Differences in the way students from various demographic and socioeconomic groups feel about their school experiences are some of the more intriguing findings from a five year study of American teenagers development of workplace skills and attitudes.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and Barbara Schneider report the study’s finding in Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work, a 2000 book I discussed in an earlier post.
Researchers looked at students’ experience of flow, which might be described as situations in which someone becomes totally engrossed in a challenging activity that is just barely within their skill level. Flow experiences are all-out efforts, not necessarily what others regard as fun.
The Research Findings
Gender differences in flow experiences at school
While it’s common knowledge girls like school better than boys, the study suggests one reason that may be true. Researchers found that female students experience higher levels of flow experiences in schools than males.
Racial differences in flow experiences at school
Race also had intriguing relationships to students’ experience of flow. Caucasian students experienced flow at school significantly less than other radial groups. They also saw school activities less relevant to their future careers. Compared to other racial groups, they got less enjoyment and positive affect from school. White kids found tests and quizzes particularly unenjoyable.
African-American experienced more flow than other groups, and reported higher levels of enjoyment, especially when doing individual work.
Hispanics also reported greater enjoyment and positive affect, wished to do them more often, and regarded them as more important.
Reported flow levels were lowest among Asian students. For them, watching TV or videos was a bummer; they derived most enjoyment from group work.
Socioeconomic differences in flow experiences at school
The higher students rank on the socioeconomic scale, the less likely they were to report high levels of flow at school or to want to be in school. The one exception was group activities; advantaged students reported higher flow scores on group activities than those in lower socioeconomic groups.
Flow experiences at school were reported more often by students at schools serving high proportions of economically disadvantaged students than those from other communities. In general, the poorer the kids, the better school looked to them.
Musings: What are implications for educational policy and practice?
Looking at the findings, I can’t help wondering how much present educational trends toward less individual work, more group work, fewer tests and quizzes is driven by white, upper-middle class values. If we move students from lower socioeconomic into classes centered around group work are we doing them a favor? Or are we further disadvantaging them by forcing them into situations that make school unpleasant?
Assuming kids from the lower socioeconomic group get jobs, are those jobs likely to require the kinds of group skills needed by middle class kids who go from college into entry-level management jobs?