A clarification of the meaning of ‘self-efficacy’

This post is a response the Andrew Davis’s healthy scepticism about the concept of self-efficacy. This was in response to a recent post:


So what I intend to do here is clarify its origins and meaning drawing on the work of Albert Bandura .

Andrew’s first question suggests that self-efficacy is equivalent to a pupil believing they will be successful in a test. That the pupil’s ‘beliefs’ may be inaccurate. I responded by saying that this illustrates the difference between confidence and self-efficacy.  On this Bandura says the following:

It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term “confidence.” Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self-efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system. Advances in a field are best achieved by constructs that fully reflect the phenomena of interest and are rooted in a theory that specifies their determinants, mediating processes, and multiple effects. Theory-based constructs pay dividends in understanding and operational guidance. The terms used to characterize personal agency, therefore, represent more than merely lexical preferences .

This makes an important point about the meaning of self-efficacy – “it is a construct embedded in a theoretical system” in contrast with confidence as a “colloquial term” which refers to the strength of belief without necessarily identifying the nature of the task. However, this was not quite the point that Andrew was making. The question he raises is, should mathematics self-efficacy be defined as the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems?

To respond to this, to address the distinction between the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems and mathematics self-efficacy. Bandura defines self-efficacy as follows:

Percieved slef-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments 

On the face of it, given Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy, they would appear to be equivalent. But there are subtle differences. Andrew’s definition refers to outcomes alone, whereas Bandura refers to beliefs about personal capability. This is a subtle difference but important and probably best elucidated by looking at the underlying theory.

Origins of self-efficacy: agency and control

The problem that Bandura is addressing in the introduction of self-efficacy is concerned with human agency and control. Agency is concerned with the power, knowledge and disposition an individual has in exercising the right to chose the way to act. Control is related to this, it is the motivation and drive a person has to have agency in their lives.

The striving for control over life circumstances permeates almost everything people do throughout the life course because it provides innumerable personal and social benefits. Uncertainty in important matters is highly unsettling .

Approaching this from social science disciplines other than psychology this might not seem such a big deal. Sociology readily constructs agency and control, it is implicit within the field to consider the impact of the social word on personal freedom. Similarly in anthropology where the effects of culture and society and a key part of theory in this discipline. Yet in psychology, agency, in reference to the social world, is given little attention. B. F. Skinner, for example, considered the individual as having limited agency, behaviours are responses to environmental responses. In behaviourism, there is an absence of ‘self’ or ‘control’.

Another important idea underpinning self-efficacy is the notion of ‘intentionality’: people generate courses of action to suit given purposes .

Intentionality and agency raise the fundamental question of how people actuate the cerebral processes that characterize the exercise of agency and lead to the realization of particular intentions  .

So we can see in this how the concept of self-efficacy is different from a self-assessment of how well the individual will perform. Self-efficacy is concerned with agentic action and the construction of a course of action in response to situations.

…the making of choices is aided by reflective thought, through which self-influence is largely exercised. People exert some influence over what they do by the alternatives they consider .

The multidimensionality of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy represents the deliberative processes preceding action. It involves the consideration of alternatives courses of action and decisions about how to proceed. Going beyond this, Bandura locates self-efficacy as a self-concept as a self-assessment. But “self-efficacy beliefs are not simply inert predictors of future performance” . What distinguishes self-efficacy from the ‘inert’ predictor or perceived capability is the multidimensionality of self-efficacy belief systems.

Efficacy beliefs should be measured in terms of particularized judgements of capability that may vary across realms of activity, under different levels of task demands within a given activity demand, and under different situational circumstances .

In attempting to measure self-efficacy, we are not simply asking whether the individual is going to be successful in a particular activity. It requires careful assessment using gradations of task demands within the domain of concern. It also requires a clear definition of the domain of activity and a careful conceptual analysis of the aspects, knowledge, skills and dispositions required.

I hope, I have illustrated here some the key differences between perceived capability in respect to performance in a particular context and the multidimensional multi-faceted concept of self-efficacy. When measured appropriately, self-efficacy is a strong predictor of performance but is not a specifically an assessment of personal capability.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.

Recent research in cultural differences in the development of mathematics self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is a conceptualisation of self-belief, developed by Albert Bandura . It is the belief an individual has in their capacity to be successful in a domain. It is a self-assessment of skills, knowledge and dispositions in a context. It is domain specific in that self-efficacy is contextualised, with demanding but related sets of challenges. The activities cannot be so trivial that the action required is relatively routine or straightforward. We are talking about problem solving in contexts, where there are complex decisions which may have multiple solutions and multiple means by which outcomes might be achieved.

Mathematics self-efficacy is the belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems. It is a belief that they can achieve a level of success when undertaking maths-related work. Mathematics self-efficacy correlates with mathematics performance. Mathematics self-efficacy is an important predictor of mathematics performance .

According to Bandura, there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states. I will explain each of these in turn:

Enactive mastery experience

Self-efficacy is developed through experience, through working on and solving problems; if we we are to limit our discussion to mathematics self-efficacy. This can be easily understood from our own experience, if we practice and get positive results, i.e. we are successful, then we become more confident. However, Bandura, takes a more profound view of success, a broader view, and allows the possibility of acquisition of self-efficacy even when we fail.

Mathematical self-efficacy is developed not just as a consequence of getting questions right or simply by finding solutions to problems. Self-efficacy is developed through reference to the strategy that we took in solving problems. Effectively, we assess the the approach we took and how it led to the outcome. In developing self-efficacy, we do not assess the outcome in absence of the method we used. This explains why, even though our final result might be wrong, we can develop self-efficacy. The essence is in being be able to connect our actions to the outcome and understand, rationally, how that led to the result.

Vicarious experience

A second but weaker source of self-efficacy is through vicarious experience. We can develop self-efficacy by observing others carry out activities. If the modelled behaviour is self-efficacious then it can provides a source of self-efficacy for the observer. This is especially true if the observer identifies with the individual modelling the behaviour. If, as observer, we see ourselves as similarly, having similar capacities and potentialities, then we are likely to improve our self-efficacy by observing them model actions, and in mathematics, by modelling mathematical problem solving.

If the observer perceives the person modelling the action as considerably different – they might feel that they are more intelligent or more able – then it is less likely that the observer will develop self-efficacy vicariously.

Verbal pursuasion

A third, but still weaker source of self-efficacy, is verbal pursuasion. We can use encouragement to persuade learners of their capacity to be successful. If the encouragement is misplaced and we try and persuade learners that they will be successful and they ultimately fail, there is the possibility that self-efficacy will be undermined. Encouragement must be based on accurate assessment of the individual’s capabilities and potential. Furthermore, if the more knowledgeable other is not trusted by the learner, then it is unlikely that self-efficacy will be developed.

Physiological and affective states

Illness, tiredness and stress all undermine self-efficacy. It is important that learners are challenged and are set challenging objectives. But if the demands becomes overwhelming, then there can be negative effects. Equally, if a learner is unwell or if there are external stressors then self-efficacy is undermined and there will be a noticeable effect on mathematical performance.

Cultural differences in the effects of vicarious experience and verbal pursuasion

consider cultural differences in the extent to which the social sources of self-efficacy impact on self-efficacy and mathematical performance overall. It has previously been suggested that social effects are different in cultures that are predominantly individualist, like the US and Western Europe, to cultures that are collectivist, as in South East Asia.

undertook a quantitative study in the US, the Philippines and in Korea.

The important results are as follows:

  • Mathematics self-efficacy has a significant positive correlation with students’ mathematics achievement. This is consistent with previous research, both theoretical and empirical. It also provides evidence that this relationship is independent of culture.
  • Mathematics anxiety is negatively correlated with mathematics self-efficacy. Again this is an expected result and previous research has suggested this also. In more vernacular terms it means that the more confident a learner is in mathematics the less anxious they are.
  • Students in individualistic cultures report stronger mathematics self-efficacy compared with collectivist cultures. This is often in spite of superior performance by learners in collectivist cultures. This could be because people in collectivist cultures refrain from higher ratings because of a cultural desire to express humility.
  • Vicarious sources of self-efficacy tend to be from teachers and verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. 

Concluding remarks

This research confirms the importance of self-efficacy in mathematics learning. It challenges the view that mathematics learning should be predominantly rote learning and practice. Problem solving is necessary to develop self-efficacy. Learners need chance to explore and examine non-routine problems. Importantly they need to develop the capacity to assess the strategies they use, themselves and with the support of teachers and peers.

Not only does self-efficacy correlate with mathematics performance, it is also important in respect to mathematics anxiety. The more self-efficacious the individual the less anxious they become.

Finally, although this research considers self-efficacy sources in different cultures, it draws attention to the importance of social sources and within what contexts this might develop. The research shows vicarious sources tend to be from the teacher, verbal pursuasion comes from family and peers. This is important in understanding multiple social roles in learning mathematics.


Ahn, H. S., Usher, E. L., Butz, A., & Bong, M. (2016). Cultural differences in the understanding of modelling and feedback as sources of self‐efficacy information. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(1), 112–136.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.
Pajares, F. (1999). Self-efficacy, motivation constructs, and mathematics performance of entering middle school students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24(2), 124–139. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1998.0991
Pajares, F., & Miller, M. D. (1994). Role of self-efficacy and self-concept beliefs in mathematical problem solving: A path analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 193–203. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.86.2.193

Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools

I have been interested in cultural practices in teaching for a few years. So I was interested how this resonated with Steven Puttick’s recent article in School Leadership and Management , describing an ethnographic study of geography departments.

I say I am interested in cultural practices, by this I mean that I make the assumption that within schools there are shared behaviours. Not exact imitations, but there are characteristic routines and patterns of behaviour and there is a shared language and discourse.Continue reading “Cultural practices, political economy and social psychology in the similarity of practices in schools”

An investigation of culture and habitus in teaching

A surprisingly popular blog post I wrote was on cultural scripts in teaching. I want to develop the ideas from that here in the form of a public writing experiment. To inform the theoretical considerations, I draw on observations from the research I have been doing with Underground Mathematics looking at how teachers incorporate new tasks and activities into their teaching. This is in the context of A Level mathematics in England. The understanding of the impact of culture and habitus in teaching could be helpful in a wider range of teaching and contexts. Culture and habitus in teaching are ideas that have not been given a great deal of attention, the emphasis has been on a) how teacher thinking impacts on their teaching and b) what practices result in greater learning gains? Culture and habitus do not replace these ideas, but I think give us much better understanding of why teachers teach in the way they do.

The following is an investigation of ideas that will be a component of a future publication. I share it here for discussion and comment.

What is culture?

The idea of culture comes to us as a critique of evolutionism. Anthropologists rejected the idea that all human societies progressed through the same stages of development. From a social evolutionary perspective different groups must pass through the same developmental stages. Franz Boas was a foundational thinker in the development of modern cultural anthropology. He argued that the world was populated by distinct cultures.

There has been an emphasis on behaviours, artefacts and symbols: the external actions and symbollism. For example, Meade (1953, p. 22, cited in Prinz, 2016) says culture “is the total shared, learned behavior of a society or a subgroup.” More recently there has been a turn to meaning and semiotics, “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” Geertz (1973, p. 89). It is these ideas that are fundamental to my discussion later.

There is a complex and rich sense of what culture means, almost defying definition. The moment one becomes specific the general sense is lost. And if the idea is too general then it becomes unusable. The following idea gives a sense of the issues:

…most definitions characterize culture as something that is widely shared by members of a social group and shared in virtue of belonging to that group. As stated, this formulation is too general to be sufficient (a widespread influenza outbreak would qualify as cultural). Thus, this formulation must be refined by offering a specific account of what kind of shared items qualify as cultural, and what kind of transmission qualifies as social. (Prinz, 2016).

Overall, culture means shared behaviours within a group. In my previous post on international comparisons in mathematics education, the international comparisons of teaching practice relied on the idea of distinct cultural practices in the different countries studied. Cultural anthropology provides the basis for making this assumption.

Habitus and habits

As an individual many of our habits are idiosyncratic, they are ours. The original meaning of habit was how a person holds themselves, their demeanour. This has developed to include apparel, then on to dispositions, behaviours and ways of doing things. “A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way, esp. one acquired by frequent repetition of the same act until it becomes almost or quite involuntary; a settled practice, custom, usage; a customary way or manner of acting” (OED Online, 2016). According to Camic ‘the term “habit” generally denominates a more or less self-actuating disposition or tendency to engage in a previously adopted or acquired form of action’ (Camic, 1986, p. 1044).

Pierre Bourdieu argued that habits are not idiosyncratic, especially in the context of professional practice. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus represents culturally acquired habits. Habitus is developed socially which result in enduring patterns of behaviour (Bourdieu, 1984). Habitus represents a socially acquired cultural basis for routines and patterns of behaviour.

This then is the basis of my discussion, that habits (habitus) is a cultural phenomenon, I look at this in the context of teaching, developing from extant ideas about the nature of teaching, practice and pedagogy.

Theories of teaching

Teachers’ beliefs

The tradition of theorising pedagogy and practice emerged from psychology (this is looking from the perspective UK and the USA in particular). Firstly, behaviourism explained behaviour as a consequence of external stimuli and behaviours are developed through reinforcement. While this was a dominant theory of learning, it does not adequately explain how teachers learn to teach and the practices they use. Later, theories of practice evolved around constructivist views of learning. We are talking about Vygotsky and Piaget. In simple terms individuals construct a view of objects and actions. This sort of cognitive functioning was absent in behaviourism. Within constructivism people have agency which contrasts with the behaviourist model, where agency is a kind of random action that is disciplined through reinforcing responses.

The dominant explanation of pedagogy and practice since the 1970s has been influenced by constructivism but in a particular form. Teachers’ views about practice that ultimately guide their actions are described as ‘beliefs’. Paul Ernest (1989) proposed that in mathematics teaching, the way teachers teach is based on their belief about the most effective way of way of teaching and learning and their beliefs about mathematics. I have a previous blog post on this.

While there has been extensive research on the relationships between teachers’ beliefs and practices, a consistent link between beliefs and practices has not been found. It is frequently observed that enacted beliefs (what is observed in the classroom) is different to what teachers say they believe in, their espoused beliefs. Ernest explained this difference as the effect of social context, meaning that teachers do not have full agency. They may believe that teaching and learning takes place in a particular way, but the way in which they teach is influenced by the expectation placed on them by the students, parents, colleagues, the schools’ leadership and policy expectations.

Situated cognition

In the 1990s more attention was given to the social aspects of learning. That people learn to adopt cultural practices as they become part of a discourse community. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) suggested that professional communities have a dominant discourse, including language as well as practice. There are, in discourse communities, legitimised language, grammar and behaviours. As we become part of a discourse community we learn what they are and the extent to which they can be deviated from.

In my role in initial teacher education, at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, I am well aware of the socialisation that trainee teachers experience as they train in our partner schools. They learn the dominant forms of practice and some develop the confidence to subvert and extend existing practice. They also learn the routines of practices and language forms that teachers use to talk about their work, the progress of students and in describing learning. This is within the constraints of policy and accountability, these factors in addition to the disciplining character of social interactions normalise behaviours. As individuals we still maintain a degree of agency and configure these performances to our own preferences. While there are characteristics of what we do that are consistent with a dominant form, each of us acts in an individual way.

In the last three years I have increasingly discussed this with trainees. It is important to understand the socialisation process that we need to undertake in order to enter professional practice. I sometimes wonder what trainee teachers think the learning process is, whether they see it as the acquisition of skills, which is only partly true, or whether they see learning to teach as socialisation. I think the former is the more likely explanation based on my questioning at interview and in the early part of the course. So to understand social learning, to understand your own learning as social learning is valuable in understanding your progress. You understand why it is necessary to observe teaching, as well as interactions with pupils and colleagues and the exchanges that happen in staff-rooms and corridors. While it is easy to understand the idea of situated cognition and social learning, the processes in which this takes place is a little more demanding. To explain this I am going to draw on the ideas of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy, reflexivity and observational learning.

Social Cognitive Theory, self-efficacy and reflexivity.

A more in-depth explanation of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997) is available in a previous post, here I am just going to recall a few key points. The important point about social cognitive theory is that it integrates the social aspects of learning and learning through the acquisition of knowledge. Within social cognitive theory is the construct of self-efficacy and vicarious (observational) learning.

Self-efficacy is a self-assessment or self-belief. When doing something new we consider the situation and consciously construct an approach, we plan for the situation. We also assess how successful we will be. Self-efficacy is partially dependent on knowledge but importantly it is dependent on the belief the individual has in being able to apply existing knowledge to a novel context. Teaching self-efficacy is the belief a teacher has that, as a result of the teaching approaches used, students will make progress in their class.

Self-efficacy is a useful construct as it operationalises knowledge, it connects affective aspects with knowledge. It is not just knowledge and skill but the belief an individual has in being successful in a context. It explains then why, when teachers are tired or stressed, they generally become less effective even though their subject and pedagogical knowledge is still intact.

The second aspect of social cognitive theory vicarious learning. It was Miller and Dollard (1941) who highlighted the vicarious nature of learning. While they referred to imitation, they did not mean that we learn by copying precisely what others do, we adapt observed behaviour as part of the process of vicarious or observational learning. This was famously demonstrated in Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment, in which children observed adults engaged in violent behaviour toward a Bobo doll. The children were then observed to imitate the modelled behaviour but also, and importantly, they introduced novel behaviours.

Lortie’ (2002) aphorism that learning to teach is based on an apprenticeship of observation is a significant acknowledgement of vicarious learning processes in teaching. We spend hours, as students in classrooms, observing teachers and then, but to a lesser extent, as trainee teachers on a one-year training programme. Observational learning is an essential part of cultural transmission.

Social cognitive theory involves both self-efficacy, a cognitive and affective basis for the formation of behaviour, and observational learning. In this frame we can see a reflexive dimension of behaviour formation. There is continuity from existing established practices that are communicated vicariously, at the same time the individual can adapt and personalise the existing practices.

Automaticity and routinization: the basis of habitus

Malcolm Gladwell’s (2009) claim in Outliers, that we need 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a particular human endeavour or profession, is something of a ponderous assertion in the context of learning. I think what Gladwell is really trying to get at is the point at which a learner no longer has to consciously think about what they are doing in their professional role or in a field of endeavour. Many skills once learnt can be carried out efficiently by drawing on established patterns of behaviour that exist in our long term memories. What Gladwell probably means is that 10,000 hours is necessary to develop professional habitus.

According to Bandura, once we have become self-efficacious in a domain of activity our actions become routinised and we do not need to mentally model each of our actions in advance, we can draw on scripts and patterns that we have already become confident with. This is equivalent to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus but a professional and occupational context.

This makes sense from the perspective of neurophysiology and in human evolutionary terms. Our working memory capacity is limited and conscious reasoning uses up a lot of energy. It is natural that we preserve our bodily resources for times when we are under threat or when we really need to think through a problem. To do this all the time is simply too demanding, we have to rely on established patterns of behaviour most of the time and respond almost intuitively. Human beings are animals capable of reasoning but only a limited amount of our behaviour is guided by conscious reasoning (Johnson-Laird, 2009).

When I observe trainee teachers, they have to consciously think about most of what they do. This is very demanding, it can be and often is stressful (Chaplain, 2008) and is certainly very tiring. This is a result of the demand for conscious reasoning in preparation for action in the classroom and in the school milieu. What is more, without actually carrying out an action, it is impossible to know the outcome, the contexts of classrooms and schools are complex and predicting the consequences of certain actions is also impossible. In this analysis, it can be seen how important the role of the school-based mentor is, an experienced teacher who can help guide, construct and evaluate the trainee’s proposed actions.

As the trainee’s self-efficacy develops they exhibit routinized action, in which they have greater confidence in the outcome. They know what to expect. Leinhardt (1988) describes experienced teachers’ cognition as situated in the context and relying on almost automatic responses based on heuristic thinking. How I understand this is that teachers are able to recall patterns of pedagogical behaviour in long term memory they match these to the situations they meet and probabilistically evaluate as an appropriate response. Action is contingent, a teacher encounters a situation and is able to adapt and reconstruct a previous response. Teacher cognition is based on rule-of-thumb and the heuristic use of previous actions that are in long-term memory – it happens in an instance.

Let me now return to culture and habit more directly. Observational learning alludes to a cultural impact on practice, that cultures of teaching are transmitted through observational means. The development of routinization, automaticity and the use of heuristics as self-efficacy develops underpins the formation of teaching habits. In the next section I consider how these aspects connect together.


Roger Scruton’s (2001) idea of conservatism rests on the value of, and indeed social capital of, customs, traditions, institutions and laws. There is value in such things as ‘constants’. Quinton Hogg went as far as saying,  “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself” (Hogg, 1959). Although I identify myself with the left of politics, I can’t help but to find myself in agreement. Especially when we locate the political and philosophical ideas of conservatism in the context of state schools and classrooms. And in my experience as a school teacher, I was as much a conservative as Scruton and Hogg. Indeed schools are conservative institutions and the practices observed there are conservative and teachers, by-and-large, are conservative. All this with a little ‘c’.

This has not always been so true, not to the extent that it has been since the late 1980s and increasingly so over time. In the 1960s in England there was a widespread progressive movement, with attempts to break away from traditional schooling and to responding to new thinking about learning and development. But still at the core were conservative curricula and practices. Similarly in the US where traditional teaching, like in England, followed patterns of practice where teachers explained and demonstrated followed by students engaging in practice or exercise. A time-honoured tradition that goes back to the grammar schools of sixteenth century England, at least. Larry Cuban, a historian of public education in the US, observed the traditional teacher-centred teaching had been there in perpetuity through a century or more of public education. Yet the progressive movements of the 1960s did not, according to Cuban (1993), significantly unhinge conservatism in schools. He observed what he described as “teacher-centred progressivism”, the essence of which are the traditional routines but with progressive features such as tables set out in groups – indicative of dialogic approaches – rather than desks and tables in rows for the traditional didactic approach. The same can be observed in England’s state schools, the mainstay of practice is traditional routine and conservative pedagogy, but with superficial ‘progressivism’. The traditional nub has proved to be impervious to fundamental change.

It was Cuban’s view that the perpetuity of pedagogical conservatism is down to day-to-day practical demands on teachers. State schools in the UK and US are resource-constrained, a secondary school teacher needs to be able to keep a class of students busy, they need to be able to maintain standards of behaviour. They may have six, seven or eight classes each week, each with up to 30 or more students, some of whom – because school is mandatory – will not want to be there. Naturally then, the most efficient pedagogy is a traditional teacher-centred approach. The teacher explains and demonstrates a central idea or method, then students work at a similar pace with the express aim of becoming more proficient in what is being taught. The work is routine enough to keep the students busy and the teacher can assess progress by observing how far students have worked through the task and how accurate their answers are.

While others have attributed the actions of the teacher and the pedagogy that is formed as a function of teachers’ beliefs about what is effective teaching and learning (see previous blog) , the practical explanation above is the more likely explanation. It is also an explanation that Stigler and Hiebert drew on in the analysis of eighth-grade mathematics classrooms in Germany, Japan and USA in 1995. They saw pedagogy as culturally distinct: there was more variation in practice between countries than there was within them. They saw pedagogy as following a cultural script, established routines within which teachers and students knew what was expected and what was likely to happen. This is similar to Hogg’s conservatism -“a constant force” based on institution, tradition and rules. While it corresponds “…to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself”, its permanence and constitutionality is much over stated and my view, like Arendt (2006) for example, is that there is a fundamental tension and dialect between progressivism and conservatism; between tradition and future. Or in Archer’s (2012) terms between structure (and culture) and individuality, that is between the self and the social, cultural and institutional context in which we act. It is on this I will finish, but before so doing, I want to consider very briefly why schools and classroom practice are generally conservative.

I left school in 1980 and did not set foot in a state school until 2000. I had an overwhelming sense that schools had become more conservative, I didn’t understand why. My expectation, based on a naive assumption that progress meant more progressivism, was that schools would be more progressive. Schools had in fact become more conservative. In the last few years I have been working on a hypothesis that helps me understand why. It was my initial view that this phenomenon was a consequence of policy, latterly I have expanded this to consider that a key influence on school culture is political economy at national and global level. I wrote about political economy in education in a previous blog. It is from this analysis, I show that the shift from liberal state interventionism to neoliberalism in the late 1970s had a profound influence on the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers’ jobs became more demanding and their teaching subject to greater scrutiny. The appearance of performativtiy (Ball, 2003), where teachers are frequently observed in a high-stakes accountability context, leads to the normalisation of practice. It leads to greater conservatism in the classroom. The reason for this can be explained through social cognitive theory. This more intense professional experience leads to higher levels of anxiety, this reduces self-efficacy and teachers are more likely to sustain conservative practices than to innovate. This is ironic since some of the policy -led reforms were supposed to be progressive, but in accountability contexts the opposite is achieved because of the impact on teachers’ levels of stress.

The cultural dimensions of teaching: structure, culture and agency

I have developed the idea that teaching is a cultural act. That pedagogy follows cultural scripts that participants (teachers, students and even parents) recognise and within which they can predict actions and responses. Teaching is not just a matter of imitating the practices of  previous generations and unthinkingly doing the same as was done in classrooms of previous decades. Yet there is a recognisable cultural and historical constancy. As actors in contexts, as teachers in schools we have agency, but behaviours in such institutions are not expressions of teachers’ preferences. Their preferences and individualism transact with cultural practices and scripts to form actions that are personal but culturally consistent. There is a further dimension: structures. Here, I have talked about the defining factors of institutions on cultural practices. It is the interaction and transaction between structure, culture and agency that shapes individual thinking and action through a process of reflexivity (Archer, 2012).

Taking the English context, the normalising effects of high-stakes accountability in a neoliberal setting, are likely to diminish innovation. As a consequence, there is a tendency to sustain more traditional forms of teaching. Interestingly activist groups have appeared to argue for a new conservatism. For me this is not critical enough, conservatism in teaching is merely a feature rather than a philosophy of education.


Archer, M. S. (2012). The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268093022000043065

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Camic, C. (1986). The Matter of Habit. American Journal of Sociology, 91(5), 1039–1087. https://doi.org/10.1086/228386

Chaplain, R. P. (2008). Stress and psychological distress among trainee secondary teachers in England. Educational Psychology, 28(2), 195–209. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410701491858

Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Ernest, P. (1989). The impact of beliefs on the teaching of mathematics. In P. Ernest (Ed.), Mathematics teaching: The state of the art (pp. 249–254). London: Falmer Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
“habit, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 10 February 2017.

Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: the story of success. London: Penguin Books.

Quintin Hogg Hailsham of St. Marylebone. (1947). The case for conservatism. West Drayton: Penguin.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2009). How we reason. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leinhardt, G. (1988). Situated knowledge and expertise in teaching. In J. Calderhead (Ed.), Teachers’ professional learning (pp. 146–168). London: Falmer Press.

Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social learning and imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Prinz, J. (2016). Culture and Cognitive Science. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/culture-cogsci/

Scruton, R. (2001). The meaning of conservatism (3. ed). Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Learning is so much more than learning facts and methods

It has become fashionable to see learning as the memorisation of facts, methods, processes and information. That effective schooling principally involves children committing information to long-term memory. However, the accumulation of information is insufficient for effective human functioning. As we, as individuals, develop we cannot rely on abstracted knowledge, we have to learn to act in the world. We have to respond to unique situations, we have to use our knowledge to act, and we have to reformulate the things we have in memory to respond to the situations we meet.

It is important that we learn how to use knowledge as much as it is to learn facts, methods, processes and information.

We live in a physcal and social world. The problems and challenges we encounter require us to solve real-world problems as well as being able to establish and maintain relationships with other people. Often we face situations that require us to collaborate to generate and implement solutions.

When we conceptualise learning as the acquisition of knowledge – learning as memorisation – it diminishes personal agency: the capacity to act and behave freely and make choices. It suggests that sufficient knowledge essentially programmes us to respond adequately and to communicate effectively. At the heart of the idea of agency is the capacity to reason. When we are confronted with a situation we can make choices. What we choose to do is based on our interpretation of what confronts us and the mental and physical resources that we have to hand.

In schools, it is essential that pedagogy is balanced so learners have the opportunity to create, solve problems, collaborate and discuss. Children need to develop the confidence and skills to learn how to use knowledge and to communicate effectively. They need the chance to exercise agency, to interpret, reason, analyse and make decisions.

Of course it is relatively easy to assess the acquisition of knowledge. On the other hand, creating opportunities to exercise agency and reason, and to assess progress in these things is far more challenging. This explains why teaching in secondary schools and many primary schools tends to the former. It is not because it is optimal learning, it is mostly because it is more manageable.

Social cognitive theory

This blog post provides a summary of social cognitive theory. It begins with some background. I then move on to look at Bandura’s formulation of Social Cognitive Theory and finally I look at how the sub-component of self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional learning

The origins of Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory has its origins in the work of William James (1891). James suggests the concept of the ‘social self’ as a constituent part of the ‘self’.

A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind (p. 294).

This perhaps marks the beginning of the study of the individual and their social environmental interactions. Alfred Adler developed this further, introducing the idea of ‘drive’ and suggested behaviour is purposeful and motivated by goals. With individual perception of and attitude toward the social environment influencing behaviour. And, importantly, a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are transactions with one’s physical and social environments. Adler essentially recognised fundamental links between social environment, individual thinking, affect, motivation and behaviour.

Behaviourism has been influential in the development of social cognitive theory. This perhaps explains why social cognitive theory has not been popular in educational research: social cognitive theory has been referred to as radical behaviourism. Behaviourism is widely rejected in education out of preference for constructivist learning theories or situated learning theories. However, it is important in understanding social cognitive theory, to reflect on behaviourist theory. John Watson’s behavioural theory (circa 1913) considered behaviour as explicable by observable acts. Human behaviour is seen as a result of the action of an external stimulus (S) resulting in a response (R). This can be symbolised, S → R. This makes the individual a passive component in the formation of behaviour, but the simple stimulus-response model was very influential. Subsequent theorists have highlighted individual thinking as a factor in the stimulus-response model. Tolman suggested cognition had a mediating role in the stimulus-response model (see, for example, Tolman, 1932). The S→R scheme therefore becomes mediated by cognitive processes as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Tolman’s proposed relationship between stimulus response and cognition. S represents a stimulus, R the response and C cognition.

This can also be thought of as behaviour (B) being some function of, their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the environment or context (E). And can be represented thus:

I will return to this relationship when I discuss Bandura’s formulation of social cognitive theory, in the next section.

<But, it is the work of Miller and Dollard that really marks the beginning of social cognitive theory. Central to their social cognitive theory is the idea that if individuals are driven to learn a behaviour, that behaviour is learned thorough observation (Miller & Dollard, 1941).

Social cognitive theory has been developed further and the following have been identified as the principle features of the approach:

  • People learn by observing others
  • Learning is an internal process that may or may not change behaviour
  • People behave in certain ways to reach goals
  • Behavior is self-directed (as opposed to the behaviorist thought that behavior is determined by environment)
  • Reinforcement and punishment have unpredictable and indirect effects on both behavior and learning (Ormrod, 2006).

Social cognitive theory has been influential; the theory has been applied to clinical psychology by Julian Rotter. He developed the ideas of behaviour potential, expectancy and locus of control. Robert Sears applied the approach to explain socialisation processes and how children internalise the values, attitudes and behaviours of a culture. Walter Mischel investigated how new experiences effect the individual. Ronal Akers applied social cognitive theory to criminology. But perhaps the most influential social cognitive theorist, in recent times, has been Albert Bandura. It his interpretation and application of social cognitive theory that I shall discuss in the next section.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura’s work on social cognitive theory began in the 1950s and culminated in numerous journal articles and a book Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1977). Bandura’s project has been to develop a core theory of social learning and pursue empirical evidence and applications in health, criminology, therapy, sport, business and education. Like earlier developments of social cognitive theory the cornerstone of Bandura’s conception is imitative and observational learning. The importance of observational and imitative learning has, in education, been afforded lesser regard because of its associations with behaviourist perspectives on learning. Moreover, we have endeavoured to offer the learner greater agency and this appears at odds with the idea of learning through imitation. However, as I shall describe shortly social cognitive theory does afford agency as a result of the way in which observed behaviours are imitated, modelled and formed to be behaviours; it is not a non-agent behaviourist perspective.

Triadic causality and reciprocal determinism

Bandura (1977) begins by explaining the idea of triadic causality or reciprocal determinism, which is a central feature of social cognitive theory. Bandura takes the relationship suggested by Tolman:

This suggests behaviour (B) is a function of personal characteristics (P), for example, thinking and beliefs and the environment or context (E). Bandura theorised a greater level of interaction between these variables. At first suggesting a relationship signified in the following:

Immediately Bandura develops this further, producing a three-way connection between the social and environmental context (E), the individual—their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the individual’s behaviour (B) (see Figure 1).

Personal and environmental factors do not function as independent determinants, rather they determine each other. Nor can “persons” be considered causes independent of their behavior. It is largely through their actions that people produce the environmental conditions that affect their behavior in a reciprocal fashion. The experiences generated by behavior also partly determine what a person becomes and can do which in turn, affects subsequent behavior (Bandura, 1977, p. 9).

Figure 2 Reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1977, p. 10), B signifies behaviour, P the person and E the environment.

In such a way then, the social context influences the individual’s behaviour and thinking. This is largely consistent with sociological perspectives of the formation of behaviour: how we think and behave is influenced by the social, environmental and contextual setting and can be seen as the individual responding to prevailing norms and modes of behaviour. At the same time thinking and behaviour influence the social setting and environmental context. In the next section I will describe the ways in which behaviours are learned.

The formation of behavior

The cornerstone of social cognitive theory is learning through observation and modelling. Bandura argued that most human behaviour is learnt this way, people cannot simply construct novel behaviours based on their own experiences.

[F]rom observing others[,] one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in an approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless error (Bandura, 1977, p. 22).

The ‘coded-information’ is consistent with the conception of mental models proposed by Johnson-Laird’s (1983). Models are mental symbolizations of the external world and are the building blocks with which we reason and make decisions.

Bandura goes on to detail observational learning sub-processes; these have remained central, for a number of years, to social cognitive theory. These sub-processes consider aspects of attention, retention, production processes and motivation. In terms of attentional processes, Bandura stresses that individuals do not learn through observation unless they ‘…attend to and perceive accurately, the significant features of the modelled behavior’ (1977, p. 24). Similarly, from the perspective of retentional processes, observed behaviours will not have much influence unless a person remembers what they observed. The production
process involve the conversion of the symbolic codification of observed behaviours into action and finally the motivation processes address how, out of the numerous behaviours observed and symbolically retained, certain behaviours are constructed and enacted. I shall now consider each of these processes in a little more detail in order to unpick the nature of observational learning from Bandura’s perspective. A summary of this process is presented in Figure 3.

The attentional processes govern what behaviours are observed and what the observer attends to. Children may require simple tasks, that are salient and conspicuous to promote attention, while the more mature learner can force their attention to observe behaviours that are less conspicuous. The attentional processes are affected by the kinds of behaviour observed and also by observer determinants which may include prior knowledge, preconceptions and cognitive skill, these will have an impact on levels of attention. One other aspect of attention is the functional value of the modelled behaviour; it is more likely that a behaviour which has perceived value will command greater attention by the observer.

Once a modelled behaviour has been attended to, the next process involves retention this ‘…involves the active transformation and restructuring of information about events’ (Bandura, 1986, p. 56). According to social cognitive theory there are two representational systems: imaginal and verbal (p.56). An imaginal representation is an abstraction of an event rather than a visual image. A verbal construction can be understood by considering the way in which geographical directions are communicated; as a series of right and left turns. In this way, behaviours are coded as linguistic instructions. Bandura suggests that these two representational systems are difficult in reality to distinguish and separate.

The next stage of the process is production. This sub-process involves the transfer of observed behaviour, that has been retained mentally, into the construction of a future behaviour. It is the process through which mental representations of behaviours are developed as possible courses of action. This involves the organisation of elements of representations, spatially and temporally into an arrangement consistent with the perceived activity. This process is influenced by matching thoughts and representations to the situation at hand and is also influenced by the individual’s skills and abilities.

The final sub-process, motivation, involves choosing a course of action or behaviour from the range of possible constructions. This is related to internal and external motivations and the degree of effort that one might perceive necessary to expend.

From the perspective of social cognitive theory, thinking influences behaviour by the enactment of mental models. However, as has already been explained, the mental models constructed from the observation of behaviour are not simply re-enacted: this is not direct imitation. Individuals, according to Bandura (1977), reconstruct mental models in order to create a behaviour that they believe is most suitable for a given situation. There is a self-regulative dimension to this production process. A person, from the perspective of social cognitive theory, can construct a behaviour based on the perceived likelihood of success with that behaviour. Self-efficacy is an important theoretical aspect of social cognitive theory and is used to account for the self-regulative aspects of behaviour. It is defined as a self-reflective belief that a person has in the extent to which they believe they will be successful in a particular activity or domain. Bandura presents a range of evidence demonstrating a relationship between self-efficacy and underlying skill (1997, p. 37).

Self-efficacy and teaching

Bandura considers self-efficacy to be of particular importance in understanding the cognitive and social dimensions of behaviour. This led to the book Self-efficacy: the exercise of control in 1997. Bandura suggests in the preface:

Much contemporary theorizing depicts people as onloooking hosts of internal mechanisms or orchestrated by external events. They are stripped of any agency. People are proactive, aspiring organisms who have a hand in shaping their own lives and the social systems that organize, guide and regulate the affairs of their society (Bandura, 1997, p. vii).

Bandura goes on to define self-efficacy. ‘Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments [Bandura’s emphasis]’ (1997, p. 3). While Bandura considers self-efficacy in a wide range of human activity including medicine and health, sport and organizations he also looks specifically at teachers’ perceived self-efficacy. He suggests teachers’ beliefs in their teaching or instructional efficacy contributes to students’ determination of their intellectual capabilities (p. 240). Bandura refers to the study by Gibson and Dembo (1984) in which teachers’ efficacy beliefs were measured in respect to teaching difficult students. They found that the higher efficacy teachers gave more time to academic activities and provided students with more guidance than low efficacy teachers. Lower efficacy teachers also spent more time on non-academic activities and were likely to criticise students for their failures (Bandura, 1997, pp. 240–241). Bandura also draws on evidence from research into student teachers’ efficacy (Saklofske, Michayluk, & Randhawa, 1988) which revealed that those with a higher sense of efficacy were more adept at presenting lesson plans, offered more effective approaches to questioning and were better able to manage their classrooms effectively (Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In terms of practising teachers it has been found that higher levels of teaching efficacy also relates to the way in which teachers view the educational process. Low instructional efficacy teachers are more pessimistic about student motivation and believe in strict classroom regulation and rely on extrinsic inducements and negative sanctions to get students to study (Woolfolk & Hoy, 1990; Woolfolk, Rosoff, & Hoy, 1990 cited in, Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In a later section I shall describe further work that has been done on developing scales for measuring teaching efficacy as well as other studies where teaching efficacy has been related to student achievement and teachers’ propensity to experiment, innovate and sustain changes in their practice. These findings suggest that attention needs to be given to how self-efficacy can be developed as part of teachers’ professional learning. In the next section I want to present what Bandura considers to be the sources of self-efficacy more generally.

Sources of self-efficacy

Bandura proposes four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experiences, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states (Bandura, 1997, pp. 79–113). Enactive mastery experiences offer the most powerful sources of self-efficacy beliefs. If we are successful in something our efficacy will increase, if we fail it will be undermined. Easy successes beget an expectation of quick results but can lead to being easily discouraged by failure (1997, p. 80). Self-efficacy can also be developed through vicarious experience, this provides an alternative and complementary source where individuals assess their own abilities and capabilities based on the attainments and successes of others. Bandura illustrates the process:

More often in everyday life, people compare themselves to a particular associate in similar situations, such as classmates, work associates, competitors, or people in other settings engaged in similar endeavours (Bandura, 1997, p. 87).

Comparing our performances with others leads to increases in self-efficacy; if we believe we can be realistically more effective than the person observed.

A further but weaker source of self-efficacy is through verbal persuasion. If an individual is persuaded that they have the abilities and capacities to achieve a particular level of success this will have an influence on whether the outcome of their performance is successful. However, if the persuasion is unrealistic then this can undermine the individual performance and also discredit the persuader (Bandura, 1997, p. 101).

Finally physiological and affective states have an effect on self-efficacy. If we feel ill or we are in a bad mood this will have an impact in the extent that we believe we will be successful. This according Bandura is especially relevant in areas related to ‘physical accomplishments, health functioning and coping with stressors’ (1997, p. 106). This is particularly important in teaching in which high levels of stress are often experienced. As a consequence, self-efficacy can be enhanced by improving physical status, reducing levels of stress and correcting misinterpretations of bodily states. Effectively, improving our physical condition and the way in which stress is dealt with as well as having an improved understanding of our physical self.

In this section I have summarised the idea of self-efficacy and how self-efficacy is developed through mastery, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physical an affective states. I will now look in more detail at teaching self-efficacy and its measure. I illustrate this by revisiting one aspect of the exploratory study I referred to earlier, this was a small-scale piece of research looking at how self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional development.

Operationalizing social cognitive theory: teaching self-efficacy scales

A teacher’s self-efficacy beliefs (TSE) have been defined as ‘[a] judgment of his or her capabilities to bring about desired outcomes of student engagement and learning, even among those students who may be difficult or unmotivated’ (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001, p. 783). While TSE emerges from strong theoretical ground, its validity has also been demonstrated empirically and it has been shown to be related to other important factors. For example, TSE is related to student achievement (Allinder, 1994; Ashton & Webb, 1986; Tschannen-Moran, Hoy, & Hoy, 1998). In addition, it has been shown to be related to teachers’ willingness to experiment with and adopt new practices (Berman, McLaughlin, Bass-Golod, Pauly, & Zellman, 1977; Guskey, 1988; Stein & Wang, 1988). These present useful findings, as measures of TSE can also indicate levels of student achievement and teachers’ capacity to develop their practice.

TSE is potentially, a powerful measure but it has not been widely used in the evaluation of PD. However, Ross and Bruce (2007) conducted a randomized field trial using measures of TSE with grade six mathematics teachers (n=106) in the USA. It was shown that the PD had an effect on TSE. Karimi (2011) evaluated the effects of PD on EFL (English as a foreign language) teachers’ efficacy finding the PD had a positive effect on TSE. The reason for the limited number of PD evaluations using TSE is that this aspect of PD research is in its infancy. Desimone (2009) argues that PD evaluation is underdeveloped—there is a need for more empirically valid methods—previous studies have relied on ‘…teacher satisfaction, attitude change or commitment to innovation rather than its results…’ (p.181). TSE presents a suitable construct that goes beyond attitude change and commitment to change, it has the potential to measure the effects of PD on student achievement, albeit indirectly.

Much work has been done in recent years in developing TSE instruments. Tschannen-Moran and Woolfolk Hoy (2001) developed the Teaching Self-Efficacy Scale (TSES). This instrument is often regarded as a standard. They tested the validity of the scale by comparing it with other measures of TSE and found high levels of correlation. They also identified three factors: efficacy for instructional strategies; efficacy for classroom management and efficacy for student engagement. Efficacy for instructional strategies includes items relating to assessment, questioning, providing explanations and differentiation. Efficacy for classroom management has items relating to the control of student behaviour, establishing classroom rules, getting students to follow them and dealing with challenging behaviour. Efficacy for student engagement is concerned with motivating students from different backgrounds and encouraging them to value learning and to think critically and be creative. The TSES instrument was used by Ross and Bruce (2007) and Karimi (2011) in their evaluations of PD. While the development, validity and reliability work for the TSES had been carried out in the USA, the instrument has been shown to be valid across culturally diverse settings (Klassen et al., 2009).


The source of this historical perspective on social cognitive theory has been guided by Stone, D. (1998) Social Cognitive Theory, unpublished manuscript [http://mrspettyjohn.pbworks.com/f/SocialCognitiveTheory.pdf, accessed 20/6/2012] and Bachar, K. J. (n.d.) An overview of social cognitive theory, unpublished manuscript, [http://www.u.arizona.edu/~sexasslt/arpep/pdfs/sociallearningtheoryadhs.pdf, accessed 20/6/2012]


Allinder, R. M. (1994). The relationship between efficacy and the instructional practices of special education teachers and consultants. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 17(2), 86–95. http://doi.org/10.1177/088840649401700203

Ashton, P. T., & Webb, R. B. (1986). Making a difference: Teachers’ sense of efficacy and student achievement. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs; N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Berman, P., McLaughlin, M. W., Bass-Golod, G., Pauly, E., & Zellman, G. L. (1977). Federal programs supporting educational change, Vol. VII: Factors affecting implementation and continuation. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Gibson, S., & Dembo, M. H. (1984). Teacher efficacy: A construct validation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 569–582. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.76.4.569

Guskey, T. R. (1988). Teacher efficacy, self-concept, and attitudes toward the implementation of instructional innovation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(1), 63–69.

James, W. (1891). The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Orignally published in 1890.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karimi (Allvar), M. N. (2011). The effects of professional development initiatives on EFL teachers’ degree of self efficacy. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(6), 50–62.

Klassen, R. M., Bong, M., Usher, E. L., Chong, W. H., Huan, V. S., Wong, I. Y. F., & Georgiou, T. (2009). Exploring the validity of a teachers’ self-efficacy scale in five countries. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 67–76. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2008.08.001

Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social learning and imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Ormrod, J. E. (2006). Educational psychology: developing learners (5th ed., International ed). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Ross, J., & Bruce, C. (2007). Professional development effects on teacher efficacy: Results of randomized field trial. The Journal of Educational Research, 101(1), 50–60. http://doi.org/10.3200/JOER.101.1.50-60

Saklofske, D. H., Michayluk, J. O., & Randhawa, B. S. (1988). TEACHERS’ EFFICACY AND TEACHING BEHAVIORS. Psychological Reports, 63(2), 407–414. http://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1988.63.2.407

Stein, M. K., & Wang, M. C. (1988). Teacher development and school improvement: The process of teacher change. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(2), 171–187. http://doi.org/10.1016/0742-051X(88)90016-9

Tolman, E. C. (1932). Purposive behavior in animals and men. New York: The Century Co.

Tschannen-Moran, M., Hoy, A. W., & Hoy, W. K. (1998). Teacher Efficacy: Its Meaning and Measure. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 202–248. http://doi.org/10.2307/1170754

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2001). Teacher efficacy: capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(7), 783–805. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(01)00036-1http://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(01)00036-1

Woolfolk, A. E., & Hoy, W. K. (1990). Prospective teachers’ sense of efficacy and beliefs about control. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 81–91.

Woolfolk, A. E., Rosoff, B., & Hoy, W. K. (1990). Teachers’ sense of efficacy and their beliefs about managing students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6(2), 137–148. http://doi.org/10.1016/0742-051X(90)90031-Y

The science bit: a social cognitive theory perspective on traditional teaching

I want to input some psychology into the issue I wrote about in my previous post. I will draw on theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura.

Bandura developed social cognitive theory which integrates social and cognitive aspects of learning and behaviour. There are two key ideas in social cognitive theory: observational (or vicarious) learning and self-efficacy. A little bit about these:

Observational learning

Bandura argues that much human behaviour is learnt through observation of others’ behaviour. He argues that it is impossible for people to learn everything through trial and error. Human beings rely very much on observing modelled behaviour, we then have a blueprint on how to act in similar situations. It is not just imitation, people think about and construct their own behaviour prior to acting.

Bandura makes the distinction between novice and expert behaviour. As novices people have to think carefully about their actions. Expertise is characterised by habituation and routinised behaviour. Once we have become competent in an domain of activity, we do not consciously analyse and reason in response to stimuli. People have heuristics or mental models that they can apply in situations. From a cognitive neurophysiological perspective, working memory has only limited capacity, people therefore are almost hard-wired to limit the use of working memory. We therefore need to act based on models that we recall from our long-term memory, without consciously reasoning about everything we do.

Becoming competent in something like teaching requires that we have opportunity to observe and accumulate knowledge for potential use as models. However, action and behaviour are not simply about mustering mental models from resources in long-term memory. As we become competent we have to make strategic assessments about the likelihood of success with a particular courses of action. Or the level of attainment we are likely to achieve. This leads me on to the next aspect of social cognitive theory: self-efficacy.


Self-efficacy is a very useful idea developed by Bandura. It is a forward-oriented belief, that is, a belief about the outcome of future events, and it is a belief an individual has in their ability to be successful or achieve a certain attainment in a domain of activity.

When we come to do something we are not familiar with, we are making assessments about the extent to which we will be successful. If he we have knowledge and skill in something related then it is likely that we will have a degree of self-efficacy. But self-efficacy is not necessarily transferable between domains.

Self-efficacy is dependent on the individual, their knowledge and skills and the task itself. Experimental studies show that self-efficacy is strongly linked to outcomes. In most situations it is a better predictor of success than knowledge or other psychological factors such as personality. This is because it takes into account the individuals strategic assessment of the situation at hand.

According to Bandura there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological and affective states.

  • Enactive mastery experience – this is most powerful source of self-efficacy. It is developed through experience and being successful. However, it is not just based on successful outcomes, it is closely related to an awareness and evaluation of the strategies and approach used to achieve the outcomes. To develop self-efficacy, success has to be related to process. It goes beyond practice-makes-perfect.
  • Vicarious experience – We can develop self-efficacy by observing someone we relate to or that we think is similar to our own potential performance level. By observing a competent other with these features we can develop self-efficacy in this way.
  • Verbal persuasion – a much weaker source of self-efficacy. We can persuade and encourage someone to do something effectively.
  • Physiological and affective states – if we are tired, ill or a stressed then our self-efficacy is undermined.

How does observational learning and self-efficacy help understand why teachers tend to teach in traditional teacher-centred ways?

Trainee teachers observe experienced teachers and recall the approaches of their own teachers. In their early ventures into the classroom they try out approaches. The cognitive demand, at this stage, is quite high. The management of stress and anxiety is important. Effectively then, through training they develop self-efficacy in teaching, through enactive mastery experience. A reflective component is important, because self-efficacy is related to the strategies used as much as the successful outcomes achieved.

One of the main concerns of teachers is managing the classroom and pupil behaviour, this becomes something of a focus in the early years of teaching. Until the point at which a teacher believes they have become competent. This is the point at which they have acquired a level of self-efficacy. This is the point at which teachers no longer need to analyse and rationalise or consciously reason every aspect of what they do. Many things become routinised and knowledge is heuristically stored as a set of possible behavioural responses to the situation at hand.

This allows me to explain the prevalence of traditional or teacher-centred practices: which I characterise as featuring a teacher explanation, demonstration or instruction, followed by student practice involving a defined task and finally a review or teacher assessment. For the reasons I discussed in my previous post, it is the practical demands that tend to mould practice into historical forms that reflect the institutional and resource-limited constraints of a state-funded school. The traditional teacher-centred routines represent an efficient solution to the demands of the teachers’ role, the constraints of the institution and the expectation of students, colleagues and parents.

Further reading

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.