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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.04.15On Self-Esteem

I Love Me Written inside a Heart Drawn in Sand


Yesterday I wrote briefly about a question some colleagues and I once asked teachers during the interview process:

We’d all like to do everything we can for all of our kids, but sometimes we have to choose. If you had to choose between a) increasing your students’ skills and knowledge and b) increasing their self-esteem, which would you choose? Why?

Less than half the people we interviewed chose increasing skills and knowledge. I used this to demonstrate Eric Kalenze’s point that there is no a clear, shared sense of purpose in schooling that educators all share. More than half of the people we asked chose to do something else instead of pursue what I think is the mission of a school–to develop skills and knowledge–to learn a lot of things and think rigorously about them. So I was struck that more than half of the teachers chose self-esteem.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a young person’s self-perception is irrelevant. Ideally students would come out of the process of learning with a reasonable degree of self-confidence and resilience, balanced by a dose of humility, perhaps. It’s just important to be clear that while there are lots of things that characterize good schools–the learning should happen in an environment of warmth, caring and high expectations–they are not the purpose.

But I chose building self-esteem deliberately as the alternative in my question above because belief in it is so widely held, and  as this article [Baumeister RE-THINKING SELF ESTEEM ] shows, it’s a classic case of educational cause/correlation confusion. So I thought I would share some thoughts on the idea of building self-esteem.

First, here’s what I mean by cause/correlation confusion. If studies tend to find that successful people have stronger self-esteem, we have a correlation–the two events tend to occur together. But it is a mistake to assume that an event that happens at the same time as another causes it. However, people routinely do just that and advise educators to do everything they can to boost self-esteem. But, as Baumeister points out, “good grades [are] the horse and self-esteem [is] the cart.”  Achieving things of substance makes you realize you are capable of more and raises your self-regard. But artificially raising people’s self-regard does not cause them to achieve more, alas.  Possibly less.

So while most students will ideally come out of schools with healthy self-regard–which I would observe is different from high self-regard–the difference is obvious if like me you find people who lack humility and modesty brutally insufferable. Here are three reasons why pursuing self-esteem as a goal is probably not a good idea.

1) Attempting to increase students’ self-esteem probably won’t actually make students more successful. Again, there is no evidence that raising self-esteem causes greater success. Not only that, is it likely that you would invest in self-esteem at the expense of other things you might do to help students achieve more (time being finite), so you would have wasted a lot of time you could have spent doing things that build healthy self-regard.

2) Attempting to increase students’ self-esteem might not actually lead to increased self-esteem.  It might be something you have to earn through struggle, by overcoming obstacles and achieving things. It might be that ‘artificial’ or ‘contrived’ efforts to boost self-esteem–telling people how excellent they are–fails to create real and enduring changes to self-concept. Or creates bizarre and reality-light changes to self-concept that aren’t all that healthy.

3) Increasing students’ self-esteem might not be beneficial. In fact, it might be counter-productive. I am so busy feeling good about me that I see no reason to take risks and challenges. It’s hard to square self-esteem programs with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, for example.  And even if increased self-esteem did have a moderately positive effect on student success and growth, it could be that it required some third variable to achieve that. In other words, what if the formula was slightly raised self-regard (e.g., “I think I can do it when I put my mind to it”) combined with increased humility (e.g., “But it will never be easy and I will have to rely on others” and greater self-control”), so I have to work hard today and I will see results down the road.” JUST self-esteem? Maybe not.

So, anyway, it’s a nice thing if schooling also causes students to rightly feel capable and accomplished in a balanced way, but not only is self-esteem more an outcome of than a driver of achievement, it turns out that focusing on achieving things–on knowledge and skills be they in the Art room, the Science lab or the athletic fields–is probably the only way to build healthy, balanced self-regard.

2 Responses to “On Self-Esteem”

  1. Alex
    October 25, 2015 at 4:32 am

    I feel like this blog isn’t as clear as others. Some students can get good grades and still have low self-esteem. Obviously, Uncommon Schools are desperate for academic achievement, but don’t overlook self-esteem and the power of social-emotional learning.

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