children’s aspirations

How children’s aspirations change as they grow up: latest research

Two research findings from our University of Newcastle large-scale longitudinal study of the career aspirations of Australian children attracted a lot of media coverage recently. The first was that Australian children begin to form career aspirations from a very young age and the second that children have similar aspirations whether they are from low or high economic status families.

These findings are inspiring some rethinking around career education in Australian schools and how things might change to help children realise their aspirations.

But there is another aspect of our findings that has not yet been given the media spotlight, and it may be just as significant. It is the way children’s aspirations change over time.

Of course some change is to be expected, but as we unpack what is happening we can see patterns emerging and believe schools, teachers, parents and university recruiters should be paying much closer attention to what is happening.

What we found

In Year 3, children aspired most to having a career as Arts professionals (musician, artist, writer and so on), followed by School Teachers, Veterinarians, Architects, and Science professionals. These were the top five occupations where a university education was involved.

The next most popular careers were Engineering Professionals, Medical Professionals, Social and Welfare Professionals, Legal Professionals and Registered Nurses/Midwives.

However we found that interest in some occupations – arts, architecture and veterinary science – declines in the later years of schooling, while interest in others – engineering, nursing, and social and welfare work – grows.

Interest in teaching, medicine, legal and science careers is more stable across the school years.

In some occupational categories, interest appears to rise or fall towards the very end of high school. For example, students are less likely to aspire to be a vet or artist as they mature, but more likely to aspire to architecture, engineering, medicine, social work or law. Furthermore, significant interest in these careers is often expressed as early as Year 7, sometimes Year 5. In other careers, such as teaching and science, student interest is more consistent across year levels.

Why do children change their aspirations?

The data we have collected gives us a clearer view of how and when aspirations change. This evidence provides fertile ground for any policy maker or program developer involved in career education.

The variations we found across year levels might relate to ongoing assessment by students of their abilities and achievement levels as they age or, indeed, to a more realistic understanding of what is involved in certain careers.

However it is possible these patterns indicate a range of quite specific influences, such as: how a teacher communicates expectations of a child (whether they will continue on to university); or a family’s understanding of how paying for university education works (believing it costs too much and they can’t afford it); or even an understanding that university study is involved in the pathway to a certain career or belief that the pathway is possible.

The process of forming aspirations can have a profound influence on the life prospects of a child. Our ongoing research is looking closely at what is happening here, with the aim of informing teachers, higher education providers, and policy makers.


Jenny Gore is Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests have consistently focussed on the quality of teaching and learning, teacher socialisation, alternative pedagogy, power relations in teaching, reform in teacher education and pedagogical reform. She has been involved in and/or managed several large research grants, with research income over $5.9 million. Jenny was a member of the research team that generated the concept of Productive Pedagogy and, with Associate Professor James Ladwig, was co-author of the NSW model of pedagogy known as Quality Teaching. Professor Gore was Dean of Education and Head of the School of Education at the University of Newcastle (2008-2013) and and has held positions as President of the NSW Teacher Education Council, Executive member of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Research Training Coordinator for the Australian Association for Research in Education, and Associate Editor of Teaching and Teacher Education. Jenny’s major books include The Struggle for Pedagogies: Critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth and Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy (edited with Carmen Luke). Her current research programs focus on understanding student aspirations for greater equity and investigating teacher professional development through Quality Teaching Rounds.

What do you want to be when you grow up? How children develop aspirations and why it’s important to know

We ask this question of children almost as soon as they can speak: What do you want to be when you grow up? We were all asked this question many times during our childhood and adolescence. Those enquiring after our hopes and dreams were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and family friends. Often our responses were fantastical, even comical. My mother takes great delight in recalling that my earliest aspiration was to be Thomas the Tank Engine, or perhaps more realistically, the driver of an ice cream van. Transmogrification into an anthropomorphic steam train turned out to be impossible. Neither did I become a mobile soft-serve vendor. In any case, I doubt my four-year-old self would have replied to the question with “academic” let alone “postdoctoral research fellow”!

My own shifting story of what I wanted to be and what I eventually became is very much a product of the prevailing social, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances of my childhood. The simplicity of “what do you want to be?” belies the complex and multifaceted picture which emerges from any study of aspirations.

Why we need to know how aspirations develop in Australian children

Since 2009, Australian governments and educational institutions have focused on enabling access to university for students from historically underrepresented groups, particularly those from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. This has been our society’s aspiration for young people. However, only 15-16% of students from the lowest SES quartile undertake degree-level education in Australia. To address the underrepresentation in higher education of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, policymakers, educators, and researchers need a greater understanding of how career and education aspirations become differentiated by SES background during childhood and adolescence. Several scholars in Australia and elsewhere have analysed the aspirations policy agenda from various perspectives.

What research tells us so far

An emerging area of social psychological research seeks to explore how social identity styles differ according to social class background. Social psychologists Michael Kraus and Nicole Stephens argued that the economic, social, and material conditions of a social class socialise its members into similar intrapsychic and interpersonal patterns.

Same or different

They also proposed two broad distinctions. In this psychological theory of social class people in lower socioeconomic strata are said to have contextualistic social-cognitive tendencies: that is, a reliance on others for economic, social, and material support leads them to make decisions that favour similarity to others. They like being the same as other people.

On the other hand, people in higher social classes have a solipsistic social-cognitive tendency, which is an “individualistic orientation to the environment motivated by internal states, goals, and emotions” that leads them to make decisions that favour differentiation from others. They like to be different.

Living up to expectations

In other research the Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, Michael Berzonsky, operationalised three identity styles which may be mapped to these broad distinctions: informational, normative, and diffuse/avoidant.

  • Students with an information-oriented identity style gather and evaluate information regarding career and education aspirations, with the desire to differentiate themselves from other people.
  • Students with a normative identity style are said to be conformists concerned with living up to the opinions and desires of significant others, like parents and friends.
  • Finally, students with a diffuse/avoidant social cognitive style delay dealing with identity questions, and rely on other people to make career and education decisions for them.

The difference between a normative and a diffuse/avoidant reliance on other people is that the former is an active orientation while the latter is rather more passive.

What I researched

In my doctoral thesis I sought to test these ideas in the Australian context and see whether there was a relationship to students’ career aspirations. As part of a larger study at the University of Newcastle, led by Professor Jenny Gore, I was able to analyse several thousand questionnaires gathered from children in Years 3-12 (find more about that here). I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to add Berzonsky’s identity style index to the student surveys in the third year of the study.

What I found

Family background is important to aspirations

As hypothesised, the results showed students’ identity styles to differ between socioeconomic status backgrounds. In general, students from high SES backgrounds were more information-oriented and less diffuse/avoidant when dealing with identity questions compared to students from low SES backgrounds, where the opposite pattern emerged. In some ways, these results parallel other research in which people from disadvantaged backgrounds are said to have tour knowledge, whereby they are limited to the guidance of others along a pre-determined path to desired occupational destinations, while people from advantaged backgrounds have map knowledge, or a “greater familiarity with the social terrain and an appreciation of the whole route they need to reach their destination”.

The expectations of family and friends can influence aspirations of some students, regardless of background

There were no statistically-significant differences between SES groupings for the normative, or conformist, identity style. While initially surprising this makes sense considering that all SES contexts have norms to which people generally subscribe (voluntarily or otherwise) even if those norms are qualitatively different from one context to another.

Students with low aspirations, regardless of background, rely on others to make career decisions for them

Perhaps most interestingly, identity styles also differed between students with high and low aspirations within SES groupings. Students from low SES backgrounds with high aspirations (as measured by the AUSEI06 socioeconomic ranking of occupations) were more information-oriented and less diffuse/avoidant than their peers with low aspirations. Similarly, students from high SES backgrounds with low aspirations had stronger diffuse/avoidant tendencies than their high aspiring peers.

So while different social cognitive tendencies are generally unevenly distributed between social-structural positions, supporting the hypothesised broad distinctions between social classes, they are not restricted to a particular social class. In other words, social cognitive orientations towards career aspirations are not fixed psychological constructs determined by social class. To repurpose a well-worn phrase, demography is not destiny.

How my research could be used

I think an important implication of this study is that to improve access rates to university, there is a need for careers education to better explore students’ desires and interests and to help students make informed decisions in line with their developing identities. It would appear that equipping students with the skills and dispositions to become information-gatherers would particularly benefit their career aspirations, regardless of their SES background.

Having said that, as Australian educational researchers Natal’ya Galliott and Linda J. Graham argue, “more equitable access to career education and guidance […] will not solve problems stemming from academic difficulty, a lack of curricular diversity, or student engagement”.

Therein lays the challenge to educators. While demography is not destiny, neither are aspirations. They are just one piece of a complex and multifaceted puzzle that goes together to create an individual in a society.

In my case, it might just be a puzzle of a blue steam train.



Nathan Berger is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, and Co-Convenor of the AARE Motivation & Learning SIG. He recently graduated from the University of Newcastle with a PhD in the social psychology of education. His thesis was supervised by Prof Kathryn Holmes, Dr Jennifer Archer, and Prof Jenny Gore.

ATAR is a university marketing tool: 4 reasons to stop obsessing about it

The recent ‘revelation’ that Australian universities are not sticking to their advertised course cut-offs has caused a ruckus. Some even see it as a scandal: universities are admitting students with much lower (gasp) than advertised Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATARs), even into ‘top’ courses.

I think it is time to look at some facts around ATARs. I have four important ones for you. I believe everyone concerned about or discussing ATARs should know these facts.

Fact 1: Most university place offers are not made on the basis of the published ATAR.

Around two-thirds of the university places offered in Australia each year are made to students who do not have an ATAR. Almost 50 per cent of new university students are mature age, international, vocationally qualified or will have come to university through a myriad of alternative entry schemes.

Direct entry to university is growing exponentially at some universities, with the ATAR bypassed altogether. Direct entry, mature-age and international students, and students who come through VET pathways make up the majority of the Australian university cohort.

In my own state, Victoria, most courses that make offers to students through the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) do not publish ATARs for those courses. Yes, that’s right, most courses. Of the minority that do publish an ATAR for a course, two-thirds made more than 30 per cent of their offers to students with lower ATARs than the published figure.

All universities award ATAR bonus points. These extra points and how they are determined are not regulated in any way, nor are they usually transparent. Universities can award bonus points as they wish and for whatever they wish. This furtive awarding of points is disguised as recognising “leadership”, “community-mindedness” and other qualities of applicants.

Fact 2: The ATAR is not a score.

The ATAR is a numerical, relative ranking derived from senior high-school performance and a complex series of scaling and other adjustments. In a relative ranking system, students in one year’s cohort are ranked against each other.

An ATAR of 49 does not mean a student has failed, it means the student is ranked at the 49th percentile of a cohort that year in terms of their academic performance, as measured and scaled according to a complex series of mechanisms. In a cohort of, say, 45000 students in one year, a student with an ATAR of 49 has an academic performance equal to or better than 22000 students that same year. Hardly a failure.

And similarly, no matter how bright they are, nor how hard they or their teachers work, no more than ten per cent of students’ ATAR rankings will be in the top ten per cent of rankings. That’s how ranking works.

Fact 3: The ATAR is linked to socioeconomic status.

The evidence indicates that ATAR scores are correlated with socioeconomic status and social capital. To put it simply, the higher the socioeconomic status and capital of the student, the higher the ATAR is likely to be, and vice versa.

For example, poor people in rural areas generally have lower ATARs than rich people from metropolitan areas. But poor people are not stupid and do not compromise educational standards or outcomes. They just have less of the social and cultural capital that counts for school education outcomes (and, therefore, ATARs). No mater how tempting it is to think it: an ATAR rank is not a measure of intelligence, motivation, diligence, aptitude or ability.

Fact 4: The ATAR is now used primarily as a marketing tool to an under informed public

The ATAR was more important when the supply of university places was limited and demand for these exceeded supply. Cut-offs were a useful strategy for allocating too few places. However, in our current demand-driven system of university places, where there are few limits on the number of students a university can enrol, the ATAR is used primarily as a marketing tool. Universities rely on folk believing that the higher the ATAR, the better the quality of the course and possibly, the better the university. But what is it better at?

Many assume, understandably but incorrectly, that the higher the ATAR needed to get into a course of study, the “better” the quality of the course. But the ATAR has no correlation with objective measures of course quality. The simple truth is that the higher the ATAR for a course, the more popular the course is among school leavers.

The public are currently being misled by what is essentially a clever marketing system using ATARs as proxies of quality of courses and institutions. It needs to stop and Peter Shergold, the head of the federal Higher Education Standards Panel, has recently announced that the Panel will begin to increase transparency around this issue.

It is time to stop obsessing about entry standards and start focusing on exit standards

What we should be focused on as a society is what happens to students, regardless of their entry method, during their university study and after graduation. Many students who have very high ATARs come unstuck at university when the intensive support and guidance, to which they had become accustomed, falls away.

As Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has recently emphasised, the point of university education is not to validate entry standards but to educate, value-add and ensure high quality outcome standards. We all know that elements of effective university education and high quality learning outcomes go far beyond the supposed standard at which the students enter the university. Teaching quality, the curriculum, learning support and student support are just some of the most obvious.

All universities must put in place proactive support structures, processes and programs to ensure all the students to whom they give access can meet their potential and have the highest chance of success possible.

I often ask: When a university graduate seeks employment, how many sensible employers will ask them to reveal their ATAR from all those years ago? On the other hand, how many will be interested in what the graduate knows, can do, and can contribute?

The main priority should be to focus on exit standards and outcomes, where students end up, not where they started. If we restrict access to university only to those guaranteed to succeed based on previous education scores, we block a life-changing opportunity for scores of thousands of people every year.

It’s important to keep educating a wide range of students

University education is now open to more students than in the past when it was just available to white, upper-class men. This is good for students, their futures, their families, the economy and society. Successive governments of both sides have encouraged and supported increased access to university education for a larger number and broader range of people. The alternative is to have fewer people educated at the highest levels and subsequent reduced capacity to lead and innovate in a rapidly changing world.

Case studies at my own universities show that despite starting with very low ATARs, those who go on to successfully complete courses will graduate as qualified professionals and subsequently contribute to the economy, their communities and society in enhanced ways.

What matters most about university education is the quality of the education offered and the capacity and knowledge of graduates and whether they can do what governments and society expect of them, having had the privilege of access to education at that level.

If the purpose of university education is to contribute to an educated society, that treats its members and members of other societies with dignity, respect and kindness, while simultaneously advancing economic, environmental and other fronts, then we should unburden ourselves of outdated and inaccurate notions about the power of a single number.

I believe we need to focus more closely on how to facilitate success for the many, rather than the few.




Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia.  @MarciaDevlin