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Yes I Can: Self-efficacy

‘Yes I Can’ is about having that growth mindset. More than that, it’s what happens when you have it. There are huge differences between fixed concepts of ability and the expanding conception of capability. There are reasons for fostering beliefs about capability, self-efficacy beliefs, in people. Self-efficacy is about having a growth mindset for a specific task. Actually we need it for so many different things everyday, but it isn’t a blanket belief that covers all. ‘Yes I Can’ in one setting doesn’t necessarily translate to another. And why not? Maybe you were one of the kids who was lucky enough to have a fantastically supportive environment where YES was the default, or maybe you had a more typical experience where there was at least one thing in life where some unthinking grown-up told you that you would never do that… whether it was singing, acting, public speaking, spelling, or even wearing that shirt in public. These things have an impact.

‘Yes I Can’ doesn’t happen overnight, and to make it last takes more than a reading of the well known story The little engine who could.

2290311284_9fcb47c167_zImage CC BY-NC-SA by Viki

I was talking to my students about teaching (I lead a degree in Instrumental / Vocal Teaching for musicians) and we got to thinking about the differences between school learning and university – and then of course compared these to music learning. In school, at least in the UK, currently there is a strong trend to teach to the test. When children approach the final years of school here, they take big end of year subject exams that have a huge impact on university entrance. It is different to sitting an SAT test on a Saturday, because most of what you do in school is geared toward that final assessment. Even at 15, the coursework counts toward the grade that determines which three or four subjects a student can specialise in for those final two years of school. There is huge pressure, and huge formula. My own teenage children come home and I say things like-‘ Can I see a draft of your essay?’ and just last weekend I was met with the retort ‘Why would I show it to you? Do you know how we are required to structure the essay?’ -I felt like I didn’t have a good reply. Sometimes when you’re in a horserace, there are hoops to jump, but that doesn’t mean that they are the defining factors of your learning. I hope we can all go beyond, and learn because we want to, and because we can. But, grades, rules, exams, these things all impose restrictions and as much as any teacher would like to say it doesn’t happen, there is teaching to the test, at any level. It is simply that our students have a lot of it in the final years of their schooling.

What happens next is a shock to the system.

At university, there is a strong push to develop autonomous learners, to develop people who will make a lasting contribution to society, to guide those who will change the world. Individual differences are valued and encouraged. The skills that were honed to write just so, to answer with the correctly phrased re-articulation of the definition of a plate tectonics are no longer being asked for. I am not saying these activities are useless. That foundation of factual knowledge and the understanding of how to follow rules is essential and is one of many skills needed as people navigate life. I love how Stravinsky found freedom in the confines of rules. He was known for pushing boundaries in his music, not through anarchic daydreaming, but with an extremely high level of skill, careful compositional planning, and precisely notated instructions. He said:

349px-Igor_Stravinsky_LOC_32392u“Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible. My freedom consists in moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.” (Stravinsky, 1970, p.65)

Photo by George Grantham Bain Collection – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.32392. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The foundational knowledge learned through the final school years is useful, and forms a base from which people move forward, but students can be unprepared for the dramatic change in tack of methods of learning and expectations they meet as they begin their university education.

A growth mindset is definitely needed, but there is also a need for transitions to be facilitated, and for the positive ‘Yes I Can’ self-efficacy beliefs to be developed and enacted. There has been a growing awareness of practical links between university learning and achievements and professional life, with the rise in vocational courses and the emphasis on embedding employability.

Self-efficacy is about the ‘Yes I Can’ and teachers can do a lot to help foster this.

Self-belief is at the core, but is not enough. It is backed up with skills and the practical accomplishments that demonstrate the reality that actually, yes, you can do something.

This morning, mid typing I read Alan Levine’s Tedx talk about +/- memory and how that relates to teachers you may have had, who makes an impact, and what you remember, and he recalled the positive impact of various teachers throughout his education. I thought, yep, I was really lucky to have a few of those teachers who really made a difference because they showed me how to develop that belief. It takes work for an educator and it is not something that can come from an extra assignment or additional research. The teacher has to start by believing, and continue, even when the student doesn’t. The rewards may not be immediate, and might not come until much later, sometimes years after the students have left and they come back and say how that thing you encouraged them to do was really useful and led them on to something else – because they knew they could do it. I realised the impact of one of my teachers and thanked him decades after leaving school. Sometimes educators never see the direct results, but it is important to believe in people. It takes a commitment from the teacher and even some risk, as this is a different perspective for some, and it requires that you are willing to learn yourself.

For me knowing that I can, and the possibilities brought about through having the self-efficacy to put that first foot forward have led to great connections and opened doors, and I want to pass that on. I wrote the book Fostering self-efficacy in higher education students, because I believe in students, I believe in teachers, and I believe in the power of education.

#YesICan

Featured image CC BY-SA by Chris Gilmore

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