I write this blog post on Easter Sunday. A time for renewal, for new beginnings. It is true that in many parts of the world this is the period, after New Year’s eve, that most makes reference to starting anew. I, for one, particularly like this metaphor. Whatever your beliefs, your religion, or lack thereof, I’m sure some of this tradition affects you. Egg hunting, exchanging chocolate eggs, getting dressed up or painted as a bunny are some of the sweetest memories I have. But, most importantly, spending time with my family in our house.
A young woman who now sits in the Brazilian Congress as one of the youngest congresswomen of our History may have a different perspective of this holiday. You see, even though I have lived many Easter celebrations with my family and I understood the symbology, I never really thought of it as a chance to rethink my life and grow. I was a lucky kid with loving parents who had the means to raise me and was brought up in a high middle-class household, having attended private schools, for the better part of my childhood and adolescence. Life wasn’t that hard at all. That was not the case for Tábata Amaral.
She was born in a poverty-stricken area of São Paulo, where she spent her entire childhood, and attended public schools. Her family never had the chance or conditions to pay for her education as her father worked as a bus assistant (fare collector) and her mother was a housemaid. That didn’t stop her, however, from winning a maths olympiad (second place) and going to international maths, chemistry, astrophysics and astronomy olympiads. Her efforts gave her a scholarship to attend a private school when she was 13, and, quite impressively, 5 years later she received a scholarship to attend Harvard University. She even got a scholarship to study English in a Brazilian school.
Tabata’s story gets even more impressive when we learn that she lost her father to drugs before he could witness her daughter graduate from Harvard with honors. She started as an astrophysics student and ended up graduating in political science. You can read more about her story here.
Maybe I’m wrong about Tabata’s feelings about Easter. I suppose I am, to be honest. Maybe she looks at it the same way I do: as a happy moment with her family. Maybe it was moments like this that she really treasured and kept her going. I have the feeling, though, that Tabata has always been a dedicated student and thoughtful daughter who allied two great tools to get where she is now: self-efficacy and opportunity. Why do I say that? Well, first allow me to introduce the concept of self-efficacy developed by Albert Bandura (see references at the end).
A self-efficacious person is someone who has the skills and beliefs to achieve what they need or want. Self-efficacy relates to being able to organize one’s time and resources, acquire knowledge and, consequently, accomplish what is asked. It’s a concept that can be applied in many different arenas of our lives. Tabata is an example of an academically self-efficacious person. Someone who not only studied hard but also got the grades needed to be successful and was acknowledged for her efforts. And all of that in a difficult setting, with a harsh background, where the statistics show that almost no one gets to achieve what she did.
Bandura argues that there are four sources of self-efficacy:
Enacted Mastery: the idea that individual experience (trying something out) will help us become more self-efficacious. Many students don’t thrive because they don’t even try. Example: being afraid of swimming and then trying to see that you can actually do it, thus, getting the confidence to keep going.
Vicarious Learning: observing others do something and realize that we can also do it. If they can, why can’t we? Example: feeling intimidated on your first day of class when the teacher asks something but noticing that the other students are contributing, which gives you the confidence to contribute as well
Verbal Persuasion: the idea that receiving encouragement orally or in writing from someone or even ourselves can give us the confidence to try a new task. It’s the famous scenario of looking in the mirror and saying: “You got this. You can do it”. Another example: being told before a presentation, for which you are really nervous, that you can do it by someone that you trust and that has done it before.
Arousal/ emotional state: It is the notion that not being able to do something might be related to the lack of excitement or based on the current mood or emotional state we are in. Some kids might be feeling sad, afraid, intimidated and not even try the task at hand. Example: suddenly feeling excited about painting, which was never your forte, because of the way it was presented to you by the teacher and wanting to learn it
The great news is that we can practice these sources. I have no doubt that along Tabata’s journey there were moments she thought of giving up. Her long-term vision, some mentors (her family and teachers) on her path, and the courage to take the opportunities that presented themselves to her got her this far. And now she is fighting for a good quality educational system in Brazil.
I’m not here saying that everyone can be like Tabata. I see a little bit of her in me but I confess she must’ve been much more self-efficacious than I’ll ever be. It may be because she had fewer opportunities and she knew that if she hadn’t taken them, she would’ve been conditioned to what our sad statistics show. Or maybe her parents and way of life have taught her to be determined, to have grit and a growth mindset. Or all of the above. What inspires me is that she is the living proof that when we prepare ourselves and an opportunity pops up, we can make change. Like what happened to me that brought me here to the UK as a Chevening scholar (you can read about it here)
So, based on Bandura’s sources of self-efficacy, here are a few tips to help your students (and yourself) to become more self-efficacious:
Talk about them. Metacognition is great and discussing Bandura’s theory is a great first step to make them realize that people have thought about these things, conducted experiments, and seen people change;
Create an environment that welcomes trial and error. Let students feel safe and confident to try things out and see that they can actually do them. If they struggle or can’t, it’s not the end of the world, they just need more practice;
Be positive but realistic. Encourage them constantly and tell them what they need to do to accomplish that task. Give them the tools. Give them specific feedback in a loving way (or firm but kind when needed); Apply some of the strategies to develop a Growth Mindset. You can read about them here.
Make a real-world connection. Show your students that what they are learning will be applicable in their lives. Whether they use it to get a job or a scholarship, make sure they see why what they’re learning is relevant;
Get them excited about what they’re learning. Raise their interest in the topic you’re teaching and, most importantly, get to know their emotional state, their struggles, and offer to listen to them and care about their problems. Develop their emotional intelligence. Check out this blog post;
All of these tips are great but perhaps something more effective that might do the trick would be sharing Tabata’s story with your students. Use the second source of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory (vicarious learning) and show your students that a poor girl from a poor neighborhood got a scholarship to go to Harvard and is now trying hard to transform Brazilian education. I believe in her and get inspired by her work. So, in this time of renewal, I simply wish I can join her efforts and be part of this much-needed endeavor of securing every Brazilian good quality education for generations to come.
I honestly believe that more self-efficacious kids, with more access to opportunities, will be leading the way and making things better in the future.
I’ll leave you with her inspirational speech at the One Young World forum and an invitation to use her as your source of inspiration for your new beginnings and those of your students’.
Bandura, A. (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122-147.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York:W. H. Freeman.
Bandura, A. (2000) Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3), 75-78