Self-esteem is not psychobabble

28th November 2003 at 00:00
In her "Viewpoint" of October 31, Kathryn Ecclestone attacked the idea that low self-esteem was at the root of many educational and social problems. In doing so, she made some rather sweeping generalisations that caricatured the way we tackle self-esteem in adult and further education.

However much we may dislike the term and its overuse, "low self-esteem" is a problem that prevents many from engaging not only in education but in other forms of valuable activity. To recognise this is not to collude in "therapy culture" but to acknowledge a major hurdle that stops people realising their potential.

The fact that this has been acknowledged by some professional bodies - be they "liberal" or "left-wing" (and what does it matter what political complexion they are?) - is to be applauded, not derided.

Consider learners with mental health difficulties. One in four people experiences sustained emotional distress for which they will seek help.

Many of these will find their way into learning and it is vital that tutors have some degree of empathy and understanding. That isn't "therapy culture", it's just good practice. You cannot divorce how people feel about themselves from the way they act.

A teaching approach that acknowledges people's "identity, experience and feelings" (though this does not mean, as the article argues, that we "prioritise" these) is surely better than one that treats learners as identical components on an educational conveyor belt.

In her article, Kathryn Ecclestone attacks established tenets of good practice saying they hold back rather than inspire learners. But to "start where learners are" - though perhaps a tired cliche - does not simply refer to their emotional state: it often just means adjusting teaching to reflect the level they have reached in learning. This is essential practice if you want to retain learners and promote success.

Low self-esteem does not necessarily involve - nor is it always seen by educationists to involve - "frailty, weakness or deficiency", as she says.

Nor should those who suffer be automatically considered unable to deal with adversity or lacking the will to change. In fact low self-esteem frequently triggers a desire for change. Good learning is one of the ways in which change can be achieved.

People who return to learning in adulthood, especially those who have struggled to overcome a disadvantage, invariably speak of increased self- esteem as a major gain from learning. If so many students recognise higher self-esteem as a benefit, how can we "reject the goal of self-esteem outright" as Ecclestone proposes?

However, we do need to unpick what people mean when they say they have gained self-esteem. The conference the adult learning body Niace held on the subject this year was not "devoted to combating" low self-esteem as Ecclestone asserts, but to examining its nature and place in adult learning.

Of course learning can be "risky, challenging and uncomfortable", but does that mean we should not offer support and understanding to those who find it daunting? This is not "nannying" It is possible that some who work with adult learners are over-protective and hold their hands too much, but I suspect there will be just as many - probably more - who ignore students' experience and feelings. Even if they were aware of a student's low self-esteem, they would probably subscribe to the "pull yourself together" approach that permeated Frank Furedi's article in the THES a few weeks ago.

The education world should be congratulated that, in moving to widen participation it is at last showing greater understanding of the obstacles that hold people back, and their need for support. If that's "therapy culture" then I say let's have more of it!

Veronica McGivney is principal research officer at Niace

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