Be sophisticated about confidence

Success in school and in life requires an optimism in our own ability to sustain hope, says Ian Smith

In the recent TES Scotland summer debate on A Curriculum for Excellence, both Alan McLean and Gill Robinson argued that what have become known as the "four capacities" ought to be debated. Alan said that everyone could think of other equally important capacities and that the four chosen are deceptively simple. He pointed out that if you ask 20 teachers what confidence means, you will get 20 answers.

If we are going to have a debate around the capacities, and Gill Robinson welcomed this, confidence is a good place to start. We are so concerned about confidence, positivity and optimism in Scotland that we have a Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow (worth a visit at www.

But don't go to it for simple hints and tips to develop confident individuals in your classroom. What you will find is a sophisticated debate about what confidence is, the value of self-confidence and how we can help others to become confident individuals rather than seeking to do it for them or to them. They agree that confidence is a deceptively simple concept, which we need to get to grips with and understand.

Let me give you a flavour of why a sophisticated debate around confidence is needed. Few people would deny that self-confidence is important in learning and in life; indeed many would argue it is a necessary requirement for all the other three capacities underpinning A Curriculum for Excellence.

The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort and they persist in the face of obstacles. You might think that students' confidence in their intelligence or capacity to learn would be the key to these qualities and that they would have nothing to fear from challenge and be inoculated from the ravages of failure if they had such confidence in themselves.

But the work of Carol Dweck, the American psychologist, tells us this is not the whole story, or even most of it. She has found that many of the most able pupils do not want their intelligence too stringently tested and their high confidence is all too quickly shaken when they are confronted with difficulty.

Forget research from across the pond. All of us can think of students (often boys) who are overconfident and tend to underprepare for examinations as a result. Their more anxious peers (often girls) fear they are going to fail, study assiduously and get higher grades. The moral is that success in school and in life requires enough optimism in our own natural ability to sustain hope and enough realism and self-doubt to motivate us to make an effort and develop our learning techniques. This is what has been called "defensive pessimism".

So where does this leave us with confident individuals? Alan was right: it's not that simple. But let us not despair or lose our confidence in confidence or our confidence in our own ability to understand it. The physicist Neils Bohr declared that there are trivial truths and great truths. He pointed out that the opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false, but that the opposite of a great truth is also true. So confidence passes what we might call the Bohr test.

You just might be thinking this is all very interesting, but I'm well aware that when you read this you will probably be fresh back at school steeling yourselves to getting your new charges to behave and to be motivated to learn what you have got to teach them. Never mind how you are going to transform them into individuals with just the right level on the Richter scale of confidence.

Even so, I am not going to resort to giving you some handy hints and tips for building children's confidence. What I will do is share two fundamental truths about human beings that you already know well and which pass the Bohr test. The first is that, at the centre of our worlds, and more important to us than anything else, are we ourselves. The notion of the self is critically important to each and every one of us. We all have a sense of who we are, how we come to be the way we are and why we do what we do.

The second and opposite fundamental truth is that human beings are essentially social animals. The single biggest influence on happiness is our relationships with other people and the impact we believe we can make on the world around us. We have a deep-seated need to belong - to be accepted for who we are, to be valued and respected, to love and be loved by others.

Bear these fundamental truths in mind, be aware that they apply to your students and yourselves and you will have success in helping young people to be confident individuals this year. Have a good one.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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