GIFTED ADOLESCENT GIRLS: SELF-PERCEPTIONS OF ABILITY
WITHIN ONE MIDDLE SCHOOL SETTING
LINDA R. KRAMER
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Every person is, in part, "his own project" and
makes himself. Growth forward requires
courage and strength in the individual as well
as protection, permission, and encouragement from
-- Abraham Maslow
To Louis Geczy
The writing of a dissertation is necessarily a solitary process.
Numerous long hours must be spent alone in contemplation and writing.
Yet, without the assistance, guidance, and support of a number of
people, this dissertation might not have reached fruition.
I would like to thank the members of my committee for their con-
tributions. My chairperson, Dr. Paul George, has a special insight
into the nature and needs of early adolescents, and his expertise in
this area has guided my own thinking and question-asking. Throughout
this study Dr. George has given his time and support, encouraging me
to persevere when my own spirits were lagging. My cochairperson, Dr.
Dorene Ross, has been an inspiration to me throughout my doctoral pro-
gram. I have appreciated her unfailing interest in this study, her
astute editorial comments, her confidence, and friendship. Dr. Rod
Webb has helped me develop sound research skills, as well as a broader
perspective on schooling. His dedication and enthusiasm have been
powerful sources of motivation. Dr. Sandra Damico has offered a willing
ear and numerous suggestions throughout my graduate studies. I am
grateful for her confidence in me and her ability to find the humor
in almost any situation. Dr. Gordon Lawrence has taught me how complex
the human personality is, and in so doing, has helped me come to better
understand myself. His knowledge of instruction and learning has enabled
me to become a better teacher. It is difficult to adequately thank
these individuals for their support and guidance during the last several
To the girls, teachers, and mothers who opened their lives to me
I am most grateful. I have appreciated their trust, friendship, and
warm welcome, without which this study could not have been completed.
In addition, I would like to thank the many other middle school students
who offered their opinions and humorous anecdotes for inclusion in my
I am also indebted to the many friends who spent hours listening
to my experiences and helping me clarify my thoughts. Debbie Hathaway,
Robert Hunt, Deborah Marshall, and Thomas Palumbo have been especially
supportive in this endeavor, and for their friendship I will always be
My mother, sisters, and brother have offered their love, encourage-
ment, and support. Their faith in me has given me the strength and
desire to complete this difficult task.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . .. vi
ABSTRACT . . . . . . .. viii
I BACKGROUND FOR THE STUDY . . . ... 1
Statement of the Problem . . . ... 1
Significance of the Study . . . . 2
Definition of Terms . . . . 5
Design of the Study . . . . 6
Scope of the Study . . . . . 7
II REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE . . . .. 9
Theoretical Framework: Attribution and Self-Worth
Theories .............. .......... 10
Ability Formation Theory and Related Studies. ...... 14
Gifted Adolescent Girls: Studies Related to Ability
Perceptions . . . . . 29
III METHODOLOGY . . . . . .. 34
The Research Perspective . . . ... 34
The Setting . . . . . .. 38
Selection of the Research Site . . .. .38
Gaining Entry to the Site . . .. 39
Description of the Site . . . .. 43
Research Methods and Procedures . . .. .49
Asking Ethnographic Questions . . ... .49
Collecting Ethnographic Data . . .. 52
Participant observation . . .. 53
Interviewing . . . . .. 58
Unobtrusive measures . . ... 60
Making an Ethnographic Record . . .. .62
Analyzing Ethnographic Data . . ... 64
Researcher Qualifications and Biases . .. 67
Validity and Ethical Issues . . ... 69
IV GIFTED ADOLESCENT GIRLS' SELF-PERCEPTIONS OF ABILITY 72
Ability and Motivation: School and Community Contexts 75
Gifted Girls' Views About Themselves . ... .76
The Gifted Program . . . .. 82
Members of a Team ...... .................. .90
Gifted girls' perceptions of Team One. ........90
Gifted girls' perceptions of Team Two ..... 98
Beliefs about Ability .... . . . 107
Multiple Definitions of Giftedness. . . 108
Affiliation Needs . . . . 116
Social Comparison . . . . 125
V CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS . . . .. .131
Relationship of Findings to Previous Studies ........ .137
Use of Findings to Research Community . . ... .142
Use of Findings to Practitioners . . .. .146
A LETTER OF PERMISSION .
B GROUP INTERVIEW WITH GIRLS
C INTERVIEW WITH TEACHERS.
D INTERVIEW WITH MOTHERS .
E INDIVIDUAL INTERVIEWS WITH
F INTERVIEW WITH PRINCIPAL .
REFERENCES . . ..
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . .
. . . . 152
. . . . 153
S. . . . 154
S. . . . 155
GIRLS . . . 156
. . . . 157
S. . . . 158
. . . . 167
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
GIFTED ADOLESCENT GIRLS: SELF-PERCEPTIONS OF ABILITY
WITHIN ONE MIDDLE SCHOOL SETTING
Linda R. Kramer
Chairperson: Dr. Paul George
Cochairperson: Dr. Dorene Ross
Major Department: Educational Leadership
The purpose of this study was to investigate in detail the
experiences of gifted adolescent girls in one middle school, de-
lineating the social-interactional factors which influenced ability
perceptions and attitudes toward achievement. The researcher assumed
a social-interactionist perspective by which self-perceptions of
ability were viewed as the interaction of gifted girls' attitudes,
perspectives, and values with variables inherent in the school environ-
ment. The study focused on two guiding questions:
(1) What kinds of experiences do gifted girls have as members of
heterogeneous teams and homogeneous gifted classes?
(2) How do they use these experiences to construct behavior and
beliefs about ability?
Qualitative research methods were used to collect and analyze data.
Observations were conducted on the gifted classroom and interdisci-
plinary teams for 200 hours the last five months of the school year.
These observations focused on gifted girls' achievement-related behavior
inside and outside classrooms, their interactions with teachers and
peers, and their speech messages about achievement and ability. Formal
and informal interviews were conducted with the gifted girls, their
teachers, and five mothers. In addition, work samples, journals written
by the girls, and cumulative school records were examined.
Data analysis revealed three factors which influenced the formation
of gifted girls self-perceptions of ability. These factors included
the following: multiple definitions of giftedness held by significant
others, affiliation needs, and social comparison.
The majority of gifted girls described themselves as having poten-
tial rather than ability. They believed their achievements resulted
from effort, and their failures from lack of motivation. These per-
ceptions were found to be the result of a cyclic process in which
gifted girls used school experiences to interpret and modify their
beliefs and attitudes about achievement, and, in turn, these beliefs
and attitudes guided their choices of behavior at school. Specifically,
the variables which seemed to be related to gifted girls' self-
perceptions of ability were the nature of student-teacher relationships
within teams, the belief that social competence was an important area
in which to achieve, and the girls' entering views about themselves.
BACKGROUND FOR THE STUDY
The unique characteristics of gifted girls have recently received
increased attention in light of the literature which illustrates that
more adult males than females are identified as gifted (Goertzel &
Goertzel, 1962; Goertzel, Goertzel, & Goertzel, 1978; Terman & Oden,
1959). "Even though gifted girls tend to earn higher grades in school
and the prevailing stereotype of females includes superior performance
in English, foreign languages, and the arts, the adult productivity of
males is superior in all areas" (Callahan, 1981, p. 499).
Experts in the area of gifted education are concerned about the
loss of contributions of gifted and talented women to society, but
research has failed to account for what appears to be a lack of
achievement motivation in bright women. Gifted adolescent girls'
beliefs about ability, a central component in achievement motivation,
may have great bearing on their accomplishments in later life.
Statement of the Problem
The purpose of this study was to investigate and describe gifted
adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability within one middle
school. Studies which have focused on gifted girls or women have
concentrated on personality characteristics or career-ability conflicts,
but no studies have investigated self-perceptions of ability within
The way students come to think about their abilities is a function
of social experience (Maehr, 1974). This is particularly true for
adolescents who, at this developmental stage, use group standards
generated by social comparison to assess their achievements (Covington,
1984). For the adolescent girl, the impact of social experience on
ability perceptions may be even more pronounced. Research has indi-
cated that females are more sensitive to negative teacher or peer
feedback and that, as they grow older, females rate their abilities
lower than males (Brophy & Good, 1974; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974).
Theorists postulate that females, to a greater degree than males,
define themselves in relation and connection to other people
(Chodorow, 1974). Therefore, when teachers and peers accept, reject,
encourage, or restrain, they may be affecting not only the present
achievement-related behavior and ability perceptions of girls, but they
may also be creating images that affect girls' future motivations and
aspirations. The goal of this study was to describe and explain the
experiences of gifted adolescent girls in one school, delineating
social-interactional factors which influence ability perceptions and
attitudes toward achievement.
Significance of the Study
While much of the theory and research on ability perceptions has
resulted from studies which have been conducted with adult subjects
and in laboratory settings, the focus of this study was on the school
contexts in which students' self-perceptions of ability develop. The
growing body of research conducted thus far on students' perceptions
of school experiences has indicated that students consciously attempt
to make sense of the social and cognitive aspects of school. These
studies have characterized students as active interpreters of classroom
experiences, sensitive to "the differential behaviors that teachers
might display toward various groups of students, such as high and low
achievers and boys and girls" (Weinstein, 1983, p. 302). An examina-
tion of school experiences as they relate to the formation of ability
perceptions, then, can provide information about how gifted girls come
to view and understand their own abilities relative to others.
Mishler (1979) has pointed out that the tendency for researchers
to apply the methodology developed in the natural sciences to the
investigation of social processes has resulted in context-stripping
methods which seek to formulate universal laws. Thus, the importance
of context has largely been ignored. By focusing on the school
contexts in which gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability occur,
this study attempted to investigate the possible environmental factors
which may influence the development of ability perceptions and
achievement-related behaviors in bright girls who are regularly
removed from the classroom to participate in special instruction.
The possibility of environmental conditions which would seem to affect
the motivation and achievement of gifted and talented females was noted
by Callahan (1981) who suggested that we have little conclusive
evidence because these conditions are "perhaps untestable in the
experimental traditions" (p. 502).
This study may also yield a number of contributions to both prac-
tice and research as they relate to the psychosocial development of
gifted adolescent girls. The need for such research has been illustrated
by the recent formation, in Florida, of a task force to examine middle
childhood education, and to make recommendations concerning program
structure, organization, curriculum, and student services. This task
force has found that students in grades four through eight "must
accomplish a number of developmental tasks, and middle childhood
programs must recognize the developmental diversity and needs of
students" (Speakers Task Force on Middle Childhood Education, 1983,
p. V-2). Based on the task force's work, a bill entitled Progress in
Middle Childhood Education (HB830) has called for new course require-
ments in math, science, and social studies for middle grade students.
This study will add to practitioners' knowledge about the develop-
mental diversity of gifted middle school females and illustrate
curricular needs for this group. In addition, by providing detailed
descriptions of the school experiences of gifted girls, this study
will enable educators to come to know the world of school from the
gifted girl's perspective.
Educators today (should) evaluate their attitudes
and behavior toward the gifted girls in the school
system. In providing special education programs
for the gifted we might unwittingly increase the
conflict between sex-role expectations (and the en-
suing pressure to conform) and the push toward
independent thinking (and competition) for gifted
girls without giving them the opportunity to be
aware of and emotionally prepared for the ambiguous
attitudes of the society in which they are growing
up. (Werner & Bachtold, 1969, p. 1818)
The value of this study to practitioners can be summed up by examining
the following facts. In the state in which this study occurred, the
number of students entering gifted programs has increased by 65.83%
over the last five years. Additionally, the tendency has been for
students to enter these programs during their early elementary years
and remain through high school.
This study will also be of value to researchers. In making
recommendations about "high-priority research activities," Hill (1983,
p. 1) cited his own work dealing with perspectives on adolescence and
indicated that a first priority was studies of "attachment, autonomy,
sexuality, intimacy, achievement, and identity" (p. 1), because
presently available studies are only incidentally related to adolescence
and focus mainly on males. Additionally, Callahan (1981) has noted
that the effects of programs for gifted students have not been
systematically studied. Therefore, implications concerning the
sociological or affective effects of participating in enrichment
programs on gifted females cannot be drawn from existing research.
Definition of Terms
1. Gifted: A student selected by state criteria which stressed
superior development and the capability of advanced performance.
The tested mental capacity of these students is two standard
deviations or more above the mean, that is, an IQ score of 130
2. Self-perception of ability: The individual's beliefs about her
competency to carry out the behaviors expected of her.
3. Middle school: "A school of some three to five years between the
elementary and high school focused on the educational needs of
students in these in-between years and designed to promote con-
tinuous educational progress for all concerned" (Alexander &
George, 1981, p. 3).
4. Context: The physical settings in which an event occurs. It is
"the constellation of norms, mutual rights, and obligations that
shape social relationships, determine participants' perceptions
about what goes on, and influence learning" (Gumperz, 1981, p. 5).
5. Interdisciplinary teams: Teachers from different subject areas
who are organized into groups, assigned a common area of the school
building, a common schedule, and the responsibility for a common
group of students.
6. Advisor-Advisee (AA): A component of the middle school program
created to meet the affective needs of early adolescents. Students
meet regularly with an advisor for academic counseling and affec-
7. Multiage grouping: The placement of students at various grade
levels together for instruction.
Design of the Study
Upon receiving approval from the University Committee for the
Protection of Human Subjects, the county school board, the parents of
the participants, and the girls themselves, the researcher established
an observation schedule which would assure that equal amounts of time
would be spent in the school areas in which gifted girls regularly
interacted. Observations began in January, 1984, and were conducted
until the final day of school in early June. The researcher observed
200 hours of classroom activity primarily representing Mondays,
Wednesday, and Fridays, and all times of the school day. Observations
centered on gifted girls' speech messages concerning schoolwork, peers,
teachers, and self-perceptions; achievement-related behaviors in school
contexts; and interactions with teachers and peers before, during, and
after school. Formal and informal interviews were conducted throughout
the study. Those interviewed included the girls, their teachers, the
school principal, and five mothers. In addition, examples of the
girls' schoolwork, their personal journals kept in advisor-advisee
and the gifted classroom, report cards, and cumulative records were
Data collection and analysis were conducted as specified by
Spradley (1980). This process required that data be organized into
categories based on similarities. Taxonomies were then constructed
to represent gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability by drawing data
from across domains.
Scope of the Study
This study was conducted in one middle school and focused on
the self-perceptions of ability held by the school's ten gifted
females. These students included three sixth graders, two seventh
graders, and five eighth graders. Observations and interviews were
conducted during the second half of the school year in two of the
school's three team areas and in the gifted resource room. Although
this study can provide insight into gifted girls' self-perceptions of
ability, specific findings from this study should not be generalized
to other populations.
In the following chapters a review of the literature, the
methodology, findings, and implications of the study are discussed.
In Chapter II, a review of the literature on the role of context in
the development of ability perceptions and studies related to gifted
adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability are discussed. In
Chapter III, the methodology is described. Chapter IV represents
the study's findings. Conclusions and implications are discussed
in Chapter V.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Research on perceptions of ability has attempted to answer two
different sets of questions. One set of questions has focused on the
feelings about ability that are produced when an individual success-
fully or unsuccessfully completes a task. The purpose of this research
has been to determine the types of feelings that lead to increased
achievement motivation on similar tasks. Researchers concerned with
these questions have been guided by attribution theory (Weiner, Frieze,
Kukla, Reed, Rest, & Rosenbaum, 1971), which proposes that an indi-
vidual's belief about the causes of success and failure affects future
achievement-related behavior, and self-worth theory (Covington & Beery,
1976), which proposes that achievement behavior can be explained in
terms of an individual's attempts to maintain a positive self-image.
Research stemming from these theories has generally been conducted
with adult subjects in laboratory settings. A second body of questions
has focused on possible environmental factors that may influence
feelings about ability. The purpose of this research has been to
determine how ability perceptions are formed. This body of research
has contributed to the recent development of ability formation theory
(Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; in press), which proposes that classroom
processes which contribute to a singular definition of ability lead to
stratification, and, therefore, make it less likely that students will
develop alternative interpretations of ability.
The focus of the present study was on the school contexts in which
gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability develop. For this
reason the review of the literature will be organized in the following
manner: 1) the contributions of the major proponents of attribution
and self-worth theories to our understanding of ability perceptions
will be summarized, 2) ability formation theory and studies related to
early adolescents will be discussed, and 3) research related to gifted
girls' ability perceptions and achievement behavior will be described.
Theoretical Framework: Attribution and Self-Worth
Both the attribution and self-worth theories of achievement
motivation have their roots in earlier "learned drive" theories which
stressed the fundamental conflict between attempting success and
avoiding failure (Covington, 1984). The most well-known of these
theories, one which is still influential today, was developed by John
Atkinson (1964) and David McCelland (1965). Atkinson found that the
way individuals resolved the conflict between seeking success and
avoiding failure depended upon differences in early childhood experi-
ences. For this reason, much of the research stemming from this model
has focused on the importance of childrearing practices in promoting
or hindering the development of a positive orientation necessary to
the pursuit of success (Winterbottom, 1953).
When Atkinson's and McCelland's theoretical model was applied to
females, however, the results were contradictory. "Females' scores
on the motivational measures do not correlate well with their actual
achievement" (Stein & Bailey, 1975, pp. 151-152). In an attempt to
resolve these major unexplained sex differences, Horner (1972; 1975)
posited the motive to avoid success. Horner proposed that women who
are most capable of achieving have a disposition to become anxious about
achieving success as a result of expected negative consequences.
Hornier's work will be reviewed further under research related to
gifted girls' ability perceptions.
Despite the contradictory results with female subjects which were
obtained using this model, Atkinson's (1964) work influenced the
development of both the attribution and self-worth theories of achieve-
ment motivation. Attributional theorists (Weiner et al., 1971) identi-
fied four major explanations about the causes of success and failure:
ability, effort, luck, and task ease/difficulty. These individual
perceptions of the causes of success or failure are believed to be
responsible for individual differences in achievement motivation.
That is, individuals who attribute success to a stable cause such as
ability are more likely to persevere in the future than individuals
who attribute success to an unstable cause such as luck. Thus, success-
oriented individuals attribute their successes to ability and their
failures to lack of effort. Failure-avoiding individuals attribute
success to external factors such as luck, and failure to inability
(Weiner et al., 1971; Weiner & Kuila, 1970).
In attribution theory the perception of effort has been seen as
central to achievement motivation. If individuals fail after putting
forth little effort, they are more likely to maintain a positive out-
look on future attempts than if the degree of effort expended had been
greater. Additionally, individuals who put forth high effort will show
greater pride in success (Covington & Omelich, 1979; Weiner et al.,
The self-worth theory (Covington & Beery, 1976) was a second spin-
off from Atkinson's work. Like attribution theory, self-worth theory
has characterized ability perceptions in terms of causality (Covington,
1984). Unlike attribution theory, students' beliefs about the causes
of success have not been considered sufficient explanations for
achievement behavior. Rather, self-worth theorists have postulated
that students' achievement behavior can be explained by the motivation
to maintain a positive self-image of ability and competence, especially
when some risk is involved (Covington & Omelich, 1979).
In self-worth theory, "the basic assumption is that several
factors influence one's sense of worth and adequacy, including per-
formance level, self-estimates of ability, and degree of effort
expenditure" (Covington, 1984, p. 8). While accomplishments are
considered salient clues about ability, perceptions of high ability
alone can imply worthiness. Like attribution theorists, self-worth
theorists have viewed effort as a mediator, for without significant
effort expenditure one's self-perception of ability will be unaffected
by failure. Great expenditures of effort which result in failure,
however, can lead to perceptions of incompetency that result in shame
(Covington & Omelich, 1979). According to self-worth theory, an
increased capacity for abstract thought among early adolescents and
increased competition in the classroom has contributed to this emphasis
on ability over effort (Covington, 1984).
The major difference between self-worth theory and attribution
theory is the motivational component. Specifically, self-worth theory
holds that students employ a variety of strategies to maintain a sense
of worthiness, and that the need to maintain this perception of worth
is the basic motivation for achievement behavior (Covington, 1984).
While there is much research to support both cognitive attribu-
tion and self-worth theory (see Weiner, 1980; Covington, 1984, for
reviews), the majority of this research results from studies conducted
with adult learners and in laboratory settings. Recently researchers
have pointed out that these theories fail to give adequate attention
to classroom context factors that may influence the formation of
ability perceptions (Blumenfeld, Pintrich, Meece, & Wessels, 1982;
Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; Weinstein, 1983). Other factors like
personal values and perceived consequences of success and failure may
be important in determining achievement-related behavior in the class-
room (Blumenfeld et al.. 1982). Thus, little is actually known about
factors influencing early adolescents' self-perceptions of effort and
ability within the classroom setting. By considering the classroom
context, a more satisfactory theoretical perspective can be constructed,
for context variables may "alter the ways students learn to interpret
their own ability" (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984, p. 32).
Studies of the influence of context factors on ability formation
may be particularly beneficial in understanding early adolescents'
self-perceptions of ability. As Blyth and Traeger (1983) noted in a
recent review of research on self-perceptions in early adolescence, at
this stage in life, young people "are changing cognitively in such a
way as to dramatically change the way they see and evaluate themselves.
There may be changes in what is of central importance to them" (p. 95).
Hill and Lynch (1983) argued that the effect of socialization and
context-related variables on the formation of role-related achievement
and ability perceptions of females may intensify during early adolescence.
In the following section a set of studies which address the role of
classroom context factors in the formation of early adolescents' ability
perceptions will be reviewed.
Ability Formation Theory and Related Studies
Rosenholtz and Simpson (1984; in press) proposed a theory of
ability formation in which context plays a primary role. The follow-
ing four assumptions underlie this theory:
1. Intellectual ability is a relative concept and
will be formed comparatively.
2. Students receive feedback from teachers and from
their peers which should influence their ability
3. The structure of students' academic tasks
symbolically will imply conclusions about the
abilities believed to determine performance at
4. The way in which performance evaluations are
organized and interpreted will provide a language
within which students will cast their interpre-
tations of ability. (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984,
Ability formation theory has proposed that students come to accept
institutional definitions of ability through the process of socializa-
tion. The more singular the picture students see and the more informa-
tion which contributes to this picture, the less likely it is that
students will develop alternative definitions of ability. From this
perspective, what students believe to be real is, at least in part,
socially structured (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). In addition, students,
themselves, are considered active participants in their own socializa-
Rosenholtz and Simpson (1984) noted that certain characteristics
of classroom organization are more likely to bring about shared defini-
tions of ability, that is, a consensus among students and the teacher
about who is most and least able. These characteristics include undif-
ferentiated task structure, low student autonomy, student grouping
patterns, and formal performance evaluations which are frequent and
visible. Classrooms which can be characterized by these criteria are
called unidimensional. Few student choices about activities and
learning goals which would enhance alternative definitions of ability,
and increasing stratification of students along a single dimension,
facilitate the formation of shared perceptions of ability in these
classrooms (Rosenholtz & Simpson, in press).
An important implication of ability formation theory noted by
Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981) was that studies of the effects of
classroom organization on perceptions of ability should not be based
on static models which characterize students as passive entities. Such
a "perspective omits from consideration a variable likely to mediate
the impact of structure on self-evaluation of ability, the evaluative
responses of others" (Rosenholtz & Rosenholtz, 1981, p. 133). Thus,
the analysis of classroom effects should take into account conditions
which affect actors' perceptions and the effects of those perceptions
on individuals' self-perceptions of ability.
Several studies were conducted to test the assumptions which became
the basis of ability formation theory. Rosenholtz and Wilson (1980)
conducted a study to investigate whether different classroom organiza-
tions resulted in different interpretations of ability among students.
Their sample consisted of 15 fifth and sixth grade classrooms in
suburban and urban areas serving a working-class population.
Classrooms were selected based on interviews with principals con-
cerning the degree of curricular complexity within the school.
Specifically, the intent of the study was to determine if classrooms
with low task differentiation, low student autonomy, and comparisons
based on uniform criteria produce a climate in which the range of
alternative definitions of ability narrows and consensus about a
student's ability among classroom participants increases. Such class-
rooms were designated as high resolution classrooms, that is, "the
structure offers a clear picture of student performance" (p. 76).
To measure the degree of resolution, questionnaires were adminis-
tered to teachers who were asked to describe curricular methods and
instructional practices through Likert fixed-choice responses. Ques-
tions asked related to the number of different materials a teacher
used, how teachers organized student groups for instruction, how
frequently students made choices about activities, and how frequently
teachers compared one student's work with another.
Perceptions of ability measured in this study were limited to
dimensions of reading instruction and were obtained through student-
teacher questionnaires. Students were asked to rank order classmates
by their ability to read. Peer rankings of individual students were
then averaged, and a student's self-perception of ability was determined
by the student's placement of self in the rank order. Teachers were
asked to rate students' reading abilities as above average, average,
or below average. The degrees of concurrence among classmates, between
classmates and self, between classmates and teacher, and between teacher
and self were obtained through these rank orders.
Rosenholtz and Wilson concluded that students in high resolution
classrooms had fewer options to demonstrate competence and that, as a
result, ability was more narrowly defined and a greater student-teacher
consensus resulted. "The importance of classroom resolution may be
in its power to shape students' subjective identities" (p. 81), but how
this mediates the individual's self-perception of ability was not
answered by this study.
Using the data obtained in the Rosenholtz and Wilson (1980) study,
Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981) investigated the ways classroom
organization might affect individual self-perceptions of ability.
They tested the following hypotheses: 1) self-evaluations of reading
ability will be more dispersed in unidimensional as opposed to multi-
dimensional classes, and 2) classmates' and teachers' evaluations will
be more dispersed in unidimensional classes. Unidimensional classes
were defined as high resolution classes.
The findings of this study indicated that in forming one's self-
perception of reading ability, the relative influence of the teacher
on the classmates and the teacher and classmates on the self was
affected, in part, by the organization for instruction. In classrooms
where fewer options were provided for students to demonstrate compe-
tence, definitions of ability became more narrowly defined. Grouping
practices and task structures restricted students' options. Rosenholtz
and Rosenholtz (1981) concluded that the effect was greater in situa-
tions where the classroom organization was unidimensional.
While the researchers stressed that the findings of this study
were preliminary because they did not examine the criteria by which
teachers and students made judgments and, therefore, could not assert
causal relationships, the implications are important. Classrooms with
narrow opportunity structures stratify students as compared to
instructional climates which offer students more alternatives in
terms of curriculum and evaluation. Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981)
To the degree that teacher, peer, and self-
perceptions influence future performance, ability
stratification as affected by classroom organiza-
tion could have profound consequences for the
individual's life chances. Instructional organi-
zation, then, may not only provide a framework by
which classroom actors define ability, it may also
enhance or limit capacity. (p. 140)
In a similar study of classroom structure and perceptions of
ability, Simpson (1981) drew conclusions which supported the Rosenholtz
and Rosenholtz (1981) study. Of the 16 classrooms included in his
study, Simpson found that in unidimensional classes teacher ratings
of students in different academic subjects were more widely dispersed
with a higher proportion of students in the below average range. In
multidimensional classes there was less agreement between teachers and
pupils on perceptions of ability.
The implications of the studies conducted by Rosenholtz and
Rosenholtz (1981) and Simpson (1981) point to the importance of class-
room structures which encourage more fluid, changing perceptions of
ability to exist. Such classroom would allow more divergent student-
teacher opinions and thus yield less restriction in performance
A group of studies related to ability formation theory have
investigated the active role students play in interpreting classroom
reality. The following studies are unique because they investigate
the effects of student perceptions of teacher and peer feedback on
student beliefs about ability. The studies reviewed focus on the early
adolescent age group.
Schmuck (1962; 1963) conducted a series of studies in which he
investigated the relationships between students' perceptions of social
status within a classroom, their actual social status as measured by
sociometric devices, and the degree to which students' performances
matched their academic abilities (utilization of abilities). His
sample included 727 students from elementary, junior, and senior high
schools in rural, urban, industrial, and university communities. Data
included the following: results from questionnaires and interviews
with students and teachers, intelligence scores obtained from student
records, and brief observations in the classrooms of students in grades
three through twelve. In Schmuck's (1963) analysis, which centered on
grades three through six, he found that students' perceptions of their
status within peer groups were related to their utilization of abilities.
Further, Schmuck (1962; 1963) identified two types of classroom
power structures. Centralized classrooms were those in which there was
a high consensus among peers in the choice of the most and least power-
ful individuals, as shown by the smaller proportion of different
students nominated in each category. Diffused classrooms were those
in which there was less consensus about the most and least powerful
individuals in the class. Schmuck found that students estimated their
own status more accurately in centralized classrooms, and that high
power students who correctly perceived their positions outperformed
lower power individuals who correctly perceived their positions.
While the results of Schmuck's (1962; 1963) research showed that
student perceptions of social status were related positively and sig-
nificantly to their attitudes toward self and school, actual liking
status showed no such significant relationship to attitudes toward
self and school. Thus, Schmuck's results stressed the importance of
student perceptions of self within the classroom. Further, this study
supports the idea that high peer consensus may influence ability
Schmuck's work left two questions unanswered. Would the results
have been different if measures other than interviews with teachers
had been utilized to divide students into high and low achieving groups
(high and low utilizers of ability)? Would the results have been
different if the analysis had concentrated on the upper grades?
Following Schmuck's research, Brookover, Thomas, and Patterson
(1964) conducted a study of 1,050 urban seventh graders in which they
tested the following hypotheses: 1) self-concept of ability is sig-
nificantly and positively related to academic performance; 2) students
have specific self-concepts of ability which correspond to specific
subjects, and which are better predictors of performance within those
subjects than the general self-concept of ability; and 3) students'
perceptions of the evaluations significant others make of their abilities
affect their self-concept of ability. A Self-Concept of Ability scale
was administered in two parallel forms to measure a general self-
concept of ability and subject-specific self-concepts of ability in
each of the four major subjects. Intelligence scores obtained in the
fourth and sixth grades were averaged and controlled. A measure of
academic performance was obtained from grade point averages.
The results of the study conducted by Brookover et al. (1964)
indicated that self-concept of ability and grade point average were
significantly and positively correlated, despite the fact that ability
was controlled. Interestingly, the specific self-concept of ability
was found to be a better predictor of performance in mathematics,
science, and social studies for males, though the same was not found
to be true for females except in social studies. Correlation between
the specific self-concept of ability and performance in English was
slightly, but not significantly, lower than the correlation between
the general self-concept of ability and performance in English.
Brookover et al. suggested that the sex differences obtained in this
study might reflect factors in the specific community and school system
or the cultural belief that math and science are considered inappro-
priate areas for female achievement. This, however, did not explain
the inability of specific self-concept of ability to predict performance
in English, an area generally considered appropriate for female achieve-
ment. Lastly, Brookover et al. found that the student's self-concept
of ability is significantly and positively correlated with the perceived
evaluations that significant others hold of the student. However, an
individual's self-concept of ability is "more closely related to his
estimate of general attitudes toward him than it is to the perceived
responses of a particular group" (p. 277).
The findings of Brookover et al. indicated that student perceptions
of peer ratings are strongly correlated to self-concept of ability.
Additionally, in finding that students' ability perceptions are more
closely related to estimates of general attitudes, this study suggests
that student self-concepts of ability are influenced by a variety of
sources which may extend beyond the school. This implication may be
important in understanding the sex differences found in this study.
Are the general attitudes which influence males' and females' ability
perceptions made up of different subgroups? In finding that a specific
self-concept of ability was not a better predictor of achievement for
females in science and math than the general self-concept of ability,
this study raises the additional possibility that perceptions of others'
evaluations may be more powerful for adolescent females.
Pittman (1979) addressed some of these issues in a study conducted
to explore the importance of parents, teachers, peers, tests, and self-
evaluation on the development of students' self-perceptions of
achievement. The Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Questionnaire
(IAR) was administered to 1,192 sixth and seventh grade students in
six school systems in North Carolina. The IAR was used to measure
students' perceptions of internal control in achievement situations in
which one influence, either parents, teachers, peers, or self-evaluation
was prominent. Student responses were analyzed separately by sex using
The findings of this study indicated that, for both male and
female early adolescents, parents and teachers played more significant
roles in the development of students' perceptions of internal control
in achievement situations than peers, tests, or self-evaluation. How-
ever, in analyzing student responses by sex, Pittman noted that the
relationship of the home environment with achievement was stronger for
females than males. Thus, Pittman concluded that parents and teachers
are significant, possibly critical influences, on the development of
early adolescents' perceptions of achievement. The results of the study
also indicated that the significance of peers was second to the parent/
teacher factor in its influence on achievement perceptions.
In concluding that the home environment had a stronger influence
on females' beliefs about their achievement, this study raises the
question that community influences may also be more significant on
females' achievement perceptions. Is the influence of parents on
females' beliefs about ability different or more significant in a
rural or urban community?
A growing body of research has investigated the influence of
teacher expectations on student performance (see Braun, 1976; Brophy,
1983; Cooper, 1979, for reviews). These studies, conducted by outside
observers, have identified teacher behaviors which correlate with teacher
expectations for students at different ability levels. From this
perspective, teacher expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.
The students' role in this process was recently investigated by Weinstein,
Marshall, Bratesani, and Middlestadt (1982). Rather than observing
teacher behaviors, these researchers investigated student perceptions
of the evaluative responses of teachers.
Weinstein et al. used the Teacher Treatment Inventory to measure
fourth, fifth, and sixth graders' perceptions of the frequency of 44
teacher behaviors toward a hypothetical male or female, high or low
achieving student. The sample of 243 students came from 16 classrooms
in 4 urban schools of varying socio-economic levels. The items on the
instrument were derived from reviews of the literature on the rela-
tionship between teaching behavior and student achievement, on the
expression of teacher expectations in behavior, and on student per-
ceptions of the classroom environment. Subjects were asked to pretend
that Anne (John) was a student in their class, and, using a Likert
forced-choice scale, rate how frequently their own teacher would work
with Anne (John) in the ways described.
The results of this study indicated that student perceptions of
differential treatment do exist regardless of the sex of the target
student rated. Neither the sex nor the achievement level of the sub-
ject influenced student perceptions. The results also indicated that
the differences students perceived were largely consistent with studies
of teacher expectations conducted by outside observers. That is,
students believed low achievers were given greater help, input, and
This study of student perceptions of differential teacher behaviors
raises important questions. Would high ability students who have low
self-concepts of ability prefer teachers who give more help, input, and
structure? If so, would these same high ability students behave in
ways which would make additional teacher attention more likely, thus
causing teachers to question their ability?
Parsons, Kaczala, and Meece (1982) conducted a study which investi-
gated individual student-teacher interactions in 17 junior high math
classes. In this study of predominantly seventh and ninth grade
students, the researchers looked at 1) the possible influence of student
sex or teacher expectations for individual students on the nature of
student-teacher interactions, and 2) the effects of variations in
teacher-student interaction patterns on student attitudes.
Student measures used in this observational study included
questionnaires containing a seven-point Likert scale to assess expec-
tancies, self-concept of ability, and concepts of task difficulty;
scores from standardized tests; and students' ratings as to how well
they believed their teachers expected them to do in math. Question-
naires were also used to obtain teacher expectancy scores for individual
students, thereby placing them in low or high expectancy groups accord-
ing to sex. Trained observers then coded classroom interactions between
teachers and individual high and low-expectancy students focusing on
the following: 1) type of interaction, 2) who initiated it, 3) type
of student response, 4) type of teacher feedback, and 5) whether the
interaction was public and monitored by the class or a private teacher-
The results of the study indicated that girls, as a whole, received
less criticism than low-teacher-expectancy boys, and that high-teacher-
expectancy girls received less praise than the other groups. Though
differences were small, low-expectancy boys received the most criticism
and low-expectancy girls the most praise, especially in response to
teacher controlled questioning. In general, boys had the most inter-
actions of all kinds with their teachers. These variations in
teacher-student interactions were found to affect male and female
self-perceptions of ability differently.
In this study, praise was found to have a positive relationship
with boys' self-perceptions of ability but it was not so for girls.
Rather, for girls, praise was predictive of their belief that math was
easy. Parsons, Kaczala, and Meece (1982) concluded that this may have
resulted from teachers' differential use of praise, that is, that praise
given to boys conveyed teacher expectations while praise given girls
was more random and focused on low-expectancy girls. Noted the
researchers, "it is the informative value of praise with regard to
teachers' expectations which is critical" (p. 336).
This study raises several important questions. Does more criticism
for low-expectancy boys imply to students that math is more critical
for males? Does more praise for low-expectancy girls imply to high-
expectancy girls that praise is related to task ease, thereby resulting
in inaccurate estimates of ability?
Mason and Stipek (1985) investigated students' self-perceptions of
performance, their attributions for success and failure, their achieve-
ment-related behavior, and their actual performance in math and
reading. The sample included 77 fourth and fifth graders of various
socio-economic backgrounds from 17 different classrooms in four schools.
Data on 29 of the students from this sample were gathered across two
years from 1982-1984.
The methods of data collection included observations of students
while engaged in classroom tasks and interviews with students. During
these interviews students were asked to rank their performance compared
to classmates in reading and math, and to describe situations in which
they had succeeded or failed. They were then asked to choose the most
important cause of their success or failure by selecting from among
ability, effort, luck, or task difficulty. Students' emotional responses
were measured by asking to what degree they felt bored, confused, dumb,
embarrassed, smart, happy, or proud while working on tasks in math
and reading. Finally, teacher ratings of students' performances and
students' percentile rankings in math and reading were obtained.
Mason and Stipek reported that their findings from this study were
not surprising. High self-perceptions were associated with positive
emotions and a belief in ability. Low self-perceptions were associated
with negative emotions and a belief in lack of ability. However,
these researchers emphasized that students' perceptions of how well
they were doing predicted the degree to which they experienced positive
or negative emotions while working on tasks better than how well they
were actually doing. Thus, student perceptions may influence task
commitment more than actual feedback. Additionally, Mason and Stipek
found that student behavior and perceptions were relatively stable
across two years, thus suggesting that students enter new classrooms
not only with varied skill levels the teacher must consider, but also
with a set of achievement-related beliefs and perceptions.
Important questions are raised by the implication that students'
perceptions about their ability on tasks may influence task commitment
more than actual feedback. What criteria do students use in forming
task-specific perceptions of ability? Do personal values or values
attributed to the task itself affect perceptions of ability? Do per-
ceived consequences of success or failure on specific tasks affect
perceptions of ability before a student begins a task?
In a related study, Weinstein, Marshall, Botkin, and Sharp (1985)
investigated the development of student performance expectations in
high differential and low differential classrooms over one school year.
While this study focused on 579 students in 30 first, third, and fifth
grade classrooms rather than early adolescents, the findings suggested
that "student awareness of specific teacher expectations is only ap-
parent at the fifth grade level and only here influenced by the class-
room context" (pp. 2-3). Thus, this implies the importance of student
perspectives and classroom context for the development of older
students' self-perceptions of ability. Based on their findings,
Weinstein, Marshall, Botkin, and Sharp (1985) concluded, "perceived
teacher expectations may prove more critical than actual teacher
expectations in predicting student expectation and achievement out-
comes" (p. 30).
Taken together, these studies of the effects of classroom context
factors on the formation of early adolescents' ability perceptions
suggest, foremost, the importance of student perceptions of self in the
classroom. Perceived evaluations of significant others affect student
attitudes toward self and school (Schmuck,. 1962; 1963; Weinstein et al.,
1982; Weinstein et al., 1985), the formation of self-concept of ability
(Brookover et al., 1964; Parsons et al., 1982), and related beliefs
about achievement (Pittman, 1979). In addition, student perceptions
of performance predict emotional involvement in tasks better than actual
performance evaluation (Mason & Stipek, 1985). Finally, the research
suggests that student perceptions of self are influenced by classroom
organization in which unidimensional structure leads to the perception
of ability as a single dimension, thereby facilitating self-perception
of ability in agreement with student-teacher consensus (Rosenholtz &
Rosenholtz, 1981; Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; Rosenholtz & Simpson, in
press; Rosenholtz & Wilson, 1980; Weinstein et al., 1985).
In this review several studies have indicated sex differences in
students' beliefs about ability and achievement (Brookover et al.,
1964; Parsons et al., 1982; Pittman, 1979). In the final section of
this review, literature which relates to gifted adolescent girls' self-
perceptions of ability will be considered.
Gifted Adolescent Girls: Studies Related to
Little research has focused on the gifted adolescent female
(Blaubergs, 1980; Joesting & Joesting, 1970; Shakeshaft & Palmieri,
1978), and virtually no studies have been conducted to investigate
the gifted girl's formation of self-perception of ability. Since the
1970's, however, the literature has grown to include studies within
two specific topic areas: the mathematically gifted female and the
personality characteristics of females working in various professions
(Blaubergs, 1980). This literature has grown in response to increasing
concern that accomplishments of gifted females do not compare with those
of males in adulthood. Of particular importance to the issue of
achievement motivation are studies which investigate obstacles to
In her review of the literature on sexist barriers to gifted
women's achievement, Blaubergs (1978) addressed this issue. After
reviewing literature related to external barriers, lack of institu-
tional and societal support, and personality characteristics, she
concluded that "internal barriers to achievement faced by gifted
women and girls have been overemphasized" (p. 21), and that those
which are realities result from the consequences of socialization.
Similar conclusions were reached by Hill and Lynch (1983) in
their review of gender-related role expectations during early adoles-
cence. While Hill and Lynch did not limit their review to gifted
girls, their finding supported Blaubergs's (1978) conclusion that
socialization influences achievement behavior. As Hill and Lynch
noted, "Evidence discussed suggests that girls' achievement
behavior changes during early adolescence, but little research is
available on the determinants of this change" (p. 209). From their
review of the research they concluded that, during early adolescence,
standards for achievement become more sex-stereotyped and girls become
more concerned with interpersonal areas of competence than boys.
Other reviews of research on sex differences in achievement motiva-
tion suggest that females may be motivated to achieve by a desire for
approval and affiliation, rather than a desire to attain a standard of
excellence (Crandall, 1967; Hoffman, 1975; Rubovits, 1975; Sherman,
1975). However, using a different interpretation of many of the same
studies reviewed by the above researchers, Stein and Bailey (1975)
argued that "the social context of females' achievement has been mis-
interpreted as evidence for affiliation as opposed to achievement
motives" (p. 152). They proposed that social acceptance, itself, is
a central area of achievement for females; thus females are motivated
to achieve a standard of excellence in this area.
In her investigation of sex differences in achievement motivation,
Horner (1972; 1975) posited that women have "a disposition to become
anxious about achieving success because they expect negative conse-
quences as a result of succeeding" (1975, p. 207). In a study she
conducted with Rhoem in 1968 (Horner, 1975) to observe the incidence
of fear of success imagery in female subjects at different ages,
Horner found that seventh grade girls, when given the clue, "Sue has
just found out she has been made valedictorian of her class," exhibited
a 47% incidence of fear of success.
Other studies conducted to test Homrner's concept have provided
conflicting results. In a dissertation study conducted to find
evidence of the motive to avoid success in ten to fourteen year old
females, Cook (1976) found that support for the existence of a motive
as defined by Horner did not exist in her sample of 105 fifth through
eighth grade females in a parochial school. However, the girls did
show fear of negative consequences which might occur as a result of
deviating from traditional sex-role patterns. This fear of negative
consequences increased with the grade level of the subjects. Conversely,
Lavach and Lanier (1975), in testing Homrner's concept with seventh
through tenth grade high-achieving girls, found that the motive to avoid
success was prevalent and aroused by situations involving successful
competition with males. These studies suggest that, while there is
conflicting data about the motive to avoid success, adolescent girls
do experience a fear of negative consequences which might result from
behavior not considered feminine.
Studies which have investigated differential behaviors of gifted
adolescent girls in classroom situations have indicated that bright
girls have less confidence in their abilities than bright boys. For
example, in a study of creative ninth grade students, Kurtzman (1967)
found that more creative boys were more self-confident and mature than
less creative boys, but that no difference existed between more and
less creative girls. Kurtzman also found that more creative girls were
less well accepted by peers. Walberg (1969) came to similar conclu-
sions in his study of senior high students who participated in Harvard
Project Physics. Girls had more cautious attitudes, behaved in con-
forming, docile manners, and seemed uninterested in risk-taking.
In a review of the literature on gifted women, Morse and Bruch
(1970) noted "most of the literature and research findings available
for discussion have contributed much more to the articulation and
recognition of the problems than to their solution" (p. 31). It
appears that sex-role stereotyping may increase in adolescence (Hill &
Lynch, 1983) and that the achievement motivation of gifted women may be
affected by socialization (Blaubergs, 1978). Sex differences in
achievement motivation may also point to the importance of affiliation
and acceptance (Crandall, 1967; Cook, 1976; Hoffman, 1975; Horner,
1972; 1975; Lavach & Lanier, 1975; Rubovits, 1975; Sherman, 1975).
Finally, researchers who have investigated gifted adolescents in class-
room settings have noted that gifted girls lack confidence and behave
in conforming manners (Kurtzman, 1967; Walberg, 1969). Nevertheless,
questions about gifted girls' perceptions of ability and achievement
remain. It is still not clear what factors influence gifted adolescent
girls' perceptions of social norms that may hinder achievement. Nor
is it known if gifted girls are motivated by affiliation or if, as
Stein and Bailey (1975) proposed, affiliation is perceived as an area
of achievement itself, much like leadership or scholarship. Most
importantly, it is not clear how classroom structure and the perceived
evaluations of significant others influence the formation of ability
perceptions in students who enter classrooms already identified and
publicly labeled as able--gifted girls. What consequences do gifted
labels have on the formation of girls' self-perceptions of ability
within classroom contexts? The purpose of this study is to address
some of the unanswered questions in this area of research.
The Research Perspective
The purpose of this study was to explore and describe gifted
adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability and achievement within the
context of one middle school setting. The students studied were members
of heterogeneously organized interdisciplinary teams four days a week
and attended homogeneously grouped gifted classes one day a week. The
study focused on the girls' definitions of achievement and ability,
their perceptions of the relationship between the two constructs, and
the effects of the school culture (i.e., organizational features,
student-teacher relationships, and peer group influences) on these
perceptions. Ethnographic techniques, methods of data collection and
analysis which enabled the researcher to investigate participants'
perspectives, were used.
Though the roots of ethnography have been in anthropology, an
increased interest in using this approach to do research in schools
has resulted in extensive observations of the school environment. This
growing body of literature illustrates the interactive nature of learning
in schools, suggesting ways students and teachers come to understand
each other (McDermott, 1977), and concentrating on perspectives not
often considered in educational research. As Wolcott (1976) noted,
"the ethnographer's unique contribution is this commitment to understand
and convey how it is to 'walk in someone else's shoes' and to 'tell it
like it is'" (p. 25). It is a methodology particularly suited to the
study of student perceptions of achievement and ability as they relate
to experiences within school settings. Ethnography is an appropriate
methodology for examining relationships which are not explicit or when
the problem under study is in the exploratory stage, because it allows
the researcher to proceed, initially, in an unstructured or flexible
manner (Dean, Eichhorn, & Dean, 1969). "In other words, there are few,
if any preestablished categories into which original data are cast.. .
Researchers approach reality with a perspective which will enable them
to observe relevant data" (Schaffir, Stebbins, & Turowetz, 1980, p. 6).
Ethnographic techniques encourage a process of discovery, that is, a
process of learning what is fundamental to the people under study.
Such a methodology enables the researcher to better understand the
complex meaning systems participants use to organize their behavior,
to understand themselves and others, and to make sense out of the world
in which they live (Spradley, 1980). The ethnographic perspective
stresses a commitment to holism and the accurate portrayal of events
from the point of view of the actors involved in the events (Erickson,
1984). Lutz (1981) described ethnography as
a holistic, thick description of the interactive
processes involving the discovery of important and
recurring variables in the society as they relate
to one another, under specified conditions, and
as they affect or produce certain results and
outcomes in the society. (p. 52)
As a methodology developed to uncover meanings, ethnography differs
from other research approaches in a number of ways. First, the
nondirective, open-ended nature of this methodology "enables the
researcher to understand and capture the points of view of other people,
without predetermining those points of view through prior selection of
questionnaire categories or rating scale forms" (Stainback & Stainback,
1984, p. 405). Secondly, because the goal is to describe the native or
insider's point of view, the nature of the relationship between the
researcher and the population under study is interactive. Rather than
being passive, reactive subjects, the participants become the expert
informants from whom the ethnographer gathers data. "The essential
core of ethnography is this concern with the meaning of actions and
events to the people we seek to understand" (Spradley, 1980, p. 5).
Some of these meanings are derived from explicit, verbalized cultural
knowledge while others are tacit, or taken for granted by participants
who may not realize the full extent of their knowledge. In this study,
a cyclic process of asking questions, collecting data, and analyzing
data again and again was used throughout a prolonged period of observa-
tion. This cyclic process attempts to reveal both the explicit and the
tacit cultural knowledge of the participants.
The ethnographer acquires an emic understanding, that is, an
understanding of the participants' points of view, through watching,
talking, listening, and participating with people in their own environ-
ments (Rist, 1982). The researcher observes behavior and constructs
meaning from that which is observed through the discovery of patterns
or trends which emerge through prolonged exposure to the environment.
These patterns form an interpretation that is a way of explaining the
participants' culture, or the norms, values, and knowledge they use to
understand their experiences and from which they generate behavior.
People everywhere learn their culture by making
inferences. We observe what people do (cultural
behavior); we observe things people make and use
such as clothes and tools (cultural artifacts);
and we listen to what people say (speech messages).
Every ethnographer employs this same process of
inference to go beyond what is seen and heard to
find out what people know. (Spradley, 1980, p. 10)
This concept of culture is compatible with symbolic interactionism,
a theory which posits that to understand human behavior one must dis-
cover the meanings or definitions humans assign to objects, activities,
or individuals of interest. Symbolic interactionists beginning with
G.H. Mead (1934) hypothesized that humans, because of the possession
of a self, act toward or interpret things that confront them and organize
their actions on the basis of that interpretation. This process of
self-interaction enables people to deal with the world through a
defining procedure which results in construction or generation of
action rather than a mere release of action (Blumer, 1969). Blumer
(1969) delineated three basic premises:
1) Human beings act toward things on the basis of
the meanings that the things have for them.
2) The meanings of such thingsare derived from, or
arise out of, the social interaction that one
has with one's fellows.
3) These meanings are handled in, and modified
through, an interpretative process. (p. 2)
The theoretical orientation of symbolic interactionism provides
a framework for the social-interactive perspective taken in this study
of gifted adolescent females' self-perceptions of ability. This
perspective is illustrated most clearly by Mead's Triadic matrix
(Mead, 1934, p. 76) which emphasizes that individuals construct and
share meanings through interpretation and interaction. Ethnography
holds that humans are interpreting, defining creatures "whose behavior
can only be understood by having the researcher enter into the defining
process through such methods as participant-observation" (Bodgan &
Biklen, 1982, p. 76). Spradley (1980) suggested that we think of these
shared meanings, or culture, as a cognitive map and ethnography as the
methodology designed for its investigation.
Selection of the Research Site
The study was conducted in one middle school located in a rural
area in the Southeast. The population under study, ten identified
gifted girls in grades six through eight, belonged to two of the
school's three interdisciplinary teams. Observations were therefore
conducted predominantly in two team areas, the gifted resource room,
and other areas of the school environment in which the girls interacted.
The criteria for school selection were as follows: (a) the
recognition of its exemplary status by experts in the field of middle
school education; (b) a population of ten gifted girls in grades six
through eight which was within reasonable bounds for regular and pro-
longed observation of the total population; (c) an open-space environ-
ment which enabled the researcher to move about and interact freely
without disturbing the scene, maximizing the amount of classroom
observation time; (d) the enthusiastic acceptance of the study by
teachers, parents, and the students involved; and (e) the researcher's
expertise in the area of middle school education. According to
Wolcott (1976), "Ethnography is best served when the researcher feels
free to 'muddle about' in the field setting and to pursue hunches or
to address himself to problems that he deems interesting and worthy of
sustained attention" (p. 25). The selection of this site met this
Gaining Entry to the Site
Lofland (1971) noted that it is easier to gain access to informa-
tion when the researcher has established grounds for a trusting
relationship before the project is initiated. Prior to the selection
of the site, the researcher had met informally and discussed the aims
of the study with the team leaders while attending a professional
conference on middle schools. Sharing a common status as educators
interested in adolescents defused potential concern about the study.
The team leaders' interest encouraged the researcher to take the next
step. Project goals were explained to the county supervisor for gifted
students, and, subsequently, a meeting was arranged in late November
to include the school's gifted resource teacher, the supervisor, and
the researcher. Believing that the majority of the gifted girls were
not achieving in accordance with their potential, the resource teacher,
Mrs. Johnson, noted that the study might increase classroom teachers'
understanding of gifted students' particular problems. Establishing
the team leaders' and Mrs. Johnson's interest in the study provided
1This name and all names used in this study are pseudonyms.
the basis for a trusting relationship with the researcher and paved the
way for the formal attempt to gain entry to the site.
Next, a meeting was.held with the school principal to discuss the
project and obtain his permission to propose the study-to the ten girls.
On that same morning the researcher met with the students in a con-
ference area located near the gifted resource room to explain the study
and distribute permission slips. The letter of permission is included
in Appendix A.
According to Cassell (1978), a skilled ethnographer once informed
her that casting oneself in the role of learner was the secret of
successful fieldwork. If the goal is to understand students' perceptions
of school experiences it is important for the students to perceive the
researcher as an eager learner in search of good teaching. With this
rationale in mind, the researcher used the occasion of the first
meeting to immediately begin taking field notes of the girls' reactions
to the study. In addition to establishing her position as a learner,
the researcher believed this behavior would serve to illustrate the
type of methodology which would be used and to establish the stance
that, during this study, "nothing is off the record" (Cassell, 1978,
p. 37). The researcher also believed this initial behavior with the
girls was essential (a) to indicate to the students that she cared
about what they were saying and was therefore writing it down; (b) to
establish the pattern of continuous documentation; and (c) to allow
the girls to express curiosity, question, and become comfortable with
this method of data gathering prior to its use in a classroom
All of the girls attended this informal meeting. Sitting in a
circle around the conference table they listened to the researcher
present the study.
Observer: I want to write a book about what school
is really like, but I want to describe school through
the eyes of gifted girls. This might be hard to do
because it means I'll have to hang around a lot and
ask a lot of questions. I really want to know what
things are like here, but I'll need your help to
understand them. I wanted to ask you if you were
interested in helping.
The sixth and seventh grade girls were quickest to express interest in
the idea, asking if their names would be used, if their parents would
be told, and if their teachers and classmates could know about the
research. The five eighth grade girls were stand-offish at first.
Three of these girls sat close together in a group apart from the
other two and conferred quietly while the observer pointed out that
the quality of the research would hinge on accuracy and careful atten-
tion to factual detail, but that chief among the researcher's responsi-
bilities was the preservation of anonymity (Kottak, 1979, p. 336). As
if making the decision for her friends, Connie, one of the three eighth
graders who had not yet joined the discussion, announced, "We are
definitely doing this! It sounds neat!"
This initial meeting, held three weeks prior to Christmas break,
culminated in the distribution of permission forms. Several of the
girls suggested the researcher collect the permission forms and
individual class schedules from the resource teacher. The researcher,
encouraging their roles as key informants, agreed with their plan, and
a date was suggested to collect the forms and make preliminary visits
to the team areas before the holidays. As they exited, one girl
responded to the observer's concern about explaining the study to other
students by laughing and shrugging her shoulders. "Forget it. You
don't know people here."
The following week the researcher attended a holiday party held
after a brief faculty meeting, met the teachers of both teams, and
scheduled a time to visit team meetings to explain the goals of the
study and the nature of qualitative research. As in the first meeting
with students, the researcher appeared at both team meetings with
notebooks, pencils, and a taperecorder and wrote field notes while
discussing the study. Team One's meeting was held at lunch, was in-
formal in nature, and did not produce any questions or concerns about
the research. The teachers indicated students were used to visitors
due to the school's status as an excellent middle school, and that no
one would notice the researcher's presence. In contrast, Team Two's
meeting was held after school and included an agenda of formal business
upon which the teachers kept themselves focused and on task. After a
brief discussion of the study, the team leader indicated to the
researcher that it would not take long before students and teachers
would consider her "a member of the family" (team).
While obtaining the consent of students, teachers, parents, and
administrators at the school, an application to conduct research in
the public schools was submitted to the school district office and a
description of the proposed project to the University's Committee for
the Protection of Human Subjects. By the beginning of January the
project was approved.
In discussing the issue of gaining entry, Bogdan and Taylor (1975)
suggested the importance of keeping detailed field notes during this
stage as a way of gaining insight into how organizations socialize
outsiders. "Gaining entry, and the conditions under which it is estab-
lished, is one of the most critical phases of qualitative research"
(Rist, 1982, p. 442).
Description of the Site
The study was conducted in a public middle school in a rural area
in the Southeast. The school's 442-member population was housed in a
modern, open-space building. The school, itself, was described by the
town's Chamber of Commerce as one of the finest in the United States.
According to the residents of the area, the community's rural
lifestyle was one of unequaled quality, characterized by warm friend-
ships and a close-knit community. This description was made clear to
the researcher on three separate occasions, the first of which occurred
early in the data collection when the researcher had the opportunity
to conduct an informal interview with a substitute who was temporarily
replacing the gifted resource teacher, Mrs. Johnson. During the
interview the substitute teacher, who had grown up and gone to school
in the community, described her perceptions and what she termed the
community's perceptions of several of the gifted girls. She indicated
that in such a small community most people knew something about their
neighbors, especially if they had lived in the community for awhile
or attended the same church. On a second occasion, the researcher
accompanied the seventh grade gifted class on a field trip to the
local Chamber of Commerce. Because of the school's close location the
trip was conducted on foot. The students used this opportunity to
provide the researcher with unsolicited data about the neighborhood
and its residents, and their own family histories. The extent of their
knowledge about the community and its citizens was considerable,
especially when contrasted with the comments of Nancy, a gifted seventh
grade girl who had just moved into the rural community from a city, and
was having difficulty being accepted. In addition, while walking
through the downtown area, the close-knit feeling of the community
was made apparent when several local merchants and passers-by waved
greetings to the students. Thirdly, once inside the Chamber building,
the students and Mrs. Johnson pointed out a pictorial display of the
community's past mayors, indicating their current roles in the community.
The researcher noted that the principal of the middle school who had
served since its opening had also recently served as the town's mayor.
The school's student body was 47% male and 53% female, including
a black population of 22%. Slightly less than half of the students
were bussed to and from the school. The percentage of students in
various Exceptional Student Education programs was 17, of which
approximately 7% were classified as gifted. Of the 29
gifted students in grades six through eight, ten were female.
The physical layout of the school was very modern. In the center
a large open-pit area served as the library and media-center and
included several enclosed conference rooms. Located nearby were the
central office, teacher's lounge, the home economics room, and a science
lab. To the right of the library pit were three large instructional
areas which comprised the school's three teams.
Each team area was a large open space housing heterogeneously
grouped students in two grade levels: team one, seventh and eighth
graders; team two, sixth and seventh graders; and team three, fifth and
sixth graders. While originally this organization of students had
reflected developmental grouping based on social-emotional as well as
academic factors, the majority of teachers indicated that this was no
longer true. Now students were placed in teams depending on their
curriculum needs. For example, Team One offered pre-algebra to its
seventh graders whereas Team Two did not. For this reason Mr. Lakeman,
team leader for Team Two, had described his team as being a "dumping
ground" in the past because the more academically able seventh graders
were placed on Team One. To counteract this problem, he had recently
begun to make yearly lists of sixth graders who voluntarily signed up
to remain in Team Two a second year. All students would spend two years
on one team if they entered the school as fifth graders and stayed
through the completion of eighth grade.
Observations conducted at the school centered on Teams One and Two
because none of the studied population were members of Team Three.
Although both of these teams were divided into four equal classrooms,
one for each of the four core teachers, the physical use of space
within the teams was distinctly different. Team Two organized large
book shelves, moveable chalkboards, and tables to separate the class-
rooms into separate spaces, thereby reducing the noise level and forcing
the students to walk in narrow pathways when exiting and entering the
individual classrooms. Team One did not use furniture to create an
atmosphere of separate classrooms, and the noise level and random
atmosphere of separate classrooms, and the noise level and random
movement throughout the team area were correspondingly high. Wall space
was not utilized in Team One to display student work or announce team
activities to the extent that it was in Team Two. While teachers on
both teams attributed these physical differences to the age level of
students and the individual personalities of teachers on the team, the
principal attributed them to different philosophies which had developed
within the teams themselves.
While examination of student schedules suggested that the organiza-
tional features of an exemplary middle school were in effect, prolonged
observations pointed out that some of these features were stronger than
others. For example, an advisor-advisee program, multiage grouping,
and interdisciplinary teams had been built into the school at its
inception and were based on the middle school philosophy that organiza-
tion of this nature would encourage the development of a community of
learners. "A student knows that s(he) is a member of a specific team,
and even a specific advisory group; that these structures have dimensions
that early adolescents can manage" (Alexander & George, 1981, p. 134).
Repeated observations at the site, however, revealed that while inter-
disciplinary teams were a strong organizational characteristic of the
school, the use of advisor-advisee time and multiage grouping had
greatly changed since the school's inception. At the time the study
was conducted, the time allotted to advisor-advisee programs had been
shortened to 15 minutes and was rarely used; multiage grouping existed
only in that teams contained students in two grade levels. Strict
curriculum guidelines handed down by the county had resulted in only
a few math and language arts classes which could be multiage-grouped.
Additional scheduling problems had also discouraged the use of multi-
age grouping in exploratory classes, physical education, and resource
classes such as gifted. The decreased emphasis at the school level
on multiage grouping and advisor-advisee programs was mirrored in
comments made by the girls throughout the study.
Cindy: This year 15 minutes for AA (advisor-
advisee) is not long enough to do a project, and
it's too long to get your pencils and paper so
unless you want to be a social butterfly, it's
wasted. Usually I don't have anything to do.
Some teachers will plan something but most don't.
But even if we could have a longer AA, I'd
rather have a longer lunch.
Sally: The seventh and eighth graders on our team
are separated all the time. Last year we had some
classes together. Well it's like we
don't even hang around together. We (eighth
graders) have our own feelings and all, and they
don't understand yet.
The gifted program in operation had also changed greatly during
the school's history due to a shifting emphasis at the county level.
No set county curriculum existed for middle school gifted programs
other than the adoption of five major goals including the development
of (a) higher levels of thinking, (b) self-directed learning, (c) posi-
tive attitudes of self-worth, (d) interpersonal relationship skills
and leadership techniques, and (e) creative thinking. Mrs. Johnson
informed the researcher that the major difference between her program
and those found at other county middle schools was that students were
staffed into the gifted room one entire day per week rather than one
period per day.
The population under study consisted of three sixth, two seventh,
and five eighth graders, including one black student. The girls were
identified for the program using the state criteria of a 130 I.Q. score
and represented a range of I.Q. scores from 131-140. Eight of the girls
had spent the majority of their school experience at the elementary and
now the middle school in the same rural community, and seven of these
had entered the gifted program during or before the third grade. At
the time the study took place, the state policy did not require periodic
retesting to remain in the program. Two of the girls, including one
who was new to the school, had spent the majority of their past school
experiences in private settings. With the exception of one student,
all came from two parent homes in which the majority of mothers had
equal or more formal education than the fathers, though in traditional
fields such as teaching, nursing, or library science. The majority of
mothers did not work full time.
Research Methods and Procedures
Asking Ethnographic Questions
Spradley's (1980) Developmental Research Model is cyclic in nature,
in contrast to quantitative research models which proceed in a linear
fashion from the statement of a hypothesis to the collection and
analysis of data, to the research conclusion. In doing ethnography,
"the fieldworker generates a situation-based inquiry process, learning,
through time, to ask questions of the field setting in such a way that
the setting, by its answers, teaches the next situationally appropriate
questions to ask" (Erickson, 1984, p. 51). This questioning process
is a critical aspect of the research cycle because the questions asked
direct data collection and lead the researcher closer to the emic
knowledge (personal perspectives) of the people being studied.
Ethnographic research begins without a precise hypothesis which
may "close off prematurely the process of discovery of that which is
significant in the setting" (Wilcox, 1982, p. 459). Rather, the
researcher begins with foreshadowed problems to direct and focus the
study. Malinowski (1922) noted that foreshadowed problems are "the
main endowment of a scientific thinker and these problems are first
revealed to the observer by his theoretical studies" (p. 9). In this
study two broad general questions were posed to serve as a framework
for the study: What kinds of experiences do gifted girls have in a
middle school setting in which they are members of heterogeneous teams
as well as homogeneous gifted classes? How do they use these experiences
to construct their own behavior and self-perceptions? In order to
provide some focus for the initial observations and interviews, the
following list of foreshadowed problems was posed.
1. How do gifted girls define achievement?
2. How do gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability differ from
their perceptions of peers' abilities?
3. How do gifted girls behave in academic and nonacademic situa-
tions in regard to (a) task commitment, (b) risk-taking,
(c) leadership, and (d) creativity?
4. How do team organization, participation in a gifted program
which entails removal from the team one day per week, and
peer influences affect gifted girls' experiences in school
and their perceptions of experiences?
Ethnographic questions are the main tools for discovering cultural
knowledge (Spradley, 1979). As the study progressed, descriptive,
structural, and contrast questions were asked. Each kind of question
directed observations and interviews in different ways and provided
for different levels of data analysis.
Descriptive questions were asked during the early stage of obser-
vations, to collect samples of language and aid the researcher in
becoming familiar with the social scene. These general questions included
"What happens in the gifted resource room?" "What seating patterns
exist in classrooms?" and "How do gifted girls spend their classroom
Following initial data analysis, structural questions were asked
to add depth to the researcher's knowledge of the social scene. For
example, an early observation was that different groups of the girls
tended to have different territories before and after school. Struc-
tural questions posed were "What activities are students in the different
territories engaged in?" and "Do student behaviors change if students
change territories?" These structural questions were asked repeatedly
and led to more narrowly focused observations.
Finally, contrast questions were asked to identify differences
between elements in a category. For example, in the category Things
I Worry About were elements such as being popular, physical appearance,
and making good grades. To ensure that these were distinct elements
in the category the researcher asked the contrast question, "How are
these problems different?" The question led the researcher to review
field notes and interviews and to conduct additional observations to
find the differences.
Collecting Ethnographic Data
The researcher's objective was to discover and describe the experi-
ences that adolescent girls labeled as gifted have within a middle school
setting and to construct, from those experiences and the students'
perceptions of them, ways the girls defined their own abilities and
achievements. Since these definitions were aspects of the girls'
cultural knowledge that could not be directly observed, the researcher
used three types of information to make cultural inferences. The types
of information used were the girls' behavior in class as well as before
and after school, the things they produced in school including the tools
they used to do so, and their speech messages (Spradley, 1980).
Gathering evidence of this nature enabled the researcher to uncover
the fundamental assumptions about personal abilities and achievements
that were taken for granted by the girls.
Three main methods were used to collect data. Spindler (1982)
observed the need for a variety of methods to uncover the participants'
view of reality, noting that whenever possible technical devices should
be used to collect live data. Other qualitative researchers such as
Wolcott (1976), Pelto and Pelto (1978), and Denzen (1978) have asserted
that using multiple methods to gather data increases the credibility
of the study. They note that data obtained using different methods
can be compared through triangulation, thus allowing the researcher
to strengthen the validity of constructs and rise above any weakness
that might result from using only one method. In this study, participant
observation, interviewing, and unobtrusive measures were used to collect
data. A tape recorder was used to record interviews and some gifted
classes. These methods will be described, and problems inherent in
their use discussed.
Participant observation is the primary tool used in gathering data
for a qualitative study (Spradley, 1980). As Blumer (1969) described
the researcher's role within a given setting, this method requires
getting close to the people involved in it, seeing
it in a variety of situations they meet, noting
their problems and observing how they handle them,
being party to their conversations and watching
their way of life as it flows along. (p. 37)
In this study, the researcher observed 200 hours of classroom
activity over a five-month period from January to early June of 1984.
Observations were conducted three days a week, usually on Mondays,
Wednesday, and Fridays. The first and third weeks of observations
were conducted only in the gifted room so that a smaller student
population (classes usually did not exceed ten) would enable the
researcher to develop rapport with the participants at a faster pace.
The second and fourth weeks consisted of descriptive observations in
both teams. From the fifth week on the researcher spent three weeks
following the girls in each grade level, one week in the gifted room,
an additional week at each grade level, and a final week in general
observations. The teachers were offered a schedule of observations,
but did not indicate an interest in one.
Successful participant observation requires time to sample the
range of experiences and situations the participants encounter. Parti-
cipant observation requires the development of an acceptable role for
the researcher. This role should encourage the growth of trust and
rapport. This presents a particular problem for researchers in schools
where no formal role exists which will allow participation (Wolcott,
1976). While ethnographers, depending on the requirements of the
setting, have assumed roles anywhere along the continuum from passive
to active participant, Schwartz and Schwartz (1969) noted that the more
active observer "increased his identification with the observed and was
better able to become aware of the subtleties of communication and
interaction" (p. 98). The decision made regarding the amount of
participation the researcher will undertake evolves not only from the
structure of the particular school or classroom, but also from the
perceptions the participants form regarding the researcher. "In every
case the field worker is fitted into a plausible role by the population
he is studying and within a context meaningful to them" (Vidich, 1969,
p. 81). The result is that the researcher's role, a product of his or
her own intentions and the perceptions of participants, determines what
the researcher will see. This, in turn, influences the value of the
items of evidence produced by the study. "For the way the subjects
of his study define that role affects what they will tell him or let
him see" (Becker, 1969, p. 250).
The researcher introduced herself to the participants as a graduate
student who was interested in women's studies. The girls were told that
the researcher wanted to write a book about gifted girls' experiences in
school, and that their help would be needed to produce a factual
account. In assuming a role of one who needed to be taught, the
researcher stressed the idea that she "would not be offended by being
told 'obvious' things and being 'lectured to'" (Lofland, 1971, p. 99).
During the course of the study the researcher took great care
not to have the manner or appearance of any group
which his informant group distinguishes sharply
from itself. This does not mean forcing identity
with the informant group; it does mean that the
observer of students, if he wishes a good under-
standing with them, will avoid the manner of
teacher and authoritative adult.. (Geer, 1969,
For this reason, once the researcher had gained entry, interactions
between the researcher and teachers were limited to formal interviews,
attendance at two team meetings and a faculty meeting, and occasional
informal conversation initiated by the researcher to verify observa-
tions. The researcher took care to wear attire such as jeans and tennis
shoes which was more acceptable to the student culture, to use student
language, to "hang around" with student groups before and after school,
and to eat lunch in the student cafeteria. During classroom observa-
tions the researcher sat with students, the majority of the time
beside one or several of the girls. When leaving classrooms or going
to lunch required lining up, the researcher lined up with students. At
all times the researcher subjected herself to the same rules set up
for students, though on occasion this caused discomfort for teachers.
For instance, when leaving the book fair required that students be
searched, the researcher lined up to be searched. The librarian laughed
and refused to do so.
The extent to which the researcher came to be identified with the
girls was considerable. On numerous occasions, teachers would comment
to the researcher that they had not noticed her presence in class until
the end of the period. Several times the researcher was stopped from
entering the building before school by the janitor who assumed she was
a student. On one occasion, after telling her class that she wanted
"All eyes up front," a sixth grade teacher turned to the researcher and
laughed, "No! No! Not you!"
Other student members in both teams under observation showed some
curiosity about the researcher, but as Cassell (1978) noted, participant
observers who hang around more and interact with students find their
visibility decreases with time. Many students, both boys and girls,
sought out the researcher to talk about school. This was especially
true of the different peer groups that each girl associated with.
During the course of the study, several girls who were friends of the
participants came to confide in the researcher, invite her to after
school clubs, and sit with her at lunch. Several informal interviews
were conducted with these girls, many of whom had previously been
tested for admission into the gifted program.
Strauss et al. (1969) commented that the fieldworker'ss identity
shifts when he spends an expanded period of time interacting with the
same people" (p. 70). During the early stages of data collection
several girls quite naturally became "key informants" (Spradley, 1980),
seeking out the researcher during free time, sitting with her in class
or at lunch, and initiating conversations. The researcher reacted by
concentrating her observations on these girls, using them as focal
students. Cassell (1978) suggested this strategy helps to reduce bias,
control the observer's tendency to find what he or she is looking for,
and to make sure that the observer was not attracted to just observing
interesting things. The kinds of girls who were initially attracted to
the researcher were considered significant data and were carefully
documented in the researcher's journal.
As the study progressed the researcher was able to establish
excellent rapport with each girl, though the process took much longer
with Connie and Debbie, two eighth graders who were members of the most
popular girls' clique. The nature of the difficulty became clear during
a formal interview with Connie which occurred in April.
Connie: People are totally different away from
school. I show a lot of this [behave this way].
What I'm telling you now is what I can say when
I'm away from school. Then there's not pressure
to be cool. I thought it would be hard to
talk to you because you're older, but it's not.
I was worried. I guess the clique teaches you to
watch out what you say and who you talk to.
The girls initially displayed curiosity in the fieldworker's notes
and would often drift over and read them as she wrote. The researcher
maintained the openness of notes written during observations throughout
the study as a rapport building device. The girls knew that observa-
tion notes were not shared with teachers, parents, or other students
and came to trust her with confidences. On several occasions the
researcher's policy of open-notes led to expanded and clarified accounts
of classroom interaction as the girls filled in details for the
researcher. This policy proved a valuable way to triangulate data.
The girls did not ask to read field notes from formal interviews, and,
as the study neared completion, showed less interest in notes taken
during observation periods.
Three types of interviews were utilized in this study: formal,
informal, and structured. Formal interviews were conducted at the
request of the researcher with all teachers in both teams, the principal,
all ten girls, and the mothers of five of the girls. These interviews
included several core or guide questions whose object was to
elicit from the interviewee what he considers to
be important questions relative to a given topic
to find out what kinds of things are happening,
rather than to determine the frequency of predeter-
mined kinds of things that the researcher already
believes can happen. (Lofland, 1971, p. 76)
During these interviews the researcher took care to make repeated
explanations, restate what informants had said, and to phrase questions
questions such as "How do you get in with the popular crowd?" proved
more helpful than "What does it mean to be popular?" Interviews of
individual girls, the teachers, and mothers generally took place by
grade level during the three week period of concentrated observation
at that level. Core questions for formal interviews are included in
Appendices B, C, D, E, and F.
Formal interviews were also held with groups of girls by grade
level. Though the researcher would have preferred to have multiage
groups during these interviews, different schedules and requests by
the participants made this impossible. In particular, the eighth grade
girls did not wish to meet with the sixth or seventh graders. These
group interviews gave the girls time to reflect, to remember specific
incidents, and to verify or contradict each other's statements. Group
interviews were held during the first four weeks of the study.
As a part of the formal interview conducted with individual students
the researcher asked several structured questions requiring students to
select an answer on a scale from "not at all" to "all the time"
(Whitmore, 1980, Appendix L). In most cases, the researcher found
students' responses to these items to be very confusing and probed for
explanations. For example, when given the item, "I look forward to
going to school," the girls, without exception, selected "all the time."
Because the researcher's observations revealed the girls to be inatten-
tive frequently during class, the researcher expressed her confusion.
In clarifying their answers, the girls explained that school was
exciting because it was a place to meet friends. An additional example
which proved insightful to the researcher was the item, "My teachers
listen carefully to my ideas." Sally, an eighth grader who was observed
to rarely volunteer ideas, selected "all the time." When probed to
explain her choice, she informed the researcher that teachers listened
to her precisely because she never spoke out. The use of such forced-
choice items proved insightful only when additional questioning was
used to reveal the girls' perceptions of the statements themselves.
The differences between the girls' definitions of the statements and
the researcher's definitionswere considered valuable data.
Informal interviewing occurred frequently and was a method of
verifying observations. Ample opportunities for informal interviews
were provided by hanging around before or after school, eating lunch
with students, or during class itself. While the researcher refrained
from talking to students during class, in moments before or after
instruction students often initiated conversation with the researcher.
The researcher also informally interviewed several gifted boys and
several of the girls' female friends.
Constant comparison of observations and interviews enabled the
researcher to assess the validity of comments made by participants
(Becker, 1969). The researcher found, for example, that the girls'
positions in the school's social hierarchy affected their perceptions
and descriptions of events. The girls who were able to describe the
school's cliques most vividly, including clique membership, were those
girls occupying a middle status. Gifted girls who were members of the
upper clique were least likely to talk about this membership, while
gifted girls who were social isolates verbally denied the existence
of cliques or misrepresented their position in them.
Unobtrusive measures are those measures which do not require
interaction between the researcher and the setting under study, thus
minimizing the possibility that the observer's presence "may change
the very world being examined" (Schwartz & Jacobs, 1979, p. 75). In
this study the researcher reviewed the girls' cumulative records,
report cards, and random assignments completed in class. It was thought
that these data would be helpful in characterizing teachers' expecta-
tions and in clarifying the girls' perceptions of their achievement.
Personal journals kept by each girl as a part of the gifted curriculum
were examined along with journals kept by three of the eighth grade
girls for their advisor-advisee class. Written materials provided by
the school for its five year review were also examined. Lightfoot
(1983) stated these documents can give the researcher a sense of how
the school wished to be perceived.
While using a variety of methods to collect data increases the
credibility of a study, there are problems inherent in participant
observation which must be addressed in assessing the quality of the
study. McCall and Simmons (1969) described three categories of problems:
"(1) reactive effects of the phenomena being studied; (2) distorting
effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer's
part; and (3) limitations on the observer's ability to witness all
relevant aspects of the phenomena in question" (p. 78). The following
steps were taken by the researcher to minimize these problems. The
researcher selected a site in which teachers and students were used
to and comfortable with a variety of visitors. The physical openness
of the school made it easy for the observer to move about without
attracting attention. The policy of the researcher to associate her-
self with the students and to allow the girls to look at field notes
written in classrooms encouraged the girls to behave as they normally
would if no researcher were present. The girls' tendency to pass notes
in front of the researcher and, on one occasion to bring alcohol to
school, are indications that they did. The lengthy period spent
collecting data, the researcher's journal, and the variety of methods
used to collect data helped the researcher overcome distorting effects
of selective perceptions. Finally, using unobtrusive sources of data
helped the researcher overcome her inability to witness all relevant
aspects of an event.
Making an Ethnographic Record
Data collected in this study were recorded in the form of field
notes, interviews, and a research journal. The major portion of the
data was recorded in written form while activities were actually
occurring. All formal interviews and several gifted classes were
recorded on tape as well and transcribed by the researcher.
Field notes written during observations were recorded in as much
detail as possible. These field notes, written at the site, represented
what Spradley (1980) called a condensed account of what had occurred.
Typically the researcher's notes reflected phrases, partial drawings,
or unconnected sentences. As soon as possible after observation
periods, for instance, when classes changed or activities within the
same class changed, the researcher expanded these notes by filling in
details. Frequently the researcher left the classroom scene and created
an expanded account while sitting in the library pit. The researcher
did not leave the school site without rereading and filling in the
day's observations. Expanded accounts were typed into formal protocols
by the researcher.
Lofland (1971) stressed the need to take notes at the lowest level
of inference, that is, to be concrete and behavioristic when in the
field. In an effort to get at concrete descriptions the use of verbatim
language was especially important to the researcher. Every attempt
was made to quote the subjects directly, and symbols were used in field
notes to indicate when the language used was not verbatim, but repre-
sented the researcher's summary or paraphrasing. Also included in the
field notes were brief descriptions of the researcher's reactions to
events as they happened or questions which occurred to the researcher
during observation periods. These were separated by brackets from the
rest of the field notes.
Other data recorded in the field notes were descriptions of entries
the girls had made in journals they kept for their gifted class, direct
examples of poetry or prose they had written, and information gleaned
from school records. Diagrams were included periodically when the
physical arrangement of a room changed or when seating arrangements
within a class changed. Other diagrams recorded by the researcher
were chalkboard work, visual displays, and social notes written by the
girls during class. These social notes were included in the researcher's
field notes only when the student voluntarily shared the note or when,
in three instances, the student actually wrote the note and passed it
to the researcher during class.
Formal interviews with groups of girls, individual girls, teachers,
and parents were recorded on tape, transcribed, and filed separately
from field notes. While recording these interviews the researcher took
written notes so that gestures, facial expressions, and posture would
be included in the expanded account.
A research journal was kept which reflected the researcher's
experiences from the initial stages of gaining entry through the final
day of observation. As a record of the ethnographer's experiences in
the field, the journal provided a tool for reflection on concerns,
insights, and problems which occurred (Spradley, 1980). Entries in
the journal were typically written after the researcher had mused over
several sets of protocols. The journal was most valuable in that it
enabled the researcher to monitor her changing role in the social
scene, providing a record of her attitudes and biases that were later
examined during data analysis. These issues are discussed in the final
sections of this chapter.
Analyzing Ethnographic Data
Ethnography is "a naturalistic, observational, descriptive, con-
textual, open-ended, and in-depth approach to doing research" (Wilcox,
1982, p. 462). As such, researchers use a variety of methods and
techniques to gather and analyze data. In qualitative research, the
analyst's aim is to provide an explicit account of the structure,
order, and patterns found among participants in the social setting under
study (Lofland, 1971).
In doing ethnography, a certain amount of analysis is required
while the researcher remains in the field. This stage of analysis is
extremely important in that it serves to guide the study, continually
narrowing the focus to fundamental issues heuristic to the setting.
Analysis as an ongoing part of this study was previously discussed in
the section on asking ethnographic questions. In summary, after examin-
ing initial data, the researcher asked descriptive, structural, and
contrast questions. These questions served to guide subsequent data
collection sessions. This cycle of questioning, collecting, and
analyzing was repeated throughout the duration of the study.
Data collected from participant observation, interviews, and
unobtrusive measures were analyzed using Spradley's (1980) four-step
method. The stages of data analysis are described below:
1. Domain analysis was begun with the first set of protocols.
In this phase of analysis the researcher looked for patterns or cate-
gories of meaning, what Spradley called domains. These categories were
discovered through continuous reading of protocols with specific
questions in mind. Spradley described nine semantic relationships
that could be used to question the data and uncover relevant domains.
The most helpful semantic relationships were strict inclusion (X is a
kind of Y), cause-effect (X is a result of Y), rationale (X is a reason
for doing Y), means-end (X is a way to do Y), and attribution (X is a
characteristic of Y). This task of "delineating forms, kinds, and
types of social phenomena; of documenting in loving detail the things
that exist" (Lofland, 1971, p. 13), continued throughout the study.
The linguistics used by the participants themselves were utilized as
included terms within domains as often as possible.
2. Taxonomic analysis, uncovering the organization of domains
themselves, was the second phase of analysis. A taxonomy reveals
relationships among the terms inside the domain, uncovering subsets
and the ways individual terms are related to the whole. Taxonomic
analysis also helps the researcher to relate domains to one another.
One taxonomy, Kinds of Ability Perceptions, became the framework for
the findings of the study.
3. Componential analysis is a search for attributes of domains
and their included terms. For example, in conducting a componential
analysis the researcher looks for characteristics of the acts, activi-
ties, relationships, setting, and participation, and the variations they
display. The goal is to determine if the domains and terms within them
are distinct elements in the social setting.
4. Theme analysis, the final stage of the four step model, involved
looking for meanings which were recurrent in domains and which illus-
trated a relationship within taxonomies. Although a theme may not unite
all domains, it should make sense of the whole and thereby have a high
degree of generality. In this study the theme was revealed through a
recurrent set of questions which clarified the organization within
domains and across taxonomies. These questions were "What is problematic
to the participants?" "What things cause them concern, irritation, or
happiness?" "When they think about their roles in school, what appears
to them as stressful, important, or difficult?"
In a discussion on gathering and analyzing ethnographic data,
Lightfoot (1983) characterized the doing of ethnography as similar to
the painting of a portrait:
Portraiture is a genre whose methods are shaped
by empirical and aesthetic dimensions, whose
descriptions are often penetrating and personal,
whose goals include generous and tough scrutiny.
It is a sensitive kind of work that requires the
perceptivity and skill of a practiced observer
and the empathy and care of a clinician. (p. 369)
Implied in her discussion are two important issues which will be dis-
cussed in the final sections of this chapter: (a) researcher qualifi-
cations and biases and (b) validity of the findings.
Researcher Qualifications and Biases
The ethnographer is the key research instrument. For this reason
a discussion of the researcher's qualifications and biases is essential
in judging the quality of the research effort. "One's frame of
reference, in part a product of one's professional training, influences
the selections one makes from the phenomenon and determines how and
what is observed" (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1969, p. 102).
The researcher's qualifications and professional training are
1. The researcher had eight years of professional teaching
experience, including extensive work with gifted children in a regular
classroom setting and one year as a teacher of the gifted in a university
laboratory school. Five of the eight years of experience were at the
2. The researcher has completed coursework for a Ph.D. in curriculum
and instruction, specializing in middle school and gifted education.
The researcher is certified by the state of Florida as a teacher in
3. The researcher has taken four courses which provided a
theoretical and practical background in qualitative research and has
read extensively in this area.
4. The researcher has completed an ethnographic study of gifted
adolescent females involved in a career awareness seminar. Based on
this study two articles have been accepted for publication and one
regional research presentation was made.
5. The researcher has presented workshops and in-service presen-
tations for classroom teachers working with gifted students, has worked
as a consultant for district middle schools, and has made a presentation
at the National Association for Gifted Children.
In addition to examining the researcher's qualifications, both in
regards to her ability to conduct qualitative research and in terms of
the researcher's frame of reference, it is important for the researcher
to make clear any underlying assumptions or biases which may have
resulted in a selective perception of data. "The researcher can and
does know what his biases are, and knowing what they are, he can,
by specifying them, prevent distortion of his observations" (Schwartz &
Schwartz, 1969, p. 103). The researcher's journal enabled her to
actively look for personal biases and explore their consequences. The
following list demonstrates the researcher's awareness and provides
the reader with a framework for evaluating the study (Ross, 1978).
1. The researcher believes that gifted students require an
enriched curriculum through special programs which stress critical
thinking, problem solving, leadership, and creativity. Related to this
is the researcher's concern that practice in these skills is not being
adequately provided for all students in regular classroom settings.
2. The researcher is especially concerned about the kinds of
social and academic experiences encountered by gifted adolescent girls
in public school settings and their tendency toward underachievement
as revealed by previous research.
3. The researcher holds a social-interactionist perspective; that
is, that human perceptions are influenced by contextual settings and
that those settings, in turn, are influenced by human perceptions.
4. The researcher assumes that gifted adolescent girls' perceptions
of school experiences and their own abilities and achievements may not
be congruent with the perceptions of others within the school.
Validity and Ethical Issues
The degree to which scientific observations record or measure that
which they purport to measure determines the validity of the study
(Pelto & Pelto, 1978). This is a central issue in ethnography where
the match between the research model and the world under study is its
major strength (Lecompte & Goetz, 1982). In their discussion of criteria
which can be used to appraise the validity of qualitative studies, Ross
and Kyle (1982) have suggested the following questions as guides for
both researchers and consumers of research.
1. Is the problem studied significant, and is there
sufficient depth to the study?
2. Does the author refer to appropriate theory and
3. Does the researcher provide a comprehensive
description of the methodology?
4. Does the researcher explore alternative explana-
5. Does the researcher support interpretations and
explanations with multiple evidence?
6. Is the study well-written and organized?
In asking these questions the researcher acknowledges their importance
in determining the quality of the study.
The steps taken to ensure the validity of this study's findings
included the following:
1. The lengthy period of data collection ensured the researcher's
familiarity with the social setting and provided ample opportunity for
continual data analysis to refine domains and taxonomies and to ensure
the match between these categories and the setting.
2. Formal and informal interviewing of the girls, their parents,
and teachers, and the use of unobtrusive measures enabled the researcher
to get at emic perspectives and to triangulate data obtained through
3. The search for negative examples enabled the researcher to
4. The acceptance of the researcher by the participants allowed
the researcher to achieve a significant level of participation.
5. The practice of keeping open field notes, or allowing the
girls to read and comment on field notes taken during classes, enabled
the researcher to clarify, enlarge, and validate observations. This
practice also contributed to the rapport which developed between the
researcher and subjects.
Yet another procedure for establishing the validity of the
researcher's findings was to discuss them with some of the participants.
In early December, 1984, one year following the onset of data collection,
the researcher returned to the school to discuss the findings of the
study with participants. By sharing findings with the teachers and
some of the girls who had been involved in the study, the researcher
received important feedback on her interpretations of participants'
In considering the ethical issues involved in fieldwork, Schaffir,
Stebbins, and Turowetz (1980) noted that, "the oft discussed questions
of what to write about the group one has studied, how to protect con-
fidentiality against legal proceedings, and the like are of greatest
concern after leaving the field" (p. 15). The researcher has, during
the writing of this study, attended to the facts and reported the
findings while making every effort to protect the identity of the
school, the teachers, and the girls themselves. For this reason,
descriptive facts which did not affect the findings of this study have
been changed or omitted. The researcher further notes that, during the
data collection period, participants were continually reminded of the
researcher's interests and were not misled or recorded without their
knowledge. Upon completion, a final copy of this research will be made
available to county personnel, as well as the school's administration,
teachers, and gifted girls.
In the next chapter the researcher's findings are described and
discussed. In the final chapter, implications of the present study
GIFTED ADOLESCENT GIRLS' SELF-PERCEPTIONS OF ABILITY
The goal of this study was to uncover the self-perceptions of
ability held by gifted females attending a middle school in which they
were members of interdisciplinary teams and a pull-out gifted program.
As previously discussed, this research was based on a social-
interactionist perspective, and thus on the assumption that indi-
viduals' self-perceptions of ability are constructed through their
interactions in social settings.
In this study the researcher focused on interactions which took
place in the gifted classroom, two of the school's three team areas,
and in the library, cafeteria, and other areas of the school environ-
ment which were regularly inhabited by the girls. Observations
centered on the girls' interactions with teachers, peers, and educa-
tional materials within and outside the classroom setting. Additionally,
both formal and informal interviews were conducted with each girl
individually and in groups throughout the study. Teachers on both
teams and five of the girls' mothers were formally interviewed.
Artifacts such as cumulative folders, personal journals kept by the
girls, report cards, and work completed for classes were examined.
These kinds of concrete phenomena were used by the researcher as indi-
cators of gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability.
Data were analyzed into domains according to Spradley's
Developmental Research Sequence (Spradley, 1980). This process re-
quired that data be analyzed continuously to isolate relevant categories
of language, behavior, objects, people, etc. Domains which proved to be
particularly significant in uncovering gifted girls' self-perceptions
of ability included Results of Being in the Gifted Program, Ways to
Know You've Done Your Best, Kinds of Goals, Kinds of Status, Things
That Are Important, Steps in Getting a Teacher to Like You, Attributes
of Smart People, Differences Between Gifted Boys and Girls, and
Responsibilities of Students on a Team. Domains were then organized
into taxonomies. That is, data which indicated ways gifted girls
thought about their abilities were drawn from across many domains
and organized into new domains which represented factors influencing
self-perceptions of ability. Taxonomies were also constructed to
represent achievement-related behaviors within different contexts such
as the different teams and the gifted classroom.
This analysis reflected the social-interactionist perspective
which served as a theoretical framework for the findings of this
study. From this perspective, individuals create meanings for people,
things, and events in their world through their interactions in social
contexts. The meanings, or perceptions, are not inherent in the
people or events themselves, but instead are products of social
interaction. These premises of symbolic interaction (Blumer, 1969;
Mead, 1934) were found to be useful in understanding and describing
the self-perceptions of ability held by the gifted girls studied, and
the effects of the school culture (i.e., organizational features,
student-teacher relationships, and peer group influences) on their
The student perspective which emerged from the data was based on
evidence from all ten girls in the school's gifted female population,
though individual aspects of the perspective were shared by the girls
in varying degrees. As previously discussed, the majority of the ten
girls in the study group had grown up in the school's rural community,
attended the local elementary school, and participated in a pull-out
gifted program since third grade. Comparison of their perceptions
with those of girls who were new to the school community provided what
initially appeared to be negative examples. Componential analysis,
however, revealed these data to be supportive of the interactional
nature of ability formation.
The purpose of this analysis was to describe gifted adolescent
girls' self-perceptions of ability, and, more specifically, their
perceptions of the relationship between ability and achievement. As
gifted girls' perceptions are described, data from the taxonomies will
be used to illustrate and support their perspective. The excerpts
from field notes and interview transcripts used as illustrations were
selected from among numerous examples as being representative of the
experiences, statements, and shared beliefs of the group of gifted
adolescent girls studied. To protect the anonymity of the partici-
pants, ficticious names were used for students and teachers, and
details about the subject being taught were changed whenever it was
possible to do so without changing the data.
In the present study, gifted girls' beliefs about ability were
influenced by (1) definitions of giftedness held by significant
others, (2) affiliation needs, and (3) social comparison. Before
these influences on the development of self-perceptions of ability
are discussed, the community and school contexts which contributed
to the girls' self-perceptions will be described. In this section
the girls' views about themselves, as well as their perceptions of
the gifted program and interdisciplinary team membership,will be
presented. It is important to note that neither the girls' views about
themselves, nor teachers' or peers' behaviors and beliefs alone, can
sufficiently explain the perceptions of ability which emerged from the
data in this study. Rather, self-perceptions of ability must be viewed
as products of social interaction.
Ability and Motivation: School and
Callahan's (1979) observation that "girls earn higher grades in
school, yet men write more books, earn more degrees, produce more
works of art, and make more contributions in all professional fields"
(p. 402), led her to note that our present understanding of gifted
girls' abilities and motivations is inadequate. Research has failed
to account for the factors which might explain the discrepant numbers
of gifted men and women, or to delineate the unique characteristics
of gifted females which might guide educators in the creation of
effective programs for these learners. Though educators have noted
the need for studies conducted from the learners' point of view
(Meighan, 1978) in order to provide descriptive data (Weinstein,
1983), little is known about the role of the school and community in
the development of gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability.
As Lipsitz (1980) pointed out:
What we can say at this point is that young
adolescents, at a critical stage of self-defini-
tion, take their signals from society at large
and from the subculture. They are dependent upon
social institutions, like the schools, for the
limitations or the boundlessness of their aspira-
tions. (p. 29)
In the present study, the interaction between community and
family values and the school experiences of gifted girls contributed
to their beliefs about ability and their motivation to achieve. Before
the girls' experiences in the gifted program and their team organiza-
tions are described, some background will be provided on the girls'
entering views about themselves. As Brim (1976) proposed, the set
of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that individuals hold with regard
to the world and their place within it constitutes their conception
of self. For the girls in this study, community and family values
provided the background from which beliefs and attitudes about them-
selves were constructed, and therefore influenced their ideas about
who they were as well as who they might become.
Gifted Girls' Views About Themselves
Teachers believed that the nature of the rural community affected
the school's student population, and, in particular, the gifted girls
in several ways. When describing their perceptions of the girls,
every teacher, with the exception of one, referred to the influence
of the community and home values on girls' attitudes and behaviors in
school. Specifically, community values were believed to affect girls
in that they (1) provided a well-defined set of behavioral norms and
(2) restricted girls' awareness of achievement opportunities.
The set of behavioral norms to which teachers referred became
obvious to the observer when documenting seating patterns in the
classrooms and in the gifted resource room. Unless a teacher-made
seating organization was in effect, girls and boys tended to select
seats beside peers of the same sex. In the gifted room where desks
were arranged in a semi-circle and the number of students in the group
was small, the separation of sexes was most obvious. The girls ex-
plained this to the observer by commenting that boys and girls usually
did not sit by each other "unless they were going together." The
resource teacher, listening to the conversation between the gifted
students and the observer, interjected the belief that this seating
pattern reflected a community norm:
Teacher: (standing beside the group of students) I
call it Madison-itus. (Madison refers to the com-
Observer: What? What's that?
Teacher: When you go to a party around here the men
are all in one room and the women are in another.
Several of the gifted students laugh.
Gifted male: We just always sit that way. We were
sitting on the other side (of the semi-circle), but
they (the girls) pushed us around the table.
Norms of behavior which existed in Madison and the influence of
individual parents were frequently cited by teachers in explaining
the difference in behaviors they perceived to be characteristic of
gifted girls and gifted boys. The following excerpts illustrate
teachers' beliefs about the influence of norms on gifted girls:
Teacher A: I've never had a wierd (gifted) girl,
but we've had some guys. Rick (gifted boy), for
example, acts abnormally. He doesn't follow the
norms of the school or the community. Our gifted
girls all have consequences for poor performance at
home, and the majority of them are interested in
pleasing and doing well. You can't be accepted here
unless you go to the right church, [your] parents
know the right people, and you do the right things
around town. I think our gifted girls try to please,
just like other girls.
Teacher B: (standing in the back of a classroom and
pointing out a gifted girl to the observer) See Cindy?
She has her hand raised. Being polite just like her
mother expects. She's a producer.
Teacher C: It's hard to tell these gifted girls
that the skills they develop now will affect their
future progress. I know Debbie is capable of a lot
more demanding work, but I won't follow up the
parent and talk. I feel like an outsider.
I came from a big city, and I feel like I stress
academics more than anyone else here. Gifted
girls aren't super students in math. They tend to
do well in language. (pause) I guess it's O.K. to
do well in language.
An additional perspective on community norms was provided by a
life-time community resident who substituted for the gifted resource
teacher one day during February. After telling the observer that,
though she knew most of the gifted girls slightly, she knew Cindy
best through their church affiliation, she commented about the com-
Substitute: The community thinks of Cindy as a very
Observer: Would the community be surprised if she
became a nuclear engineer?
Substitute: Well, she is well accepted (pause) be-
cause (longer pause) because she does what the com-
munity expects a bright girl to do. She's musically
inclined, she has a beautiful voice, and she's real
polite. She's like a dream girl. I heard a parent
say that one day. (pause) A lot of people would
never say they felt differently about boy-girl
achievements, but I guess we do behave that way.
We separate ourselves at social gatherings without
even knowing it. (pause) I never thought about it.
Teachers frequently described the community as a closed one which
did not value academics, and, as such, restricted students' awareness
of educational opportunities. One teacher, noting that he lived in a
neighboring city and was not well accepted by the school's community,
told the observer, "This community doesn't give kids a chance to
expand their lifestyles. Gifted kids here probably just have
more open parents."
The teacher who taught the most classes to seven of the ten
gifted girls was concerned about what she perceived to be a lack of
community emphasis on female achievement. Explaining to the observer
that she was the only regular classroom teacher at the school who had
some background in gifted education, she voiced the opinion that
gifted girls' awareness of educational opportunities might be re-
stricted because there was a general lack of awareness that girls
could be smart:
Teacher: There's a difference between the gifted
girls here and the ones I taught in the South. I
don't see the aspirations for individual achievement
here. I think it's because they don't see females
in leadership roles and aren't brought up to see
women as achievers. They may tell you they want to
be doctors and lawyers, but I think their innermost
drive is to find a husband and get married and have
The influence of parents and the community on the girls' percep-
tions of themselves frequently surfaced during formal interviews.
Comments made by the girls in answer to the question "What kinds of
things do you want to be able to achieve?" reflected the influence of
parental values. The girls' answers frequently centered on doing well
to make parents proud rather than naming actual accomplishments they
would like to achieve. "I listen to my mother," Cindy informed the
observer. "I think she knows my potential. She doesn't encourage the
idea of being a composer because it would be a hard job. Not many
people do well. But it's not that she doesn't encourage me. She
wants what's best for me." It should be noted that comments made by
the girls reflected not only the importance of parental views, but the
tendency for girls to compare ability characteristics they perceived
in themselves with characteristics they perceived in their parents.
Comments such as, "I think my strong point is that I'm organized--like
my mother" or "My father says I'm lazy just like him!" were frequently
made in connection with expressions of the desire to please parents
and make them proud. The kinds of things gifted girls wanted to
achieve were influenced by their perceptions of the abilities and
qualities valued by parents.
The influence of community organizations on the ways gifted girls
thought about themselves was also related to parental values. For
example, girls who were actively involved in organizations such as
Girl Scouts, 4-H, or community sports often gave examples of activi-
ties in these organizations to describe things they did well. These
girls tended to have parents who were actively involved in these
organizations as adult leaders or who had been involved in them as
One of the social institutions within the community which
affected the majority of gifted girls in this study was the church.
Eight of the ten girls listed God as one of the two most important
things they believed in when completing a values exercise in journals
kept in the gifted class. Family and friends were listed as second.
The following excerpt is representative of the influence of religious
values on the way girls thought about themselves and the importance of
Cindy: A lot of ladies think well, a lot of
ladies are as good as men and some are better,
but I just believe God put men on earth first and
they should take care of ladies. She should do as
well as she can.
Nancy: Man provides for women. That's what the
Cindy; If I apply for a job when I'm older and a
man gets it, I'm not going to think he did just be-
cause he's a man.
Observer: What would happen if you knew you were
the better person for the job?
Cindy: Well, I guess I would just have to try
While teachers were consciously aware of the influence of the
community on gifted girls' views about themselves, they were less
clear about the school's ability to expand the opportunities available
to these girls. Comments such as, "Kids come in with established
patterns and all we can do is work with them!" and "The school can't
do everything. The parent's emphasis makes a difference in the child's
emphasis" were characteristic of teachers' feelings about the school's
role. A teacher who informed the observer that she had made several
attempts to encourage one of the gifted girls to sign up for an
advanced math class, but had been unsuccessful, remarked, "Why don't
these girls want to develop their potential? I'm not sure there's
a pat answer. I guess the school's role is to expose the student to
as much information as possible to make a wise decision."
The Gifted Program
As previously described, the gifted program at the school was a
one day a week pull-out program which aimed to improve higher level
thinking skills, creativity, and leadership potential. The fact that
there was no set curriculum to accomplish these goals was seen as a
hardship by Mrs. Johnson, the gifted resource teacher. As a result,
she developed several major themes during the year and built lessons
around them for all three grade levels. The lack of appropriate
materials and resource guides, however, apparently made the development
of higher level thinking skills difficult.
Over the duration of this study, Mrs. Johnson taught units related
to space, the arts, and the history of the community. While these
units were in progress she continued weekly journal writing assignments
designed to promote creativity and affective development. In addition,
several weeks before the end of school, she required the students to
plan and organize field trips to areas of local interest "in order to
stress organization skills and to encourage leadership and responsi-
The level of interest expressed by the gifted girls in the topics
covered by Mrs. Johnson varied. Journal writing was considered an
important and enjoyable activity, as were the informal conversations
which frequently followed the voluntary sharing of journal entries.
As Ellen explained, "A lot goes on then. We have times when we talk
or just write about things and everything comes out."
No opportunities were provided for the gifted students to make
choices about topics studied other than the selection of an individual
project which followed the unit on space. The unit, which took place
during the early stages of this study, proved particularly difficult
to teach because Mrs. Johnson was able to obtain only materials and
films which were considerably below the level of the students and, in
some cases, were noticeably outdated. The end result was that few
students were excited by the unit or by the prospect of an independent
project. The project Mrs. Johnson assigned was posted on the black-
board early in January as follows:
1. Choose an area of study.
2. Begin research.
a. School library
b. Public library
c. University library
d. University Science Department
e. National Geographic (and other publications)
f. Materials available in enrichment room
3. Write an outline. (Due Jan. 18)
4. Develop a report.
During the month of January and the first week of February,
students in the gifted room worked alternately on creative and per-
sonal writing in their journals, thinking techniques such as brain-
storming, and activities related to the unit on space. When the
February deadline arrived for presentation of reports, however, none
of the sixth or eighth grade girls were ready to present. Thus, the
first day of presentations in those classes consisted of work com-
pleted by the gifted boys. The following two incidents are illustrative
of the level of student involvement in the projects and, in particular,
the behavior of gifted girls in the resource room:
Sixth Bobby moves to the front of the class, sets up a
grade poster and places a written report in front of him.
The other students sit in a semi-circle around
Bobby. Mrs. Johnson stands in the back with a tape
recorder and camera ready to document the report.
Jill and Marie have open encyclopedias on the table
in front of them and proceed to copy information and
a diagram while Bobby talks. Bobby has most of his
report memorized so that he does not refer to his
notes. He concludes by explaining his poster and
asks for questions. Eight males and Joan, one of
the three female sixth graders, ask questions. Jill
and Marie continue working.
Eighth Phil and Steve, two eighth grade boys continually
grade pointed out by the majority of girls as extremely
smart, are the only ones ready to present today. Mrs.
Johnson calls on Phil and explains that she will
record him as well as take pictures. In response,
Sally calls out: "Oh! My hair!" She then reaches
up and pretends to smooth it. Phil ignores the
laughter and begins his report on Saturn. Perhaps
because he is nervous, he reads his report a a pace
which becomes more and more rapid. As he speaks,
Lynn puts her foot on the table and deliberately
ties her shoe. Beside her Debbie sits quietly,
staring under the table. Ellen begins to make sound
effects which include the music to Twilight Zone.
Rushing through his final page, Phil concludes by
asking the class if they would like further informa-
tion. In a loud voice Sally responds: "I'm not
really interested." Mrs. Johnson looks at Sally, turns
off the tape, and begins discussing the good and bad
points of the audience and the report. When she
pauses, Ellen chimes in: "I liked the organization
and the visuals, but where's the beef?" The class
bursts into laughter and Ellen blushes slightly.
Mrs. Johnson rewinds the tape, plays back the first
few minutes, and becomes distressed with the giggling
and sound effects that were picked up on the tape.
Looking at the class she exclaims: "This is
The levels of motivation exhibited by both gifted males and
females in the resource room varied over time and across subject
matter. This was of considerable concern to the mothers of the girls
interviewed during this study. One mother, after being notified that
her daughter's space project had not been completed on time, told the
observer, "When she got home we put her on restriction. She said she
didn't get it done because the girl who worked on it with her hadn't
come to school. I told her maybe I'd have her taken out of gifted
because it was too much pressure on her. She says the teachers don't
understand." Several other mothers expressed the concern that their
daughters did not seem to be getting very much out of enrichment this
year. One mother remarked, "For a while I thought she was learning
a lot, but now, not so much. She thinks so too. She's at the point
where she'll be glad when she gets to high school and she's not in
Data analysis revealed that the girls who had the least social
status in the regular classroom tended to describe the gifted classroom
in the most positive terms. This was true even for girls like Sally
whose behavior in the gifted room frequently indicated that she had
no interest in the curriculum. As Sally explained, "The only time I
feel part of the school is when I'm in gifted."
Field notes indicated that the verbal behavior of many of the
gifted girls in the resource room was significantly different from
their behavior in regular class. For example, Marie, who rarely spoke
above a whisper in her regular classes, interacted more frequently and
with vigor in the gifted classroom. When the researcher commented on
this observation, several girls explained their more active participa-
tion by describing the gifted class as a smaller, more intimate
Sally: It's a lot different. You talk about
feelings. In there (gifted room), you put it
(express yourself) different.
Lynn: In here (gifted room) we're all friends.
There aren't any cliques and no one is more popular
unless maybe something (a status-giving event) is
Nancy: Gifted is my favorite class. We agree on
th same things, like the same things, and enjoy
being together. They understand how I feel.
Joan: I had to throw away my I-hate-Monday-Garfield-
tee-shirt this year! (Monday is the day Joan goes to
the gifted class.)
A comparison of the journals kept by several eighth grade girls
in their advisor-advisee class with those kept in the gifted room pro-
vided insight into the different levels of intimacy the girls attributed
to the two environments. During a group interview these girls informed
the observer that nothing of importance was ever written in the
journals kept in advisor-advisee, and that reading them would not
produce information for this study. Sally explained, "We never write
anything in there! Mrs. Myers reads them." It is important to note
that Mrs. Johnson also read the gifted journals, though students in
the gifted class had the option of requesting that Mrs. Johnson (and
the researcher) not read a particular entry. It should also be noted
that girls were given no directions when writing in their advisor-
advisee journals, while Mrs. Johnson usually led a discussion based on
a selected topic as a pre-writing activity. The result was that entries
written for advisor-advisee class reflected basic daily activities,
but journals kept in the gifted room revealed intimate, personal
thoughts, as illustrated in the following examples:
Gifted Connie: Friendship is what impresses me most.
jourals Everyone wants to fit in. You see someone
everyone admires, and you want to be like
Debbie: Life is like an endless standing in
Tine for something. It just seems to go on and
on and never gets anywhere. I wonder if I am
Lynn: When you are in a fog you don't see any-
thing, but when it leaves and you look back, you
see all the opportunities you missed.
Ellen: I feel like a time bomb. Things could
explode any minute.
Advisor- Connie: This Saturday we went shopping at the
Advisee maiTT and to the movies. Ellen spent the
Lynn: Yesterday I cleaned the house and read a
book for class. My friend came over and we went
Ellen: I called Connie and we talked on the phone
for an hour. Then Debbie called me.
Though the girls were more verbal in the gifted room than in
their regular classes, their overall behavior in the gifted room was
more passive than the behavior of gifted boys. This observation was
consistent throughout the study, despite the varying levels of motiva-
tion expressed by both males and females in regard to the gifted
curriculum. When activities were in progress, males moved about the
room more, used a wider variety of materials, asked more questions,
and interacted with each other more aggressively than did females.
When journal writing occurred, males tended to finish writing sooner
and spend the remainder of the time talking to each other or to Mrs.
Johnson. In addition, equipment such as the record player and computer
were controlled almost exclusively by the males with the exception of
the sixth grade class. These students did not use the record player,
and both males and females were equally interested in obtaining time
on the computer.
For the majority of girls, particularly the eighth graders, the
significance of being in the gifted program had gradually decreased
since their entry into middle school. Even Ellen, who described the
gifted class as a place "where everything comes out," told the
researcher that, "It used to be important to be in it (during elementary
school). I used to love to come." On several occasions, and on at
least one occasion when the observer was present, one girl skipped
class and was later found by Mrs. Johnson in her regular class.
Data analysis revealed two reasons many of the girls felt parti-
cipation in the gifted class was no longer important. First, the
girls frequently expressed feelings of wanting to be exposed to more
and different topics than were covered in the class. Human nature,
relationships, physical growth, astrology, and animals were mentioned
by the girls as topics they would like to investigate. Second, nine
of the ten girls made spontaneous comments to the observer about very
popular girls who had taken the test for entry into the program, but
had missed the cut-off score by "a few points." The girls believed
that including popular students in the gifted program would increase
its status among students, thus making it a more appealing program.
Carrie, the most popular eighth grade girl, was often given as an
example. As Ellen explained, "Carrie said she hoped she'd make it,
but when she didn't, she said she didn't really want to. Now no one
really wants to get in."
An additional explanation for the girls' feelings about the
importance of being in the gifted program was offered by the principal.
He described for the researcher the motivation-achievement conflict he
believed characterized gifted students, and in particular, girls, in
the middle school:
Principal: The only thing about gifted is there's no
real direction about what gifted kids should be exposed
to. Teachers expect them to make up work they miss
(on days absent for the gifted program) and the kids
don't feel they should. Too, gifted girls won't
sign up for advanced classes because of peer pressure.
They don't want to be different. That's what we do
when we label them. We make them different. People
don't really understand the amount of pressure these
kids are under. I don't understand it. They look
to others for leadership and follow their example.
That's just the way it works. We've had kids tell
us, "We don't want to have to work that hard."
There's a few of these kids from time to time that
don't let it affect them, but they're socially
In summary, the majority of girls were unsure that the gifted class
was one in which they were learning advanced skills. They expressed
to the observer a desire to investigate topics different from those
which were part of Mrs. Johnson's program. At the same time, however,
they perceived the class as one in which they were able to be them-
selves. The girls named Mrs. Johnson, along with the school counselor,
as the adults they would most likely go to with problems. In addi-
tion, their perception of the gifted room as a place without cliques
encouraged a feeling of being understood; thus girls who had difficulty
interacting verbally in the regular classroom did not have this diffi-
culty in the gifted room. Despite the observation that the girls
expressed their feelings more openly in the gifted room, when their
overall behavior was compared to the behavior of gifted boys, girls
were found to exhibit more passive behaviors.
Members of a Team
Membership on a team was an integral part of the student experi-
ence at this middle school. Over the duration of the study numerous
students from both teams discussed their perceptions of school with
the researcher, perceptions which were phrased in terms of team life,
and which often compared one team to another. Students who shared
their perceptions with the researcher, including the gifted girls, be-
lieved that the two teams offered very different learning experiences.
As previously discussed, the researcher spent several weeks
collecting observational data in both teams, and three-week periods
in which observations were solely focused on a specific grade level
within one team. During these three-week periods the researcher com-
pared gifted girls' perceptions of the team with the behavior of
teachers, peers, and the girls themselves. Gifted girls' experiences
as members of Team One and Team Two will be discussed separately.
Gifted girls' perceptions of Team One
Team One contained all of the eighth graders and half of the
seventh graders in the school. At the time of this study, seven of
the gifted girls were members of the team. This group of girls in-
cluded one student who was new to the school and six who had been
members of Team Two the year preceding the study. Their comparisons
of the two teams provided insight into gifted girls' perceptions of
classroom features and the effects of these features on motivation
and ability perceptions.
The majority of Team One students who discussed their perceptions
with the researcher, including the seven gifted girls, described the
team as much freer. Observations and interview data indicated that
the girls used this term in two different ways. First, the gifted
girls believed that a wider variety of classroom behavior was tolerated
by teachers in Team One. Additionally, the girls believed that the
work they produced in Team One was evaluated by less strict criteria,
and thus, they had a greater degree of freedom when completing assign-
ments. As Cindy explained it, "Team One is just freer! I like it
better because things don't always have to be perfect like the teacher
wants. In Team Two if you didn't do it exactly a certain way you lost
Data indicated that these student perceptions resulted from the
consciously organized system of beliefs about students' developmental
levels and teaching that guided the team teachers' decisions and
behavior. Team One teachers believed that seventh and eighth grade
students should be able to manage themselves without teacher-imposed
restrictions, and that teachers should concentrate their efforts on
the cognitive dimension of the curriculum. The teachers' attitudes
are illustrated in the comments below: