The Hidden Power of Our Beliefs About Students and Learning

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There is a saying: “Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, either way you are right.” The statement implies some obvious truth. In most aspects of life, if we believe that success is possible we are likely to make a greater commitment, invest more energy, and persist longer than if we believe that success will not be possible regardless of our best efforts.

The belief that our commitment, effort, and persistence will determine or at least have a significant influence on outcomes is referred to as efficacy. The term and construct was popularized in the late 1970s by psychologist Albert Bandura. While efficacy as a term has not necessarily enjoyed common use, the power of our belief in the potential for success has long been appreciated, including in academic environments.

The role of efficacy in schools is receiving renewed attention among researchers. Specifically, researchers are more closely examining the relationship between what teachers believe about their collective capacity to influence student learning outcomes and student achievement. This strand of research, known as collective teacher efficacy, has yielded some surprising and important findings.

As early as 1993, Bandura concluded that the effects of collective teacher efficacy in a school could more than outweigh the negative learning effects of low socio-economic status. In the early 2000s, Bandura’s findings were reinforced in a study by Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk (2004) who concluded that collective efficacy had a stronger relationship to mathematics and reading achievement than socio-economic status. Studies have also shown that when teachers have high levels of collective efficacy, parent relationships tend to be stronger and more positive. Even more recently, John Hattie’s 2016 meta-analysis of research on collective efficacy concluded that collective teacher efficacy ranks at the top among the most powerful influences on student achievement.

Obviously, this is great news for educators as this factor and influence has its roots in the school, it is not dependent on families or even the students themselves. Regardless of the student circumstances outside the school, the presence of collective teacher efficacy can have a powerful and positive influence on student achievement.

In her book Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning, researcher and author Jenni Donohoo (2017) describes six enabling conditions that support high levels of teacher efficacy:

  1. Advanced teacher influence. Donohoo describes advanced teacher influence as opportunities for teachers to participate meaningfully in important schoolwide decisions.
  2. Goal consensus. Donohoo notes that when there is a strong consensus on key goals there is greater consistency and alignment of effort, thus synergizing everyone’s efforts. Interestingly, even by itself this condition has been shown to increase student achievement.
  3. Teachers’ knowledge about one another’s work. This condition highlights the importance of collaboration, sharing, and mutual trust among staff members. Their presence also provides teachers with more frequent opportunities to learn from the effective practices of colleagues.
  4. Cohesive staff. Cohesion does not necessarily mean that everyone always agrees, but it does imply that there is agreement on fundamental educational issues. Disagreements are more likely to reside in strategies and methods for addressing important issues, not the issues themselves.
  5. Responsiveness of leadership. This condition speaks to the importance of respect and concern demonstrated by school leaders, including protecting teachers from issues that distract from and compete with teaching time and focus.
  6. Effective systems of intervention. These processes and practices are designed to ensure that students receive timely, effective, responsive support when they struggle or need additional assistance to be successful.

Importantly, each of the conditions identified by Donohoo as supporting collective teacher efficacy are within the collective control of schools and educators. They do not necessarily require additional funding, waivers from regulations, or specialized outside expertise. However, they do require commitment, effort, and a strong belief in ourselves and our ability to make a difference.

Resources:
Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective efficacy: How educators’ beliefs impact student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2004, April 1). Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3-13.
Hattie, J. (2016). Third Annual Visible Learning Conference. Washington, DC, July 11, 2016.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

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