Anyone growing up in the eighties (and beyond) will have grown up in the self-esteem era. In the 1980s, psychologists showed that high self-esteem equated to high grades at school and students with lower self-esteem tended to struggle in school. These same psychologists started a movement to raise self-esteem because they believed that virtually all the world’s problems traced back to low self-esteem. So began the participation ribbons, everyone gets a prize (think of the childhood party game pass the parcel) and lavish praise of insignificant achievements.
The flaw in this movement was two-fold. Firstly, self-esteem comes from within, not from what others tell or give you. Being given a ribbon for just entering fosters no real internal sense of satisfaction or confidence. Secondly, self-esteem comes from putting in the effort; trying, iterating, failing, trying again and succeeding.
Our school system reflects these flaws strongly. Children were (and still are in many places) told to go to school and learn – because ‘learning is fun.’ Learning is complex, messy, challenging, uncomfortable, and something you have to work at. If children believe it should be fun, and it’s not, then why even bother.
I see this echoed in the teens I work with whom are told to study for a test or an exam. They focus on what they already know because this makes them feel good. The internal dialogue says, “I’ve got this,” or “I’m so smart.” Going over what you know sends the feel-good chemicals into the brain. To learn you need to learn what you don’t know. The challenge here is the internal dialogue changes to, “This is hard.” “What if they find out I’m not as smart as they tell me I am.” “What if I fail?” These phrases are challenging to any of us and can cause students to back off and go back to what they know as it feels better.
Furthermore, most students believe the way to succeed at school is to be intelligent, smart and clever. The reality is far from this – to succeed in school (pass the tests and exams), you need to know techniques and strategies for learning, memory recall, test-taking and how your brain works.
While the self-esteem research initially showed those with higher self-esteem received higher grades in school, subsequent research now indicates it is the other way around. Success and receiving good grades in school raises your self-esteem. The challenge for many is they don’t know what they did or how they achieved success in school – it just happened ‘by magic.’