Self-Efficacy & Personal Agency: Move from Conformity to Empowerment

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Ever hear about a student who can pay attention and have follow-through for projects of interest, but then fail to turn in the simplest homework assignment? What is said about this student? Not working to potential? Lacking consistent self-efficacy?

Does this sound like anybody you know?

Your self-efficacy is how effective you think you are in being able to accomplish a particular task or meet a goal. Educators often lament about low student self-efficacy and ask how to help students take personal responsibility for their own learning.

The problem is in the framing of the question. The unspoken part. The part about the expectation being that each of us should be effective at cramming ourselves into pre-defined boxes, conforming to expectations that might have nothing to do with our needs, desires, or even career goals. Think back to that student scenario. Perhaps not doing homework, and instead spending time engaged in other, meaningful tasks is exactly how some students “take personal responsibility for their own learning.” The students following the scripted program are seen as having high levels of self-efficacy. They are very effective at conforming.

Now, to be fair, if the script matches your needs, interests, and goals, then by all means, carry on. To personalize learning means to do so for all students, including those who would work well with a more traditional approach. We do not want to discriminate against one category in our efforts to meet the needs of all the others.

However, how do we know? How do we know if the box that has become comfortable is the “right” one for us, or the right one for a student we are serving? The answer: don’t stop at self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a means to something more. It is a strategy that can be used to successfully conform, but it can also be used toward higher level goals: empowerment, and – ultimately – personal agency. How can we get students in the driver seat in their education and, more importantly, their life? We need to remember that the goal is for students to each have a voice and a choice in all things pertaining to their selves and their own lives.

When mentoring teachers, I remind them that it’s not about us. It’s about them, the students. Don’t tell them what to think, but teach them to think – critically – and that means questioning everything. After all, what happens when you change your mind? Are you going to send all of your former students an update? Perhaps you can create a smart phone app for that? Of course not. Also, their world might not be your world; they need to be life-long learners who have been empowered to have full personal agency in their own lives – from their own bodies to their career choices.

Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Yes, the attitude as described above is really just that. However, the implementation can be challenging at times. It can take time to detox a student from previous experiences and social programming, and you can expect some flailing about or at least looks of suspicion when offering the driver seat to a student. That student might not even have a sense of direction, answering with “dunno” when asked what they want, and it can take awhile to discover and tap into something meaningful. Even if they get in the driver seat, they might not go anywhere at first. They need guidance; it is a process that is as self-paced as all other things the students might learn.

But know this: it can be done. It has been done. And we continue to do it. It’s an important part of preparing students for a future we cannot fully imagine, and it’s our best hope for that future being a good one.


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