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“Educational processes impacting on students to choose and sustain a STEM trajectory of study”

This study aims to unpack the affective processes taking place in regard to student choice, participation and engagement in subjects whilst at secondary school. The study specifically aims to highlight ways students feel about learning within a variety of subject domains and includes a consideration of ways relational practices impact on these feelings and attachments to subjects (as belonging). This research identifies practices that act as boundaries to students in taking up particular subjects. Through the use of filmic methodology the study aims to apply new ways of thinking regarding assumptions made about student choice in education, in regard to active desire (Ames, 1992; Pintrich, 2000, 2003) and participation in STEM subjects. It builds on previous research and theorizations (Blickenstaff, 2005; Cervoni & Ivinson, 2011; Mendick, 2005; Pitts-Taylor, 2016; Walkerdine, 1998, 2006; Walkerdine, Lucey, & Melody, 2001; Watt, 2004). It does this by interrogating affective experiences of schooling.

#1 Students discuss happiness and particular joyous moments at school

In this dialogue thirteen high performing Year 10 students from an Australian selective government school discuss how happy they are currently at school. They have just started Year 10 at this selective entry co-educational government school. Students discuss happiness and draw comparison to their past schooling experience, including reference to relations with teachers and environments. They give explicit examples of joyfulness related to successful and challenging learning events and social encounters. Only one student cannot recall any joyful encounters from school. This clip may be useful for educators to think about ways to engage students in relation, through community, where students are explicitly included and valued.

#2 Students retell their journey and experience of a selective entry school

In this dialogue thirteen high performing Year 10 students reveal how they came to apply and join a selective school. Their multiple stories reference influences such as economics, parents, teachers, subject choice, aspirations, bullying and belonging.

Some of the students initially did not want to leave their old schools whilst others did not like their old schools. Despite the pros and cons, the students all express their new selective school trajectory with affirmation, pride, aspiration and delight. This is often attributed to pedagogical practices enacted in the new school. This clip may be useful for educators to think about ways to engage students in relation, through community, where students are explicitly included and valued.

#3 Students self-describe themselves using three terms

What does it take to be a high achieving successful student? Listen to these thirteen high achieving Year 10 students who have just started at a selective science school. They self- describe their student selves in three terms. Motivation seems to be the most identified attribute that they shared. This clip may be useful for educators to think about encouraging attributes in students.

#4 Students self-assess their own academic capacities

These high achieving students evaluate their academic ability with a surprising mix of assessments. Many of these very smart students discuss themselves as ‘average’. There is also a mixture of feelings from good-mediocre-bad-sad. These evaluations are intermingled within the context of their recent enrolment in a selective school and ways their previous perceptions and status were interrupted by the new competition between other high achieving students.

They renegotiate their feelings to accept that they are not always the best student. Their confidence varies and is explicitly linked to how they feel about the subject, teacher, and teaching style. They discuss strategies implemented to stay on track, feel better about themselves, and ultimately ensure they succeed. Many students don’t feel that they are ‘naturally’ smart and most discuss the necessity to work hard in order to achieve highly. This clip may be useful for educators to think about not only encouraging attributes but also confidence in students. It allows educators to consider how students feel in a highly competitive environment that may be incredibly stressful.

#5 Students discuss their thoughts and feelings in relation to subject engagement and choice

In this dialogue thirteen high performing Year 10 students discuss their understanding of ways they engage meaningfully with subjects. They reveal an understanding of learning processes and the connection between engagement and ‘undergoing’ as learning as well as the relational impact of both peers, teachers, school systems and community. What is interesting here is the discussion of shifting engagement with subjects, often based on the pedagogical interactions offered in the classroom. Students discuss the benefits of a range of real world connections to their learning. They articulate ways they choose subjects, based on their passions, self-efficacy, past success/failure and pragmatic concerns regarding their future educational trajectories alongside their aspirations for the future. In trying to negotiate their current desires they discuss their current and past shifting engagement with STEM subjects and also reflect on past engagement with the arts. This clip is useful for teachers as an aid to flag ways students engage with learning tasks that are authentic, challenging, and flexible.

#6 Students discuss successes and failures undergone at school

In this dialogue thirteen high performing Year 10 students revisit experience of both success and failure whilst at school and ways this impacts on their student trajectories. They make surprising connections between their own failures experienced and how failure can actually enact success of sorts when approached strategically. Success itself is a performative, and these students mostly want to be recognised as successful. Discussion includes recounting learning and teaching practices, notions of commitment and practice, and the joy of success. Students discuss tactics undertaken to problematize failure as necessarily bad, discuss work ethics and also make nuanced observations about ways the scales of success, as a measured grade, impacts on their sense of self. Interestingly these students’ notions of failure are often not ‘a fail’ in itself but more an underachievement in their own eyes. Failure experienced at school is most often linked to the subject of mathematics, in particular for the female students. This clip is useful for educators who are interested in motivating students to succeed and also overcome perceived failings. It is also useful for students to watch and perhaps aid them in understanding that failure is not necessarily always bad, but rather a starting point for reassessment.

#7 Students report on feelings of vulnerability whilst at school

The overwhelming majority of students discuss vulnerability as an anxiety to succeed, and the fear that they may not be good enough. They discuss their identity as performing as smart students. Students also deliberate on feelings of being scared in relation to test results, spaces, teachers, and other students. Students who claim not to feel vulnerable discuss self-talk as a strategy to keep feelings of anxiety at bay and also a way of placing their anxiety in perspective. One of the most interesting recounts here is Mitch who explains the anxiety of ‘not understanding’ and how this may be related to teaching practices. This clip may be useful for educators and students alike and assist in enacting practices and strategies to relieve anxiety in the teaching and learning process.

#8 Students discuss the pros and cons of school uniforms

Students discuss how it feels to wear school uniforms and describe how the school uniform is at times both suffocating, restrictive and discomforting, as well as a symbol of pride and recognition. They raise issues with dresses, skirts, pants, shorts, ties, tights, jumpers and the blazer. Both female and male students highlight ways the uniform distinguishes between genders and how this may possibly be related to inequity for girls. Students highlight the link between successful learning and feelings of comfort. This clip may be useful for educators to the unintended and not immediately obvious consequences of school uniform policy.

#9 Students discuss their exposure to gender equity in school

In this brief conversation students appear to have trouble articulating, and grapple with understanding the concept of gender equity. They confuse notions of equity with programs teaching sex education and even the simplistic notion that men and women should be civil to each other. Some gender equity programs are acknowledged but not as explicitly addressing gender inequity. It is very apparent from this discussion that these students do not explicitly acknowledge inequity as existing and apparently do not think it is needed at school (at their school). They espouse the notion that everybody is equal here. This clip may be useful for educators and students alike to consider notions of both equality and equity and the differences between these two terms.

#10 Students discuss what they want to be when they grow up

These high achieving Year 10 students discuss their hopes, dreams and aspirations for future careers and explicitly rationalise these aspirations. They link aspirations to both their experiences of subjects in school and to work-experience undergone. They trouble their future dreams with practical concerns linked to economic outcomes, competition in getting into desired courses, parental expectations and hopes, and their own academic abilities. Careers advice is critiqued as both useful and inaccurate, and at times criticized for not taking into account student parameters. Students discuss various preferred options, and the disconnect between those options including their own changing desires in relation to careers. Students discuss the importance of having a backup plan and some appeared concerned that their aspirational careers might not happen and note the importance of having a contingency plan in place. Notably the male students interviewed appear much more decisive about their future trajectories. Students reflect on the influence of formal careers advice, parental concerns, and specific teacher advice. Desired careers include medicine, dentistry, engineering, psychiatry, veterinary science, law, architecture, and astrophysics amongst others. This clip may be useful for educators to think about ways to ensure students are explicitly included and valued regardless of their gender and achievement to date. More than direct career paths could be included in careers advice and these clips illustrate the changing nature of students desires for the future.

#11 Students discuss where they see themselves in ten years

These high achieving students visualise where they will be in ten years. Only one student struggles to visualise himself ten years into the future. The other students are mostly optimistic about their futures – hopeful but tempered. This clip is useful to consider ways visualisation may inspire students in their motivations for study.

#12 Aspiration for life

These high achieving student share what they most look forward to in life –beyond school. This is mediated with their passions and desires – along with envisaged obstacles. This clip is useful to consider ways visualisation may inspire students in their motivations for study.

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