The academic self

Academic self-concept is concerned with our personal beliefs about our academic ability and skills. Self-evaluations, of course, needn't be accurate (and often aren't) and a negative focus can be very difficult to shift. This is the case even when we are presented with ample evidence to the contrary, partly due to the deeply embedded elements of our self-concept and partly due to the related component of personal attributions (see Chapter 10).

Like global self-concept, academic self-concept develops over time, arising from around the age of three to five (in accordance with both informal and formal academic learning). It's therefore highly influenced by both parents and early experiences of education. By the age of about 10 or 11 children have begun to assess their own academic abilities and compare themselves with their peers (Tiedemann, 2000). This is also around the time that children will begin to cluster together based on both perceived and actual academic ability, with these groups often being formalised in secondary school via setting and streaming. This is not to claim that setting and streaming are the only reasons that children cluster together and there are also social psychological elements here, in that human beings have a tendency to cluster together with those they perceive as similar to themselves. Glance around any school playground and it's usually possible to identify such groupings, becoming more pronounced as children get older. Hierarchies continue to build, not only by ability but also by popularity and other, more superficial, categories. This is when we might see children in the early throws of status anxiety.

Status anxiety and peer comparisons

According to philosopher Alain de Botton, who popularised the concept in 2005 book of the same name, status anxiety is a disturbing side-effect of modern society (de Botton, 2005). Status anxiety arises when we compare our success to the success of others. At the heart of this is the concept of meritocracy, the view that our position in life is somehow merited or deserved. This notion seems fair enough on the surface; work hard, commit to your goals and follow them through and you will be rewarded with success. However, the situation is more complex than this because society doesn't represent a level playing field, that is, some people are simply more fortunate than others. We might work hard, hold down several low-paid jobs, do these jobs well and still struggle to pay the bills at the end of the month. This means that our lack of success is then considered to be the result of failure and if we believe in a meritocratic system, this failure is felt more acutely. If we fail to succeed we are branded (or brand ourselves) a loser, when perhaps we were simply unfortunate. An added problem is that we all tend to buy in to the same concept of success, one that is measured in terms of ownership, income or status on the social hierarchy. We perceive that others are judging us due to our lack of success so status becomes a misguided goal and anxiety sets in because we fear that we will fail.

This is not to say that meritocratic societies aren't favourable, they most certainly are, only that meritocracy comes with certain limits. In educational terms, therefore, a young person's notion of success is judged against the perceived success of others, if a student fails to match or surpass the achievement of others then they are a failure or a loser. How we perceive success then influences our sense of self, perhaps seeing ourselves as more or less worthy than those who are perceived to be doing better or worse than us. Poor academic achievement equates to being a loser and in a society based on meritocratic principles, this means that this position is deserved. It's highly unlikely that young people will consciously compare themselves to others in this way, yet often the desire for the latest smartphone or other piece of tech is driven by a perception that such items inform others of their status. Status, therefore, can at least indirectly contribute to both global and academic self-concept.

Prior academic achievement also influences both high and low academic self-concept, so that if early experiences in a specific academic subject are positive, the student will develop a higher subject-specific academic self-concept. Our past, therefore, influences our future self construction, although other factors such a self-schemas and attribution style can warp our sense of the past (Chapter 10). This relationship is also likely to be reciprocal, in that positive academic self-concept arises through high academic achievement, which then fuels even higher academic self- concept. This is different to the pattern seen with self-esteem, where high academic achievement raises levels of self-esteem but raising levels of selfesteem appears to make little difference to academic success (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2003).

Younger children's academic self-concepts aren't heavily influenced by factors such as peer comparisons. However, during the teenage years these factors appear to play a larger part than previous failures and successes. Environmental factors become important as young people get older, due to the greater emphasis placed on formal testing and social comparisons. Younger children are more likely to overestimate their abilities and inflate their achievements, not due to any conscious effort to deceive, but because their immature cognitive architecture makes realistic self-assessments difficult (see Guay, Marsh & Boivin, 2003). Teenagers, on the other hand, will begin to develop more realistic images of their academic self. That said, because other factors such as attribution style play a role, their academic self-concept can still be over pessimistic and over optimistic. However, this might also be caused by efforts to selfhandicap (see Chapter 7).

Academic self-concept, therefore, becomes more accurate with age, the knock-on effect being that we can begin to use it as a predictor of academic outcomes. Boys, on average, have higher academic self-concept scores than girls in all schools subjects other than English (Marsh & Craven, 2006). Ability setting appears to impact academic self-concept more acutely in English than in either maths or science. However, even young children are aware of the consequences of being placed in lower ability sets. Rachel Marks of the University of Brighton found that this was the case with children as young as nine, with some children attributing cleverness to bigger brains or just being born clever (Marks, 2016).Young children, therefore, appear to be using their understanding of ability setting to build up their own representations of how they measure up academically. This, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult for children in lower ability sets to move up to higher ones - their academic self-concept has been greatly influenced by their experiences of ability hierarchies. This isn't a criticism of ability setting per se, simply a description of the impact it can have on some learners.

 
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