Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Problem of Gratuitous Self-Esteem in Schools

In this diary there was a comment which got my attention, especially this part:
We have had a surge of self-esteem exercises and students think they are amazing if they bring a pencil.

A psychologist I knew was dismayed that her interns expected lavish praise for merely doing the minimum. Students have been trained by years of marble jars on teachers' desks to seek validation for trivial reasons because they are starved for real self-esteem based on genuine success instead of the fake success in schools today.

The solution is the skillful interlacing of five strands of success:
1.High expectations
2.Intrinsic rewards
3.Instructional planning
4.Classroom management

High expectations

We do not really expect much from students or respect their capabilities. One parent told me that it was unreasonable to expect seventh graders to remember to write their names on their papers. Another parent told me that it was the teacher's job to make sure students have fun in school. Any teacher could go on and on about parents. I am saying that the school system itself does not expect all that much. As just one example, many people believe they cannot draw because they have no talent. We call a certain school program “Talented and Gifted” because of an underlying societal belief that the ability to achieve is basically a gift, not something that can be learned. I have observed many instances of the accomplishments of young children, accomplishments achieved with no observable stress or deprivation.

1.During my twenty years overseas, I met many kindergärtners fluent in at least two languages, languages acquired with no apparent effort in the normal course of growing up.
2.I have seen children in Montessori schools learn an incredible amount of solid math reasoning without picking up a pencil or paper. Some of these students excelled at algebra in the fifth grade and calculus at the age of fourteen, all the while reveling in the fun of math.
3.I witnessed first, second and third graders at Bob Hope Primary School, Okinawa, master basic principles of two dimensional art (light and shadow, proportion, point of view, shading, composition, color basics and color mixing). It was clear that with appropriate guidance all children could demonstrate technical skill regardless of innate talent.
4.I watched a group of about twelve homechoolers aged 8-15 perform the culminating piece of a major project. They had researched and written a play about the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. The project also included an immigrant fair where the the community participated in a reenactment of the Ellis Island intake procedures. I played the part of the registering official, speaking only in Japanese to simulate mutually unintelligible languages. The kids, including my children, worked hard but loved every minute of it.
5.I have conducted biology and chemistry labs for homeschoolers. Although the labs were designed to help high school aged students fulfill state requirements for lab science, the younger siblings were completely enthralled with the labs. I let children as young as ten participate. They had no trouble using the equipment, following lab and experimental procedures, recording data and discussing the analysis of the data. The only area where their skill was not the equal of the older students was the lab write-up. It was an eyeopening experience for me.
6.I knew a ten-year old who had a semester-long apprenticeship with a local veterinarian every Friday. His job was to do the dirty work and keep his eyes open. The vet told me he had to let the boy go after about three months when he discovered that the certified lab tech had foisted her duties (like prepping a cat for surgery) on him. (Personally, I think the vet should have fired the vet tech but it was none of my business).

Children thrive in an environment of high, yet achievable expectations.

Intrinsic rewards

Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University has found that intrinsic rewards lead to more lasting achievement with more positive affective results. Students are much happier with successes associated with intrinsic rewards. Nevertheless, teachers receive a ton of training in the design and implementation of classroom token economies. Research has also shown that when the extrinsic rewards are withdrawn achievement levels fall.

Instructional Planning

There is a reason why genuine educational success is an interwoven braid. Strong instructional planning contributes to achievement. Montessori schools are well structured. The art lessons were organized in a logical sequence. Instructional experiences were not only well-planned, but were also open-ended enough to allow students room to shine.

Classroom Management

It is obvious that classroom management has to contribute to high achievement. But classroom management means much more than discipline. It includes, for example, arranging the furniture and establishing routines. I put my desk in front of the chemical cabinet in my science classes, sending a clear “Off Limits” message since students are reluctant to go behind the teacher's desk. Well established and well rehearsed routines greatly reduce the potential for disruption and waste of instructional time.


Naturally, the opportunity for genuine success encouraged by the other four strands is a great motivator. It has been said that nothing succeeds like success. Gratuitous success does not genuinely raise self-esteem; real success does.

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