Counselling for Teachers, Pt.3 - Locus of Evaluation

So far we’ve tried to keep our Counselling for Teachers series as jargon-free as possible. We're trying to make these posts a practical guide that teachers will actually use, and we don't want to scare anyone off with technical terms. However, today we’re introducing a piece of jargon you’ve probably not come across before, which we think is useful in understanding ourselves and others: locus of evaluation.

Put simply, your locus of evaluation is where you go for judgements about good and bad, right and wrong. It comes in two flavours: internal and external. If you’ve got an internal locus of evaluation, you judge the world and yourself based on something inside you; gut instinct, emotional response, or personal beliefs. For example, this teacher has an internal locus of evaluation:

“At the end of the lesson I sat down for a few moments. I knew I had to get ready for maths after break, and there were still the literacy books to collect in, but I wanted a moment out to enjoy how well the lesson had gone - I had butterflies! I know it wouldn’t be an ‘outstanding’ lesson if a stranger with a clipboard walked in, but anyone who knew what this class is normally like, and how big a step it was for them to complete that piece of work independently, well, they’d be pleased too. That is, if they knew how important it is for children to make their own discoveries instead of having things handed to them on a plate. Just the look on Mateusz’s face when he got it done! The pride I felt then!

You can see how this teacher judges their lesson based on how they feel about it, what they have perceived, and what they believe to be valuable. They are aware of other ways of evaluating (the stranger walking in with a clipboard) but are untroubled by this, weighing their own responses as more important.

If, on the other hand, your locus of evaluation is external, you need someone or something outside of you to tell you what’s what. For example, when asked whether their lesson had gone well, this trainee teacher responded:

“I’m not sure, really. They seemed to enjoy it so that’s a bonus, but I don’t know if that’s really relevant - I know it's more about learning objectives than enjoyment. I’d have to wait until I’ve levelled their writing before I could tell you, and that’d need to be moderated because I’ve not done much of that yet. I mean, if I were to grade it I’d say that it was Good with some Requires Improvements, I think. But I know my tutor wouldn’t agree – she’d say it needed less teacher talk but she says I'm better than I think I am. You’re better off asking my TA; she can see a lot more of what goes on than I can.”

Where the first teacher judged themselves by their own standards, the second was unable or unwilling to do this. They didn't trust their own perception, instead deferring to the authority of others.

So which is best - internal or external?

Carl Rogers, godfather of modern counselling (who popularised the phrases internal and external locus of evaluation) was pretty definite on this: life is better if you can find your values inside rather than outside of yourself. In fact, he thought that all human unhappiness was caused by our fighting against or disowning our own perceptions and judging ourselves by the standards of others.

Of course, nothing is this simple. We none of us have exclusively internal or external locuses of evaluation. For example, as a teacher I was very comfortable to be my own judge when it came to establishing relationships with students, but I needed a lot of reassurance and feedback when it came to my management of colleagues. 

And anyway, it's not clear to me that an internal locus is always best. While the trainee teacher is probably being too hard on themselves by not trusting their own judgement at all, it would be calamitous if they completely ignored other, more experienced colleagues. 

In fact, that goes for all teachers: we need to be open to the judgements and expectations of others - not run by them, but open to hearing and considering them. While we might admire the first teacher’s confidence in their internal locus of evaluation, we may also worry that they’re so sure of themselves that they will not be open to change or input from others.

How does the locus of evaluation help us to understand ourselves, then?

In our experience, a purely internal locus of evaluation is not practical in school: the life of a teacher is necessarily a mixture of internal and external locuses of evaluation (between things we judge for ourselves, and times when we are being judged by others). What does seem to be true is that we need a good balance of internal and external judgements. We all need to be able to listen to ourselves and others. But this is not as easy as it seems. We've put together some reflective questions to ask yourself, so that you can identify where your locus of evaluation typically lies, and how you feel about this:

  • Which parts of my role am I most confident to say "I know how well I do this" about? Why?
  • Which parts of my role do I need feedback to understand? Why can’t I do without? Am I alright with this?
  • Who gets to decide, in my school, what counts as ‘good’, ‘acceptable’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? How do I feel about this?
  • When do I feel most judged? What do I do about this?
  • How welcome are my beliefs and emotions within the school? When do I get to express them? Which aren’t I allowed to express?
  • How do I deal with praise? How about criticism? How do I feel judging others, either positively or negatively?
  • What happens when two judges conflict (e.g. ‘school vs family’, ‘personal beliefs vs school’s beliefs’)? Who wins out? How do I feel about this?
  • How often am I really myself in school? How often do I want to be? What needs to change for this to happen?

Being able to notice when you’re operating from an internal or external locus of evaluation gives you a better sense of why you're acting the way you are. It also puts you in a better position to be able to make any changes that need to be made. If, for example, you feel unable to 'be yourself' in school, finding moments when you can be the judge can give you a greater sense of ownership and authenticity. 

If, on the other hand, you feel that you have too much responsibility and ownership, leaving you isolated without guidance or reassurance, then asking for feedback or inviting contributions from others can provide a greater sense of community and belonging.

What about the children?

Locuses of evaluation can be a useful way to think about children too. In Rogers’ view, babies are born with an internal locus of evaluation: they know nothing of anyone else’s judgements, and just listen to what their bodies are saying, communicating this through smiling or crying. As they grow up they learn adults’ rules and come to internalise the idea that someone external gets to tell them what’s what.

By the time they get to school, children are already caught between listening to their own feelings and the values of others. In some ways this is not so different from a teacher’s experience in school: like teachers, children are working within a hierarchy that judges them, but, like teachers, they also have their own feelings and beliefs. They have to negotiate a path between the school’s values and their own. Understanding this can help us to understand children’s behaviours: there will be those who are used to deferring to parental judges and so baffled when you ask them to assess their own work, and others who are used to being deferred to, and so unable to take external feedback seriously.

A child's locus of evaluation can also indicate underlying confidence and self-belief, as children with low self-esteem will more often defer to the opinions of their peers or elders, while confident children will quietly assert their right to their own judgements.

It may also be worth considering how your school and classroom encourages children to develop an internal or external locus of evaluation. The recent emphasis on 'growth mindsets' fits in very neatly with an internal locus of evaluation, while the culture of testing and accountability is more conducive to an external locus of evaluation. Which do you think is more important for children to develop? How can you help this to happen?

Some other questions for reflection might be:

  • Which of your students is able to express a judgement without checking in with others first?
  • Which will never put their hand up to volunteer an answer?
  • How much of their typical day do students get to judge themselves rather than being judged? How do I support them to do this?
  • How responsive are they to praise? Who is unable to accept praise? Who is unwilling to work without it? Why is this?
  • Which child was I like when I was their age? How much has my locus of evaluation changed since then?

For previous parts in the Counselling for Teachers series:

Part 2: Hot Cross Buns

Part 1: Basic Skills