Thursday, June 3, 2010

Readin', Rightin', Rithmetic...and Self-Esteem?

Here's this week's column from The Observer...

Readin', Rightin', 'Rithmetic...and Self-Esteem?
By Andrea Cameron

The title of a recent column by Mindelle Jacobs, appearing in the May 25th Recorder and Times, startled me: "Focus on Self-Esteem Hurts Schools." The column goes on to discuss a new book called What's Wrong with Our Schools: And How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long:

"Three upstart Canadian academics have dared to suggest what many parents already suspect--that North American public education has been so dumbed down that students are being seriously short-changed....because public school educators focus on enhancing kids' self-esteem instead of imparting core skills..."

Anyone who spends time with children and youth, whether parent or educator, knows that children cannot learn without self-esteem. Without self-esteem, perhaps they can memorize, circle letters on a multiple choice test, or check the right box, but can they really learn?

To truly learn something new requires us to take risks. People without self-esteem struggle to take healthy, world-by-the-tail risks.

A child must believe in herself to conduct a science experiment.

A youth must believe in himself to write an editorial.

So perhaps it's not the education system that's failing children and youth. Perhaps it's all the things in society that erode their self-esteem, causing them to arrive at school broken.

From birth, our society teaches children that it's not who you are, it's what you own. It's not how you feel, it's how you look. It's not what you give, it's what you can get.

In the midst of commercial jingle-jangle and perpetual text message palaver, we as parents and educators must salvage our children's sense of self.

Do we do this by teaching the three R's? Of course that's part of it. Whether a child is home-schooled, private-schooled, separate-schooled, public-schooled, or unschooled, skill and knowledge development are part of growing up. I believe that kids learn despite our curriculum and pedagogy. They learn intuitively. They watch us. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes it's not.

But in order to learn, kids must believe in themselves. Testing examines a very limited skill set. Testing tells us what we don't know. What we need in our society...what we need to save our world...are people who can use what they do know well. We need people who can think creatively, who can take a problem, digest it, and come up with an innovative solution. Rote answers don't stop oil leaks.

I risk being labelled a "romantic progressive." Bring it. In order for society to progress, classrooms need to be more collaborative than competitive. Kids need to see each other as partners rather than as adversaries. They need to see their teachers as respected guides rather than as gate-keepers of knowledge. Because (shhhhh) we really don't know everything...

And as for self-esteem. Try learning your multiplication tables when you're terrified of what's going to happen at recess. Try reading Old Man and the Sea when you're worried what your old man is going to do to you when he finds out you failed English. Try learning the alphabet when you're hungry.

When kids arrive at educational institutions broken (or when their school experience is difficult), we need the staff to pick them up. We need the student support workers, educational assistants, chaplains and counsellors who can do the work of piecing lost souls back together. Can I emphasize how much we need support staff? We really, really do.

Perhaps there is some confusion about the true meaning of self-esteem. It's not getting a jellybean for reading a story. It's not getting a bike for attending school. I've taught in communities that rely heavily on a reward system for student achievement. Rewards don't increase self-esteem. Neither does praise. Sometimes we load on the "good jobs" and "you're specials" in an attempt to fabricate self-esteem.

In my opinion, there's a simple way to make kids believe in themselves. Create the space so they can actually do something. Whether they build a house in construction technology, put on a class play in drama, design a new product in business, or create a water filtration device in science, they need a sense of real accomplishment. They will feel far better and learn far more by contributing to the community than by hanging a high test score on the fridge.

1 comment:

  1. Dead on target. That was me in school - no self-esteem, no belief in myself ... though to be honest, it was as much the school experience that contributed to that as it was "outside" influences of pop culture. More so, actually. I didn't arrive broken - it broke me. Teachers seemed far more interested in berating you for what you were bad at than encouraging you at what you were good at. And bullying ... that line, "Try learning your multiplication tables when you're terrified of what's going to happen at recess." Been there. Oh yes.

    Wish I'd had more teachers like you.