What is it?
Aspirations are what children and young people hope to achieve for themselves in the future. Raising aspirations is often believed to be an effective way to motivate students to work harder so as to achieve the steps necessary for later success. A number of approaches to raising aspirations have been tried across three broad areas:
- Interventions that focus on parents and families;
- Interventions that focus on teaching practice;
- Out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities, sometimes involving peers and mentors.
Approaches that seek to raise aspirations are very diverse. They may aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities or they make seek to develop general self-esteem, motivation or self-efficacy. For interventions which focus on self-efficacy and motivation specifically in a learning context please see meta-cognition and self-regulation.
How effective is it?
On average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little to no positive impact on educational achievement. This may seem counterintuitive – and it should be noted that the relationship between aspirations and achievement is complex and not fully understood – but there appear to be three main explanations.
First, evidence suggests that most young people actually have high aspirations, implying that much underachievement results not from low aspiration itself but from a gap between the aspirations that do exist and the knowledge and skills that are required achieve them. As a result, it may be more helpful to focus on raising achievement more directly in the first instance. Second, where students do have lower aspirations, it is not clear that any targeted interventions consistently succeed in raising their aspirations. Third, where aspirations begin low and are successfully raised by an intervention, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows. In programs which do raise achievement, it is unclear whether raising aspirations can be credited for the learning gains rather than the additional academic support or increased parental involvement.
There are no Australasian-based studies examining the impact of aspiration interventions on student learning and achievement. However, a few studies have examined growing aspirational thinking as one of several intervention outcomes of community engagement programs in Australia and New Zealand that focus on family engagement and building family aspirations.
A 2009 observational study examined the relationship between the aspirations and academic outcomes of high school students in Queensland and Western Australia. The authors did not identify a significant relationship between aspiration and academic outcomes, but noted that that the degree to which students believed they were capable of achieving their goals was a strong predictor of academic success.
How secure is the evidence?
Generally the evidence base on aspiration is very weak. More rigorous studies are required, particularly focusing on student-level rather than school-level interventions. There are two systematic reviews of aspiration interventions, some of which include quantitative data. These indicate that the relationship between aspirations and achievement is complex, but that there is no evidence of a clear causal connection between learning, changing aspirations, and attitudes to school.
There are no meta-analyses of interventions to raise aspirations that report impact on achievement or learning. This lack of evidence does not mean that impact is not achievable, but should make schools cautious as to how they make any investment of time or resources in this area.
What are the costs?
Overall, costs are estimated as moderately high. Costs vary widely and are hard to estimate precisely. Mentoring approaches in Australia are estimated at around $1,500 per student per year but can be provided by volunteers at lower or nil cost to schools.
What should I consider?
The relationship between aspirations and achievement is not straightforward. In general, approaches to raising aspirations have not translated into increased learning.
A key reason for this may be that most young people have high aspirations for themselves. As a result, it is more important to keep these on track by ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills to progress towards them.
The attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse so generalisations should be avoided.
Effective approaches almost always have a significant academic component, suggesting that raising aspirations in isolation will not be effective.
Have you considered how you will monitor the impact on achievement of any interventions or approaches?