Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Self-Esteem Myth in Education

(Hat tip to Matt Fenwich)

Scientific American has published an article which has essentially stated that all our concern about people's self esteem and how it relates to their performance is essentially hogwash. I've been saying this for years. Well mostly since grade 12 in highschool where I had to edit the essay of another stupid who wrote at a grade 3 level in something vaguely resembling english. Of course in order to protect that students self esteem he had to recieve a passing grade, while anything not as flagarantly stupid would recieve 70%.

Self-esteem has been the rallying cry for those would think that the actual notion of "learning" information and skills is highly overrated. We simply need children and young adults to feel good about what smattering of skills they acquire, as opposed to marking them on their accomplishments objectively and according to the adequacy of their answers. This has resulted in two things, firstly genuinely incompetent people being given a free pass through the education system, and secondly its promoted profound laziness in schools as kids know they'll get 70% anyways no matter what sort of crap they hand in.

The article notes

At the outset, we had every reason to hope that boosting self-esteem would be a potent tool for helping students. Logic suggests that having a good dollop of self-esteem would enhance striving and persistence in school, while making a student less likely to succumb to paralyzing feelings of incompetence or self-doubt. Early work showed positive correlations between self-esteem and academic performance, lending credence to this notion. Modern efforts have, however, cast doubt on the idea that higher self-esteem actually induces students to do better.

Such inferences about causality are possible when the subjects are examined at two different times, as was the case in 1986 when Sheila M. Pottebaum, Timothy Z. Keith and Stewart W. Ehly, all then at the University of Iowa, tested more than 23,000 high school students, first in the 10th and again in the 12th grade. They found that self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade. Academic achievement in 10th grade correlates with self-esteem in 12th grade only trivially better. Such results, which are now available from multiple studies, certainly do not indicate that raising self-esteem offers students much benefit. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance.

Even if raising self-esteem does not foster academic progress, might it serve some purpose later, say, on the job? Apparently not. Studies of possible links between workers' self-regard and job performance echo what has been found with schoolwork: the simple search for correlations yields some suggestive results, but these do not show whether a good self-image leads to occupational success, or vice versa. In any case, the link is not particularly strong.

Essentially the central tenant of educational philosophy at the moment is a lie. Why does that not surprise me?

And amusingly enough, a few fairly simple objections seem to punch holes through the entire theory of the importance of self esteem to add to the lack of imperical evidence.

First, causation needs to be established. It seems possible that high self-esteem brings about happiness, but no research has shown this outcome. The strong correlation between self-esteem and happiness is just that--a correlation. It is plausible that occupational, academic or interpersonal successes cause both happiness and high self-esteem and that corresponding failures cause both unhappiness and low self-esteem. It is even possible that happiness, in the sense of a temperament or disposition to feel good, induces high self-esteem.

Second, it must be recognized that happiness (and its opposite, depression) has been studied mainly by means of self-report, and the tendency of some people toward negativity may produce both their low opinions of themselves and unfavorable evaluations of other aspects of life. In other instances, we were suspicious of self-reports, yet here it is not clear what could replace such assessments. An investigator would indeed be hard-pressed to demonstrate convincingly that a person was less (or more) happy than he or she supposed. Clearly, objective measures of happiness and depression are going to be difficult if not impossible to obtain, but that does not mean self-reports should be accepted uncritically.


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