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Inside Teaching : October 2010
Inside Teaching | October 2010 RESEARCH 44 Both were at the top of their year group in primary school, having excelled in school-based tests, standardised state-wide tests, and external academic competitions. ‘Since they both have high ability, their academic self-concepts are high; however, one student attends the local comprehensive high school, while the other attends an academically selective school in the next suburb. ‘The student in the comprehensive high school is performing well academically, and so feels good about her abilities. Also, compared to the other students in the school, this student is among the most intelligent, being at the top of theyeargroup–abigfishina little pond. ‘The student who attends the selective high school is performing around the middle of the year group. There are many other extremely intelligent students at this school, and competition for grades is fierce. Compared to these other students, this student feels that she’s not very intelligent – a little fish in a big pond.’ Compared to the student who attends the local comprehensive school, Dr Seaton says the academic self-concept of the student who attends the selective school is lower, which can have a negative flow-on effect on the other life choices that the student will make. ‘International research shows that students in high-ability environments tend to have lower self-concepts, lower grades and lower ambitions than students of similar intelligence in less competitive environments,’ says Dr Seaton. ‘In effect, students with high self-concepts are more likely to aspire to attend university, and more likely to have high career aspirations. ‘In the classroom, it can be all too easy to focus on your students’ academic performance and improving grades – particularly when the threat of league tables looms; however, it’s important for teachers to remind themselves that academic self-concept is also pivotal, and should have as much emphasis placed on it.’ Dr Seaton is now investigating the performance of high- ability students in selective and comprehensive schools in a four-year study, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). The research project, ‘Realising gifted students’ potential: Elucidating psychosocial determinants and the impact of different educational settings on educational outcomes and psychosocial wellbeing,’ is expected to be completed in 2011. ‘I believe there is a place for selective schools in Australia and that, for some students, they can be of immense benefit,’ says Dr Seaton. ‘There has, however, been very little current research on the impact of academic segregation on students and yet, without concrete evidence, we continue to expand the selective school system and mainstream schools continue to group students together on the basis of ability.’ Her ARC-funded study is attempting to address the gaps in the research literature and develop knowledge by which educators can make informed decisions about the future of the education system in Australia, and parents can make informed decisions about the futures of their children. For Dr Seaton, the important policy aim is to have an education system that allows every child to reach his or her full potential. As she explains, ‘Every student – gifted and talented, struggling or average – should have the opportunity to reach the limits of their capacity.’ Dr Seaton’s study was awarded the Australian Association for Research in Education’s 2009 Doctoral Research in Education Award for most outstanding Australian doctoral dissertation in education. ■ Danielle Roddick is a Senior Media Officer in the Office of Public Affairs, International and Development Division, at the University of Western Sydney.