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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Secret Spice

The Secret Spice

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            Over the past 20 years, I have been looking for the Secret Spice that fosters heightened academic achievement in students.

I have shopped in many places, launching my career with Instructional Theory Into Practice (ITIP), then Teacher Expectations & Student Achievement (TESA).  A number of years later, I utilized the International Center for Leadership in Education’s Quadrant D Instruction, as well as the 8-Step Process Integrated Systems Model.  I even familiarized myself with Marzano’s Effective Instructional Strategies.  Thinking back, I probably have studied around 10 to 20 other models; not one of them, on balance, is bad for kids.

            What I have not yet found is the Secret Spice, at least in so far as there is a blanket Secret Spice that enhances learning. 

More recently, in exploring research options with a trusted colleague who shares my scholarship interests, I continued to fine-tune what I have believed for some time to be a “footprint” of this very Secret Spice.  It involves self-efficacy (N. Regier, personal communication, October 18, 2012). 

Self-efficacy’s influence on education is not a new concept. Pajares (1996) noted after careful review of numerous research studies, “Although much remains to be done, the empirical connection between self-efficacy and academic performance and achievement has by now been reasonably secured” (p. 563).  Later, Multon, Brown, & Lent (1991) found with a review of over 30 studies that efficacy beliefs accounted for around 14% of the variance in school performance of students.

The Secret Spice related to self-efficacy is, in actuality, context-dependent, which is probably no surprise to any of us.  Intriguingly, however …  each context-dependent footprint related to self-efficacy – no matter the size, shape, or depth – seems to have similar patterns of treadwear. 

This treadwear presents itself as measurable. 

It is comprised of the qualities of Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence, whether these are found in adults or children (Karpman, 2010; Next Element Consulting, LLC, 2010).  “[Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence] exist as a cycle, or core point of balance, within each person … [they] are skill sets, social emotional competencies, and approaches to life that both coincide with our natural character strengths and can be developed” (Next Element Consulting, LLC, 2012).

If we accept that Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence on any given task or challenge represent, or even help to build the self-efficacy critical for heightened achievement, we can better unearth examples of how the Secret Spice may work to enhance learning.

In one context, the Secret Spice could very well be one’s love of content.  Some children just LOVE math, and I’ll bet that their resultant levels of Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence in math would be measurably higher than those who do not.  These characteristics would represent and even enhance Self-Efficacy, the belief that one could attain success through hard work and effort.
Another example of the Secret Spice could be the relationship that students experience through the time and attention of a caring adult.  Some children do not have positive role models at home.  I’ll bet that when those students are in the classrooms of those whom they believe care about them; these children are in turn more Open, Resourceful, and Persistent.  The resultant, positive effect on Self-Efficacy would generate “that belief,” as discussed above.

            Where am I going with this? 

            In the last few years, we in education have been putting time, talent, and treasure into measuring EVERYTHING BUT -- everything BUT unearthing and measuring the Secret Spice.  We have been too busy with programs and standardization of instruction and assessment instead.

How often have we included on our faculty meeting agendas an activity where we take a list of student names and brainstorm how we could enhance Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence – INDIVIDUALLY – for each of them?  Frankly, we’re probably under so much pressure to target and measure other things, that we have not had time.   

Wouldn’t it be exciting to try-out a new leadership or teaching strategy and measure whether or not it resulted in more Openness, Resourcefulness, or Persistence in those who are affected by it?  Going beyond … wouldn’t it be interesting to correlate these levels with academic achievement outcomes?
And … wouldn’t it be unique to do this in specific contexts, such as, “What effect does my instructional leadership 'in X setting' have on teachers’ abilities to be Open, Resourceful, and Persistent in co-teaching?” or “What effect does thematic instruction have on students’ abilities to be Open, Resourceful, and Persistent in algebra?”

            Currently, we measure whether students score well. 

We measure the result of a process far removed from the footprints of the Secret Spice that allow children or their teachers the capacities to become more efficacious in their learning in the first place.  At the same time, we experience increased difficulty meeting the needs of at-risk youth who are not achieving, while minimizing the potential impact of Bandura’s point made 15 years ago that a low sense of efficacy in the cognitive domain works against positive peer relations; it also brings about socially alienating, aggressive and transgressive behavior (1997).

I guess I’m making a new case for clinically astute, educational action research as something that may better inform the policy decisions of those well intentioned in ensuring student achievement.

            Why not let it start on your end with a list of students and a conversation in a faculty meeting on what each needs to develop Openness, Resourcefulness, and Persistence.  As a leadership team, you might do the same for your faculty and staff. 

Look for the footprints.  Sharper measurements for smarter schools are within our reach. 


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control.  New York, NY: W. Hl Freeman and Company.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2). 191-215.

Karpman, S. (2010). The Redecision Triangle. Retrieved from

Multon, K. D., Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (1991). Relation of self-efficacy beliefs to academic outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 30-38.

Next Element Consulting, LLC. (2012). NEOS® user certification manual. Newton, KS: Next Element Consulting, LLC.

Next Element Consulting, LLC. (2010). NEOS: The first context sensitive outcomes system. (2010).  Newton, KS: Next Element Consulting, LLC.  Retrieved from

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings.  Review of Educational Research, 66(4). 543-578.


Dr. Ryan Donlan hopes to partner with practitioners in researching the effectiveness of their efforts in school wellness and school reimagination.  If you would like to explore opportunities to measure the results of what you are doing with respect to the openness, resourcefulness, or persistence of those you are doing it with, please don’t hesitate to contact him at or (812) 23708624.


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