The Role of Task Variability and Home Contextual Factors in the Academic Performance and Task Motivation of African American Elementary School Children

By Bailey, Caryn T.; Boykin, A. Wade | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Role of Task Variability and Home Contextual Factors in the Academic Performance and Task Motivation of African American Elementary School Children


Bailey, Caryn T., Boykin, A. Wade, The Journal of Negro Education


The Role of Task Variability and Home Contextual Factors in the Academic Performance and Task Motivation of African American Elementary School Children*

This study aimed to increase the generalizability of findings from previous research (Boykin, 1978, 1982; Tuck & Boykin, 1989) on the theoretical concept verve (receptiveness to variability) to academic settings by examining the effects of task variability on academic task performance and task motivation. Seventy-two low-income African American third and fourth grade students completed four types of academic tasks (i.e., spelling, vocabulary, mathematics, and picture-sequencing) in both a low and a high variability context. The students were also assessed for task motivation in the two variability contexts. Results revealed that academic task performance and task motivation were superior when tasks were presented with greater variability. Home contextual factors that may inform students' preferences, motivation, and achievement outcomes were also examined.

Our nation is still plagued by the persistent low achievement of too many of its public school children, particularly minority children from low-income urban school districts. African American children, in particular, are not yet reaching their full academic potential and tend to perform at significantly lower levels than their European American counterparts (Donahue, Voelkl, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999; National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). To address this persistent concern, a growing number of researchers have focused on specific cultural and contextual factors that may facilitate children's cognitive performance (Boykin & Allen, 2000; Gallimore & Tharp, 1999; Gordon, 1997; Hale, 2001; Hilliard, 1992; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995; Lee, 2001; Rogoff, 1990). It has been argued that African American children may be educationally placed at risk because, currently, little consideration is given to the integrity of their cultural capital and adaptive assets in traditional educational contexts.

Building on children's cultural integrity to enhance educational outcomes is central to the promotion of a Talent Development approach to schooling (Boykin, 2000; Madhere & MacIver, 1996). This approach seeks to supplant the traditionally dominant approach to schooling that is exemplified instead by a talent sorting function. Rather than sorting or weeding children out, often because of cultural inclinations that are deemed to be at odds with mainstream cultural schooling practices, the Talent Development approach seeks to engender enabling schooling contexts so that pervasive numbers of children from diverse backgrounds can succeed by meeting high academic standards.

Research that seeks to build on child cultural assets has sought to identify cultural practices, funds of knowledge, artifacts, or themes that can be blended into formal schooling practices to enhance academic outcomes (Boykin & Bailey, 2000a; Gonzalez, Andrade, Civil, & Moll, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 2001; Lee, 2001; Tharp, Estrada, Stoll-Dalton, & Yamuchi, 2000).

The logic of the argument is that practice, knowledge, and experience in proximal out-of-school contexts can be vehicles for successful performance in academically relevant settings. In this regard, some have sought to identify candidates for cultural themes that have an enduring and pervasive presence in African American communities. Toward this end, systematic empirical efforts have documented the cultural significance of African American children's responsiveness to relatively high levels of physical stimulation and the influence of such responsiveness on these children's learning preference and cognitive outcomes (Boykin, 1982; Franklin, 1992; Hale-Benson, 1986; Morgan, 1980). It is postulated that physical stimulation is characterized by the elements of variability, density, and intensity. The households of many African Americans have variously been described as high-energy, fast-paced, socially oriented, and otherwise affording high physical stimulation levels (Boykin, 1982). …

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