Monthly Archives: April 2016

Self-esteem and Academic Achievement

If sources are to be trusted, there is a mental health crisis in our schools at present. I’m not sure of how accurate these claims are or if we are indeed witnessing the ‘emotionalisation’ of education. Nick Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne does suggest that psychological concepts are being expanded so that they encompass broader areas; certain behaviours are becoming ‘pathologised’: Fear of maths becomes ‘math anxiety’ and fear of taking tests becomes ‘test anxiety’, while the NUS has banned clapping in an attempt to prevent trauma (clapping anxiety?). Of course, such anxieties are real to the individual and can be reduced through support, but whether such ‘concept creep’ is desirable is yet to be seen.

There also exists the misguided notion that raising self-esteem in young people can somehow protect them from further psychological distress and raise academic attainment. But high self-esteem can have a dark side. Roy Baumeister found that the most aggressive people tend towards high levels of self-esteem, suggesting that violence becomes more likely when other people and situations contradict a persons highly favourable view of themselves. Very high levels of self-esteem might also lead to arrogance and fragile self-concept. This results in such individuals being easily threatened and more likely to use violence in order to protect their fragile and inflated sense of self-worth. People high in self-esteem often have a mistaken impression of themselves and are more likely to claim to be more likeable and attractive, to have better relationships and to make better impressions on people than those with low self-esteem. Objective measures however, appear to cast doubt on these beliefs, leading Baumeister to conclude that ‘narcissists can be charming as first, but tend to alienate others eventually’.

There are certainly benefits to having high levels of self-esteem. Self-esteem is strongly correlated with happiness, although without a clearly established causation. What this means is that there is no way to confirm that the high levels of self-esteem cause people to be happier. It could be that happy people develop higher levels of self-esteem or that other factors indirectly lead to higher levels of happiness. It is clear, however, that low self-esteem is related to depression and stress, but the direction remains unclear. High levels of self-esteem have also been shown to foster experimentation among children, leading to an increase in risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug taking and underage sex. However, high self-esteem does reduce the risk of bulimia in females.

Self-esteem doesn’t impact academic performance.

While some studies have identified a link between high self-esteem and academic attainment, correlations have been modest at best. High self-esteem, therefore, appears to have little impact on academic outcomes but findings do suggest that high levels of self-esteem emerge from good school performance. Furthermore, efforts to boost the self-esteem of school pupils have not resulted in improvements in academic performance and, in some cases, have been found to be counterproductive. Similar results have been found in adults, in that job performance is sometimes related to self-esteem but such correlations vary widely and, again, direction of causality hasn’t been reliably established. Certainly, high levels of occupational success may boost self-esteem.

It would appear, therefore, that while self-esteem is related to some positive outcomes, there is little to suggest that students with high self-esteem do any better academically than those with low self-esteem. This is not to say that schools should abandon such notions, but that interventions should be directed towards well-being rather than that formal academic outcomes. Harter suggests that scholastic competence can be seen as a specific type of self-esteem that might be better placed as a means of investigating the role of self-theories on academic outcomes. A more developed concept similar to that proposed by Harter is that of ‘academic self-concept’, of which I have written previously.

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On Breaks, Beards and Books.

It’s been over three months since I decided to take an open-ended break from teaching. The time has given me the opportunity to assess what is important in my life, to read and to write and cultivate facial hair. Even though the finances are beginning to dwindle I’m more content with my life now than I have been for a long time, even though I realise that at some point I’ll have to get a job or make something resembling a living from writing.

Writing.

I have been writing more than ever before. I’ve had three articles published in the TES since January, some bits and pieces for other websites and blogs as well as the first draft of a book on learning. I’m also co-authoring another book that I’m very excited about and even found the time to spend on more contemplative writing projects. Other opportunities haven’t worked out as planned but, as I’ve said before, life has a habit of going off on its own path and leaving you behind.

Reading.

Reading over the past few months has been eclectic. I’ve spent time reading research papers, books on neuroscience, emotions, general psychology and mental health – I’ve also found some time to read fiction. Two particular books stand out from the rest simply because they have helped me come to terms with the things going on in my own mind and in my own life. It’s been a while since I read any books with a revelatory quality; the kind of book you dare not put down or one where you find yourself reading the same chapter several times because of the almost audible buzz it caused in your neural connections the first time around. I rarely read books more than once but I suspect I will pick up Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ and Tim O’Brien’s ‘Inner Story’ a number of times before then end of 2016.

These two books are similar in many ways, not least in the way they made me think about myself in a much deeper way and accept the fluidity of my own existence. Sure, our genes and other elements of our biology govern us but there are things we can control and things we can change. With all the talk of resilience in education (and I’ve written about it a few times) I think we all tend to overlook the fact that to survive is to be resilient – it’s not something we have or do not have.

According to O’Brien we all have two stories residing in out head, one that is about our life and another that is controlling our life. Your inner story can control you in many ways – all those interconnected thoughts that buzz around in our minds make me, well, me. They guide my behaviours and influence my decisions. Your inner story can work for you or against you but the beauty of this inner narrative is that we can change and edit those chapters that don’t help us. Reading ‘Inner Story’ quickly made me realise a number of things about my own inner story and why it wasn’t helping me.

Specifically, it was telling me that:

  • I have to be the perfect Dad because others judge me more harshly than they do ‘traditional’ parents
  • The success or failure of my students is my responsibility
  • Others a far more qualified/capable/experienced than me and therefore have the right to judge my actions and proficiency
  • I found and lost the only the person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life
  • Anxiety controls my life

While I’ve tried hard to question some of these beliefs in the past, setbacks merely overwrite and undo that work and I tend to find myself back at the beginning. I now realise that during the closing months of 2015 (and probably long before) this story was controlling my life and the only way out appeared to be the deletion of the entire story and to begin again on a fresh page.

As I said, human beings are resilient and when we get knocked down we have a tendency to get right back up again. For some this takes time and requires the kindness and support of others. Matt Haig writes candidly about the times when our lives begin to unravel and, in his case, when anxiety and depression overwhelm. Indeed, life itself is overwhelming. My experiences are not identical, but being able to peek into the pages of someone else’s inner story can prove enlightening. I felt so privileged that a sent Matt Haig an email, just to say thanks.

O’Brien (like Haig) knows what he’s talking about. This is evident not just by the endorsements his book has received, but also by his deep knowledge of psychology and forthright no-nonsense style. There are no references or footnotes to distract the reader, just a practical application of psychological theory that draws mainly on the cognitive processes and the inner voices that hold us back and can propel us forward. The chapters on understanding Your Self, Your Behaviour and the Flow of Fear, I found particularly useful. The ‘Being’ chapters require more effort and self-reflection, but I’m working on it. I’ve also cheated to an extent in that I’ve solved the problem of teaching by no longer being a teacher, but the more I stay away from the classroom the more I fear returning. ‘Cheats’ somehow don’t seem to work awfully well in the long-term.

We need to make our lives work for us rather than allow life to push us this way and that way. We need to find the wisdom to identify what doesn’t work for us and the courage to change it.

The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable – Paul Tillich