From Self-Defeat to Self-Efficacy
A Series of Diagrams on Helping Students Succeed, with Special Attention to Toxic Self-Esteem
A Working Paper
by Gerald Grow
Originally published on the author’s website, June 21, 2010.
I developed the following diagrams a few years ago while trying to adapt the concept of self-efficacy to teaching. While I want to credit Bandura with this powerful concept, these are free adaptations, based as much on the literature of instructional design and self-directed learning as on Bandura.
I am not a scholar of Bandura or of self-efficacy; I am more a concerned teacher who raided Bandura and any other sources for concepts that could help me understand certain problems in teaching. My purpose was to create a model that helps me understand certain students better and identify better ways to teach. What follows is a mixture of things I read or heard, plus my own ideas, often born on solitary drives home after a day of teaching. As usual, in order to understand what I was thinking, I had to convert it into diagrams. This essay is a series of explanations to accompany the diagrams that contain the ideas.
Like so many of my writings, this is incomplete. But I decided it was better to publish this part of an uncompleted idea than publish no part of a completed idea.
This article is about learning from experience, why some students do not seem to do so, and how you might help them. The difficulty certain students have in achieving this efficacy — and sometimes their use of self-defeating behavior — present one of the greatest challenges to teachers. These diagrams provide a way of visualizing self-efficacy, self-defeat, and the places a teacher can intervene to help convert defeat into efficacy.
1. The Spiral of Efficacy
Ideally, learning moves in a spiral, such that each learning experience teaches you how to learn better next time.
The spiral of learning begins with an attitude of confidence that leads to good planning (understanding the need, setting goals, identifying the steps required, finding resources), followed by the focused application of skill (with good management of time and resources). This “work” phase requires the ability to monitor yourself and make corrections as you go along.
The key phase comes next, when you evaluate how the project came out and how you went about it. At this point, you attribute your degree of success and failure to specific actions you took and specific circumstances you worked with.
From this measured success, and with encouragement from your teachers, peers, and cultures, you approach the next learning project with greater confidence based on your real accomplishments the last time.
Learning moves in a spiral — with each project improving your ability to carry out the next project — and giving you the skills and confidence to do so. That spiral of skill and confidence constitutes efficacy. (See Figure 1.)
Each part is important. It is possible to flatten this spiral, to keep repeating the same action over and over without getting any better at it. Thus, while it is possible to “learn by doing,” it is also possible to do something without learning from it. While “active learning” is real, activity does not necessarily lead to learning. The improvement of skills, and the improvement of learning, do not take place automatically. They require conscious application and conscious reflection.
Figure 2 shows the Spiral of Efficacy with additional detail:
2. The Spiral of Self-Defeat
In contrast to the Spiral of Efficacy, the Spiral of Self-Defeat moves from low confidence through a lack of planning to a half-hearted effort and a poorly completed project. (See Figure 3.)
If you are in this spiral, during the crucial phase of evaluation, you are not likely to take responsibility for messing up the results. Instead, you are likely to either blame circumstances or just give up with “I don’t have what it takes.”
The world always seems ready to confirm such conclusions whenever we reach them about ourselves, so there is never a lack of external discouragement. Discouragement is a free, abundant, and seemingly limitless resource.
After performing poorly in a learning project, you then approach the next project with even less expectation of success, lower confidence, less motivation, and, very likely, less effort. That’s pretty grim, isn’t it?
Figure 4 shows the Spiral of Self-Defeat in greater detail.
A blank version of the Spiral of Self-Defeat can be used to analyze a self-defeating learning pattern. See Figure 5.
3. Toxic Self-Esteem
There is another kind of self-defeat that I do not recall finding in the literature on self-efficacy, one that arises from overconfidence. I identify this self-defeat with a kind of exaggerated self-esteem that may have been encouraged by misguided attempts to encourage students without demanding that they learn real skills and appropriate behavior.
Figure 6. Toxic Self-Esteem
As in the Spiral of Self-Defeat, this kind of toxic self-esteem arises in a set of attitudes that lead students to perform poorly. The attitudes, effort, and attribution are different from self-defeat, but the outcome is similar: erroneous expectancy leads to poor performance, which reinforces the erroneous expectancy.
Because “toxic self esteem” is a challenging concept, I want to spend extra time on it here. We will begin by considering this kind of self-defeat the result of an excess of self-esteem. At the end of this section, we will modify that view somewhat.
A student who suffers from such an excess of self-esteem is likely to have an unrealistic belief in his own abilities that leads him to believe that he will be excellent at anything he has never tried to do. Such students tend to underestimate the difficulty of projects. They expect things to be easier than they turn out to be.
Such students sometimes have an attitude I can only think to call “self-celebrity,” in which they appear to consider themselves as people who have already succeeded in life, rather than people who are just starting out, just learning, just reaching the bottom rung of a tall ladder that will require many years to climb.
They may implicitly count on luck to see them through, as if a talent scout will pluck them off the street one day and overnight make them a rich and famous star. They do not have a solid belief in the connection between effort and accomplishment, nor do they have a commitment to that kind of continuous, long-term work. In some ways, they seem to inhabit a “pre-bureaucratic” world, where life is not part of an organized social structure based on procedures and the skills needed to carry out those procedures. Instead, life to them seems based on personal interactions, favors, power, and perhaps most of all, magical thinking.
Such students do little planning, because they see no need for it. In their minds, to think of doing something is to have accomplished it. They have not yet begun to learn the complex relationship between the mind’s ability to conceive of a goal and the messy, problem-solving process necessary to accomplish that goal over time in the real world. They still live in the abstract, mythic timeless world of idealized thinking; they have not yet had much experience accomplishing things, over time, with people, in this world. In order to mature, they need to carry out many, many projects imperfectly, and have those projects evaluated realistically.
As you might expect on the basis of this characterization, such students tend to “toss off” their work. They do “whatever.” Unlike the self-defeating student, who does “whatever” and expects it to fail, the student with excess self-esteem does “whatever” and expects it to succeed — indeed, to be exceptional. Such a student’s false self-esteem fills so much of her attention that it is difficult for her to make room for outside criteria.
One of the fundamental challenges of student life (and everyone else’s) is that, at any moment, we find ourselves on a continuum with “total freedom” at one end and “total constraint” at the other. In some situations, we are free to do as we please. In other situations, we are totally constrained by outside requirements (think of a tax return).
Students with excess self-esteem judge themselves to be more free than they actually are. They think they are free to “make it up as they go along,” free from outside judgment, free of outside criteria. They are extreme musicians in the jazz of life who no longer find it necessary to play in the same key as anyone else, to play the same tune, or to stop and start with anyone else. In their own eyes, if they are performing, the result must surely be wonderful.
The task of a teacher here can be seen as helping the student realign her understanding of where she is free to be creative and where she must follow procedures and meet criteria. For this to work, the criteria must be clearly written down, and the student must be shown how to compare her results with what is required, and how to evaluate the process that led to those results and improve it.
Left to her own, the student with excess self-esteem will evaluate her results far more highly than they deserve, like a child who is praised for everything. She may say, “Well, I like it,” and consider that definitive, without concern for what others think, what the project required, or what external criteria need to be met, or what kind of performance the world is willing to pay for.
Such students may blame others for things that did not come out well, or blame circumstances.
The remarkable thing about students with excess self-esteem is that, for the most part, they seem to be completely unaffected by failure. Such students can toss off a miserably inadequate effort, receive an “F” on it, and continue to sustain the same hermetically-sealed self-confidence they had before failing. Already it sounds strange to say that some students suffer from an excess of self-esteem; to that I add that some students similarly suffer from an inability to suffer the consequences of their failures. They suffer, so to speak, from a lack of ignorance — where “ignorance” means a humble recognition that they have much to learn and need to apply themselves diligently to do so.
I suspect that various versions of this syndrome contribute to what is generally seen as “student disengagement” and “student entitlement.”
The last part of the chart above (in the lower left) indicates that the external environment may repeatedly tell such students that they are good enough as they are. Teachers may have rewarded some students for doing mediocre work as long as those students sat quietly, kept still, and did not cause trouble. Such students can arrive at high school or college expecting to be praised for everything they do — or needing such praise, or even addicted to praise. They may be figuratively covered with the gold stars of previous praise, but otherwise embarrassingly naked.
To some degree, all parents have to overinflate their children in the effort to encourage them to tackle difficult things in life and believe that they can succeed. There may be special reasons why some parents carry such praise too far. In an effort to insulate the self-esteem of their children from a prejudicial world, some parents may encourage a self-esteem that is unrelated to external judgment. There is a place for such a view, which might come in the form of, “In the eyes of God, we are all perfect.”
But work in the world does not take place in the realm of pure being; it takes place in the intersection between idealized goals and the messy realm of time, one’s own body, objects, and other people — the very things “project management” attempts to manage.
It is helpful to think of “esteem” as a feeling about being and “efficacy” as a feeling about doing things in the world. Conflating the two leads to the problems attributed above to excess self-esteem.
The problem we have been considering, then, is not strictly the result of too much self-esteem; rather, it is the result of mistakenly transferring a view of the self from the timeless, abstract, idealized, even “spiritual” realm directly into the physical realm and expecting it to function perfectly. The kind of self-defeat described here as toxic self-esteem comes from mistaking self-efficacy for self-esteem — which leads easily to such errors as, “But officer, I’m a good person, and good people do not speed!”
This essay is in part about the importance of “attitudes” or “dispositions” — the affective domain that is so often omitted when the cognitive part only of Bloom’s Taxonomy is used in organizing lessons. Cognitive skills have little value without the affective skills — the attitudes, dispositions, character, values, commitments — that motivate people to apply cognitive skills meaningfully in the world.
And, as the diagrams repeatedly suggest, attitudes and applied skills mutually shape one another. In the next section, we ask what students can do to help themselves out of self-deafeat, and what teachers can do to help students. In other words, we will be asking how to use actions to improve attitudes, which then improve the actions that then improve the attitudes, in a constructive spiral.
The value of these diagrams comes when you use them to identify places you can make constructive changes — interventions you can make to help yourself. Or, if you are a teacher, you can identify places where you can help students who are caught in the spiral of self-defeat.
Figure 7 shows the spiral of self-defeat with the main intervention points identified. More detail will follow.
Figure 7. Intervention Points, Basic
Inner and Outer Work
Notice that two phases are largely “inner” and two are more “outer.” The phases of Atrribution and Expectancy are inner phases. What happens in them takes place largely inside the student.
Attribution. One of the best places to start is with self-evaluation. It answers questions like, “To what do you attribute the results? Why did things come out the way they did?” Be honest with yourself. Choose a learning project that did not work well and make a careful catalog of just what you did and did not do in it.
Find out as best you can exactly how you helped it to fail. There is a great reason for doing this. If you can acknowledge that you caused yourself to fail, that means you have the power to affect the outcome. Next time, you can make yourself succeed better. If you accept the blame, you are no longer a victim; you are a doer, an agent, a person with real power.
Realize you have the power to make something fail, and you realize you have the power to help it succeed. That’s an amazing thought, isn’t it? Failure — seen in the light of efficacy — is empowering.
Expectancy. How do you “tune” yourself when you begin a project? Do you feel a lack of confidence? Confusion? Nerves? Irritation? Overconfidence? A “don’t care” attitude? Do you look at the project as just something to get out of the way?
Or do you approach each project as an opportunity to learn something new, and to practice your skills? Do you look on the work as imposed from outside, or do you set out to make this your own, to own it, to engage with it, to embrace it, to make this learning a permanent part of your life and your world?
You don’t always get to choose your projects, but you always get to choose your attitude, and the attitude you choose can have a powerful influence on how well you do, how much you learn, and how well you enjoy the project.
Monitor your attitude carefully, and watch if it changes during the project. Strive for an open, curious, engaged attitude, where you say to yourself,
- “I’m going to give this my best shot, and I’m going to learn from how it comes out. Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting.”
Planning. In order to complete a project, you have to define a project that you are capable of completing; you need a project matched to your skills and resources. So, set a goal that is realistic. Don’t shoot for the moon; aim to get around the block in a way that accomplishes something.
Work to understand what the project is about. Clearly identify what you need to accomplish, where you need to get to. What is the goal?
Then identify where you are starting from. What is the starting point? What do you have now? What do you need to do? Think of the project as moving from where you are now to where you need to be at the end.
Identify two kinds of resources that can help you: people and things. What people do you need to consult? Whom do you need to interview, read, listen to, observe? What material resources do you need — books, money, travel, equipment, etc.? Identify which resources you can realistically obtain. If you can’t get what you need to complete the project, you’ll need to choose a diffent goal.
Management. This is the phase of the work itself. This is where you work hard and work smart, applying your skills as diligently as you can to complete the project at hand.
One key to this part of a project is to divide the larger goal into small steps, then complete each of the steps. To do this, you have to make your plan, then carry it out. Stay focused.
One helpful approach is to use a calendar to mark the day when you need to have the project finished, then back up day by day to allot the time it will require to complete each of the steps of the project. Pencil them in; make time for them. This way, you’ll see just what you need to have finished by a given date. This kind of time management will help keep you on track.
Yet even here the inner work remains essential.
While you are applying your best skills to manage this project and manage the people and resources it involves, keep listening for the voice of self-defeat inside yourself, the whisper of discouragement, the voice that says things like
- “I can’t do this,”
- “I’m not good enough,” or
- “It’s no use.”
Everybody who bothers to listen can hear that discouraging voice. It’s a universal thing — so, having it is no big deal. What matters is how you respond to it. Don’t fight it. Just keep saying things like,
- “Maybe so, but I’m going to give this my best anyway.”
- “No matter how this comes out, I’ll be able to say I did the best job I could.”
- “No matter what, this is going to be interesting, I am going to learn from it, and I am going to get better from doing it.”
One of the great secrets is this: Many highly successful people hear such voices in themselves every time they undertake something. Many highly successful people suffer from low self-esteem, depression, discouragement, poor self-image, and a lack of confidence. Indeed, a tendency toward such discouragement is almost a requirement for certain highly creative people.
What do they do? Instead of working against or under that discouraging voice, they work for the goal. They set a worthwhile, achievable goal, then work hard and work smart to achieve it. They say to the discouragment, “Don’t bother me. I’m busy now. Come back later.”
Instead of depending on feeling good or feeling motivated, successful people depend on their skills and processes. They don’t work when they feel like it. They work when there is work to be done. They don’t wait for inspiration or motivation, they set into motion the process that will result in accomplishing the goal.
Writers, for example, write whether they feel like it or not, day in and day out. To be more exact, writers enter themselves into the writing process itself, the process of planning, researching, writing, and revising that produces results. That way, they don’t have to “write.” Instead, they immerse themselves in a process that produces writing.
What these diagrams display is a similar process. With time and practice, you learn how to learn. You learn how to do things. Then, when a project comes up, you can plan your process of work carefully and throw yourself into its steps as they, one by one, accumulate into a final result that it is not possible to achieve all at once.
Again and again in life, people are faced with things they have never done before. They cannot say, “I know how to do this,” because it is new to them. Instead, they say, “I know how to figure this out. I know an approach that will take me into the problem and lead me to results.”
And that brings us back to planning.
Planning is where you come to terms with the fact that you cannot do everything at once. You have to divide big jobs into a sequence of small tasks, then check off each one as you complete it and stack it into place.
To take an example: Nobody writes a book. What they do is engage in a series of steps that complete the parts that add up to a book. The secret is in planning the work, dividing up the task, and completing a series of small, manageable tasks that add up. That’s working smart.
Figure 8 shows in more detail the spiral of self-defeat and the intervention points that help convert it into a spiral of efficacy.
Figure 8. Intervention Points, with Detail
4a. The Most Important Step
Efficacy depends on an attitude of positive expectancy that is coupled to a systematic approach to planning a project, carrying it out, evaluating the results, learning from the experience, and applying that knowledge so the next project goes better. Although every step is important, the first step is the key to all the rest — because, without an attitude of positive expectancy, a student will not try new things, apply skills, feel motivated, or do the best possible job.
By far the most important intervention is represented by the arrow that connects the Attribution Stage with the Expectancy Stage. At this crucial point, several distinctions are important.
First, students must be monitored to be certain they have carried out a self-assessment and attributed their success and failures to their own efforts. At this point, a failure is as valuable as a success, because, when students recognize they they are responsible for a failure, they have the opportunity to realize that, by changing their approach, they can achieve a better result next time.
Figure 9. From Attribution to Expectancy
Second, students must be monitored to make sure they recognize external influences on Expectancy. They must learn to identify and counter discouragement from the environment. They must learn to cultivate encouraging, empowering messages from the environment. And they must learn to generate their own self-motivating self-talk — “I can do this.” “Even if I fail at this, I will learn something worthwhile.” “Grappling with difficult problems makes me stronger.”
Third, teachers must be careful to strike a balance between providing positive encouragement and not making students dependent on the teacher for that encouragement. The goal is to help students learn to encourage and empower themselves. This is not an easy balance to achieve. Students need encouragement; they also need the freedom to learn from their own experience. Students need independence; they also need support. Students need to have someone to lean on; but teachers have to keep students from depending on teachers to do things students need to do for themselves. For further ideas on how to seek this balance, see my article, “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.”
Finally, teachers must make certain that students actually learn from experience. This may be the single most important point in this article. Learning from experience, in this model, means a student evaluates a learning experience, decides what went well and what went badly, finds out why (establishes attribution for successes and failures), then makes a plan for how to do better next time. All these steps add together to contribute to an attitude of positive expectancy. This kind of positive attitude is not based on praise from other people, but on an inner sense of accomplishment.
However, at the next learning project, the teacher may need to remind students to apply what they learned from the last project. For a while, the teacher may need to be an essential part of a student’s sense of efficacy.
One of the hardest questions in education, and in life, is why people sometimes do not learn from experience, but instead keep repeating the same mistakes, unsuccessful actions, or partially successful actions, time and again. The piecemeal nature of schooling trains many students to learn, pass a test, then forget. This model is an attempt to understand how people learn from experience, what happens when they do not, and how to help those who are not learning from experience. Learning from experience is the essence of efficacy.
5. The Spiral of Improvement (short)
Now we return to where we started and add some details.
Figure 10 summarizes what we have been considering. It identifies each of the phases of a process of continuous growth and improvement as a learner. In continuous improvement, learning moves in a spiral instead of a circle, because each learning project prepares you to do better on the next one.
Most learners need to improve in several (or all) the phases, but phases 5 and 6 are so crucial that they are worth re-emphasizing. These phases remind you to learn from everything you do, with the intention of doing better next time. These phases remind you to go into each new project building on what you learned from previous projects, to have an improvement plan of what you are going to do differently next time, and put it into effect.
Finally, Figure 11 presents the Spiral of Improvement with more detail. It brings the whole idea into one diagram.
Figure 11. The Spiral of Improvement, with Detail
Bandura, Albert. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.
Grow, Gerald. (1991/1996). “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.” Adult Education Quarterly, 41 (3), 125-149. Expanded version available online at: <http://www.longleaf.net/ggrow>.
Copyright 2007 – 2010 by Gerald Grow