Here’s an interesting article from The Washington Post. It’s title? “For Math Students, Self-Esteem Might Not Equal High Scores.”
It is difficult to get through a day in an American school without hearing maxims such as these: “To succeed, you must believe in yourself,” and “To teach, you must relate the subject to the lives of students.”
But the Brookings Institution is reporting today that countries such as the United States that embrace self-esteem, joy and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that don’t promote all that self-regard.
Consider Korea and Japan.
According to the Washington think tank’s annual Brown Center report on education, 6 percent of Korean eighth-graders surveyed expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39 percent of U.S. eighth-graders. But a respected international math assessment showed Koreans scoring far ahead of their peers in the United States, raising questions about the importance of self-esteem.
In Japan, the report found, 14 percent of math teachers surveyed said they aim to connect lessons to students’ lives, compared with 66 percent of U.S. math teachers. Yet the U.S. scores in eighth-grade math trail those of the Japanese, raising similar questions about the importance of practical relevance.
Tom Loveless, the report’s author, said that the findings do not mean that student happiness causes low achievement. But he wrote that his analysis of the international math assessment, the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, shows that U.S. schools should not be too quick to assume that happiness is what matters in the classroom.
Sounds about right to me, though the article does go on to mention some reasons for skepticism.
I played a lot of sports as a kid, and I was on some good teams and some bad teams. I was on a championship soccer team and a last place baseball team. Perhaps my memories are a bit rosier than the reality, but I don’t remember it being so terrible to lose some games. If anything we probably had more fun on the last place team. No pressure!
I was the goalie for another soccer team. We finished in second place. We lost the championship game by a score of 1-0. That blew, but I don’t recall it haunting me for very long. Of course, it helped that the score was the result of an own-goal, when one of our fullbacks (I wonder what ever happened to him?) deflected the ball into our net off a corner kick. That meant no one really blamed me for the loss! Yay!
Which all just to say that I thing concern for self-esteem has gotten a bit out of hand. School should not be a relentless assault on a kid’s ego, but it is not the worst thing in the world for him to feel crappy about himself after failing at something. George Carlin, as always, said it best:
No child these days ever gets to hear the character building words: “You lost, Bobby! You lost, you’re a loser, Bobby!” They miss out on that! You know what they tell a kid that lost these days? “You are the last winner!” A lot of these kids will not get to know the truth about themselves until they are in their 20s, when their boss calls them in and says “Bobby, clear the shit out of your desk and get the fuck out of here, you’re a loser!”