Is High Self-Esteem Bad For Math Education?

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!”

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Dunning-Kruger might be rearing its head here. The Korean students are more competent, and therefore more aware of how much they may still yet not know. The US students were less competent, and therefore more confident.

In other words, the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. As your knowledge increases, your estimate of how much you know, relative to what can be known, diminishes.

I wonder- how high do you have to score compared to other Koreans to be sure you'll gain entry into a top high school? Is the correlation between 8th grade math scores and life success measures tighter in Korea? In other words, is this phenomenon just a consequence of differences in what constitutes adequate math competency?

There just isn't a link between ego and success. Certainly it's beneficial for a person to feel good about his/herself but what if they're a loser? Where does that place one's ego? I guess it's right beside the half-empty bottle of vodka. And what about all the "successful" people that are miserable?

Most kids will be happy just being kids (riding bikes, playing video games, picking their noses, etc.) They don't need do-gooder teachers trying to help them feel better about themselves. Bolstering kid egos is a waste of time and energy.

I have a pet hypothesis that it's not so much failing, as how you're taught to respond to failure, that matters. If, for instance, failure is seen as a disastrous blow to your self-worth, then failure sucks. If you regard cocking up as an sign of where to target your next round of improvements, it's a lot less harrowing, and you get better at your skill. The potential problem is that (since perfection doesn't often exist outside of school test results) you become overly critical of your own work, to the extent that you have trouble seeing the genuine merits of your flawed but good effort.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 09 Sep 2010 #permalink

Interesting, but hardly compelling.

Elsewhere I have seen sociologists argue that the different math scores are due to differences in culture and the expectations it creates in students. Supposedly, in the USA and Europe there is the widespread idea that some people are good at math and others are bad at it, whereas in Japan the notion that there are people who work hard at math and people who work less at it is common. According to these people, this makes American students who have had any sort of initial setback in math shun the subject because they think it is hopeless, whereas Japanese kids are more likely to sit down and work through the problem until they become sufficiently competent at the subject.

I am not saying this is the definitive answer, but, frankly, I don't think it is less of a just-so story than what is argued in the article.

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 09 Sep 2010 #permalink

How much of an effect do self-fulfilling prophecies play in attaining mastery of a subject? If nothing else, self-esteem can play into creating a truth you believe in.

Interesting comments, stripey-cat and valhar.

I have no idea whether your hypotheses or sociology is correct. But it does seem that both "hard work will improve your performance" and "mistakes are not the end of the world - learn from them" are good lessons, worth teaching.

Related issue: While it is all well and good to encourage students to take an interest in new subjects, the endless coaxing that goes on in American education encourages kids to think they have a significant understanding of a topic when they have merely learned some terminology and perhaps grasped some easy ideas. At some point, it is necessary to break the bad news that math and biology and history and music and art and everything else are damned competitive and that a professional engagement with them requires years of effort. Which is how we wound up with a country full of people who have an absurdly high estimation of their own understanding of matters about which they actually have no right to an opinion.

Interesting. A perhaps related phenomenon is that some child psychologists are beginning to think that non-specific praise can undermine motivation. An example experiment was to take a bunch of young kids (1st-graders I think?) and have them draw. One group was always told "Good job!", another group was given no feedback. There may have been a third group that was given specific comments ("I see you put the sun above the house, where it belongs" or whatever) but I might be making that up. In any case, the group with the non-specific praise rapidly lost interest in the drawing exercises over the course of couple weeks or however long it was. (I really wish I could remember more details or provide a citation... sorry...) The theory being that they started to look only for the praise, rather than enjoy the activity itself.

We've been trying to do that with our son -- not withhold praise, but rather give praise in the form of specific comments and by trying to foster a shared sense of accomplishment. It's really eyeroll-inducing how some parents say "Good job!" to every freakin' thing their toddler does. Instead, we'll say things like, "You stacked ten blocks!" We don't have to say "And that's good stacking!" because it's obvious. Then he takes pride in the fact that he stacked ten blocks, not in the fact that we told him he did a good job.

I feel like it's already starting to pay off. Often when he accomplishes something, he'll clap for himself. heh... but that's what we're going for: Self-motivation rather than external motivation. I am slowly being convinced that the praise-heavy style of parenting that has been popular in the past couple of decades favors external motivation.

Are there really kids who've never had this kind of negative feedback on their work? I hear a lot about everyone being given trophies at sports events and such, but most kids who are bad at sport know it and are told about it by team-mates, even if they don't always want to admit it themselves.

Same goes for academics- there are very few people I know who would consider themselves good at math for example, and even the kids who do generally change that opinion when they move a class or start another subject.

I agree that the self-esteem culture has gotten out of hand and that the best thing is to let kids build their own self-esteem out of their own values and successes. They're quite capable of feeling appropriately pleased with themselves without help from other people.

On the other hand, I think there may be cultural factors playing into the American and Korean kids' responses that have nothing to do with self-esteem. In some cultures it's pretty immodest to express confidence in one's abilities. It needn't mean the person in question actually lacks confidence or goes around feeling miserable about themselves. I think that's a problem with the methodology of this study.

I guess no one has ever heard of the concept of "true-true-unrelated."

Next you'll be telling me that kids get vaccinated at a certain age, and kids first demonstrate autism at about the same age, therefore we shouldn't vaccinate kids.

Isn't this type of logical fallacy the FIRST thing that we should be protecting ourselves from? Otherwise, Jimmy Carter is an elephant every single time.

One explanation might be that in America, it's OK to be bad at math. That's just how some people are. Just because someone else does better than you in math doesn't mean you're any less smart or worthwhile. There's not much competition to be the best, as long as one is adequate.

This book mentions that hypothesis but puts more emphasis on comparisons of models of education reform between USA, Japan, and Germany. In the US, education experts don't teach and education reform consists of bullet pointed broadsheets that are handed down to teachers from on high. In Japan, education reform works from the bottom up with teachers working together to incrementally improve a shared pool of lesson plans, strategies, and other resources.

I think it's a combination. There are institutional problems with US public education and they're important, but when I taught high school math I didn't get the sense that any of my students were actually interested in learning things or bettering themselves, they were just passing time to graduation. (I actually asked one of my classes point blank: "Don't you want to learn new things? Make yourselves better people?" They answered almost in chorus: "No!")

Of more interest is the comparison between US and Canadian scores. Both work from the NCTM standards, yet Canadian students regularly score in the top 5 in international exams and American students do not. Why?

@14... probably because Americans waste a lot of time on non-decimal-based measurements.

Feet, inches, yards, miles. Fahrenheit. Ounces, pints, quarts. Ounces (really, you couldn't at least come up with a different WORD for a different thing?), pounds, tons.

Think of all the time spent working through these concepts that the Canadian kids don't have to worry about.

And fractions. Why in the world are we still shoe-horning fractions into early math education? What has 1/5th ever done that 0.20 can't do? It's because we don't default to the decimal system in our thinking about everyday things.

If we weren't so obsessed with old football records and golf distances, our economy wouldn't be in such a shambles.