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Accentuate the positive: the relationship between positive explanatory style and academic achievement of prospective elementary teachers.

Abstract. This research examines 480 current event-explanation units using the CAVE technique (Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1989) to note the relationship between positive and negative explanatory style and achievement of prospective early childhood and upper elementary female teachers. This study found a significant positive relationship between explanatory style for positive events and academic performance in stressful scenarios. Surprisingly, optimism and pessimism in one's explanatory style for negative events was found to have no significant relationship to academic performance. An important implication of these findings is that the quality of our attributions for positive events, not negative events, helps to sustain performance levels in demanding situations. Interventions for enhancing explanatory style therefore should focus on the positive.

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Current literature supports the need for "renewed" teachers in our field (Cain, 2001; Geringer, 2003; Houghton, 2001), as well as non-negative thinking among prospective and early service teachers (Ness, 2001; Wesley, 2003). In fact, this issue has historical roots. The National Institute of Education (1975) highlighted the importance of teachers' thought processes:

It is obvious that what teachers do is directed in no small measure by what they think. Moreover, it will be necessary for any innovations in the context, practices, and technology of teaching to be mediated through the minds and motives of teachers. (p. 1)

The "minds and motives" of individuals are the domains of attribution theorists who "assume that individuals utilize a number of ascriptions both to postdict (interpret) and to predict the outcome of an achievement-related event" (Weiner, 1980, p. 328). Attribution is defined as the perceived causes of outcomes (Shunk, 1991; Weiner, 1986) and is based on the assumption that people naturally seek to explain causes of significant events (Heider, 1958). Schulman, Castellon, and Seligman (1989) were interested in exploring the patterns of explanations individuals had for the causes of significant events. According to Schulman et al., explanatory style is "the habitual pattern of explanations an individual makes for good and bad events" (p. 505). For prospective teachers, significant achievement-related events tend to be academic and programmatic in nature because they are students. An examination of the relationship between explanatory style and academic achievement in prospective elementary teachers should further our understanding of how explanatory style contributes to the growth and development of teachers.

In order to effectively measure explanatory style, Peterson, Luborsky, and Seligman (1983) developed a technique they called Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE). This content analysis technique can be used to analyze the spontaneously occurring events in transcripts, diaries, personal essays, and other varied written materials, since "such materials are rich enough in naturally occurring good or bad events and their explanations to assess explanatory style" (Schulman et al., 1989, p. 505).

According to Weiner (1985, 1986), explanations for good and bad events are characterized by three properties: internal-external locus, controllability, and stability. According to Holschuh, Nist, and Olejnik (2001), an attributional cause may consist of varied combinations of these three dimensions indicating that "ability is internal, uncontrollable and stable; effort is internal, controllable and unstable" (p. 155). Within the CAVE, these properties are evaluated along three scales similar to the properties identified by Weiner: internal vs. external, stable vs. unstable, and global vs. specific (Schulman et al., 1989). The composite positive explanatory style, or Co-Pos, is a rating for one's explanations of good events in the context of these three properties. For example, a prospective educator with a high Co-Pos explanatory style will consider good events to be intrinsically linked to her own personality and temperament, permanent, and global (e.g., "I'm very focused and studious, and my high mark on this exam is a reflection of these qualities in all that I do as a prospective teacher and human being"). The composite negative explanatory style, or Co-Neg, is a rating of one's explanations of bad events. For example, a prospective educator with a high Co-Neg explanatory style will consider bad events to be intrinsically linked to her own personality and temperament, permanent, and global (e.g., "It's my fault that I got a low mark on this exam," "It's going to last forever because this information was the foundation for the whole course," and "It's going to undermine everything I do and bring my grade point average down so that I won't get a job"). Weiner (1985, 1994) indicates that if a person believes that (good or bad) circumstances are stable or permanent, this will affect future goals, emotional reactions, and performance. Palmer and Wilson (1982) found that when individuals attributed their failure to lack of ability, they also believed that they could not control their success or achieve their goals. Such beliefs would correspond to having a high Co-Neg rating. Holschuh et al. (2001) were encouraged by their own findings with university biology students, who consistently attributed future performance to such controllable factors as learning strategies and effort and thus allowed for the optimistic possibility of their own success. This would correspond to having both a high Co-Pos and a low Co-Neg rating at the same time.

The total explanatory style is typically calculated by using the formula Co-Pos minus Co-Neg. A positive result corresponds to an optimistic explanatory style, while a negative result indicates a pessimistic explanatory style. When individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style experience bad events, they tend to be more susceptible to helplessness deficits than those with an optimistic explanatory style (Schulman et al., 1989). The study by Peterson and Barrett (1987) found that students who enter university classes with an optimistic (total) explanatory style do much better than expected, while individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style do much worse than they should have according to their entrance test results.

However, the use of total explanatory style may not provide as much resolution into the distinction between optimism and pessimism as could be obtained by distinguishing between Co-Pos and Co-Neg measurements within analyses. For example, Schulman et al. (1989) associate pessimistic explanatory style and susceptibility to helplessness deficits in bad events, yet this association is most likely not directly due to total explanatory style but rather to the contribution of the Co-Neg measurement to the simple linear formula governing total explanatory style. Therefore, it is justified to analyze the relationship between achievement and each of Co-Pos and Co-Neg explanatory styles.

Prospective Teachers: Explanations for Their Learning Process

Prospective teachers, according to Beattie (2001), go through a process of "learning and unlearning, of changing views and perspectives ... influenced by new experiences, understandings, and world views over time" (pp. 3-4). Prospective teachers experience success and failure situations in many achievement-related events, including exams; papers; class presentations; microteaching experiences (with comments from peers); practicum experiences, during which they receive comments from university- and school-based mentors; and comments from grade-level colleagues about their teaching practices (Allender, 2001). Explanations about these achievement-related events come from what Hardy (1968) refers to as a primary act of mind, in which "we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future" (p. 5). If used with delicacy, personal narratives can explain positive events as a rallying point for future success and position bad events in a hopeful light, engaging prospective teachers, as Rosen (1986) suggests, in the "daring, scandalous rehearsal of scripts for the future" (p. 237). In a review of classroom-oriented attribution studies, Weiner (1979) indicated that teachers' attributions involved "stating the causes of success or failure at real or imagined events, and judging themselves or others" (p. 4). Weiner found that ability, effort, and task difficulty were the main perceived causes of outcome on academic tasks and in social situations in the classroom for teachers. For teachers, these achievement-related events or academic tasks included interacting with students to promote an active and safe learning environment, the writing of report cards, conducting parent/teacher interviews, collaborating with other teachers to improve school practices, and receiving formal evaluation from administration and grade-level colleagues about their teaching practices. Geringer (2003) indicated that teachers will have a more positive explanation for their teaching success and will want to continue to teach if they have a solid content-based knowledge, interest in children, and a desire to be lifelong learners who are "enthusiastic about their subjects, who are steeped in their disciplines, and who have professional training as teachers and leaders" (p. 374). The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) indicate that early childhood teachers should demonstrate a lifelong willingness to learn, a caring attitude, acceptance of all children, and sensitivity, empathy, and warmth towards others (Bredekamp & Copple, 2000; ACEI and World Organization for Early Childhood Education, 2001). According to the literature, in order to provide this caring acceptance of others, teachers must recognize and articulate the progress they are making in their own professional and academic achievement and in their learning process. The role of explanatory style is important to teachers, in that how they attribute success and failure in learning scenarios will influence future goals and emotional reactions to success and failure (Weiner, 1986).

However, the literature to date has not examined the relationship between positive and negative explanatory styles and the academic achievement of prospective teachers. The present study was designed to address this research gap by exploring the relationship between positive and negative explanatory style and the achievement-related experiences of prospective early childhood and upper elementary female teachers. Specifically, the author examined how early childhood and upper elementary female education students explained good events and bad events that took place when they became naive learners in a self-chosen learning scenario in a learning process project assignment, and how this behavior related to their academic achievement within the learning context of an academic course. Studies in the area of explanatory style, including that of Peterson and Barrett (1987) and Weiner (1985; 1994), indicated that achievement is dependent on explanatory style. Therefore, the secondary purpose of this study was to further our understanding of explanatory style within the context of prospective teachers' achievement-related learning experiences. To do this, the author examined the following hypotheses. The first hypothesis explored the relationship between independent variables of a positive explanatory style (Co-Pos) and academic achievement of prospective teachers while controlling for age and teaching interest, and a second hypothesis examined the independent variable of Co-Neg and the dependent variable of achievement while controlling for age and teaching interest.

This article will discuss a research study that examined 480 current event-explanation units, using the CAVE technique (Schulman et al., 1989) to test these hypotheses. The implications of this study will explore strategies that post-secondary teachers can employ to support and mentor optimism in prospective teachers and their education programs.

Method

Participants

Participants were 48 female white third-year university students enrolled in their first-year education cohort program as prospective elementary teachers in a mid-sized Canadian university. This first year in the education program included a required child development course and five other courses across the faculties of social science, science, and education. In addition, it is important to note that at the time of this study, these prospective teachers had not been out in the schools. Participants from this intact class ranged in age from 20-33 years, with a mean of 21 and standard deviation of 2.527. Twenty-one participants indicated a preference for teaching early childhood (0-8 years), and twenty-seven participants indicated a preference for teaching upper elementary (9-12 years). These students were representative of the students admitted into the education program in that their initial entry into the faculty of education was dependent upon: 1) completion of two years of university-level studies within the faculties of fine arts, humanities, sciences, or social sciences; 2) demonstration of written English competency; and 3) a grade point average of at least B- on the most recent session of their completed two years of university studies. These entry requirements ensured group commonality.

Measures

As a part of their course requirements in the child development course, each student completed an Informal Teaching Interest Survey, a midterm and final exam, and a five-page Learning Process Project (LPP) essay.

In the Informal Teaching Interest Survey, the participants were asked to identify their area of teaching interest: early childhood (08 years) or upper elementary (9-12 years).

The multiple choice exam questions, used to measure academic achievement, were based upon the recommended course textbook material by Bee (2000) and derived from the test bank by Meyer (2000). There were 56 items on the midterm covering 7 chapters and 100 items covering the complete course content of 14 chapters on the final exam. The final exam was a more stressful examination scenario, because the cohort of participants had significant other educational obligations, including term papers, presentations, other final exams, and 14 chapters of child development material to review. The time of the midterm exam was not encumbered by these completion requirements or expectations.

The Reflective LPP Essay was a five-page synthesis paper written in response to 10 open-ended starter questions that asked students to reflect on their experiences during a naive learning experience. This learning process project began in September before the midterm, and the essays were completed in November before the final exam. The LPP questions were not biased toward positive or negative events. These natural learning experiences were self-selected topics for learning and were required to be unrelated to the curricular content of their university studies, not taken for university course credit, nor completed as a part of a paying job. The intent of the LPP was to capture the experience of being a naive or novice learner without skill or strategy for learning success, and to encourage the students to begin to empathically engage in reflection on what a child might feel like when learning something new and challenging every single moment of the day. Students personally chose to explore such non-university-based learning topics as juggling, knitting, belly dancing, yoga, and PowerPoint presentation software. These learning experiences were not typically in their realm of expertise, talent, ability, or comfort. Thus, students chose naive learning scenarios that were not easy for them and that they did not know how to do.

The questions the students answered in their LPP essays were formulated with consideration of the work of Drews (1972). Drews indicated that the Learning Process Project "is an opportunity to share with the class the process of learning--how it feels, the frustrations when things go wrong, the joy of being totally absorbed, and for a lucky few--what it feels like when a skill or a bit of knowledge really becomes part of oneself" (p. 206). The students were asked to respond to the following 10 starter questions as a catalyst or ignition for reflection on their naive learning experiences:

1. What did you learn?

2. How did it feel to learn this? How do these new thoughts make you feel?

3. What were the frustrations like when things went wrong?

4. What were the joys of the experience?

5. How has this learning experience made you more sensitive to the learning process?

6. How can what you have learned help you with children with special needs, cultural diversity (i.e., First Nations, New Canadians, etc.), linguistic diversity, and gender differences?

7. Think about children who may have difficulty with the skill you teach them (e.g., math concepts). How would they feel? How could you help them to feel secure and safe in their learning and failing?

8. Is the learning becoming a part of who you are and how you conduct yourself as a prospective teacher? HOW SO?

9. How will this learning help you and the children and youth in your care? Discuss and describe how you will implement this learning in classrooms, virtual classrooms, shelters, group homes, etc.?

10. What would you personally like to learn or explore next (or even perhaps continue to learn from this experience)?

The Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE) technique (Schulman et al., 1989) was used to note the explanatory style expressed in the LPP essays. CAVE is a measure used to identify the explanatory styles of participants through content analysis of spoken or written materials along three causal dimensions: internal vs. external, stable vs. unstable, and global vs. specific. "Multiple events to measure cross-situational style" (Schulman et al., 1989, p. 509) are represented by a sampling of a minimum of four or five current good and bad events, which are identified by trained judges who rate each of the three causal dimensions along a seven-point Likert scale. Schulman et al. indicate that for the purposes of extracting event-explanation units, "an event is defined as any stimulus that occurs in an individual environment or within that individual (e.g., thoughts or feelings) that has a good or bad effect from the individual's point of view" (p. 510).

The composite of five good events (CoPos) and the composite of five negative events (CoNeg) are derived. Finally, composite positive minus composite negative (CPCN) is used to derive the difference between CoPos and CoNeg. According to Schulman et al. (1989), the CAVE technique correlates highly with the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ; Seligman, Abramson, Semmel, & von Baeyer, 1979), which is "a questionnaire in which Ss generate a cause and then rate the cause they generated on a 1-7 scale for internality, stability, and globality, [which] is the primary instrument for measuring explanatory style" (Schulman et al., p. 505). In terms of construct validity, the CAVE technique correlated highly with the ASQ. Correlations were 0.71 for the CPCN, 0.48 for the CoNeg, and 0.52 for the CoPos (P's < 0.001, n's =159).

Procedures

The child development course covered material on early childhood and elementary schoolchildren ages 0 to 11 years, including topics on physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. The students were required to write a five-page paper on the learning process they had experienced, which was due in November before the final exam. The criteria for this formal essay required them to write using professional language in a systematic and sequential analysis of their learning experiences.

To further control for differences in language use between early childhood and upper elementary prospective teachers, the students' teaching interests were included in the statistical models. As a part of the course requirements, students in the class were asked to complete the Informal Teaching Interest Survey in the first week of the term.

To measure academic achievement in this child development course, a midterm exam consisting of 56 multiple choice questions, covering only the first 7 chapters, was administered to establish a baseline for academic performance. The exam was given at a time when the participants were not encumbered with numerous external educational obligations. In a more stressful examination scenario at the end of the term, a final exam consisting of 100 multiple choice questions (Meyer, 2000) covering the entire 14 chapters of the textbook was administered at a time when the students in the study were also completing final course requirements for five other courses.

The CAVE technique (Schulman et al., 1989) was used to identify the explanatory styles of the 48 participants, based on their five-page writing samples. Two raters received three hours of training in 1) Guidelines for Extracting and Rating Spontaneous Explanations, 2) Extracting Event-Explanation Units, and 3) Rating the Extractions (pp. 509-512). These raters identified five good events and five bad events to measure a cross-situational style, for a total of 480 event-explanations. The 10 events were evaluated on the three dimensions on a seven-point scale over 32 hours of content analysis per rater. Inter-rater reliability was 90.8 percent for CoPos and 91.7 percent for CoNeg. Events on which the raters disagreed were rescored for 100 percent agreement.

Results

Analysis

The analysis within this study includes both descriptive data, such as means and standard deviations, as well as multiple linear regression analysis of the hypotheses. Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations for the sample population on the final and midterm exams, the Composite Positive Explanatory Style, and the Composite Negative Explanatory Style.

Multiple linear regression analyses were used to identify the relationship between final exam performance (as the dependent variable) and each of CoPos and CoNeg explanatory scores, while controlling for age and teaching interest. The relationship between the dependent variable of midterm exam mark and each of CoPos and CoNeg was also tested, again while controlling for age and teaching interest. Table 2 shows the results, including effect size in the [R.sup.2] column (Kirk, 2001; Vacha-Haase, 2001). As the F ratios in Table 2 show, there was a significant relationship between the CoPos Explanatory score and the final exam score, and the [beta] value in the first row indicates that the relationship was positive (i.e., higher CoPos scores correspond to higher final exam marks). According to Table 2, the academic performance measures were not statistically related to CoNeg scores. Moreover, performance on the midterm exam was not statistically related to the CoPos score.

Findings

The result for the directional Hypothesis 1 was accepted: there was a statistically significant relationship between Composite Positive Explanatory Style and Final Exam performance. The effect size supports these findings, indicating a good fit between learners' performance on the final exam and a positive explanatory style. Increased CoPos score was positively related to increased final exam score.

Since the CoPos score was not related to academic performance on the midterm, we examined the relationship between the midterm and the final exam and found a strong, statistically significant positive relationship (F=20.803, [rho]=0.000, [beta]=+0.558, [R.sup.2]=0.311). Thus, the author concluded that while the midterm exam was a good measure of natural academic ability, the final exam was a measure of academic ability in the context of a stressful situation. A more optimistic explanatory style for positive events was therefore positively related to academic performance in stressful scenarios.

The result for the directional Hypothesis 2 was rejected: there was no statistically significant relationship between Composite Negative Explanatory Styles and either measure of academic achievement.

Discussion

Limitations of the Study

This was a quantitative study employing a correlational design. The limitations of this study included the nature of this research design. Creswell (2005) indicated that "although it is not as rigorous as an experiment, you can use it for relating variables or predicting outcomes" (p. 324). In this case, the correlational design was limited to the examination of the relationship between positive and negative explanatory style and the achievement-related experiences of prospective early childhood and upper elementary female teachers. In addition, the Co-Pos score or a positive explanatory style predicted success on the final exam, while a Co-Pos score did not predict success on the midterm.

Implications

In this study with prospective teachers, offering positive explanations for good events was a contributing factor to achievement-related success during a time when students were completing assignment deadlines and final examinations for six courses across the disciplines of social science, sciences, and education. Previous literature (Holschuh et al., 2001; Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, & Seligman, 1986; Palmer & Wilson, 1982) has focused on the response to failure and bad events as a means of combating helplessness and depression. By not considering a bad event as stable, global, and internal, individuals can proactively change the impact of a bad or stressful event. From this original work, we found that positive explanatory styles did predict achievement-related success on the final exam. Thus, there is merit in helping prospective teachers improve their views of good events as a means of helping them to diffuse the impact of stress-inducing scenarios.

Another point of discussion involved the finding that those who received a higher score on the midterm did not have a higher positive explanation for good events, nor a higher negative explanation for bad events. One possible explanation for this finding involved a situational variable. The midterm exam in this child development course had fewer questions and covered fewer chapters than the final exam. The midterm exam came before many of the assignments for this class and other classes were due, thus allowing everyone in class more study time for less material. This appeared to have fostered the association of less of an incentive value for the less difficult task associated with the midterm. In fact, Freize and Weiner (1971) indicated that adults consider that success in tasks in which few people succeed implies unusually high ability or effort as an internal influence of personality and temperament, but success in which many succeed is based on more externalized influences that are temporary and specific to the leaning situation. Overall, prospective teachers in this study may generally have believed that the midterm would be easier because of external factors and may not have believed that it was necessary to expend time and energy to support a strong performance on the midterm. Thus, the prospective teachers who did well did not hold a Co-Pos explanatory style or Co-Neg, because they were more likely to believe that the good event or the bad event was not related to their own personality and temperament, but rather was related instead to such external factors as time of term, fewer chapters covered, and ease of material.

Implications for Educational Practice

Prospective teachers experience both the challenge of acquiring academic knowledge and the pressure of eventually having to apply this knowledge to support the learning of others. What can we learn from the malleability of explanatory styles and the promotion of optimism? Now more than ever, the teaching profession requires an optimistic psychological profile highlighting persistence, initiative, and bold dreaming in the face of frequent frustrations. As Weiner (1986) suggests, attributions of success will positively support persistence, emotional willingness to initiate activities, and realistic goal-setting in the face of good and bad events.

A mentorship system could be valuable in supporting prospective early childhood and upper elementary teachers in their optimistic explanatory style, as it has the potential to assist the students in viewing the source of their academic successes as internal (the locus of control is with them), permanent (stable over time), and global (possible in all situations). This might include employing the CAVE technique as an informal tool in identifying the explanatory style of prospective teachers in good and bad events. Recognizing prospective teachers' natural explanations when reflecting on good events and bad events can be a point of individual discussion within the student mentor experience. Furthermore, once explanatory style has been identified, there is potential for mentors to encourage prospective teachers to reflect on positive aspects of their program, the joys of their learning experiences, and their plans for future success. This practice can promote a habitual attributional style that views good events as being a part of their lives. Self-reflection opportunities through journaling, mentor and student discussion, or other forums need to include positive evaluation of successes one has had, how an individual has achieved these good events through effort and effective use of learning strategies, and how one's previous success could be used to support future success. There also should be an opportunity to appreciate and respectfully acknowledge the success of others and indicate how the individual can learn from peers. For example, students in the child development class are given an opportunity to create transition activities (i.e., learning experiences or segues between subjects) and to teach the transition activity to their classmates in groups of five. As a culminating activity, the students in the child development class are asked to reflect on the following questions: What strategies did you employ to ensure your success in teaching the transition activity? and How can you promote success in future teaching experiences based on what you learned today? This conscious reflection on the good that they all achieved through this activity will lead them to employ success-inducing skills in future teaching experiences, while also promoting collegial and collaborative support systems. Thus, taking an optimistic view of achieving success does have the potential to breed further success.

Conclusions

This research finding has exciting implications not only for early childhood practitioners but also for all prospective teachers. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and its Code of Ethical Conduct is based on fundamental values of "respecting the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague); and helping children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust, respect, and positive regard" (Feeney & Kipnis, 1992, p. 3). These values support a strong commitment to children and are at the heart of an optimistic explanatory style. An optimistic explanatory style, along with an attributional style that habitually leads individuals to view good events as internal, stable, and global, can provide prospective teachers with the internal resources to value their career choice and ongoing career decisions despite bad events, and thus to continue teaching. In essence, teaching provides many opportunities for stressful events, and explanatory style for positive events appears to have an impact on whether stressful events are viewed as bad events or good events. So, rather than asking, "Will you quit with me?" (Ness, 2001, p. 701), prospective teachers will ask, "How can I use the skills and talents I know that I possess to most effectively serve children?"

Future research could explore whether we can predict teacher behavior from the assessment of explanatory style by longitudinally exploring whether Co-Pos students do, indeed, make better teachers. The present research does provide support for a positive outcome of such research, due to a natural analogue between the mix of academic knowledge and the pressure of performance inherent in final examinations and early teaching experiences. In addition, research also could explore intervention programs at the post-secondary level to promote positive attributions for good events, and could include both females and males within larger and more varied ethnic groups. These studies would continue to expand our knowledge about, and appreciation for, strategies to sustain and support prospective teachers' health and well-being as they enter the profession.

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Wanda Boyer

University of Victoria
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics for Final Exam and CoPos

 N M SD

Final Exam 48 74.354 7.747
Midterm 48 84.854 8.064
COPos 48 57.313 10.051
CoNeg 48 60.500 10.581

Table 2
Multiple Linear Regression Analysis of Final Exam Scores and
Explanatory Styles

Relationship Model Examined F R [R.sup.2]

Final Exam Score and CoPos 3.351 * 0.321 0.186
Final Exam Score and CoNeg 2.032 0.143 0.122
Midterm Score and CoPos 0.403 0.019 0.027
Midterm Score and CoNeg 1.132 0.220 0.072

* p < 0.05
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Author:Boyer, Wanda
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
Words:5778
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