Good morning. Today is Day One of Milford’s HQI Live!, which for me is a Very Big Deal. I wrote about it the first year it took place, and this year it’s significantly more ambitious, with 100 teachers from across the district coming together to watch teachers teach real kids in real time, sandwiched between activities designed to engage adult learners on important questions about instructional practice (What is high quality instruction? What matters in giving and receiving feedback? What’s important about questioning?) beforehand, and debriefing and reflecting on what they observed afterwards. I know that sounds simple and straightforward, but it’s actually a logistical behemoth, and I admire the commitment, the strategic thinking, and the execution by the leadership team in Milford. It takes a lot of dedicated people to pull this off at this scale (over a dozen on the planning team!), and they are impressive. None of that really captures the magic of being here, though, so I’m not going to try. But I would encourage you to check out the pictures on Twitter – you can follow me @IsobelTX or the superintendent @MilfordSuper or follow the hashtags #HQILive or #HQILive3. It will at least give you a sense of the scale and the excitement!
I’ll just also push the idea that schools, and districts, should create among their educators a shared understanding of what high quality instruction looks like. Jennie Weiner and I wrote a book called The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, and it has a chapter on creating a shared understanding of high quality instruction: why it’s important and how to do it. HQI Live! is not the only way to do this—it’s just a really powerful and cool way.
I don’t want to get ahead of some of the big ideas that are going to be discussed at HQI Live! So instead I’ll review one that’s already come up, in Milford and in a couple of other places lately: perceived self-efficacy. I wrote about PSE in CL #149, when Albert Bandura died. And below is an article that I really like that I wrote for Ed Leadership that they didn’t publish (I’m batting 0.0 with Ed Leadership)–I was at least able to pull a couple of paragraphs for the new book on coaching. It’s long, so let me give you a couple of headlines: Perceived self-efficacy, like motivation, resilience, and mindset, is an outcome rather than an input. In other words, we acquire PSE, we are not born with it. We develop PSE a result predominantly of our experiences; we learn to predict when our effort and our skill will lead to the result that we are looking for. Our first assumption, then, when we or others are reluctant to behave in an expected way, should not be about reluctance or resistance; instead, we should assume that we, or others, are simply not confident that we have the skills to do what is expected, and/or that effort invested will not pay off. This, by the way, is the first time I’ve inserted a graphic into a Coaching Letter, so I’m a little nervous about how it will turn out… Let me know if I can do anything for you.
Perceived self-efficacy is a theory, described by psychologist Albert Bandura (1977), that explains our decision to act in any given situation. It is a useful theory because it provides a framework that supports the design of teaching and leading to be more effective. Teachers, coaches, and leaders might all benefit from considering this model as they plan.
Bandura, in an article published in 1977, wrote:
Efficacy expectations determine how much effort people will expend and how long they will persist in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the more active the efforts. (p. 194).
Figure 1, reproduced from the original article, shows that whether individuals attempt to achieve a goal depends on two beliefs:
- Whether they believe that they are capable of adequately performing the behavior needed to reach the outcome (efficacy expectations); and
- Whether they believe that if they perform the behavior adequately, it will get them the outcome they are hoping for (outcome expectations).
Bandura’s theory explains people’s motivation to achieve some goals and not others, and why some people persist and some give up. Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to choose loftier goals, to see a failure as a temporary set-back, and to persist in trying to meet their goal. Self-efficacy is about agency: it describes the circumstances under which we believe we can make a difference. Perhaps the idea is best summed up in a New York Times editorial by David Brooks: “Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so.” (2008, p. A37).
In other words, people faced with a challenging goal assess the likelihood that they can reach that goal by exercising the skills that they have. (Someone once gave me a paperweight inscribed with a saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”)
Self-efficacy is a little different from confidence, which we tend to think of as a personality trait; self-efficacy is a judgment and domain-specific. I have strong self-efficacy relative to writing; I am confident that if there is an idea I want people to understand, I can communicate it effectively in writing. But that sense of self-efficacy does not extend to fiction. I have no clue how to write a short story: I have no ideas for plot and no illusions that anyone would want to read my story. Self-efficacy is also different from blind optimism. My self-efficacy about writing is not just wishful thinking–it’s an evidence-based claim I make about my skill.
The concept of self-efficacy gained wide currency in education because of a finding of a RAND study of literacy in California in the 1970s, which found that the best predictor of student literacy achievement was teacher confidence in their ability to teach students how to be good readers (Armor, et al., 1976). There have been many subsequent studies on the effect of perceived self-efficacy on teacher behavior and student outcomes, including the extension of efficacy to include collective efficacy: the belief by a group of people that they, as a team, can effect positive results in their chosen field.
What does self-efficacy look like in practice?
Self-efficacy is more than an abstract idea; it’s a useful construct that, once understood, can be seen in operation everywhere. The following illustrations were chosen not just because they illuminate self-efficacy, but because they show how our responses to these challenges might be profitably shaped by understanding self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy in the classroom
Let’s start with a classroom example. Concepts such as grit, resilience, and growth mindset have gained in popularity over the last ten years. These concepts are addressed in many classrooms, and in many districts this terminology has found its way into vision and mission statements. When we use these terms, we are basically saying, “we want students to persevere through adversity, to be motivated, and to learn from failure.” These are great qualities, and we should be teaching them. Self-efficacy gives us a frame for doing that.
What self-efficacy tells us is that rather than thinking about grit and motivation as traits that students bring to a given situation (in other words, characteristics of the Person in Figure 1), we should think of them as the product of student success. In other words, classroom instruction should be engineered to engage students in challenging tasks, scaffolded so that students will be successful if they work hard, but not so far outside what they are capable of doing that they give up in frustration. When tasks are so designed, students come to believe that success is likely if they put in the effort This is an important shift: from teaching students about grit and assessing how “gritty” they are, to putting the onus on task design and judging the quality of a task on how students are supported to be successful at challenging and worthwhile work.
Students who develop belief in their own self-efficacy are more likely to take risks and to challenge themselves. The more challenge they seek, the more they learn, the more successful they become, and their self-efficacy continues to grow. This virtuous circle is what Lindsley et al. (1995) named the “performance-efficacy spiral”. Quite simply, success breeds success.
Unfortunately, many students are moving in the opposite direction; they have little experience with success, and so they don’t try, because they perceive that everything is a risk that is only going to lead to more failure and, to borrow Dylan Wiliam’s (2005) line, they would rather appear lazy than stupid. Such students are, unfortunately, frequently labeled as unmotivated and experience a lot of what can only be described as nagging, when what they really need is to experience some success.
Of course, what is true for students is also true for adult learners, which helps to explain why professional development for teachers that fails to build teachers’ belief that they can successfully enact the change that is being asked of them is unlikely to lead to change in practice.
The consequences of a lack of attention to building efficacy among educators can be seen in the current focus on equity in education. We want schools to be places where all students, regardless of race, gender, religion or other characteristic, have the opportunities and experiences that lead to the knowledge, skills and dispositions that set them up for success whatever they do after graduation. Professional development centered on equity frequently includes topics such as systemic inequities, why race is hard to talk about, the role of unconscious bias, and so on. Again, these are important issues.
Bandura’s model suggests that people are motivated to work towards a particular goal when they believe the goal is achievable and that they are capable of enacting the skills needed to achieve the goal. This strongly suggests, therefore, that, an approach limited to teachers’ personal awareness of equity and inequity (i.e. the “person” part of Bandura’s model) or to increasing expectations for students (i.e. “outcome expectations”), is not adequate for building the knowledge and skills teachers need to improve their “efficacy expectations”, and therefore will be limited in its impact.
In coaching, using the self-efficacy framework gives a construct, and language, to talk about assumptions, expectations, and areas for growth. It is not unusual for a new principal, for example, to tell their coach that they didn’t do something that they know they “ought” to do because to “it’s not going to work”. Maybe they didn’t talk to the teacher who didn’t show up for lunch duty, or to the janitor who was mean to a first-grader. The reasons are frequently framed as outcome expectations: “I know her and she’s not going to change”, or “he’s retiring at the end of the year anyway.”
When a coach hears a client express lack of faith that a result can be achieved, self-efficacy is a useful frame to analyze what could underlie that lack of faith, and once we have allowed that there could be alternative possibility, then we can start thinking about other steps we can take that might increase the odds that whatever it is might work. A coaching question might be: “So I hear you express unwillingness to have a heart-to-heart with that teacher. Is that because you really believe that he is a hopeless case, or is it possible that you just are not sure how to go about having that conversation with him?” The coach might offer to role-play such a conversation, so that the principal goes into the conversation better prepared, is more likely to obtain a satisfactory result, and is therefore more likely to attempt such a conversation in the future.
I can best describe collective efficacy by reflecting on my own experience since schools shut down in March 2020. My colleagues and I, just like educators everywhere, had to figure out how to pivot instantly to an online environment. On top of that, we immediately started to plan for how to support our clients, who were dealing with logistical, technological, instructional, and social-emotional challenges, simultaneously.
As we built workshops and developed services that we had never offered before, I had zero confidence that I could do any of this work by myself. But I had total confidence that we could figure it out as a team. In other words, my own self-efficacy for doing this work was minimal, and I am pretty sure that my colleagues felt the same way; but our collective efficacy was very high, and indeed we went on to create several very successful programs.
Collective efficacy is more than the sum of the self-efficacy of the members of a group; if it was only that, then the low self-efficacy of me and my colleagues individually would have added up to low collective efficacy. Rather, collective efficacy is an “emergent group level attribute” (Goddard et al, 2000), meaning that collective efficacy is a result of the interaction of team members that leads to a belief about what they will be able to accomplish as a unit.
Not surprisingly, then, collective efficacy in schools is associated with student achievement, and has been found to be a more powerful predictor of school success than socio-economic status. For this reason, Hattie (2016) has described collective teacher efficacy as the number one correlate of student achievement. On the one hand, this seems to be only stating the obvious; teachers who have the knowledge and skills to have a powerful impact on student achievement are bound to have high collective efficacy. But because collective efficacy is more than the accumulation of the self-efficacy of the members of the group, building collective efficacy carries a large return on investment.
How to build self and collective efficacy
Bandura (1997) described how perceptions of efficacy can be improved:
1. Mastery Experiences
The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through experiencing success; we know we can do it because we did it before and we have every reason to believe we can do it again.
2. Social Modeling
Knowing that others have done what we are trying to do provides proof of concept; we may not have done it ourselves, but we know it can be done.
3. Social Persuasion
We can be persuaded to believe that we have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Verbal encouragement from others helps us overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving our best effort to the task at hand.
4. Psychological Responses
Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how we feel about our personal abilities in a particular situation. By learning how to minimize stress and elevate mood when facing challenging tasks, we can improve our self-efficacy.
Donohoo et al (2018) suggested that school leaders build collective efficacy by demonstrating “evidence of impact. When instructional improvement efforts result in improved student outcomes that are validated through sources of learning data, educators’ collective efficacy is strengthened” (p. 43); and that this work is supported by the creation of high-trust environments. This implies intentional and strategic work on the part of teachers, leaders and coaches to build capacity to deliver instruction that is most likely to lead to increased student learning. Collective efficacy beliefs rest not only on the recognition of the connection between action and outcome; they also require the conviction that those actions can be carried out successfully by the team working together. And there is huge power in that.
I have a colleague who uses this line all the time: if we want people to think differently, we need to give them different ways to think. Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy is precisely such a different way of thinking; it is, as Lewin would have put it, a practical theory (Marrow, 1977). Understanding the theory affords educators a different way of understanding what is going on in a range of different situations; frankly, I can’t think of a more useful frame for making meaning of why people behave the way they do, and how we can improve a strategy, practice, or intervention. When David Brooks wrote about the beliefs about successful people, he was pretty clear that those beliefs were not personality traits, and that they did not come out of nowhere.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W. H. Freeman.
Brooks, D. (2008, December 15). Lost in the Crowd. New York Times.
Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., & Eells, R. (2018). The power of collective efficacy. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 40-44.
Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 479-507.
Hattie, J. (2016, July). Mindframes and Maximizers. 3rd Annual Visible Learning Conference, Washington, DC.
Lindsley, D. H., Brass, D. J., & Thomas, J. B. (1995). Efficacy-performing spirals: A multilevel perspective. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 645-678.
Marrow, A. J. (1977). The practical theorist: The life and work of Kurt Lewin. Teachers College Press.
Wiliam, D. (2005). Keeping learning on track: Formative assessment and the regulation of learning Paper presented at the 20th biennial meeting of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, Sydney, Australia, January 2005