New doctoral thesis: Reconceptualising teacher self-efficacy in relation to teacher identity

Full title: Reconceptualising teacher self-efficacy in relation to teacher identity: A longitudinal phenomenological study of pre-service secondary mathematics teachers during initial teacher education

Gosia Marschall
Gosia Marschall

It has long been recognized that teachers have an important role in a fast-changing world, especially in guiding and educating young people of today in preparation for and in the creation of a different tomorrow. In order to fulfill this role teachers themselves face the necessity to continuously change and adapt to the ever-progressing reality, and consequently engage in an active and demanding process of life-long professional learning.

Gosia Marschall’s research agenda focuses on developing understanding of how (mathematics) teachers learn and develop, both through the course of their initial teacher education and throughout their career. Gosia is developing new conceptualizations of professional learning that integrate knowledge, emotions and agency that evolve during the course of a teachers’ professional life course. Using her research, she hopes to be able to contribute to improving teacher education as well as teacher professional lives.

What is your dissertation about and what is the most important result of the study?

In this dissertation I look at teacher professional learning through the lens of teacher self-efficacy development. Teacher self-efficacy, which can be defined as teachers’ beliefs about their ability to successfully perform specific professional actions, plays a crucial role in teacher functioning. It does so through guiding teachers’ construction of anticipatory scenarios, motivating and guiding action, and through fostering functional skills necessary for individuals’ professional development and healthy wellbeing.

So far, teacher self-efficacy and its development have been conceptualized from the perspective of teacher beliefs which individuals develop/establish on the basis of performance-related information accessed through enactive, vicarious and social experiences. What such a conceptualization ignores, however, are wider aspects of teachers’ physical and personal lives. In this dissertation I challenge the current conceptualization of teacher self-efficacy and its development by illustrating how in the process of learning, when engaging with a variety of daily activities, pre-service teachers continuously negotiate different aspects of their personal and professional lives. In an ongoing narrative process of becoming, this negotiation goes beyond the development of knowledge, the evolution of beliefs, and the accumulation of experiences, and it revolves around sustaining a coherent general sense of self which is not limited to professional and performative spheres but encompasses individuals as a whole. In other words, in the process of teacher self-efficacy development teachers consider not only what they do and what they experience (through enactment, and through social and vicarious experiences) but also who they are. This means that teacher self-efficacy appraisal is much more closely connected to the development of teacher professional identity than has been previously acknowledged.

How did you do the study?

This is a study of five pre-service secondary mathematics teachers in England during their initial teacher education. Contrary to the majority of research on teacher self-efficacy, this study took a phenomenological approach and focused on teachers’ meaning-making of their experiences during their professional journey.

With a goal of developing theory, over the course of the whole study I engaged in an ongoing analysis of empirical data (from teachers’ written weekly reflections, weekly planning documents, lesson observations and semi-structured interviews) and examined the communication of these data with posits of theory related to teacher self-efficacy and other concepts such as affective states, motivation, goal-oriented action, teacher identity and agency. This analysis led to exploring avenues which were not previously discussed in the context of teacher self-efficacy.

What are the implications of your study?

The results of the study have important implications for the field of teacher education which, as I suggest, must accept the dynamic, narrative nature of identity and teacher self-efficacy, and which must allow teachers to fully embrace the highly individual process of their development. This study also emphasises that the process of ‘becoming a teacher’ continues throughout teachers’ career. This means that professional development initiatives must conceptualise teacher change in terms of a process of continuous individual growth as opposed to an event. Becoming a competent and confident teacher is a continuous process, during which what teachers are expected to do needs to become a part of who they are—a part of their ongoing narrative.

Another related implication of the study revolves around mathematics teacher knowledge which is frequently discussed in mathematics education research. It is commonly assumed that mathematics teacher knowledge correlates directly with teacher self-efficacy and teacher actions (i.e., teachers with good subject content and pedagogical knowledge are expected to have confidence in their ability to teach the subject). This idea has driven many teacher education agendas to date—agendas whose predominant goal is teacher knowledge enhancement. Yet, in line with the theory, my study emphasises that strong subject knowledge, although undeniably necessary, is not sufficient for confident acting in the classroom. In other words, teacher subject content and pedagogical knowledge do not protect teachers from experiencing doubts and difficulties. Instead, this study illustrates that what appeared to be playing a more direct role in teacher self-efficacy appraisal were teacher personal journeys and profiles, which affected the way different individuals navigated their different experiences throughout the year. For example, while in the process of their teacher self-efficacy appraisal the more confident and outgoing participants of the study tended to draw predominantly on enactive mastery experiences and their success, the more shy individual relied more heavily on social experiences of reassurance and validation. The latter was also true for the teacher who suddenly found herself in an emotionally difficult personal circumstance.

Consequently, what I advocate in this study is a rejection of the idea of a direct correlation between teacher knowledge and TSE, and I support the move in teacher professional learning and development agendas beyond knowledge enhancement. Although further research in this area is still in need of development, what I advocate is that teacher self-efficacy appraisal is a complex and highly individual process, affected by a myriad of personal experiences and factors, and closely related to the individual’s identity evolution.

Information in Swedish:

Disputation - Gosia Marschall