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Effective teaching: exercising self-efficacy and thought control of action

Colin Gibbs
Head of School: Education, Faculty of Arts, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Email colin.gibbs@aut.ac.nz

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002

ABSTRACT

This paper explains and discusses the influence of teachers' self-efficacy on teaching, and how this relates specifically to exercising thought control in teaching. Teachers' personal sense of control, and their beliefs in their capability to exercise personal control of their thinking during teaching, is suggested as impacting on how teachers think, feel, and teach. Implications for teacher education are discussed.

The international trend over the last decade has been to package education into a business portfolio. In New Zealand, the thrust began with the Tomorrow's Schools report in 1988. Its intent was to transform early childhood centres, schools and tertiary institutions into 'rust-free' businesses. The political idea driving this view is that wealth creation is somehow a desirable outcome of education (Gibbs, 2000). So, when kids get better grades, wealth is somehow created. In this model, students are considered customers or clients; a good education business competes for customers; the number of enrolments versus expenditure assesses economic efficiency; and quality assurance is measured in terms of satisfaction reports produced by external auditors such as the Education Review Office.

I am not opposed to accountability. Nor am I opposed to infra-structural efficiency, performance standards, curriculum definition, and quality assurance. All these, I am sure, are good things. What I want to suggest is that teachers have not fared well in the face of the radical reforms in education. This is exactly what we found in a study of teachers' motivation, satisfaction and health (Harker, Gibbs, Ryan, Weir, & Adams, 2000). This study found that around 60% of teachers felt ill-prepared for the job. A large number of teachers, if given the chance, would leave teaching and enter other careers. Overall, teachers reported high levels of stress and lack of well-being.

It is in such a political context that I want to consider teachers, some key attributes of effective teachers, and how these may be enhanced. There are several key attributes that we expect of effective teachers, including:

1. Survival Teachers need to be able to survive the demands, threats, and challenges within the diverse circumstances of teaching. This is particularly, but obviously not exclusively, true for beginning teachers.

2. Resilience and Persistence Teachers need the capacity to be resilient and to be persistent, even when the odds seemed stacked against them.

3. Innovativeness Teachers need the capacity for innovativeness, and a preparedness to generate new solutions, take on new teaching approaches, and be willing to risk failing.

My argument is that the capacities to survive, to demonstrate resilience and persistence, and to demonstrate innovativeness are governed primarily by teachers' beliefs about their capability-that is, their self-efficacy as teachers. Effective teachers have the capacity to exercise this self-efficacy and, in particular, to exercise thought control over their actions.

Teacher Outcome Expectations

Teacher outcome expectations are beliefs that acting in certain ways are likely to lead to certain outcomes. When we consider preservice teacher education programmes, it is interesting to note the strong emphasis placed on providing exemplars of action and consequences. Inasmuch as student teachers understand these outcome expectations it is thought that they will subsequently act in these ways. But such knowledge does not guarantee that teachers will willingly act in these ways. Knowledge of outcome expectations is not strongly associated with motivation. Yet practices in teacher education programmes traditionally place a heavy emphasis on the idea that if you act in certain ways as a teacher, then usually there will be consequences which can be anticipated.

There are at least two limitations of this action-consequence approach. First, teaching is highly unpredictable. Teachers become aware of this unpredictability early in their teaching and being able to predict likely outcomes from action does not, in itself, provide a secure basis to act. Secondly, believing that outcomes follow actions does not necessarily imply that teachers see themselves as agents in the change of their own behaviour. This emphasis on outcome expectations probably can be traced back to theories that interpreted learning as primarily the acquisition of habits (Hull, 1943; Spence, 1956). Similarly, the outcome expectation approach, when applied to teacher preparation, increases knowledge of the links between behaviours and expected outcomes, but does not probe whether the teacher believes s/he is capable (that is, self-efficacy) or willing (that is, motivation) to set this in action. Knowing that acting in certain ways is likely to result in specific outcomes does not necessarily motivate teachers to act that way.

Self-Efficacy as a Teacher

Self-efficacy as a teacher, on the other hand, is a powerful predictor of how and whether a teacher will act. Teacher self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of exercising personal control over one's behaviour, thinking, and emotions. Effective teachers believe that they can make a difference in children's lives, and they teach in ways that demonstrate this belief. What teachers' believe about their capability is a strong predictor of teacher effectiveness. People who hold strong self-efficacy beliefs tend

- to be more satisfied with their job (Trentham, Silvern, & Brogdon, 1985)
- to demonstrate more commitment (Trentham, et al. 1985), and
- to have lower absenteeism (McDonald & Siegall, 1993).

Teachers who have high self-efficacy, tend

- to persist in failure situations (Gibson & Dembo, 1984)
- to take more risks with the curriculum (Guskey, 1988)
- to use new teaching approaches (Gibson & Dembo, 1984)
- to get better gains in children's achievement (Brookover et al. 1979)
- to have more motivated students (Midgely et al. 1989).

Figure 1 presents a model which attempts to illustrate how self-efficacy as a teacher, and teacher outcome expectations relate to action. Five assumptions underpin this model, all of which are supported by research findings:

  1. Self-reflection Good teaching is not the mere carrying out technicist tasks. Effective teachers reflect on their own thinking and about their actions. Teachers need to be capable of self-reflection.

  2. Intentional Behaviour Much of teachers' behaviour is purposeful, intentional, and goal-directed. Teachers' behaviour is guided by forethought (including anticipation and prediction).

  3. Symbolic Representation How teachers intend to teach depends, in part, on their capacity for symbolic representation. Symbolic representation creates internal representations of experience, generates innovative and multiple solutions, and characterizes possible consequences (behavioural, cognitive, emotional) of applying these solutions.

  4. Self-Regulation Teachers require the capacity to self-regulate their thinking, behaviour, and emotions. They need to be able to exercise direct control over their thinking, behaviour, and teaching circumstances. Teachers might be said to be self-regulated when they are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviourally active participants in the process of teaching (see Zimmerman, 1986).

  5. Triadic Reciprocal Causation To understand effective teachers, we need to acknowledge that teachers' actions do not occur in vacuums. There is an interaction, reciprocity, and inter-dependence of teachers' inner personal factors (cognition, emotion, biological events), teachers' behaviour, and the circumstances in which this teaching occurs. Bandura (1989) refers to this as triadic reciprocal causation.

Figure 1: The relationship between teacher outcome expectations, self efficacy as a teacher, and teacher action

There are at least four kinds of self-efficacy as a teacher, each of which is instrumental in explaining how teachers teach and their willingness to persist even when the odds appear to be stacked against them (Gibbs, 2000). As such, they are important indicators of teacher effectiveness.

Behavioural Self-Efficacy as a Teacher
Behavioural self-efficacy as a teacher is the self-belief in one's capability as a teacher to perform specific actions to deal with specific teaching situations.

Cognitive Self-Efficacy as a Teacher
Cognitive self-efficacy as a teacher is the self-belief in one's capability as a teacher to exercise control over one's thinking in specific teaching situations.

Emotional Self-Efficacy as a Teacher
Emotional self-efficacy as a teacher is the self-belief in one's capability as a teacher to exercise control over one's emotions in specific teaching situations.

Cultural Self-Efficacy as a Teacher
Cultural self-efficacy as a teacher is the self-belief in one's capability as a teacher to perform specific actions in culturally-appropriate ways in specific teaching situations. This construct remains relatively unresearched.

Influences on Self-Efficacy as a Teacher

These four kinds of self-efficacy as a teacher interact. Further, these self-efficacy beliefs are neither necessarily mutually exclusive nor independent. An effective teacher usually has a strong belief in her capability to exercise control over her emotions, behaviour, and thinking, and is secure in her beliefs about her capacity to teach effectively in culturally appropriate ways. The purpose of teacher education is to assist student teachers understand, explain and use self-efficacy to mediate what they know and can do, and how they teach. There are at least five sources of influence on these self-efficacy beliefs.

Performance accomplishments
Performance accomplishments are the most influential source of efficacy information. Successes perceived as genuine build a robust sense of self-efficacy. On the other hand, failures perceived as genuine undermine self-efficacy. Thus, teacher education programmes ought to enable student teachers to realistically and constructively perceive and attribute their successes and failures (Gibbs, 1997).

Vicarious experience
Modeling the behaviour of significant others can strengthen self-efficacy. While vicarious experiences are usually weaker than direct experiences, they are further strengthened by deliberate strategies which encourage the observer to self-reflect on their personal beliefs about competence and capability in similar situations. The impact of vicarious experience depends on the observer's perception of similarity with the model, the perceived influential power of the model, and the similarity between the observed and new situations and tasks (Schunk, 1986). Student teaching provides an interesting exemplar of vicarious experience. If associate teachers are to be used as vicarious models for student teachers, then the matching of student teachers with associate teachers for student teaching deserves particular attention (Gibbs, 1997).

Verbal persuasion
Verbal persuasion may strengthen student teachers' self-efficacy. Student teachers who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to overcome specific difficulties are likely to mobilise greater effort and to persist longer. However, verbal persuasion, in itself, may be limited in its power to promote enduring change.

Emotional and physiological arousal
In judging self-efficacy, people evaluate their emotional and physiological arousal in given situations. Emotional and physiological arousal impairs or enhances self-efficacy beliefs, and thereby influences subsequent performance. Teachers' emotions and moods are persuasive as a source of information that influences self-efficacy judgements. Mood despondency, anxiety, and depression are likely to have a negative effect on self-efficacy in that the teacher is less likely to believe they are capable of making a difference in challenging situations. Thus, teacher education programmes ought to explore strategies whereby teachers

  1. become aware of their physiological arousal, emotions and moods

  2. become aware of the effects these may be having on their self-efficacy and performance, and

  3. develop strategies to exercise control over physiological states, moods, and emotions.

Imaginal-symbolization

Imaginal symbolisation occurs when teachers visualise or imagine themselves performing in particular situations (Gibbs, 1997). Imaginal symbolisation provides a source of information for teachers which affects their self-efficacy and thereby their performance. When used intentionally in teacher education programmes, it can serve as a potentially powerful way to enhance self-efficacy.

Intention to Act

Intention is associated with I will whereas self-efficacy is associated with I can. While intentions are reasonable predictors of behaviour, predictability is significantly enhanced when self-efficacy is factored in. A person can have a good intention but believe that they are not capable of enacting that intention. To intend to act in a specific way without considering one's self-efficacy for that task, or whether certain actions will likely lead to specific outcomes (outcome expectancy beliefs) is misguided. Having said that, many practices in teacher education emphasise goal-setting devoid of such fundamental considerations.

When situational cues automatically trigger the teacher to act in certain ways, the need to deliberately contemplate intentions is essentially by-passed. In this sense, self-efficacy directly affects teachers' behaviour. But behaviour is also indirectly influenced by intentions (Ajzen & Madden, 1986; De Vries & Backbier, 1994; de Vries, Dykstra, & Kuhlman, 1988; Dzewaltowski, 1989; Dzewaltowski, Noble, & Shaw, 1990; Schwarzer & Fuchs, 1995).

Self-Efficacy and Professional Development on Student Teaching

There is surprisingly equivocal evidence supporting the claim that field-based experiences produce reflective practitioners. Research suggests that, as a result of student teaching, student teachers generally become more controlling and more conservative, rather than innovative and reflective (Weinstein, 1988). One substantive study found that student teachers generally are not necessarily more efficacious as a result of completing student teaching, and tend to be less autonomous though not necessarily more controlling in their orientation towards children (Gibbs, 1994). Such findings give rise to some interesting yet pertinent questions about student teaching and challenges teacher educators to reconsider how student teaching might best contribute to student teachers' professional development.

What student teachers know and can do, and how they come to teach during student teaching is largely mediated by what they think and believe. Central in this mediation are student teachers' self-beliefs, and in particular, their self-efficacy as teachers, their preferred orientations as teachers, and their preferred orientations toward students. At the heart of this argument are two premises:

  1. that student teachers have the cognitive capacities to self-reflect, self-motivate, and self-regulate (see for example, Scheier & Carver, 1988; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1989), and

  2. that self-efficacy, in particular, influences goal-setting and the willingness to persist at pursuing these goals (Bandura, 1986).

As student teachers exercise personal control of their thoughts (about their capability as teachers, and their teaching), their self-efficacy impacts on teaching competence, motivation, and inevitably their self-esteem as teachers.

How can personal control of thought be illustrated? Mastering competence on student teaching is a case in point. When confronting the day-to-day realities of teaching some student teachers find themselves bewildered by disruptive and non-achieving students, and the demands of the curriculum. Inevitably, their sense of self-efficacy tumbles as they increasingly feel less capable of making a difference in the lives of students. We know that low self-efficacy is associated with disengagement from activities, weak commitment to teaching (Evans & Tribble, 1986), less time devoted to instruction (Gibson & Dembo, 1984; Enochs & Riggs, 1990), and inevitably low retention in the teaching profession (Glickman & Tamashiro, 1982). If we are to take these findings seriously, then a focus of professional guidance during student teaching ought to be on the centrality of student teachers' beliefs, and in particular on self-efficacy in exercising control of their thinking (about their capability as teachers, and their teaching).

Self-efficacy in the control of thinking, and performance success

How we come to act is shaped by our thoughts (Bandura, 1986). Student teachers who visualize success scenarios when confronted with challenging instances in their teaching, also project a greater sense of optimism in their belief that they can generate plausible and effective solutions. Low self-efficacious student teachers are more likely to visualize failure scenarios and their performance is impaired by their focus on what went wrong, or will go wrong.

Numerous studies beyond teacher education show that cognitive simulations in which people visualize themselves carrying out tasks successfully, enhance their subsequent performance (Bandura, 1986; Corbin, 1972; Feltz & Landers, 1983; Kazdin, 1978). There is evidence that strategies such as symbolic coding and rehearsal (Gibbs, 1996), strategy verbalization (Schunk, 1989), and cognitive modelling (Gorrell & Capron, 1991) may enhance effectiveness. All these strategies have potential application within student teaching (Gibbs, 1996) in that they alert student teachers to their thinking as they teach, encourage meta-cognitive awareness and reflection, and can elucidate deeper levels of thinking about themselves and their practice as it occurs in context.

Self-efficacy in the control of thinking, anxiety and stress.

This exercising of personal thought control is important as student teachers go about their teaching activities. One's self-efficacy in exercising control over potentially threatening events is central in the regulation of anxiety and stress. Student teachers who believe they can exercise control over potential threats to their teaching do not conjure up apprehensive thoughts, and so are not threatened by such potentially anxiety-provoking events. But anxiety arousal is heightened when student teachers' self-efficacy to manage potential threats is weak. This view does not discount the importance of being able to demonstrate the requisite skills to manage stress and anxiety. But it does suggest that skills and knowledge in coping are insufficient to ensure that these are actually carried out in the context where stress and anxiety are likely to occur. Knowing how to do something and even being able to do it, does not guarantee that someone will do it. Self-efficacy mediates between knowing and being able to demonstrate skills, and whether or not these will be actually applied in a student teachers' teaching repertoire.

Self-Efficacy in the Control of Thinking, and Beginning Teacher Survival

Veenman's (1984) review of research about the perceived problems of beginning teachers highlights the dramatic and sometimes traumatic transition from being a student teacher to that of a classroom teacher. This transition has been variously referred to as the "reality shock", and "transition shock". Veenman describes this transition as "the collapse of the missionary ideals formed during teacher training (sic) by the harsh and rude reality of everyday classroom life." Weinstein (1988) describes the beginning teacher as needing to re-evaluate their "unrealistic optimism" as they confront the realities of the chalkface. However, based on an analysis of belief change across student teaching Gibbs (1994), suggests that New Zealand student teachers might be better described as holding a general realistic optimism, rather than an unrealistic optimism as portrayed by Weinstein.

In explaining beginning teachers' survival, Lang (1999) makes the point that "perhaps some student teachers don't see the relevance of particular elements of their programmes, or that they will need to apply particular theory or learning when they have a class of their own." These are undoubtedly important considerations, and certainly are instrumental in informing teacher outcome expectations. Nevertheless, as was argued earlier, teacher action, and motivation to act are not strongly predicted by teacher outcome expectations. Rather, teachers' personal belief in their capability to act in ways that will help them survive the challenges of teaching circumstances are more strongly associated with how and whether teachers are willing to act.

Self-Efficacy in the Control of Thinking, and Performance Goal-Setting

Professional development depends on individuals being able and willing to set achievable goals. Goal-setting is said to motivate and increase competence. How then does self-efficacy relate to goal-setting? Research suggests that the stronger the self-efficacy individuals have, the higher the goals they set and the firmer their commitment to them (Bandura & Wood, 1989; Locke et al. 1984). Challenging goals raise the level of motivation and performance successes (Loche & Latham, 1990). These insights from social cognition are instrumental in how we come to appreciate the role of student teachers' beliefs and supervisory strategies during student teaching. Goal setting in this light relates to not only the analysis of weaknesses and strengths which is customarily applied within student teaching, but also accounts for the mediational role that self-efficacy beliefs play in motivation and performance. This means that during student teaching, the act of setting goals in itself is insufficient to ensure that these goals will either be sought, or achieved, and professional guidance ideally accommodates this.

Final Comment

Effective teachers demonstrate competence in exercising self-efficacy and thought control of action. This thought control encompasses their behaviours, thinking, and emotions. Having the theoretical knowledge necessary to inform effective teaching, knowing how to teach effectively, and even being able to demonstrate effective teaching do not ensure that teachers will act in these ways. The failure of many in-service teacher courses to transfer learning back to the classroom attests to this. Research findings suggest that self-efficacy is mediational in explaining how and whether teachers are willing to be motivated to act on what they know and can do. The task of teacher education, then, is to recognise that teachers have the cognitive capacities to self-reflect, self-motivate and self-regulate, and to harness self-efficacy so that teachers develop competence in exercising control of their thinking, behaviour and emotions.

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This document was added to the Education-line database on 09 January 2003