On Professional & Existential Confidence

Last week, I watched the live broadcast of part of a very interesting IATEFL 2014 forum on Investigating new knowledge constructs in teacher education. In its initial fifteen minutes or so, professor Donald Freeman from the University of Michigan provided a concise overview of their take on how to rise up to the challenge of supporting teacher development all around the globe. He began by stating that in supporting teacher development they were primarily concerned with impacting the broadest number of people as possible by making learning opportunities accessible especially to those professionals who found themselves removed from the mainstream academic environments. In other words, they were considering public sector professionals in less privileged areas of the globe. He expressed their concern with equity, in that their project’s ultimate goal was to make it possible for the most people to benefit from learning. In his outline of how teacher development and quality of schools have been approached by researchers and scholars in the field of ELT/ELL, professor Freeman described the widely accepted and adopted line of thinking that to improve the quality of teaching, one needs to be able to improve teacher knowledge.

Therefore, we have operated under the assumption that quality depends on what a teacher knows, and that lack of knowledge, linguistic and/or methodological (to name a few), equals lack of quality. Put simply, we are trying to address deficits by focusing on what teachers don’t know and can’t do. That is the major assumption driving most major teacher training/education approaches and curricula to date. When the efforts to improve teacher quality fail to yield the desired results in terms of teacher performance, that is, if learning is clearly ensuing from the teaching practices adopted, we tend to resort to either one or both of the following explanations: the first being teacher resistance, in that the teacher is unwilling to change fixed mindsets, fighting new ideas and new ways of doing things for whatever reasons, professional or personal (or both). The second represents the standard deficit view, according to which the teacher is just deficient in certain aspects of the craft, that the teacher simply didn’t learn those things well enough in the past.

Professor Freeman then proceeds to argue that it just might be that we are not thinking about the problem of teacher quality in a productive way by adopting the widespread, mainstream view of deficit. He makes a point of saying that we commonly understand that when it comes to knowledge, it’s an ‘either – or’ phenomenon, that is, a teacher either knows something, or s/he doesn’t. That sounds very logical and all, but the trouble is that it doesn’t contribute to effectively addressing the issue at hand. In Freeman’s words, “the way we have addressed that problem has actually gotten in the way of trying to solve it.” So how does he propose we attack the problem? He sets off to explain three core costructs whose interconnectedness and mutual dynamics might offer a new way of approaching the problem of teacher quality.

The first construct is the idea of familiarity. That it is possible and desirable that the teacher work from what s/he knows to build what s/he doesn’t know, which is basically the application of Vygotsky’s ZPD concept, in that the teacher will start off of his/her comfort zone towards his anxiety zone, with learning happening in that movement. Teachers needs to, nonetheless, recognize the gaps in their knowledge themselves, rather than being told what their gaps are, which will therefore spark off the idea of agency, of momentum, of the teachers’ engaging in movement in their own growth and development.  The key to that movement is not giving people new ways to do things, but helping people think about their work in different ways, which Freeman calls ‘knowing things and believing in things in a different way’. At this point of his talk, I couldn’t help but think about the nature of innovation as being the search for new connections between pre-existing ideas and concepts. That innovation does not lie exclusively in coming up with novel ideas as much as it lies in establishing new relational patterns among familiar things.

quotation1There’s a popular notion that innovation arrives like a bolt out of the blue, as a radical departure from previous knowledge—when really, most new ideas are extensions, twists, variations on what’s come before. The skill of generating innovations is largely the skill of putting old things together in a new way, or looking at a familiar idea from a novel perspective, or using what we know already to understand something new. ~ Annie Murphy Paul

When articulated, the two constructs of familiarity and agency result in the third construct – professional confidence. Freeman explains professional confidence in terms of teaching effectiveness in the classroom via an awareness of, as well as a boost in the teacher’s confidence about what they know and what they can do. From a deficit perspective, confidence was a byproduct of knowledge increase, whereas in this model, one sees the necessity of making confidence a central element to teaching. That’s the shift we need. How do we make confidence central in teaching? Professional confidence leverages the potential to take actions that will make a difference in students’ learning. Professional confidence is the quality of thinking that you can potentialize positive impact. Agency is the ability to get things done.

Watching this talk raised a few questions for me, such as how do we become more confident about what we already know? When it comes to teaching and doing our craft, is an improvement of quality single-handedly a matter of gaining more knowledge? Or is it a matter of gaining more self-confidence about the knowledge we already have? Those questions got me thinking about a post written by Dave Cormier on the subject of open project practices. Cormier starts off explaining the importance of giving yourself permission to be a contributing member in a community of learning.

quotation1I’m increasingly starting to realize that one of the biggest impediments to any project is that people don’t believe they have permission to do things. Questions like ‘what am i allowed to do” and “what does success look like” are good indicators that people are comfortable participating openly. If you are participating in an open project there is a subtle balance between the organizers and the participants in this regard. We need to make an effort to give people the structure and the room to participate, but, in the end, the participants need to take on the authority themselves. ~ Dave Cormier

Dave’s words resonated within, in the sense that so much of how we go about our lives, and how we hold ourselves in our professional, as well as personal connections and relationships may sometimes be from the standpoint of deficit. Our own deficits. It might have been that we were overexposed to situations in which we have felt undeserving in life, or it might just be a lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge. No matter what the origin of the issue is, if there’s something we must attain in life, both in the professional and personal levels, is the right value of our contributions to the world and to the people around us. It is not only about knowing things, but it’s also about believing that you know things, and that you have the drive to impact the world around you by bringing your uniqueness to the table.

knowing  <   using   >  believing

professional  <   agency   > confidence

Try letting go of the deficit view, and give yourself permission to build confidence instead.

This post was also inspired by the words and the beautiful voice of my friend Maha Bali on the semi-privileged. I strongly recommend the reading. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend.






  1. I really should read the link first but it came to me while reading your post that Vygotsky in his theory of Proximal Development is discussing being on the verge of a new discovery. Not ready to make an enormous leap into the unknown but so very close you likely will trip over it. A great leap could throw you into a region of confusion well beyond any resources you may have for knowing where you are or what to do there.

    There’s an example of this I need to find when it isn’t late for me. I’ll be back.

  2. Hi Scott

    The way I understand the ZPD is that it’s not so much about a new discovery, but about what a student can do in the company of those more accomplished than they are. So it’s about stuff I can almost do, but not quite, on my own, but can do with scaffolded help (and can then do on my own the next time). This isn’t leaps into the unknown, it’s more like climbing up a ladder whilst somebody is ensuring the ladder does not fall over.

    1. Scott and Sarah, yes, scaffolding is a critical element in the process. Having read your comment, I realize that my words might have made it sound like learning is conjured up in this ‘mystical’ void. Much to the contrary, actually. Learning will be constructed onto knowledge. I really like your ladder analogy. Will probably use that in the future. 😉 Rather than a leap into the unknown, I guess it could be probing into the unknown holding someone´s hand as it gets darker.
      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, fellows!

  3. Lovely post Clarissa, and I agree that framework for teacher professional development looks appropriate. I began to wonder about curriculum development across the globe (as that will have a big impact on teacher practices). OERs with flexible licensing arrangements might be more useful than MOOCs as contributions to locally owned curricula.

    1. Frances, I take it that OERs means open educational resources, right? How can those be more useful than MOOCs exactly? I am very curious to know more about that. 🙂

    2. @Clarissa, If someone or a group of people wanted to construct an appropriate local curriculum (as opposed to importing a curriculum via a MOOC from a different cultural and educational context) then I think that OERs (that could be reused and adapted) could be more useful than MOOCs. For example, a case study could be reappropriated for a local context, giving it more meaning for learners. I am sure it is no coincidence that much of the material in commercially hosted MOOCs is not openly licensed. It’s ironic to me that the OER movement has gained more traction with research publications than with other educational materials.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I had two associations coming up in my head during the reading of your post.

    I remembered a sentence from the MOOC Aboriginal Cultures and Education (2013).
    The sentence was “when the learner isn’t ready, there’s no place for the teacher”.
    We are so busy “pushing” our students. Luring them with games and new educational theories into learning.
    Yet in old aboriginal education (the MOOC was on First Nations in Canada), there was much more emphasis on the learner having to display a craving for learning, and the learner being alowed to make mistakes.
    This abstaining way of teaching does have it’s problems when teens start to experiment, which can lead to serious problems like drug-abuse, drinking, car-crashes etc. But that’s all in the game.

    I sensed a certain “urge to” in the post. Like there’s so much we must … we have to …
    That could be my personal projection, no offence meant what so ever.
    But it made me think of a kind of Buddistic approach, re-thinking all “we have to”, all “we must”.
    It’s often the (illusion of) the “self” which drives us to all this more/more, better/better.
    Maybe we don’t have to do so much, maybe less is just as good. Maybe enough is enough.

    Just some thoughts I wanted to share with you.

  5. Sarah, agree that Vygotsky thought in terms of those more accomplished leading others to higher levels of understanding but I wonder if the single “expert” could be replaced by a curious group or a single person wandering among the wonders on the web? The example I have (will put it on Diigo) involved a design teacher showing his first-year students some very accomplished works. Their response is discouragement as it seems they have already taken on the identity of designers (gone beyond “just” being students) and the pieces they are viewing are understood by them to be a long way from their current skills.

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this as my personal experience in school was to slip myself between the careless student and the person who considered himself an already practicing human insulted by the seeming condescension of being lead like a child. Of course I was no more certain then than now, (which might be a defect in my certainty gene?) and fell into a kind of magpie-like wanderer that would be hopeless to scaffold for.

    How this relates to teaching is in the notion that we can take people close to discovery but can we / should we assume they have seen what we want them too? Can we set children in a certain direction and know if we keep clearing brush from the path they will stay on it? My sense is our brains are more opportunistic and prone to distraction. We are not herd animals and “group” differently and it might be better for a teacher on the scaffolding journey to ask occasionally what students are actually seeing than to assume they see only the next rung in the ladder.

    Will have to read Vygotsky again. It’s fine that he’s explained the intricacies of writing an IKEA assembly sheet but what if there are other paths? Other ways to understand? Things seen that weren’t planned for? Have to agree with Annie Murphy Paul that things “innovative” are close by and previously unnoticed. As a kid me and my friends would go to the junk yard and try to identify things. Those that we couldn’t explain were taken to be from outer space where “people” had different bodies and hobbies to explain the unknown objects. We didn’t know these things and had to construct a world where they “belonged.” We knew this was an imaginary state but it seemed solid and more reliable than what our teachers conjured up as already “proven”, named and figured out.

    1. Hi Scott

      I think a group of learners will be preferable to one “expert”. Are you familiar with Aronson’s Jigsaw Classroom? I use varieties of that a lot when I teach. Students like it and do better (imo sort of anecdotal experience). My first years still get a lot of scaffolding, but my 4th year they run off in directions we can’t predict (was talking about this earlier with my co-teacher Steve).

      Clarissa – the ladder is a metaphor in Wittgenstein that I love:

      My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

      He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly”. Wittgenstein Tractatus

  6. Sarah, I’ve looked at the Jigsaw Classroom briefly and will get back to it. Imagination matters and I recall school as a constant reminder that the world was as dull as dishwater. To me, that seemed so wrong, especially when it was repeated over, and over, and over.

    I remember in anthropology seeing these crazy people from somewhere who built scaffolds from poles tied with twine. Very rickety and unreliable looking. The idea was climb up to the top, tie a vine to the tower and your ankle and jump off. The closer you came to stopping just before the ground, the cooler you were. As an interpretation of Vygotsky it might suit some people.

  7. Hi Clarissa,
    I love how thinking paths seem to collide, just when needed. I have been swirling the word agency around in my head over the last month or so, as I tried to identify what creates a learner (adult or child). When I observed both teachers and students who were in a learner stance they all seemed to have a high level of agency. They were not passive (waiting to be taught or assessed), they have somehow become empowered to take ownership of their learning as something unique and part of themselves (as opposed to something done to them). The “given permission” part also rings true, as it seems these activated learners felt freed up from tasks that others felt burdened and trapped by. I imagined those who did not feel they “had permission” as having a metaphoric “ball and chain” that kept them from owning the learning. The ball and chain of marking, the ball and chain of administrivia, the ball and chain of a high stakes exams. Over time can, the ball and chain got heavier and pulled the person away from their learning. With this separation confidence is stripped (as intuition, passion, sense of self is lost).
    So I wondered (am wondering) what can cut these chains? How do we give permission to let some of the ball and chains go? How can we give/find permission to accept we have the expertise, ideas, knowledge within our own buildings, the pieces of knowledge and idea just have to be set free to mix and combine with other idea pieces in the building? As you said “Or is it a matter of gaining more self-confidence about the knowledge we already have?”

    I have been reflecting that we expect professional learning (learning that applies to our teaching practice) to be like quick acting cold medication; if learning occurred the symptoms should be cured quickly and effectively. Whereas in reality, learning often times disrupts the status quo and does not necessarily create a cure, but create more problems.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking just where and when it needed a nudge! Enjoy learning with you 🙂

    1. Carol, how amazing that our thinking paths seem to ‘cross’. I regard you as ‘white rabbit’ whom I followed down the rabbit hole that led me to find rhizo14 wonderland. So, up you pop again with these instigating thoughts you just shared…
      Yes, agency. A concept I’ve been mulling over for some time, and one that seems to be quite a buzzword right now among educators. Self-efficacy, learner autonomy, etc, all seem to converge to that sense of ownership of learning, and the enpowerment that ensues from that.
      Now, that question of yours… wow. I’ll venture into it, if I may. The ball-and-chain metaphor, I relate to that. I feel as if I’d lived with that weight anchoring me down all my life, up until my experience in rhizo14. I wrote about that, and I remember you read it, for you left a lovely comment there. Yes, I’d been robbed of a great deal of my confidence, and so much of it in the terms you mentioned here. My learning experiences had been robotic, externally driven by expectations and threats of defeat in life. I am still wondering what enabled me to not only cut those chains but also become aware of their very existence and weight in the first place… and how they’d been stifling my voice. And let me share this bit with you. I was at a turning point in my life, personal and professional, where I found myself throwing all of the elements that had been coordinated together into shaping my life as it was before way up in the air, and just playing it by ear, allowing those things to fall wherever they have to or should. They’re still falling, others have flown away (I don’t know where).
      I guess this is the best I can do, for now, in trying to identify what was it exactly that set me free. I’ll certainly be reflecting on that for a good long while. And I’m grateful for that.
      Thanks again for the inspiration. One thing is certain – I’ll be following ‘rabbit’ many other times, you bet.
      Best & warmest,

  8. @Clarissa
    Your last response to Carolyn’s post made me think what did set me free as a student (way back in time)?

    In my case it was the lack of expectations (coincidently)

    In my highschool time I was expected to do well, there was no freedom what so ever, I did my thing and graduated.
    Then I was expected to become a medical doctor. Don’t ask me why, it was just the case that some how my mother had it in her mind that I was to become a doctor.
    But due to the lotery system we then had, I couldn’t start my university study for medicine for 3 years. In those three years I studied psychology.
    There was no pressure, no expectations, because remember ‘I was to become a doctor’.

    In those three years I studied well. I did my exams. I loved my subjects, loved the professors, learned a thillion things. I graduated as a BSc.

    Then, after three years I got the opportunity to start at a medical school.
    I moved to another city and started.
    I passed all exams, but never did I have the same enthousiasm as I felt in my psychology time.
    After three years in med school, I was sure I wasn’t going to be a med doctor, but due to financial reasons I had to go on in med. school.
    I managed those last 2 years by absolutely minimizing my med school study and work next to my study as a volunteer working with fysically handicapped people.

    After passing my MSc in medicine, I got at another turning point in my life. Would I go on as a doctor? Or what else?

    I decided then to switch to Information Sciences at another university. There I re-found my passion for learning. I really liked the subjects, lectures, practicals. Super!

    So, summarizing, the lack of high set expectations of others, gave me as a young man the space to discover what interested me, to pick my own subjects etc. It made me a happy student. But I never became a practicing psychologist or a doctor.
    Is this a success story or a story of searching and failing?
    It depends on whether you’re looking at the end result or at the path IMHO.

    By the way, I now work as an educationalist senior advisor in a medical school. So all my studies come in handy after all. 🙂

    1. Ronald, lovely to read about your educational meanderings in life. 🙂
      What seemed to come to the fore as I read your account of your educational path was intensity of external expectations. Once those faded away as to virtually cease to exert any kind of power over the individual, it appears that some sort of magic stepped into the picture. I am reminded of the time I spent as an exchange student in the U.S., and how fascinated I was that, being a senior in an american high school meant I could take subjects like Cultural Anthropology, a subject that is not part of our high school curriculum down here. Before going to America, I’d made up my mind to become an architect, though that might have been my somewhat artistic gene kicking in. Anyway, my Anthropology high school teacher, Ms. Jane Jackson, turned my world upside down, inside out… that was the first contact with it and I loved what it did to me (not to mention that I met some very cool american teens in that class, some of whom I still keep in touch with). It threw me out of perspective, and I was just 17 at the time.
      I went on to get a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, but aside from a couple of adventures I had professionally in the field, I never did work as an Anthropologist. Problem was that, previous to even getting into university, I’d become an English teacher. I remember the huge divide inside me when, in the middle of my Social Sciences studies, I decided I needed to graduate in Languages – English because of my job. That was a messy period of my life.
      So, yeah, I guess there’s something to do with living up to expectations…
      And, yes, although I´m not a “practicing” Anthropologist, I truly feel that it has also made me into who I am today.
      Thank you so much for sharing, Ronald!

  9. Watching part of the linked video and reading Ronald’s comments had me thinking of the teachers I’ve worked with in the last few years. My sense my sense of their lassitude is simply of burnout or fatigue. The ball and chain of a subject matter no longer of interest and a professional image of competence in something they know too well to ever be surprised by it again.

    Why do we need subject matter experts in teaching? It’s not the subject but the delivery that leads students to approach learning. It’s a game of concepts and connections that cross subjects in a dynamic way that’s alive and lures people to engage themselves in discovery. To put responsibility on one person known as a “teacher” to carry a subject in a persuasive manner for years and years is absurd. Far better to teach excitement in learning regardless of the subject. And people do tire of things:-( As long as we see that as a defect in the person, the more often we will be working with exhausted colleagues.

    I’m not sure I endorse the notion of doing what you love as a life strategy because things do come along that are AWFULLY tempting that you hadn’t thought of before. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/02/27/purpose-work-love/

  10. Some things I forgot to leave here:
    This in particular applies to growing children:-)
    “Human persons are proactively—not responsively—emergent realities. Persons are not subsequent products of purely physical processes, the final outcomes of a temporal series of events governed by other agents at the end of which persons emerge. To the contrary, ontologically, personhood adheres in the human from the start—even if in only the most nascent, densely compacted form possible—acting as the causal agent of its own development. This is part of what makes personhood what it is—namely, comprising a self-subsistent, self-governing center of being, direction, and purpose. This is also where the human agency comes from that good sociological thinking rightly works to acknowledge and theorize. This too is why people are never the mere passive consequences or products of social forces—whether as cultural dopes, network nodes, identity constructions, or anything else—however powerful social forces are. This very proactive, not responsive, nature of personal emergence makes personhood not a possible, optional, high-end addition or accessory in human existence but rather fundamental and ineradicable in and for the human being itself.
    “What is a Person?” Christian Smith. University of Chicago Press, 2010

    And This:
    Vanuatu Land Divers – Naghol / N’Gol

    1. @Scott. I agree. In anthropological medicine this was summarized in saying the the human is a “subject that gives meaning to her/his life” as opposed to an “object” that’s more a result of reacting to stimuli and circumstances.

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