Transition to Secondary School for Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Students in High-Ability Settings

PhD Thesis

Tikoft, C.. (2021). Transition to Secondary School for Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Students in High-Ability Settings [PhD Thesis]. Institute for Positive Psychology and Education Faculty of Health Sciences
AuthorsTikoft, C.
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy

High-ability Aboriginal students are not achieving educational outcomes commensurate to their non-Indigenous peers. High-ability Aboriginal students are also underrepresented in selective academic environments. Transition from primary school to Year 7 in high school is known as a vulnerable period at an age that is a particularly sensitive phase for self-concept development. In addition, when transitioning from primary to high school selective education settings, many high-ability Aboriginal students find that class-average achievement is higher and that they are no longer one of the top students in their class. Researchers have suggested that early streaming of high school classes based upon ability can contribute to negative stereotyping, internalising labels of “ability”, diminishing confidence and motivation in school, and accelerating the formation of deficit beliefs of intelligence as a fixed ability. Other studies have found that experiencing education in a selective setting impacts positively upon high-ability students’ educational striving and achievement. However, there is a paucity of research that has examined high-ability Aboriginal students’ experiences of transition.
It is well established from a variety of educational psychology theories that social and emotional factors are influential in the transition to secondary school. These theories include big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) theory (self-perceptions), growth mindset theory (self-beliefs), expectancy–value theory (self-goals), and ethnic congruence theory (sense of belonging). The quadripolar model is also a useful theoretical framework in that it integrates consideration of two self-protective strategies (success orientation and failure avoidance) on a matrix.
The purpose of this study was to investigate how Aboriginal adolescents experience ability grouping, such as gifted and talented classes, in the transition to secondary school. The study aimed to identify the psychosocial determinants of high-ability Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal primary and secondary students’ educational outcomes and wellbeing in different geographical settings (rural and urban) based on the perceptions of multiple stakeholders from rural (n = 1) and urban locations (n = 2) who participated in a 1-hour interview: high-ability Year 7 Aboriginal (n = 5) and non-Aboriginal students (n = 6), Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parents/carers (n = 5), teachers (n = 12), Aboriginal education officers (n = 7), and school principals (n = 8). Multiple stakeholders participated in a series of interviews prior to transition to secondary school, after initial transition, and at the end of the first year of secondary school. Interview data were transcribed verbatim, key themes were identified using intercoder reliability, and word-frequency tabulation was employed to identify change in reasoning over time, with the results triangulated across multiple stakeholders.
Students’ self-perceptions and confidence were significantly associated with their school stratification position, academic self-concept, sense of belonging, and their personal perceptions of the relevance of school. In addition, it was found that effort investment was associated in distinct ways with the ability levels of classmates. The findings suggest that many high-ability Aboriginal students can experience difficulty transitioning to secondary school when placed in classes where the average-ability levels are higher than theirs, forcing upward comparisons that impact adversely on their academic self-concept. Cooperative learning environments were found to enable Aboriginal students to negotiate difficulties and succeed in challenging learning environments. It was also found that a second transition from a selective context to a mixed-ability context could positively affect self-concept and motivation. The study supports and enhances the quadripolar model by identifying the classroom compositional effects that foster strategies that students use to avoid failure and approach success. Examination of the data revealed that high-achieving students strategically manage the representation of their identities in school. These findings support and extend the BFLPE theory and its application to Aboriginal students.
It was found that in NSW schools, the achievement levels of Year 7 “gifted and talented” classes are hetrogeneous and disparate, and the classroom climate is often competitive with adverse impacts on self-concept. Conversely, cooperative learning environments increased academic self-concept resulting in growth in achievement, enjoyment, and participation. On this basis, it is recommended that gifted and talented classes reduce comparisons and competition and foster peer social support for Aboriginal students. In transition, strategies need to be employed that account for students’ academic self-concept to avoid competition and maladaptive social comparisons.

Keywordsprimary-secondary transition; Indigenous; tracking; big-fish-little-pond effect; self-concept; excellence gap; motivation; mindset; streaming
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Page rangei - 481
Final version
File Access Level
Output statusSubmitted
Publication process dates
Deposited04 Mar 2021
ARC Funded ResearchThis output has been funded, wholly or partially, under the Australian Research Council Act 2001
Grant IDLP1401001481
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High-ability Aboriginal Australian students’ reasoning about source of effort
Tikoft, Catherine, Craven, Rhonda, Yeung, Alexander and Mooney, Janet. (2023). High-ability Aboriginal Australian students’ reasoning about source of effort. Cambridge Journal of Education. 53(3), pp. 375-396.