I'm OK--You Have Self-Esteem

Remember transactional analysis?

I'm OK--You're OK (or not, as the case may be)?

In an excellent post at Public School Insights, Claus von Zastrow recycles the evergreen debate on self-esteem, which is harder to come by these days, when even sterling academic achievement is no guarantee of employment, let alone robust self-confidence. He points to the fact that our culture provides all the wrong incentives--fame, greed, selfishness, braggadocio and other wrong-headed ideas about success.

I was reminded of a research project (conducted by Geoffrey Cohen of University of Colorado-Boulder) which dared to suggest that kids perform better when given the simple assignment of writing for fifteen minutes about their strengths, to re-affirm their competence.

Cohen: If a student starts off the year feeling more stress due to negative stereotypes, and then performs poorly during the first few weeks of school, this can establish a downward cycle of increasing stress and poor performance that is hard to break. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress.

Like TA, Values Clarification and polyester Saturday shirts, self-esteem as a workable premise for improving student learning is seriously out of fashion these days. Mostly, we see articles like "Are We Good-Jobbing Our Kids to Pieces?"--followed by 186 comments from people who are convinced that while they're OK, other people's children have been given way too much empty praise, causing their egos to blow up like fraudulent balloons. Use the word "self-esteem" in any educational context, and you're likely to be hit with a barrage of platitudes about grade inflation, college admissions based on the wrong stuff, and our miserable international test-score standings.

The concept of self-esteem is, as von Zastrow notes, squishy, involving considerable latitude of opinion around ego health and evaluating achievement, when you deconstruct it through an epistemological lens. Policymakers who believe that American kids are wallowing in unsubstantiated self-esteem often paradoxically believe it's a good idea to reward them for grades and test scores (because those are tangible things, presumably, rather than feelings). Coaches who declare that it's good for kids to lose occasionally still schedule extra practices on Sunday mornings to prevent that from happening. We idolize Susan Boyle, the mousy Scottish lady who apparently kept her singing talents hidden for 50 years--but we don't want our children to be silenced by their own personal Simon Cowell when they subject their early work products to scrutiny. That's why refrigerator magnets were invented.

Every first-rate classroom teacher understands the paradox here: you have to have a base of self-esteem to withstand and benefit from honest and productive criticism of your own work. And sometimes, kids come to school with very little sense of their own worth. The research on self-esteem and social learning is pretty consistent: you need to feel OK in order to learn effectively.

There is also plenty of research showing that people running successful drug rings and beating up their spouses have high self-esteem. Teachers don't want to be nurturing the next generation of narcissists.

Self-esteem in isolation can become a psychological defense for anti-community behaviors. One of the most chilling and sordid examples of this was the HS athletes in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, who raped a mildly retarded 8-year old girl with a baseball bat, detailed in Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Plenty of self-esteem there--plus a healthy dose of entitlement, nurtured by a community obsessed with high school sports.

Most of the people railing against the excess of self-esteem in American schools aren't thinking about our national adulation of sports heroes or entertainers. They're pushing to keep "standards" in place--to hold teachers and students accountable, to increase rigor, to raise the bar--plus a half-dozen other academic clich├ęs. If students feel too good about themselves and their work, the reasoning goes, they will not see a need to try harder to beat our economic competitors. The problem with this get-tough rhetoric is that students won't produce more if they feel bad about themselves, either. It's a balancing act between sincere encouragement and honest critique. And it happens in the classroom, not in Policy World.

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