Tuesday, December 21, 2004

My wife often thinks I'm too harsh with the Littlest Scholar, and says things like "you are going to ruin her self-esteem." I reply to her (when LS is out of the room), "she can have self-esteem after she actually accomplishes something like ____________." (fill-in the blank, like "keeps her room clean", or "walks her dog before the 'accident'," etc.) This is a constant source of tension.

Thanks to Mahalanobis, I just send Mrs. Scholar an email with this article from the new Scientific American. Of merit to Scholars:

At the outset, we had every reason to hope that boosting self-esteem would be a potent tool for helping students. Logic suggests that having a good dollop of self-esteem would enhance striving and persistence in school, while making a student less likely to succumb to paralyzing feelings of incompetence or self-doubt. Early work showed positive correlations between self-esteem and academic performance, lending credence to this notion. Modern efforts have, however, cast doubt on the idea that higher self-esteem actually induces students to do better.

Such inferences about causality are possible when the subjects are examined at two different times, as was the case in 1986 when Sheila M. Pottebaum, Timothy Z. Keith and Stewart W. Ehly, all then at the University of Iowa, tested more than 23,000 high school students, first in the 10th and again in the 12th grade. They found that self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade. Academic achievement in 10th grade correlates with self-esteem in 12th grade only trivially better. Such results, which are now available from multiple studies, certainly do not indicate that raising self-esteem offers students much benefit. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower
subsequent performance.

An insert shows a study by Doneslon Forsyth and Natalie Kerr of Virginia Commonwealth. Two sets of students in a college psychology class who are earning D's and F's at midterm are created with equal GPAs. Once per week, one group gets a set of positive messages about "what causes good and bad grades" like:
Students who improved with each test were thinking:
  • I can be proud of myself
  • I can do this.
  • I am better than most of the other people in this school.
  • I am satisfied with myself.
This group is told the "bottom line" is to "hold your head -- and your self-esteem -- up." The other group of students received a set of messages that said
Students who improved with each test were thinking:
  • I need to work harder
  • I can learn this material if I apply myself.
  • I can control what hapens to me in this class.
  • I have what it takes to do this.

Its bottom line? "Take personal control of your performance."

The first group had its average grade in the psych class drop to below 50%, while the other group improved to 62% (which still stinks, but at least passed that course.)

We'll see if this argument helps me at home tonight. The authors of the Scientific American article do find at the end that people with high self-esteem are happier than those without it, and less likely to be depressed. And it seems to relate to persistence, something that we try to instill in LS. But they admit that there may be third factors, such as "occupational, academic or interpersonal successes" that cause both happniess and high self-esteem. The lesson plans I use always try to build on small early successes.