A group of Vietnamese boys performs in a temple. They are wearing white shirts and golden pants.
January 30, 2023

Improving the Collaborative Communication of Buddhist Youth in Massachusetts

A Vietnamese Buddhist temple is helping young members develop self-efficacy to improve their communication and teamwork
by Thắm Thị Thu Trần
A post from the Tang Action Research Program

I direct a program for youth through Chùa Tường Vân, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Lowell, Massachusetts. This year, my fellow staff members and I recognized that the middle and high school students in our youth program needed support to become more confident and effective in their collaboration. We decided to apply the methods of Improvement Science to change the design of our program, so that it will foster the development of these attributes and skills.

The youth program is affiliated with the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association in the United States and was established seven years ago in response to local Vietnamese parents’ concerns about preserving their heritage culture. The program runs on weekends and is free to all students. Staff volunteer their time, and costs are covered by donations from parents and members of the temple. The program provides students with instruction in Vietnamese language and Buddhist Dharma, and training in social skills, first aid, camping, decoding ciphers, tying knots, singing, and dancing. Based on the students’ age and gender, they are divided into four different groups: pre-teen girls, pre-teen boys, teenage girls, and teenage boys.

During our leadership meeting at the start of this academic year, the four program staff and I started talking about the type of growth we hoped to see in our students. We spent one month identifying and diagnosing the students’ struggles. We used a self-efficacy questionnaire and observed the students’ interactions during the weekly activities. We agreed that our students lacked confidence in collaborative communication and that this led to ineffective teamwork and poor results. Based on the results of our surveys and observations, we hypothesized that students’ issues with communication were probably caused by low levels of self-efficacy.

My PhD research focused on the development of self-efficacy in youth, and so I was able to share information about this topic with the program staff. The relationship between collaborative communication and self-efficacy has been researched in the past, and multiple studies have focused on the connection between students’ self-efficacy and their performance in small groups (Ruys, Van Keer, & Aelterman, 2010; Wang & Lin, 2007). Wang and Lin (2007) also noted that students with high self-efficacy can serve as models for the other group members and will effectively pass on their self-efficacy beliefs through interactions with others.

Self-efficacy was first conceptualized by Albert Bandura (1977, 1986, 1997) as a person’s belief in their ability to execute a given task. High self-efficacy gives us confidence in communication and teamwork. It also feeds our motivation to learn and regulates how much energy we apply toward goals. Our self-efficacy rises as we experience achievements (performance attainments and mastery experiences) and see our peers succeed (vicarious consequences from models), receive encouragement (forms of social persuasion), and are in good form (physiological indicators) (Schunk, 2012). As the program staff and I considered these frameworks together, we predicted: if we create the conditions that promote self-efficacy into our youth program, we will see improved collaborative communication and better results from teamwork.

We decided to apply the theory of self-efficacy to develop a series of monthly workshops for the “core” students from all four groups. These core students are dedicated participants who are interested and ready to play a leadership role amongst their peers. The monthly workshops are topically focused on communication and leadership, and in addition, we designed the pedagogy to incorporate the key components for self-efficacy. So far, we have provided two workshops and are preparing for the third one in late January.

In each workshop, program staff provide a conceptual lesson on an aspect of collaborative communication and leadership to the core students. Then the staff and core students do a project which exercises relevant skills such as active listening, presentation, persuasion, and planning. To give these core students a chance to experience mastery—an important driver of self-efficacy—they are offered opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned in previous workshops. The staff model the skills and provide encouragement and support as well as constructive feedback. As part of the workshops, the students are also allowed to play and bond with each other through circle games, competitions, and enjoy refreshments.

In the four weeks following each workshop, the core students practice what they have learned from the workshop as they lead their weekly youth program activities. During these sessions, the core students become role models to their peers, leading and supporting them as they complete a group project. All these program elements are designed to promote the self-efficacy of the students, which we predict will positively reinforce the training in collaborative communication.

Since the first workshop, the students have completed some meaningful projects that have required teamwork. They have made group posters for Thanksgiving, raised funds for the annual charity, organized a gift exchange for the new year, and put on a group performance for the temple’s new year celebration. Throughout all this teamwork, the core students have demonstrated more confidence in communicating with their peers. According to the theory of self-efficacy, this creates favorable conditions for the collaborative communication amongst all members of each team, and we hope to see this ripple effect over this year.

We collect data on all the students’ communication and confidence on a weekly basis, so that we can track changes in their development. During each workshop, staff observe the core students. Afterwards, they conduct focus group interviews to discuss how they are feeling during the exercises and gather students’ perceptions of their own performance. Staff also observe the whole group of students during the weekly programming.

Thus far, staff members agree that the youth’s self-efficacy is increasing and their collaborative communication has improved significantly. For instance, Calvin, a teenage boy who is a core student, was too shy and passive to work with his peers in teamwork tasks before the improvement workshops started. After two months of learning and practicing, he has made progress in the way he communicates and works with his peers. Calvin said, “Back then, though I really wanted to talk to my friends and work with them to fulfill the tasks together, I was afraid that I couldn’t communicate with them well. Thanks to the workshops, now I feel more confident. I know how to start a conversation and how to get my friends involved in working together to complete the tasks assigned… I will definitely keep joining the monthly workshops.”

The staff use all this data to evaluate the efficacy of our program and make adjustments to each subsequent workshop. The leadership team applies a plan-do-study-act cycle to continuously develop and improve the program. In the past few months, the program has generated student interest and become an essential component of the broader youth program. The students who are not part of the core group seem motivated to perform better in the weekly activities so that they can qualify to participate in the monthly workshops.

This effort to develop our students’ self-efficacy, communication, and collaboration skills is aligned with the youth program’s overall mission: to train youth to be productive citizens who make positive contributions to society in accordance with Buddhist ethics. Ultimately, we want to enable the participating students to take pride in and preserve their Vietnamese heritage culture. We hope to see early indications of these broader developments as the students progress through the workshops and weekly youth program.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change.

Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.

Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall.

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

Ruys, I., Van Keer, H., & Aelterman, A. (2010). Collaborative learning in pre-service teacher education: An exploratory study on related conceptions, self-efficacy and implementation. Educational Studies, 36(5), 537-553.

Schunk, D. (2012). Learning Theories: An educational perspective. NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Wang, S. & Lin, S. S.J. (2007). The effects of group composition of self-efficacy and collective efficacy on computer-supported collaborative learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 2256-2268.

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Thắm Thị Thu Trần is the director of Tường Vân Buddhist Youth at the Chùa Tường Vân temple in Lowell, Mass. Her PhD research focused on the development of ethnic identity among second-generation Vietnamese American adolescents. Trần is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development.

In addition, Trần was a key community partner in the Tang Institute's 2022 Workshop who helped students create a profile of the Chùa Tường Vân temple for Harvard University's The Pluralism Project. And in June 2022, she worked closely with institute director Andy Housiaux to lead a professional development workshop for educators. Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy referenced this experience in a piece about how schools are going about the business of teaching differently.

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