© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

On the Menu: The Growth of Self-Efficacy

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Everybody eats. But why do I eat the things that I do? Is it because somebody has placed the food in front of me, or advertised it on TV? Or do I have reasons—that I can voice and explain to another person—for what I choose to put on my plate?

helf-efficacy is a sense of empowerment, of being able to make a difference using what has been learned.1 It is a confident state of mind that says, “I can do it. I can contribute. I can decide. I can figure it out.” Ideally, teachers provide information and challenging exercises so that students can make intelligent decisions—like what food to purchase—on their own in the real world.

Our research addressed the question of whether lessons about cultural universals, like the need for nutrition, could promote self-efficacy in elementary students.2We designed three units of study (for the first or second grade), then collected data on teaching and learning with the use of student interviews, daily field notes, and parent questionnaires and interviews.3 We also interviewed the classroom teacher at the conclusion of each of the units.

Cultural universals are needs and activities that are basic elements of all human societies (for example, food, clothing, shelter, family, work, transportation, communication, government, and recreation). Cultural universals are a part of students’ everyday lives, making it likely that lessons will have application out of school. Cultural universals also tie in with social studies content standards (most often, in the lessons below, those of
1 Culture; 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; 7 Production, Distribution, and Consumption; and
8 Science, Technology, and Society).4

We selected content and designed instructional units with the use of four principles that we believe are associated with self-efficacy:


1. The content chosen should be emotionally and intellectually comfortable for the students, so as to provide good places to start. (All children have prior experience with cultural universals, so no student is disenfranchised because of cultural or socioeconomic background, or achievement level.)

2. The content should have potential for immediate application out of school.

3. Natural instructional opportunities should be set up as home assignments. Such assignments should support the transition in children from egocentrism to social engagement with family members and other children and adults.

4. The content and natural learning opportunities should develop students’ awareness of their geographical and cultural contexts.

These principles are applied in the units of study that follow. Each unit is based on a cultural universal: food, clothing, or shelter.



In the unit of study on food, students were to gain an understanding that (1) food has several functions that are universal across time and cultures; (2) the most nutritious foods appear toward the bottom of the food pyramid; (3) people all over the world eat foods from the basic food groups; however, these foods may look quite different based on how they are prepared; (4) foods can be shipped to any place in the world; however, transportation costs add to the price of any item; (5) people eat speciaoacute;foods for special occasions (reflecting their cultures and personal preferences); and (6) we make choices of what to eat on the basis of location, climate, seasonal availability, cost, nutritional value, and personal preferences and beliefs.

One first grade teacher introduced the unit with a partially completed bulletin board of pictures and a few questions about food. The students had just completed their snacks and were ready to talk about what they had eaten. The poster stimulated a host of new questions about foods. The teacher wrote down each question on a card, attached it to the bulletin board, and assured the class that all questions would be answered or at least discussed during the unit.

A food pyramid poster was provided, and students figured out where their snack belonged within that pyramid.5 The ingredients list and “Nutrition Facts” chart that are found on most any food packaged in the United States can make interesting read-aloud material. Many students were surprised when they realized their granola or fruit bar had a lot of sugar or fat in it (and thus fell into the “Eat LESS” category of the food pyramid). Some of the foods that students brought to school for snacks or lunch—and those selected in the lunchroom—began changing as students became more health- and nutrition-conscious. Students were overheard making suggestions to cafeteria personnel about menu changes, and some parents reported that evening snacks were dramatically modified.

&Mac253;uch of the content of this unit of study had immediate application out of school. Students soon began bringing artifacts from home (such as food pyramids and nutrition charts cut out from bread wrappers and cereal boxes) to display or discuss in class. Students were given home assignments to determine if their meals included items in proportion to those shown in the food pyramid—and if not, what they might do about it. Several students admitted that good foods were made available to them, but they often passed on the lettuce salad or the broccoli. Their decision making began to shift from “I want french fries for dinner” to “Our family needs potatoes and baked ones probably would be better.” Suddenly, first graders were having some “say” in the menus. One mother indicated that her child was very observant during her cooking, wanted to be a part of it, and chastised her about putting sugar in baked beans, indicating that sugar comes from the “Eat LESS” category.

&Mac253;tudents, through classroom instruction and home assignments, began to realize that considerations regarding what to eat should be based on nutrition, the amount of money available, and the time family members had available to shop, cook, eat, and clean«up. They learned that, even as first graders, they could become involved in decision making: they could choose a lot of their own food and sometimes even amend the menu!

&Mac253;tudents had daily home assignments that matched the unit’s goals, such as discussing favorite nutritious snacks with family members, making nutritious snacks, sharing snack recipes with classmates, and exploring food distribution and delivery (determining where food came from and what path it took from a location—often far away—to their table). Students learned from family members about special foods related to their cultural heritage. Home assignments were linked back to discussions in the classroom, which were conducted with an emphasis on reflection, making choices, the diversity of experience among class members, and the opportunities available in which they could use their new knowledge and skills.



In the unit of study on clothing, students were to gain an understanding that (1) throughout history, clothing has been used for protection, communication, decoration, and modesty; (2) culture, gender, climate, careers, style, and economics all influence the types of clothing that people wear; (3) many raw materials are used in making clothing; (4) the clothing industry provides opportunities for individuals to be creative and pursue careers; and (5) personal choices can be made about clothing style, type of fabric, color, price, and where to make a purchase.

The unit began with an inventory of what students were wearing and a discussion of why people choose the clothes they do (reasons such as protection, modesty, and fashion). Clothing is important, and even at six or seven, most students have definite ideas about what they prefer to wear—and have at least some say in choosing their daily outfit.

Students were eager to talk with their parents about the changes that had taken place since their parents were youngsters. Students were surprised to learn that many clothing choices available today were not present even twenty years ago (for example, twenty different styles of jeans, thirty different styles of sneakers and boots, velour pullovers, and Velcro). They inventoried clothes closets at home to determine the range of fabrics, the places of manufacture, and the functions of the garments. One mother laughed that her daughter “wanted to inventory every item in every closet.”

This unit provided natural opportunities to support the movement from egocentrism to awareness of social context. For example, students discussed how and when families decide that it is time to consider larger sizes of clothing for a growing child and what the implications of that decision are. For the first time, one child realized that if he were able to wear his older brother’s outgrown coat, this might save the family some money. In another instance, on the day following a home assignment on choice, a student came to school proclaiming that he was wearing a “new shirt” that his mother had purchased “at a garage sale for 25 cents. After all, I’m really growing quickly—and by the way, the shirt is silk, too!” Several parents said that their children ±ad become very interested in fabric types, care of fabrics, and so forth, and that shopping for clothing had become more thoughtful: children read labels and discussed prices.

Throughout the unit, the class instruction and out-of-school learning opportunities emphasized choice and opportunity. During one lesson, the teacher was using a pictorial time line to explain the major changes in clothing throughout history. The students were spellbound when the teacher started speculating about clothing for the future (for example, masks for purifying the air, mood sensitive colors, or programmable shoes). When she said, “Any one of you might invent or create an article of clothing tÓat would change the industry,” you could have heard a pin drop in the classroom. Later, one child tapped the researcher on the shoulder and said, “I’ve got my idea already, but maybe I shouldn’t tell anybody.”

The teacher asked the students to think about what they might create, then draw their ideas and prepare to share them with their peers. They were advised to sign and date their inventions (their first lesson in intellectual property protection). It was e&Mac253;citing to observe the sense of power that pervaded the classroom. Several students were intrigued with career opportunities in the clothing field. One second grader mapped out a plan that included designing, modeling, and ultimately owning a boutique. Another said he was now more hopeful about his family’s upcoming move to California—he suspected that becoming a designer would be easier there.



In the unit of study on shelter, students were to gain an understanding that (1) shelter takes many forms based on personal needs and wants, climate, culture, and availability of building materials and resources; (2) new construction techniques and technological improvements—which add safety, comfort, and convenience—are invented and refined over time; (3) in the United States, homes are planned so as to take advantage of such advances; (4) we pay for comforts and conveniences such as heat, water, and eüectricity; (5) with a mortgage loan, one can buy a house without having the full purchase price in hand, although one can lose the house if payments are not made; (6) families have many decisions to make about shelter, such as whether to rent or buy, location, size, and features of the dwelling, and how much of the family income to spend on shelter; (7) sometimes people cannot afford shelter and utilities because of unemployment or underemployment, illness, fire, flooding, or some other misfortune; and (8) as members of the community, we can contribute to organizations that assist people in need by donating labor, money, food, and clothing.

The teacher introduced the unit by reading and discussing Houses and Homes6 and posing a series of questions including “What kinds of shelters do we have in our community? Why do you think so? What kinds of building materials have been used?” Students were assigned to observe homes on their street and take notes that might help answer these questions. The next day, she began the lesson by describing some of the things she had observed (that is, the older apartment houses near the school were made of wood and stood three stories, including the basement, whereas the newer compleÎes on the outskirts of the community were four stories and covered with aluminum siding, with brick trim). The class speculated about why these changes had occurred and offered some of their observations.

Choices, trade offs, and decision making were emphasized in several lessons. The teacher described her own personal housing dilemma: her husband’s job site was being moved 100 miles away. If the family decided to sell its house and move closer to her husband’s work, it might have to settle for a smaller house for the same amount of money (because of supply and demand in the new neighborhood). She described struggling with the choices (Move or stay? Rent or buy?). The class seriously discussed the possibilities.

The teacher explained that it would take time to resolve the dilemma, but that she would keep the class informed of her family’s deliberations. As a home assignment, she asked the students to talk with their families about similar experiences they had had and how they resolved them. One parent called the teacher to express her appreciation for this assignment. She stated, “This assignment gave me a forum for my actions. In fact, I can remove what I formerly called guilt.”

Students began to realize that people make choices within limits defined by resources like money, time, and information. A sense of efficacy permeated the classroom as the teacher, using her own situation as a model, continued to have conversations with &Mac253;he class. Students were serious about giving thought to help her solve her family’s dilemma. One morning an eager student stopped by her desk to say that he thought she should consider renting a small place for awhile until maybe the family could find something on sale.

Another goal dealt with understanding and appreciating the cost of providing shelter—both the dwelling itself and the modern conveniences within, such as heat, light, and running water. Parents reported that their children were concerned about their families’ ability to pay. In one case, a child suddenly became more thrifty with her allowance. She had always been a planner, but after discussing housing costs in class, she realized that she had better start saving for her future home. Another student, more concerned with the here and now, was overheard chastising his older brother for using too much water. He was heard yelling, “Nick, you’d better cut that shower short; that water costs a lot of money.”


Styles of Teaching

As we monitored these units of study, we observed five stylistic features of teaching that appear to promote self-efficacy.

1. Thinking aloud about thinking (modeling metacognition). The teacher used the context and the knowledge she transmitted to model higher order thinking and to express the processes she engaged in to gather information, reflect on it, and carefully examine choices and possibilities. Learning and teaching in herûclass were interdependent. Her choice of words, body language, and facial expressions showed that she was not just reciting material by rote. Students understood the idea that “we are in this together,” that the lesson was an intellectual adventure.

2. Drawing on real-life examples from adult life and eliciting input from students. It was empowering to the students when a teacher or parent described a real dilemma and listened to what students had to say about it. One parent, during a family discussion about plans to buy a bigger house, was shocked to find out that her second grader wanted to continue sharing a room with his older brother. She stated, “Housing is about choices, all kinds of choices. This conversation caused our family to pause. We needed to listen to our children and value their ideas.”

3. Drawing on students’ personal situations in ways that promote positive interactions with their peers. For example, the teacher told the class, “Brent is moving. What are the decisions his family might be discussing? What are the trade offs associated with each possible choice?” The ensuing discussion was an authentic activity for students because it foc sed on real decision-making dilemmas, and it allowed Brent’s classmates to play a supportive role in helping him cope with anxieties connected with the move.

4. Discussing decision making as an adventure, not a drill. Decision making is an authentic, natural, and challenging activity that involves tradeoffs and choices—not a search for the “one right answer.” Self-efficacy means more than just feeling confident about selecting a correct answer (filling in the correct circle: A, B, C, or D); it means feeling confident to ask questions, gather information, and make a deliberate decision in a situation where there might be no single right answer (placing in a shopping cart ten items that you would like to eat from among the hundred in the store).

5. Using different sources of information. Varied textual sources (including children’s literature, food labels, pyramid posters, and advertisements) were used as a way of showing that information comes in a diversity of forms and situations. Using different sources underscored the importance of continuous learning—a process that, if we have inspired our students, occurs after the formal unit of study has concluded.



“Powerful social studies teaching emphasizes authentic activities that call for using content for accomplishing life applications.”7 One aim of our research is to learn whether teaching young students about cultural universals promotes the goals of understanding, appreciating, and applying new knowledge. As we review our field notes, transcripts, and interview data, we are beginning to find patterns that reflect powerful learning. One of the more interesting patterns is evidence of growth in the students’ sense of self-efficacy. Part of the explanation for this result lies within the cultural universals themselves: they provide natural opportunities for students to contribute ideas, examine choices and tradeoffs, and influence and regulate their social experiences and decisions. Also, our instructional units include activities that can be carried out at home, allowing students to apply in the world what they are learning in class. Finally, five stylistic features of creative teaching appear to promote a sense of self-efficacy among students.

Can the knowledge learned in school be carried over to real life? Our research shows that the answer is yes. Teaching about cultural universals can be an effective way to promote the growth of students’ self-respect and empowerment. Let’s put cultural un(versals and self-efficacy on the menu. G



1. A. Bandura, “Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory,” American Psychologist 44 (1989): 1175-1184; A. Bandura and D. Schrunk, “Cultivating Competence, Self-efficacy, and Intrinsic Interest through Proximal Self-motivation” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41 (1981): 586-598; D. Schrunk, “Self-efficacy and Academic Motivation,” Educational Psychologist 26 (1991): 207-231.

2. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996).

3. This article reports results from a larger research project that looked at three units of study on these cultural universals: food, clothing, and shelter.

4. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

5. “Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children” posters and handouts are available free in different sizes and formats at www.usda.gov/cnpp (scroll down a bit, then click on the desired title), which is the site of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or by calling 202-606-8000 (USDA recording) or by contacting the U.S. Government Printing Office at 202-512-1800.

6. Ann Morris, Houses and Homes (New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1992).

7. “A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy,” NCSS Position Statement, supplement to Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994), 155.


About the Authors

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy are professors in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.