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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Vicariously Learning Experiences. Why Aren’t We Doing More of Those?

By Peter DeWitt — June 11, 2017 6 min read
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When I was a junior at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY in the mid-90’s, I was beginning my degree in elementary education. Dr. Huey Bogan, our professor at the time, told us that we would have to observe in a classroom for one hour a week. He put me in Dave Ksanznak’s fourth grade classroom.

Is one hour of observation really enough?

It may seem like it wasn’t enough time to observe in a classroom, but it was a start. Dave ultimately asked me to complete one of my 30-hour observation requirements in his class during that same semester. I went well beyond the 30 hours and stayed for 6 months. After that, Dave asked me to be his first student teacher.

To me, every day spent with Dave was like a master’s class in how to engage students through authentic learning experiences. He taught me, and showed me, how to build relationships with them. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer has research to show that teacher-student relationships has a .72 effect size, which is well above the .40 that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. I learned about building relationships with students through watching Dave K. Hattie’s research only cements what I learned so long ago.

Ksanznak had unique nicknames for students, and when it was their birthday he sang in the tone of his favorite musician Bruce Springsteen. He seemed to naturally understand how to engage students. Dave provided me with was a vicarious learning experience. It is based on the self-efficacy research of Albert Bandura, and it’s something I believe we need to practice more in education.

What is Self-Efficacy?
Self-efficacy “Refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments (Bandura).” This belief in one’s capabilities is situational. For example, a teacher may believe in their capabilities in building relationships with students, but they don’t believe that they know how to take students from surface to deep level learning.

Although self-efficacy beliefs are hard to change, vicarious experiences can be influential in the process of helping to raise the self-efficacy of teachers and leaders. If we don’t provide those experiences initiatives and growth may never happen. Why?

Zee and Koomen (2016) found that, Strategies are unlikely to be initiated unless teachers believe they have the skills and capabilities to selectively support their students where needed.” Additionally, Tom Guskey, someone I recently wrote a blog with on the words we use in education, has been researching self-efficacy for decades. In an e-mail he wrote,

Within any new strategy teachers are being asked to implement, there MUST be a built-in mechanism whereby teachers gain EVIDENCE THEY TRUST that shows the strategy is making a difference for THEIR STUDENTS in THEIR CLASSROOMS. Equally important, they must gain evidence rather quickly -- within weeks, not months!”

This means that they need to have a deep understanding of the strategy or it will not be implemented correctly...or implemented at all.

Sharing Best Practices
Bandura’s research shows we learn best through vicarious experiences, where we can observe others in action. Those experiences may take place when we observe another teacher’s classroom, co-teach with another teacher, or learn from them when we share best practices around a given strategy at a faculty meeting. Versland (2016) found that, “If the successful person appears to be of similar competence to the vicarious learner, the vicarious learner seeks to replicate the efforts and strategies to achieve similar success.”

The issue is that we often ask our best teachers to share their best practices, and that is where the vicarious learning experience can break down. For example, Hattie talks a lot about default students in the classroom. He says that when a teacher calls on a reluctant learner and that learner remains quiet, the teacher often calls on a default student rather quickly to break the awkward silence. Default students are those students in our classrooms who often have the right answer all the time.

Leaders do the same thing in faculty meetings. They often have their instructional coach lead the sharing of best practices or they ask one of their teacher leaders who excels in every aspect of the classroom. The issue with always using a default teacher to share best practices is that a teacher with a low level of self-efficacy may not feel that they can teach the strategy at the same level, and never uses it in the classroom.

We don’t need to raise the status of one of our teachers as much as we need to raise the status of all of them.

Therefore, we need to make sure that all teachers are able to share best practices, so our staff can learn from other people that have similar competence. Perhaps put teachers on a cycle where they have to share the best practice being focused on for the faculty meeting (This of course is assuming that faculty meetings are being used for professional learning and development). For example, when building successful relationships with students is the topic of the faculty meeting, the teacher I referred to above is the one who shares their wisdom. By doing that leaders are helping raise the self-efficacy of that teacher, and other colleagues are learning vicariously through that teacher.

In the End
When I met Dave Ksanznak, I was a recovering reluctant learner. I had been retained in elementary school, struggled throughout my formal schooling to the point that I graduated fourth from last in my high school class, and then dropped out of two community colleges. Fortunately, I made my third attempt at college and met a coach and teacher who would both help change the course of my life. After finding success and finishing my two-year degree, I went to Saint Rose and ultimately met Dave.

That one hour that Dr. Bogan had us complete every week was my opening to a 30-hour observation, which turned into six months and then a student-teaching experience. Over all of those combined hours watching Dave I came to the realization that I could teach the way he did. He helped me gain that belief...that self-efficacy to move forward.

We, as teachers and leaders, need more of those vicarious experiences in our lives. Guskey (1986) says that we need to offer professional learning and development opportunities that will offer teachers a new strategy that they can use immediately; they must use it and see student growth quickly, and then their beliefs will change. As Guskey (1986) writes, “significant change in teachers’ beliefs and attitudes is likely to take place only after changes in student learning outcomes are evidenced.”

We often got into teaching because we were inspired by a teacher we had. Shouldn’t we keep the inspiration going by engaging in more vicarious experiences with our colleagues?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.