Bank 'good currency' for a confident future

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Heaping too much praise on pupils and cutting back on criticism can do them more harm than good, writes Carol Craig

A Curriculum for Excellence is a huge, and welcome, opportunity for Scotland.

It asserts the importance of academic learning and thinking skills, yet still makes the creation of "confident individuals" one of the four purposes of education.

All of us involved in the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Glasgow welcome the new curriculum but, ironic though it may seem, we also urge caution. Why? Just look at what has happened in the United States.

Few would dispute that America is the land of "confident individuals". For hundreds of years the country has acted as a magnet for can-do optimists.

Individual rights, including the right to pursue happiness, are enshrined in the constitution. And in the past few decades, the "self-esteem"

movement has had a huge impact on parents and teachers.

The movement's thesis is simple: low self-esteem is the cause of a myriad of individual and social problems, ranging from poor academic success to bullying, crime, drug taking and teenage pregnancy. According to such a view, raising young people's self-esteem is nothing less than a "social vaccine".

This argument, though influential, is fundamentally flawed. Not only does it lack supporting evidence, but some research contradicts these assertions. For example, there is no correlation between self-esteem and academic success. Some of the children who score highest in self-esteem in the US are black boys, who often perform badly at school, while white girls and Asian students excel academically, even though they report lower self-esteem.

If you Google "self-esteem and American schools", you will get almost 6.5 million hits - much of it recent material. So the publication of this contradictory research has done little to stop the self-esteem movement's band-wagon rolling on. Egged on by their claims, parents and teachers in the US have sought to boost young people's self-esteem.

Nathaniel Branden is the main thinker behind the movement, but his work is philosophical and too complicated to be translated into practical advice.

So countless parents and teachers, faced with the idea that they must develop a child's self-esteem, have resorted to measures which superficially make sense and are easy to put into action, but which are having a negative effect.

In a nutshell, they have given out too much praise and protected children from failure and criticism. As part of the self-esteem curriculum, teachers in American schools spend considerable time developing children's positive sense of themselves: pupils colour in "I'm special" pictures, write essays "about me" or become the subject of their own TV commercials so they can advertise their good points.

One of the most trenchant critics of the self-esteem movement is Martin Seligman, leader of the positive psychology movement and one of the centre's collaborators. He argues that, by putting too much emphasis on feeling good and unwarranted praise, parents and teachers are disconnecting self-esteem from what he calls "good currency with the world" - achievement and mastery, good relationships or being a person of integrity.

Professor Seligman argues that children should not be protected from bad feelings as they have a purpose: they galvanise people to do things differently and cultivate resilience. He also argues that serious learning inevitably involves frustration and some negativity. Finally, he says that too much emphasis on the individual is leading not only to self-obsession, but to the creation of people who are overly vulnerable to life's inevitable ups and downs and, thus, to depression.

His views have been supported by the work of Jean Twenge. Her research, based on more than 1.3 million young people from the 1950s onwards, shows that narcissism has increased dramatically in the US, as have anxiety, depression and the tendency to blame others. She, too, attributes many of these trends to the negative influence of the self-esteem movement.

What is also significant is that during the time that self-esteem has held sway in American schools, academic standards have dropped.

So does this mean that we should forget about confidence altogether? Absolutely not. Scotland is a put-down culture and there is still a fair amount of harsh, unconstructive criticism dished out to young people. There have been big improvements in our schools, but there is still some way to go in helping young people develop realistic optimism, resilience and well-founded belief in their abilities.

We need to ensure that the steps we take in our schools, towards the development of confident individuals, are firmly grounded in empirical research. Without this, it is likely that well-meaning teachers will do what has happened in America and pile on the praise, cut back on criticism and reduce the opportunities for failure. I suspect that some teachers, and perhaps even schools, are already travelling down this path, unaware that they are not doing their pupils any favours.

The centre has a big part to play in the dissemination of this research and in advising teachers. This is why we've organised the Creating Confidence conference next week with Professor Seligman as the keynote speaker. We are also planning to produce a confidence workbook for teachers early next year which will give detailed guidance on how to encourage children and nurture confidence.

Finally, we need to recognise the huge role parents play in fostering feelings of self-worth in children. At the event, Surrey-based psychology professor Nicholas Emler will argue that it is parents, not teachers, who have the biggest impact on how children feel about themselves.

If his research is right, parents need to be more involved in schools and have a vital part to play in delivering A Curriculum for Excellence.

Carol Craig is chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being.

Conference details:

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