Why Achieving Equity in Adult Learning is Not Possible Yet: The Social Cognitive Theory of Socioeconomic Status and Motivation

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Recently, we are confronted towards an emerging topic, and this is to motivate adults for participating in learning. Motivation has never been a concise subject to study because of its multiformity as a concept. At the same time, motivation is considered a strong predictor of achievement (Ames, 1990; Maehr & Meyer, 1997). The question that emerges is whether motivation for participation in learning can be aroused through smart incentives or it is rather a fixed behavioural construct of individuals. Kraus et al. (2012) through the elaboration of the social cognitive theory of SES, explain how certain groups of adults develop specific behaviours that negatively influence their motivation levels.

Roughly speaking, we could easily distinct two main categories of adults: rich and poor. In research, there is a similar distinction, however, it is made by carefully measuring individuals’ socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is usually represented by combining three indicators: financial income, educational level, and occupational status (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Cowan et al., 2012). Another important element asserted by definition is the relative nature of socioeconomic status i.e., individuals are ranked according to their relative position within their society (Mueller & Parcel, 1981). In practice, this means that according to your current status, you might feel ‘rich’ in Central African Republic, but very ‘poor’ in Singapore. In the end, this is what determines the so-called social class. Of course, this is not a binary system and more social layers appear in societies -usually lower (or working), middle and higher class-. Social classes are responsible for severe inequalities in societies with implications in social equity, an important issue for all countries. So, what the social cognitive theory of SES tells us about adults’ motivation levels in learning?

This theory focuses on the psychological aspect of individuals with regard to the effect of their social class. Several of these behaviours have important implications in learning; or better, their motivation to learn. Getting into the theoretical background would make this reading very long, but much of it will be coming into sight in following posts. In total, Kraus et al. (2012) list nine possible hypotheses-patterns, however here we will focus only on four with implications in learning and especially, the motivational forces. Mind always to read critically and draw your own conclusions.

  1. Lower-class individuals are more prompt to social threats. It has been proved that financial scarcity in combination with the adverse environmental conditions of lower-SES communities (e.g., violence, criminality, health problems, unbowed depressions and other disorders), relate to certain physiological symptoms (e.g., salivary cortisol -corresponded to stress-; Hajat et al., 2010, elevated heart rate and blood pressure; Chen & Matthews, 2001; higher tendency to coronary heart disease; Phillips & Klein, 2010) and social beliefs (i.e., cynical mistrust and hostility; Gallo & Matthews, 2003). It is believed that these are indications of uncertainty and unsafety that display vulnerability and sensitivity towards social threats. Indicative examples of such threats in educational settings are social rejection, greater concern about self-competence in comparison to others (Johnson, Richeson, & Finkel, 2011) or anxiety about confirming negative expectations (Croizet and Clare, 1998). In turn, these beliefs will possibly have a downward effect on the sense of belongingness and expectancy levels.
  2. Lower-class individuals experience reduced personal sense of control. There are much evidence showing that upper-class individuals possess greater control over life’s outcomes because of higher wealth, personal freedom, and social opportunities in their environment (e.g., Domhoff, 1998; Lachman & Weaver, 1998). In addition, the possibility to occupy positions of influence provides an elevated sense of personal control in their society and their life. In contrast, lower-class individuals might feel more vulnerable and less powerful to react on external conditions and changes, thus, they exhibit lower levels of personal sense of control over their lives and their successes. These perceptions might lead to the belief that little can be done to change their current condition, and additional effort -for example learning or developing a new skill- could be worthless.
  3. Lower-class individuals favour communal decisions, while higher-class individuals favour more personal ones. It is argued that people from low SES backgrounds make decisions that favour a conjoint model of agency i.e., making decisions similar to others. It is explained that this pattern derives from the tendency of attributing the consequences of their life to external forces, because of the few material and economic resources that allow only a minor control of their environment. Therefore, they are more likely to follow public opinions and social waves, as a way to give more meaning to their choices. On the other hand, people from high SES backgrounds present a more self-focused thinking, favouring a disjoint model of agency. They make decisions that display a preference for individuality, given the fact that greater economic resources allow more personal choice and control on external situations (Stephens et al. 2007, 2011). In educational settings, it was found that the university students who reported higher subjective SES, indeed reported more achievement-focused choices and consequently, persistence in their academic life (Kraus et al., 2009).
  4. Lower-class individuals favour contextual attributions, while upper-class favour dispositional attributions. In alignment with the previous hypotheses, it is supported that low SES individuals’ will attribute their personal outcomes to external conditions and environment, due to the reduced sense of personal control, increased social threats and sense of inferiority in their society. On the other hand, high SES individuals given the increased sense of control over external conditions, attribute their personal outcomes to internal dispositional forces (e.g., determination, effort, goals, persistence, or ability). These causal explanations have direct implications in learning where academic success or failure can be either attributed to external (e.g., teaching style) or internal forces (i.e., persistence and effort; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Therefore, low SES individuals might create certain chain reactions and emotional patterns (e.g., reduced sense of belonginess, or  increased competitiveness, or reduced control, or less achievement choices) that lead to negative attitudes towards learning, by misinterpreting successes or failures.

This theory can provide some useful insights about the world of lower class (thus, lower-skilled) individuals; insights about their mental and emotional world (how do they think, how do they make decisions, how do they feel and function). Belongingness, self-ability, expectations for success, competitiveness, achievement-choice, persistence, growth mindset are all important constructs of motivation in learning, found in the most famous  ad influencial macrotheories (Bandura, 2001; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Therefore as we can see, achieving equity in adult learning is not a result of a policy or an amendment paper; not even when opportunities are perfectly equilized. It seems that psychological factors will persist to show up maintaining the gap between social classes. Education is seen as a great vehicle to equalize social disparities, but social equity needs formal and radical social constructs into societies and cultures, a topic which will be further elaborated in following posts.

Demos Michael is project researcher at CARDET (Centre for the Advancement of Research & Development in Educational Technology) while his expertise focuses on educational research. He is interested in topics related to equity and inclusion of educational effectiveness, as well as non-cognitive processes that affect academic achievement. More specific fields of interest are motivation, achievement choices, expectancy beliefs, mindset, perseverance, persistence, self-efficacy and others. He has been recently involved in the implementation of various projects in adult education and other research activities. He believes that all individuals have a special capability on at least one domain where they can develop genius.


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First published on “EPALE” on ” June, 04 2021″.

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