapes the people we become and the more adverse the experience the potentially more explosive the outcome. While these adverse childhood experiences do shape us both physically and psychologically, they should never be used as an excuse for underachievement or poor behaviour. That said, understanding how these experiences can impact the lives of young people is an important endeavour in itself, allowing schools and others to pinpoint where problems lie so that an attempt can be made to tackle them head on. The potential danger is that we end up treating the symptoms while ignoring the cause. It's a little like taking a pain killer for toothache; we can mask the pain without identifying the cause of the problem, making it more likely that the pain will resurface again in the future. What we really need to do is visit the dentist so that the cause of the pain can be identified and remedied.

While the 5Cs concentrate on individual skills to nurture, we mustn't overlook other aspects that have been identified by researchers from Rutter to Werner, that is, the environmental conditions, policies, school culture and ethos that all play important roles in nurturing all sub-domains of resilience. Academic buoyancy, therefore, is as much about extrinsic factors as it is intrinsic ones. This means that in addition to the individual-based components (or the 5Cs) we also have to consider the following school-wide factors (the sixth C):

  • • Student-teacher relationships
  • • School culture and ethos
  • • Rewards and sanctions.

By combining the nurture of certain personal traits with wider institutional policy, we accept that resilience and buoyancy don't only inhabit the individual (as the current trend suggests) but operate holistically within wider school policies, attitudes and cultures, and that these are reciprocal, that is, school-wide initiatives feed individual factors while nurturing these factors then solidify and enhance school ethos and culture - resilient schools are just that, whole communities that nurture and encourage the ability to keep going despite setbacks, rather than individual pupils who may or may not be resilient.

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