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Priorities, purpose and efficacy: How identifying aims/purposes in education can make us better teachers.

5 August 2019

In a previous post, I discussed teachers’ responses to the question “what is your top priority as a teacher?” The most common response included variations of the phrase “to help pupils achieve their potential,” a priority I believe is essentially unachievable. It’s a nice sentiment, but we need to conceptualise more distinct and concrete priorities that are more effectively understood and organised if teachers (and pupils!) are to develop and work to fulfil their (a) sense of purpose.

Priorities are important because they illuminate a sense of purpose. We prioritise aspects of our pedagogy in the hopes of achieving certain aims that we believe help us to fulfil a sense of purpose. The more we understand what comprises our sense of purpose and why, the easier it is to understand and identify our progress towards fulfilling it. This can also enhance our belief that we can achieve (or fulfill) our purpose(s), or in other words, our sense of efficacy. To enhance efficacy we must not only be cognisant of purpose, we must also identify and organise the priorities that contribute to it. Additionally, we must engage in critical reflection of our practice as a means to understand and evaluate our ability to develop and fulfil a sense of purpose in teaching.

Viktor Frankl is a celebrated and controversial figure. He was a psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and existentialist who developed a form of therapy (Logotherapy) largely influenced by existentialism. Frankl believed the pursuit of purpose was the primary motivating factor for humans, and that purpose is informed by the meaning we derive from our lived experiences. He argued we make meaning through our ability to recognise and appreciate the significant episodes, interactions and other phenomena in life. The significance of any event is understood by its impact on us (both present and potential) and our response to these experiences.

Frankl provided three stages of meaning-making processes that inform purpose. The first is engaging, which simply means choosing to be actively engaged in life — to be thoughtfully and purposefully involved in living life. The second is encountering, which describes our introduction to, and interaction with, people, objects, places, thoughts and other aspects of life produced throughout engaging. The final stage is coping. This has a distinctive existential twist to it, since many existentialists acknowledge the importance of suffering. I won’t focus too much on suffering, but I do think coping relates to the discomfort of overcoming obstacles, challenges and other experiences that can inhibit our “encountering” and “engagement.”

But what about efficacy? Bandura conceptualized efficacy as the belief in our ability to achieve the results we hope to achieve. “Teacher efficacy” be manifested in outcome and efficacy expectations. Outcome expectations are normative and based on the belief a behaviour will lead to a desirable outcome (e.g. the belief good teaching benefits students). Efficacy expectations are an individual’s belief they can perform that behaviour (e.g. a teacher believing they can teach well). A growing body of evidence suggests a relationship between teacher efficacy and pupils’ outcomes, as well as greater job-satisfaction for teachers.

Bandura posited four sources of efficacy: Mastery and vicarious experiences, social persuasion and affective states.

Frankl’s conceptualization of finding purpose and Bandura’s model of efficacy complement each other. Engagement consists of a desire and decision to act, to intentionally and thoughtfully think about behaviours that lead to “encountering.” Through encountering, we undertake mastery and vicarious experiences — gathering knowledge, increasing skill and developing our expertise. We observe those around us, especially mentors and role models, and seek to incorporate similar behaviours into our repertoire. This also provides opportunities for social persuasion, where the behaviours we perform are positively rewarded by these individuals. Finally, our ability to cope, to overcome — our sense of power, resilience and/or adaptability is informed by our emotional and physiological responses to these growth experiences.

The ideas of Frankl and Bandura can provide a helpful framework for teachers to engage in richer and more-meaningful engagements with the aims and purposes of education. This is especially true for considering how individuals’ values, beliefs — and the enactment of those beliefs — interact with these goals. Such an undertaking requires educators to move beyond the laudable, but ultimately ineffective, aims like “helping pupils achieve their potential.” Instead, through pursuing pedagogical knowledge, engaging with research evidence, thinking philosophically about our practice, joining in dialectical discussions with colleagues and undertaking focused, critical reflection, we can identify meaningful activities associated with teaching and learning we find significant. Through these performative and intellectual aspects of our practice, the significance of these phenomena can enhance our sense of efficacy and help us progress towards finding and fulfilling a more coherent, achievable and efficacious sense of purpose in our practice.

Reflective Questions

  1. Do you feel motivated by a sense of purpose? If so, what is your ‘purpose’ in teaching?
  2. How do you rationalise or justify your ‘purpose?’ Why is this ‘your’ purpose?
  3. Some “purposes” in education are extremely difficult to achieve. For instance, I believe education can help to transform an unjust society into a more just and inclusive society, but that may never happen. However, I still feel it’s important to try – to “dream the impossible dream” as it were. While we may never reach our ultimate goal, that doesn’t mean we aren’t fulfilling our (a) purpose. Might we be fulfilling our (a) purpose by simply working towards the priorities we set for achieving the “impossible dream?” What must you prioritise as a teacher to work towards fulfilling your (a) purpose as a teacher?
  4. With this in mind, how can you evaluate these priorities, your plans to achieve them and progress so far?