PLCs and Self-Efficacy: What Is the Connection?
For those on the PLC journey, one of the most puzzling and frustrating realities is that we still see what Rick DuFour calls the “knowing-doing gap.” We know what to do, but we just don’t seem to execute at a high level. Recently, I have been doing a lot of research in the area of self-efficacy as part of my doctoral studies. I have found that the research on self-efficacy beliefs provides an interesting lens to use in examining the knowing-doing gap problem.
First, a little background. Albert Bandura is widely regarded as the foremost authority on self-efficacy. He defines self-efficacy as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.” Bandura also states, “People guide their lives by their beliefs of personal efficacy” (Bandura 1997). He explains that people’s beliefs about their own capabilities determine if they will try to cope with situations, the effort they will exert in trying to cope, and how long they will keep up the effort in the face of adversity.
Bandura’s research shows that a person’s self-efficacy beliefs about a specific task or challenge have a profound effect on his/her performance of that task. He argues that the self-efficacy beliefs a person has when approaching a task are more predictive of their performance than any other factor.
When we think about the tasks that we ask teachers, principals, and staff to complete as part of becoming a PLC, it is easy to see that their self-efficacy beliefs can be critical in whether or not the transformation happens.
So where do self-efficacy beliefs come from? Bandura’s research shows that a person’s self-efficacy beliefs are developed and reinforced in four ways: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional response. In this blog, I will describe the first three.
In mastery experiences, individuals build their self-efficacy beliefs by successfully carrying out a challenging task at a high level. After you have an experience of mastery, when you are faced with a similar experience in the future, you will be able to draw on the past experience and have a powerful expectation that you will be successful. For example, a new principal who is successful in conducting a difficult conference with a teacher will have greater self-efficacy about that task the next time he sits down with a challenging staff member.
People can also build self-efficacy by seeing other people successfully complete a task. Seeing that the task is doable helps them to feel that they can be successful. However, this effect is minimized if the person thinks that the model has some special skills or advantage that assists him/her with the task. So the same principal could benefit from observing a veteran principal successfully conduct a difficult conference, but the effect is not as strong as conducting the conference himself.
Verbal persuasion can be a powerful source of self-efficacy. When a trusted colleague tells you that you can be successful with a challenge, you are likely to approach the task with a high expectation of succeeding. If our new principal had a veteran principal who coached him and persuaded him that he had the skills and knowledge to conduct a conference with a difficult teacher, this would increase his self-efficacy, but the effect would be less than modeling or a mastery experience.
Why is self-efficacy so important to think about when working with educators? Well, consider how Bandura describes the differences between a person with low self-efficacy and high self-efficacy. People with a low sense of self-efficacy:
- Avoid difficult tasks because they see these tasks as threatening
- Have low aspirations and are weakly committed to the goals they set
- Focus on their personal deficiencies, on the obstacles they will face, and all of the adverse outcomes they can imagine
- Lessen their efforts and give up quickly in the face of difficulty
- Are slow to recover from failures or setbacks
- Are very vulnerable to stress and depression
Conversely, people with a strong sense of self-efficacy:
- “Approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered, rather than as threats to be avoided”
- Apply deep interest and focus about their activities
- Set ambitious goals and keep their commitment to them
- “Heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure”
- Rapidly recover their sense of self-efficacy after setbacks or failures
- Have an outlook that “reduces stress… and lowers vulnerability to depression” (Bandura 1993)
Clearly, people with high self-efficacy are going to be more effective in their work, and educators with strong self-efficacy beliefs are going to be more successful at implementing reforms and creating meaningful change in schools and districts.
So, what does this mean for us on the PLC journey? Could it be that a lack of self-efficacy beliefs among educators is contributing to the gap between what we know we should do and what we actually carry out? The research on self-efficacy offers several critical questions for educators who are leading the effort to create PLCs in schools and systems:
- What are we doing to build the self-efficacy of our people so that they can be successful in creating and sustaining PLCs? Are we explicit and deliberate in cultivating these important beliefs?
- What are we doing to provide mastery experiences in key PLC actions like curriculum analysis, effective first instruction, creation of common formative assessments, examination of student work, and planning of effective interventions?
- What are we doing to provide compelling models and examples of PLCs? (The schools highlighted on allthingsplc.info are great examples of how to do this.)
- How are we communicating messages of encouragement, expectation, and support to the people we expect to implement these changes?
The research tells us that if we can be deliberate in building up the self-efficacy of our educators, they will perform at a higher level and persevere through difficult tasks. The research on collective teacher efficacy is even more compelling. It would be exciting to see what could happen in our schools and school systems if we really understood and implemented this research.
Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Leadership 28: 117-148.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Worth Publishers.