Self Esteem and Academic Achievement

I was recently asked to answer three questions, here is my thinking on the first.

In your teaching experience, which comes first: self-esteem or academic achievement? Explain your reasoning and how you approach these issues intentionally in your classroom.

Possunt, quia posse videntur.” Virgil

Literally: “They are able because they seem (are seen) to be able.”

TrearddurThere is a period of my life on which I look back most fondly. It is a time of real childhood where every day contributed to my growing sense of me, every day led to learning and I just knew that I was capable of what I set my mind to. During this time I was also academically successful, although I do not remember much about it. It was just part of what we did. Not long after this experience everything changed completely. “Could do better!” became a clarion call and ultimately it became my truth. I remember classes from this time because I hated them and was failing.

So what was different? Basically a change in schools. The first used Virgil’s words as it’s motto – “they can because they think they can”. Every teacher lived and breathed this simple edict and so did the pupils. The result was significant and explains why I find self fulfillment prophecy thinking so compelling.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) report and discuss the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom at length. In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement. Six years later my teachers were anecdotally proving them right. Conversely Feldman & Prohaska (1979) sought to discover if the Pygmalion Effect could occur in reverse with the Gollum Effect. If my experiences are evidence then the teachers in the second school had beaten them to it.

4-Day Treck 1999092The last four years I spent in the UK I took the reins of a two year college course. Both year groups spent two days a week at the center where I worked and I had the great fortune of not only shaping the curriculum of this outdoor leadership class; I was also a significant presence in the student’s lives. I particularly loved watching the slope shouldered 16 year olds, beaten down by a school system that had failed them visibly straighten their posture over two years. My goal with the course was that we catered to three sets of needs. Firstly, that alums had the wherewithal to function well as novice outdoor instructors. Secondly, that we provided the skills for a successful transition to and exit from college. Finally, that they had the people and organizational skills to perform well in middle management positions. Invariably, by focusing on increasing their self-esteem and helping them to figure out who they were and where they fit in we were successful.

B Tech 1072So what did it look like? Firstly, the program started by being very structured, experiences were designed to create specific learning. In particular we helped students reflect and give each other feedback on what they were doing well and what they liked about themselves and each other. We made sure that while events were challenging they were accomplished. With these foundations in place, the students were given more autonomy and the ability to falter and then improve. We avoided words like failure and instead referred to opportunities and growth. We set up a cohort that depended on each other and consequently learned from and taught each other. In summary, the first year was scripted and culminated in a three month work experience for which they felt prepared. On their return the following year the students chose an expedition as a closure experience. We offered to staff it for up to a month and yet provided nothing else. The year was then spent planning and preparing for this expedition along with other project based work.

Untitled-17My final expedition involved sea kayaking above the arctic circle in Norway’s Lyngen Alps and mountaineering in the Romsdal region. We each contributed $150 to the venture and then the students set about organizing and collecting resources and developing the necessary skills. Witnessing students who mere months previously shrank as a they spoke to an adult, now on the phone to the CEO of a large organization telling him why he needed to donate money / resources, etc. and what he was going to receive in return was beautiful to behold. The work that these students produced was magnificent. For instance we had one project where with limited guidance / preparation and no resources students were asked to make a piece of outdoor equipment that they would use and document the process. Invariably, I was blown away, be it by a home made wood strip canoe, or waterproof bib pants that were manufactured commercially by the factory which had been approached to help create the prototype. The written work was always outstanding and the presentation of work incredible.

ROUND ANGLESEY44The Pygmalion Effect suggests that if a teacher believes in and has high expectations of a student, then that student will have belief in and have high expectations of him / herself. With this self belief magic is possible. Catching students doing things right and being successful and building on this success is the route to a culture of anything being possible.

20130419-124453.jpgWhen I watch my eight year old son ski, the thing that most affects his performance is confidence. I cannot make him confident. However, by controlling the environment (taking him on routes that alternately challenge and show him what he is capable of) and the way I talk to him we create an accelerated learning curve. If I spend time asking him what he is proud of rather then telling him “good job” or some equally empty accolade then he learns to look at himself and see what he perceives as being good. If I ask him what he is thankful for, he sees what is good in the world, when he is a good person in a good world it motivates him to be successful.

IMGP1356Tying in neatly with this is the concept of creating a vision. When I want rowdy, discombobulated kids to be triumphant I start by telling them they are going to be successful because… and list behaviors that are going to help them. They nearly always display these behaviors and come away feeling accomplished. Likewise some years ago I was a ski instructor in a small resort. One experiment I wish I had attempted was to acquire four jackets each distinctively colored. I wanted to film four colleagues ski well in four different styles while wearing one of these different colored jackets. I am convinced that following a morning on the hill if I showed the video and then asked the clients which person they wanted to ski like and then provided them with the corresponding jacket for the afternoon that I would have seen a marked improvement in their skiing and that they would have skied like the person they admired.

IMGP1266People and children in particular can do anything that they set their mind to and believe they can. I say children in particular because they have not had so many conflicting experiences. Self belief, creativity and tools for happiness are the best gifts a teacher can nurture. Everything else falls in to place when these corner stones are set properly.

“There is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” Kurt Hahn

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