Hello, I hope this finds you well. I just saw the obituary in The New York Times of Albert Bandura, the psychologist whose work on perceived self-efficacy I employ all the time. I never met him, but I’ve read his book on self-efficacy and many of his papers, and I admired his writing, so I was sad to learn that he has died. May his memory be a blessing.

The obituary devotes most of its portrayal of Professor Bandura to the Bobo doll experiments, and I understand why, but I think this understates the significance of perceived self-efficacy (PSE). Just like the Bobo doll experiments, and just like Maslow’s theory of self-actualization, self-efficacy theory is a refutation of behaviorism. While behaviorism posits that humans persist in behavior that is rewarded while behavior that is not rewarded is extinguished, Bandura argued that people are motivated to behave in accordance with their expectations of what will happen rather than what has been reinforced.

An upcoming issue of Ed Leadership will have self-efficacy as a theme, and I submitted a manuscript on the subject; I have heard nothing, even though it’s a couple of months since I submitted it, so I assume it hasn’t been accepted for publication—nothing I’ve submitted to Ed Leadership has been accepted, but sometimes they end up in ASCD Express, so I can’t share it with you yet. But I can share the description of PSE that we include in the materials for the Center’s Coaching Institute, although it’s not that good and you would be better off reading this article on the TED website or the Wikipedia entry on self-efficacy. You should please also watch this TED Talk, which is about self-efficacy, but it’s also by an instructional coach: Mamie Morrow, Why Self-Efficacy Matters. Above all else, you should take from it that whatever feedback you decide to give someone, it should live in the overlap of honest, helpful, and encouraging; you do not want to be the bad guy in somebody’s TED Talk. There is also a very helpful PSE Toolkit from Transforming Education.

PSE is at the root of our confidence: we are not likely to attempt something that we think we are not capable of achieving. If we do believe that we will be successful, we will persevere, and we will be willing to take risks—to extend ourselves emotionally, to put forth effort. Those who try hard and take risks are more likely to be successful, and are more likely to learn, and so their confidence increases and they are more likely to take risks and to learn, and so their confidence is validated and the reinforcing cycle continues. This is known as the performance-efficacy spiral. You probably know what this feels like: skiing a blue for the first time makes you want to do it again and pretty soon you want to try a black; baking a tray of brownies and watching them be devoured makes you want to try a fancy cake; getting an article published makes you think you can write a book.

The idea that success breeds success is not new. In reading, this is known as The Matthew Effect, from an article by Keith Stanovich—good readers become better readers. While this is not solely about PSE, the ideas are connected—see this article in Psychology Today. There’s also a really great book called Confidence by the HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter; here is an HBR article by RMK on confidence, and a short clip of her making the link between winning or losing streaks and leadership.

The opposite of PSE, and the opposite of the positive performance-efficacy spiral, is learned helplessness: whatever we try doesn’t seem to work, and so we stop trying. As Dylan Wiliam says, we would rather appear lazy than stupid. Goal abandonment is sometimes a coping mechanism, and sometimes the most efficient use of resources—I can give you a long list of goals I abandoned, sometimes because I didn’t have the time and sometimes because I just didn’t believe I was ever going to be that good at it: baking sourdough bread, rowing, teaching special education, learning Mandarin, playing the piano. But that’s very different from being in the position of not trying anything, not being willing to put forth any effort, because you just don’t think that anything good will come of it, and in fact you expect to be criticized or made to feel inadequate.

We talk about PSE and the performance-efficacy spiral in the Coaching Institute, but it’s just as important for students. For students, lack of belief in their own academic ability is crippling; to paraphrase Rick Stiggins, one of the primary functions of schooling should be to create the belief in students that if they try, they will be successful. And that is why self-efficacy is one of the components of the Accelerating Learning Framework. If students re-enter school after more than a year of missing, interrupted or just inadequate instruction and are faced with a wall of work that they don’t know how to do and no entry ramp for being successful at it, then that could be at best overwhelming, and at worst could seriously damage their beliefs about themselves as learners.

This is the point where I feel like I am saying something that goes against the tide: the antidote to low PSE is not SEL. I am not saying that helping students become more self-aware and improve their emotional self-regulation is not important—they are always important, and they certainly interact with PSE—but that’s not the same thing as building up their academic self-efficacy. Nor is it about asking students to be more resilient, be more motivated, have a growth mindset, or have grit. Improving student self-efficacy is a pedagogical issue: it is about designing challenging tasks, scaffolding appropriately, and formatively assessing, leading to providing feedback that students can use and they find encouraging. And these instructional practices are also components of the Accelerating Learning Framework, of course. And please take a look at the Developmental Relationships Framework—we talk a lot about the importance of relationships in student success, but take another look at the DRF and see the extent to which positive relationships are connected to PSE.

Honestly, when I started writing this letter, I was not planning to end up advertising the Acceleration Workshop, and yet here I am: September 20, 27, October 4, & 18, 2021, 4pm – 6pm EST. For more information, view the flyer. Register here!

Richard and I started writing with the goal of getting articles published several years ago. He had already published several articles and a book (Change Leadership, still consistently in the top 100 books on educational leadership on the Amazon website, I highly recommend it); I had not. And so the first few rejections were harder on me than on him, I’m sure, because he had a higher PSE around writing than I did. But because he was not deflated, we kept going, and have had many articles published since then (here’s the publications page on the Center’s website), and I co-authored a book, and this is Coaching Letter #149, and I and two co-authors will soon have a contract for another book. Embedded in my story of PSE around writing are the four ways in which Bandura suggested  PSE could be improved: experiencing success, seeing others close to me succeed, encouragement, and my own psychological response—in particular, my knowledge that writing is a skill that you learn and a discipline that you practice, and my belief that failure is rehearsal for success. I now think of myself as a writer—it is as much part of my identity as any other of my professional selves: teacher, coach, leader, facilitator. And I have a lot of people to thank for that—I am super aware and super grateful for all the support, and I want to do my part to make sure that students get the same encouragement, feedback, and ways of thinking about learning and failure as I did.

OK, two more short things. We continue in our quest to support districts utilizing Acceleration as a strategy for supporting student learning; to that end, we are hosting a convening of assistant superintendents and directors of teaching and learning and leaders in similar roles on October 28—save the date! Registration information will be available when we have booked a location. And we have also received requests lately for a workshop on facilitation, so I am trying to find a date for that also. Both of these will be in person, but I would be curious to know if there is any demand for online versions? And if you have any questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. And if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC

Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge

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