Prepare the way for plucky pupils

24th August 2007 at 01:00
It is four years since my book, The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, was published and, judging from sales and the number of talks I've given, it struck a chord. Now the development of "confident individuals" is even seen as one of the purposes of education.

I welcome this development but also fear it, since it carries enormous risks. It was this fear of what could happen in the name of confidence in our schools that prompted me to write Creating Confidence, aimed mainly at teachers and policymakers.

So what are these risks? One is that we might follow in America's footsteps and place too much emphasis on self-esteem. This leads to unwarranted praise and over-concern with young people's feelings which, paradoxically, undermines resilience and increases anxiety and depression. It can also lead to low expectations and undermine skills and achievement.

The second, related, problem is that psychology is a complex subject. We should think very carefully before changing our education system to influence young people's mindset. Not only could we waste precious time and resources but, more importantly, we could make matters worse.

Professor Carol Dweck's robust psychology research could help us with this new agenda. I agree wholeheartedly with her argument that young people are acutely "sensitive" to the indirect messages we give them, often sensing that overly generous praise is a sign that they are struggling. We also give out negative messages about criticism if we always withhold it children quickly pick up the idea that it is so be- littling it must be avoided at all costs, which undermines learning in the long term.

Another danger with this new agenda is how easy, but dangerous, it would be for a group of educational bureaucrats to hammer out a template of the ideal, confident pupil against which all pupils would be measured and set targets for improvement. Enthusiastic teachers constantly lecturing pupils about the importance of self-assurance could also be a confidence killer.

The good news is that there are many things teachers can do to foster confidence. In my book, I list different approaches and outline 24 specific techniques. My preferred approach emphasises self-efficacy, optimism and hope, Dweck's "growth mindset" and resilience. Some of the recent developments in education, such as Determined to Succeed and Assessment is for Learning, can be used to good effect for confidence building. So, too, can outdoor education, sport and creative pursuits.

The conclusion of my book is quite simple: teachers need to create the conditions for confidence to rise through their relationship with pupils, their expectations and their feedback. Schools have an important part to play in cultivating the right ethos and ensuring that pupils have access to varied opportunities for development.

Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People is available from www.centrefor confidence.co.uk; T 0141 221 2626

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

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