I’ve worked on a few teacher development projects recently where one of the objectives has been to boost teachers’ confidence, both as speakers and teachers of English. For example, on the EfECT project in Myanmar, participants’ confidence in their English and teaching skills was assessed at the start, mid-point and end of the project, and one hoped-for outcome was that improvements in self-rated confidence would be higher at end-project than at baseline (it wasn’t always – more on this below). When improved confidence is seen as a desirable outcome of teacher development work, this implies that confidence – our beliefs about our own capabilities – is a component of, or at least contributes in some way to, teacher competence. Confidence (often discussed under the heading of self-efficacy) is believed to influence how much effort we are willing to invest in an activity, but the relationship between confidence and performance, though, is not straightforward.
In fact, it has been argued that confidence is often inversely related to competence, as the interesting selection of quotations here attest. Some research on teaching, too, has shown that teachers may be confident in their ability even though observations of their work suggest this is unwarranted. This raises interesting issues in the context of teacher development: we want teachers to be confident, but it is essential that this is moderated by a healthy level of self-awareness so that teachers’ beliefs about their competence are realistic. While high levels of confidence may mean that teachers are more willing to engage with new practices in the classroom, longer-term professional growth is more likely when teachers’ assessments of their capabilities are grounded in reality. This suggests that attempts to develop teacher confidence need to include opportunities for teachers to reflect on evidence of the effectiveness of their work. This evidence can be generated through teachers’ own reflective practices and/or facilitated externally, for example, with the help of a mentor.
As I said above, the relationship between confidence and competence is not straightforward. A finding that has emerged from some recent studies (for example, the EfECT paper and Coburn 2016) is that the development of teacher confidence during professional development may follow a U-shape: levels of confidence may initially be (unrealistically) high, but as teachers become more knowledgeable, more aware of their current competence and of how much they can still learn, confidence may actually decrease. In other words, professional development may, at least initially, lead to lower teacher confidence.
It does depend, too, of course, on how confidence is being measured. Likert-scale questionnaire items are commonly used (see Borg & Edmett, 2018) and, because these are not grounded in immediate concrete experience, such measures are more susceptible to being unrealistically high (particularly if respondents are not comfortable admitting limited competence). Measures of teacher confidence that reflect real recent experience in the classroom and which are informed by evidence are more likely to be realistic. I still remember how over 20 years ago I was new to a school and was unexpectedly asked to teach a lesson in a language laboratory. I had never used the equipment and the lesson was a disaster. If I’d been asked to rate my competence in using language labs after that lesson my assessment – informed by immediate experience, evidence and awareness – would have been realistically low. This story reminds us too that confidence will vary across specific areas of teaching and attempts to assess it should be targeted rather than general. For example, in another recent project in Azerbaijan, teacher confidence was examined specifically in relation to the teaching of speaking.
Confidence (not simply in terms of how we appear to others but more fundamentally in what we believe about ourselves) is undeniably desirable. Confidence in itself, though, does not equate to competence. For professional development, teachers (and teacher educators) need opportunities to develop realistic assessments of their own competence which can then provide a springboard for targeted growth and a more informed assessment of their abilities.
Some key questions for us to consider then are:
What aspects of our work are we most/least confident in? What are our judgements about our own competence based on? What can we do to ensure these judgements are grounded in evidence?