Being effectual is better than being right


Some children and young people are hard to teach. If we could put this group of students to one side and just keep the ones who are easy to teach, it would make teaching much more simple. Some schools have strict selection processes to ensure the entry of the ‘easy and clever’ ones and regularly assess students’ performance so they can advise the parents or carers of any who have slipped the net to take them away. Other schools don’t select whom they really want at entry but make sure that they have systems to identify the ‘hard to teach’ ones and exclude them at the earliest opportunity. If teaching is to be seen as an ethical pursuit, this form of soft segregation is unacceptable, as ‘hard-to-teach’ often turns into ‘permanently excluded’ and this is associated with a number of disadvantages like higher risk of offending, substance misuse and poorer life prospects. From a cost/benefit perspective, students excluded from school are expensive and likely to be less productive than their ‘easy’ peers. 

Teachers have taken a back seat in getting to grips with this problem. It’s been the psychologists who have done some thinking about it and come up with the ideas, within their paradigm. Psychologists are interested in what goes on inside the heads of humans and other animals. From the start, about 100 years ago, psychology was introspective, a subjective account of human consciousness and mental activity.

E L Thorndike is usually considered the first educational psychologist. In his book Educational Psychology (1903), Thorndike claimed to report only scientific and quantifiable research. In 1913-14 he published three volumes of material containing reports of virtually all the scientific studies in psychology that had relevance to education.

In 1913 J B Watson published ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ which brought about a paradigm shift, behaviour becoming the object of research adopting the experimental method of natural science.

Also in 1913 the first educational psychologist was appointed.

The scientific study of teaching is a relatively new development; until the 1950s, little systematic observation and experimentation took place.

A paradigm shift

In 1959 Noam Chomsky ‘s critique of the behaviourist B F Skinner’s ‘Verbal behaviour’ initiated the second paradigm shift, which lead back to mentalism and the study of consciousness. At the same time computer science and neuroscience were developing, giving rise to the brain-as-computer model which is dominant today, and to direct imaging of the brain where blood flow is used as an indicator of changes in metabolic activity and by association of thinking. It’s important to recognise that the ontology, epistemology and methodology of objective science is being used to investigate subjective experience, linking back to the earlier behaviourist paradigm. From the start psychology modeled itself on physical medicine, where illness and deficiency were the objects of study.

By 1986 Albert Bandura had developed and defined a social cognitive theory which proposed that people are neither driven by inner forces nor automatically shaped and controlled by external stimuli. His model of human functioning has the form of an equilateral triangle; behaviour; cognitive and other personal factors; and environmental events that interact to define a person’s nature.  Because people possess self directive capablilities they are able to exercise significant control over their thoughts, feelings and actions. This self-regulatory function forms an important part of social cognitive theory. There is a continuous interplay between the self-generated and the external sources of influence. People create guides for their behaviour, self-motivators for courses of action and then respond to their behaviours in a self-evaluative way. Very often the standards used for judging behaviour are based on the reactions of significant others to this behaviour.

In the 1990s some psychologists turned to look at wellness and flourishing as an alternative to the long established concentration on deficit and illness. In 1998 Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said;  “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.” This is still framed in the positivist paradigm and uses the medical concept of intervention.

Positive psychologists seek “to find and nurture genius and talent” and “to make normal life more fulfilling”, rather than merely treating mental illness. Positive psychology is primarily concerned with using the psychological theory, research and intervention techniques to understand the positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behavior.’


Mindset mindset

This change framed the research and writing of Carol Dweck, which has recently caused a stir of interest amongst bloggers despite her book ‘Mindset: the new psychology of success’ being published 9 years ago. Dweck said that she had discovered the existence of the ‘growth mindset’ through her work. Dweck claimed that her ‘growth versus fixed mindset’ model provided a universal explanation of why some students are hard to teach and this explanation could form the basis of ‘what to do about it’.

However the findings of psychologists do not directly transfer to the context in which teachers operate because the paradigms are different. ‘Most recently Dweck herself was unable to say how her thinking could translate into teachers’ action. How do you systematically transform your school so that a Growth Mindset attitude runs through it likes the words in a stick of seaside rock? Carol Dweck was asked this at about 10.50 am on 4 June 2013 at the Metropolitan Hotel in Leeds and she didn’t really have an answer. Her theory is spot on; the challenge for school leaders is to make real what Dweck (convincingly) theorises about attitudinal culture in schools.’

( )

It’s common knowledge that even when someone is an expert in their field they don’t always produce masterly perfomances. As Dweck recognises from her personal experience, developing the growth mindset in place of the fixed mindset does not guarantee success. For example:

‘Wes, a dad with a fixed mindset, was at his wit’s end. He’d come home exhausted from work every evening and his son Mickey would refuse to cooperate. Wes wanted quiet, but Mickey was noisy. Wes would warn him but Mickey would continue what he was doing. Wes found him stubborn, unruly, and not respectful of Wes’s rights as a father. The whole scene would disintegrate into a shouting match and Mickey would end up being punished.

Finally feeling he had nothing to lose, Wes tried some growth oriented strategies. He showed respect for Mickey’s efforts and praised his strategies when he was empathetic or helpful. The turnaround in Mickey’s behaviour was dramatic.

But as soon as the turnaround took place, Wes stopped using the strategies. He had what he wanted and expected it to just continue. When it didn’t he became even angrier and more punitive than before. Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to.’ ( ‘Mindset’ p.243)

Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to. Dweck mentions that the schools where the growth mindset idea seemed to work were ones that were able and willing to devote considerable resources to student support – unlike the hard-pressed Wes. Reading Dweck closely, the power relationship between the unsuccessful student/athlete/business woman and the expert adult/psychologist emerges. Wes is in control in an unstable kind of way, whether he’s showing respect and praising,  or shouting and punishing Mickey. And the psychologists are in control, where teachers were not included in the growth mindset interventions and can merely deliver the  ‘Brainology’ online cartoon with its ‘slightly mad’ presenter.

This is significant because it seems that it’s people’s belief in their own capability as active agents, in being in control and able to change their environment, their perceived self-efficacy, that determines their actual success or failure. This is what Bandura realised in the 1980s and what Dweck apparently missed 20 years later.

Self-efficacy, teachers and students.

The Mickey and Wes story provides a glimpse of what agency means in real life. Dad wants quiet because he’s tired out, but he can’t get it because Mickey wants to play. Wes feels Mickey is infringing his rights, and tells Mickey that. But Mickey wants to play and does so. They shout at each other as they try to get control. But Wes is the adult with ultimate power so he punishes Mickey. Then someone else with power comes along and tells Wes to show some respect for Mickey and praise him for being empathetic. Now Wes has the quiet life he wanted, so he settles down to watch the football…… and Mickey gets back to playing. Mickey had made a mistake – now Dad knew he could behave and was choosing to upset him, so Wes got even more angry and punitive.

Mickey had shown that he could behave and now refused to. He didn’t make the effort. Does this sound familiar? If Mickey were in school and his teacher replaced Wes, what might come next? People getting angry? Punishment? All students’ have to do is to make an effort, work hard. But what if they won’t? We need teachers and students with a high enough level of belief in their self-efficacy to make the effort, that seems to be clear enough.

What kind of pedagogy develops belief in self-efficacy? That comes next.


Self Efficacy

A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities. They set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control over them. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress and lowers vulnerability to depression.


Factors affecting self-efficacy. Bandura identifies four factors affecting self-efficacy.

1. Experience, or “Enactive Attainment”

The experience of mastery is the most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy. Success raises self-efficacy, while failure lowers it.

“Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but what I call their accruing ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their culture.” (Erik Erikson)

2. Modeling, or “Vicarious Experience”

Modeling is experienced as, “If they can do it, I can do it as well.” When we see someone succeeding, our own self-efficacy increases; where we see people failing, our self-efficacy decreases. This process is most effectual when we see ourselves as similar to the model. Although not as influential as direct experience, modeling is particularly useful for people who are particularly unsure of themselves.

3. Social Persuasion

Social persuasion generally manifests as direct encouragement or discouragement from another person. Discouragement is generally more effective at decreasing a person’s self-efficacy than encouragement is at increasing it.

4. Physiological Factors

In stressful situations, people commonly exhibit signs of distress: shakes, aches and pains, fatigue, fear, nausea, etc. Perceptions of these responses in oneself can markedly alter self-efficacy. Getting ‘butterflies in the stomach‘ before public speaking will be interpreted by someone with low self-efficacy as a sign of inability, thus decreasing self-efficacy further, where high self-efficacy would lead to interpreting such physiological signs as normal and unrelated to ability. It is one’s belief in the implications of physiological response that alters self-efficacy, rather than the physiological response itself.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *