I have a colleague who has given up on the self-esteem movement. In his mind, educators’ 20 year obsession with caring about students’ “self-esteem”—largely to the exclusion of other personal qualities and traits—has resulted in a world where we’re ruled by a bunch of C+ students who believe they’re smarter than they are.
I think that he’s kidding. But even if he is, he doesn’t seem to be alone in his assessment of self-esteem. There seems to be a rising movement from people who write and think about education that suggests that we’ve been missing the mark, that perhaps it’s not enough to try to make everyone feel good about themselves.
In fact, there’s a growing body of research that suggests that the “self esteem” movement and the way that it’s been implemented in schools has, ironically, had the effect of lessening the self-esteem of students: that when students who have always been praised face a challenges later in life, they don’t have the skills to deal with them.
There are some new “buzz words” in education: resiliency, grit, determination and character. They are appealingly old-fashioned qualities. And for those of us with any life experience, we know the importance of these traits to any success.
Bad things happen, obstacles get in the way, challenges come before us, and it’s only through persistence that we succeed, and even then sometimes we don’t. Often in schools, kids are not permitted to have the small, relatively low-stake opportunity to fail, so some never learn how to.
In an article in Macleans last September, Queen’s University president Daniel Woolf says, “There’s a generation of students now—and I’m not saying it’s every student—but a tendency to want to be a winner in all that they do. They all get a trophy at field day; they all get a treat bag at the party; and then they get to university and suddenly find they’re now playing in a different league, and no longer necessarily the smartest in their class.”
Canadian writer Paul Tough takes on the issue in his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. His fundamental premise is that cognitive ability is only a small part of determining a child’s academic success. Other factors, especially an ability to persist through adversity, seem to play a more important role.
I think this is mostly good news. And if it helps students, then maybe we can all feel good about ourselves.