The danger of building too much student self-esteem

While teachers need to foster ambition, we should also be realistic about students' abilities, writes this lecturer
16th November 2020, 4:34pm


The danger of building too much student self-esteem
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Fostering ambition and promoting achievement are fundamental goals in further and higher education. I would argue that students should be encouraged to define success in terms of their own aspirations and interests and not just in terms of high academic grades and/or earning a top-tier taxable salary.  

The problem is that students' aspirations are often naively incommensurate with their abilities and talents - a lack of perspective I blame on a quasi-religious devotion to self-esteem building in education. Not only does this foster in students utterly unrealistic expectations of what their lives might become but it also places teachers in a difficult position when students request references for jobs and courses that they are ill-suited for.

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The cult of self-esteem building is traceable, in my view, to the 1980s' introduction of GCSEs. I was among the first generation of students to take these tests and can recall the outrage of the previous year's O-level students at the plethora of A grades awarded to the students in my year. 

Of course, none of 1988's GCSE guinea pigs cared much about grade inflation at the time, as a beneficiary of the generous marking, but I had a few qualms. Even today I can remember how easy the GCSE modern history gap-fill activity was - having filled in all the gaps from memory, it was only then that I spotted that the answers had been provided below and that the right answers merely had to be selected from those provided. All my hours of revision had proven utterly unnecessary and a sense of feeling cheated still remains.

On the flip side, had I not revised at all, the feeling would have been very different: I might have swaggered from the exam hall, inflated with my own sense of smartness at effortlessly knowing all the answers. 

Students' great expectations

Luring students into the belief that a degree is easy and giving them a false sense of their abilities does service to no one - it merely lowers the standards across the board. Some of my degree students express considerable confusion when I constructively criticise their grammar and spelling skills.

Having blitzed their GCSE English exams, they believe that their A* has currency in all domains thereafter. A reality check ensues when I highlight their comma splices, misplaced apostrophes, detached dependent clauses and other such errors. Their self-esteem is instantly threatened and they tend to exhibit sudden resistance towards - and even hostility to - any further criticism. As a teacher, I have to explain that success in a degree is not the same as school success - and this can come as an unwanted revelation. 

Many of my students dream of further study: a master's degree or even a PhD. Some dream of entering competitive professions where limited training places are available. This ambition is commendable but often these students are performing very averagely at best. It is difficult to know how to advise in these situations for fear of bursting their bubble and taking away existing motivation. So I generally say nothing and decide to leave things to fate. But I cannot escape the feeling that we are setting up these students to fail - or at least be disappointed in the future. 

The culture of self-esteem building reflects a corporate model in education where the financial ability to enrol on a course takes precedence over academic ability. Once students are on a course, it is about keeping them happy and sustaining confidence. Sometimes students may do far better than they expected in a particular test and suddenly ambitions can soar from low to high. It would seem that the hardest thing of all is to pitch ambitions somewhere in the middle - the one place where it seems no one dreams of going.

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Ultimately, everyone finds their own level and hopefully comes to recognise what works for them. But this process of adjustment would be far easier if expectations were not so distorted from the outset by self-esteem cheerleading and nurturing the dream that all roads lead to rainbow futures. 

Students, by definition, are naïve learners and want to believe that an A* at GCSE means the world will love them that bit more. Clearly, it is not the business of schools and colleges to strip them of such illusions, but then nor should it be to preach the gospel of total positivity and "success for all". 

No doubt, there will be some who will rise higher than predicted by their teachers, but generally teachers are fairly good judges of ability. I know that some of my students' hopes will not come to pass and I should be able to say so - but the culture of education says I mustn't. 

I suppose I must conspire in silence to preserve their dreams and brittle confidence as they struggle on with their comma splices and inconsistent use of tenses.

Rufus Reich is a pseudonym. The writer is a FE lecturer in England

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