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Scotland is plagued by under-achieving young people and it’s not because of low self-esteem.
Carol Craig addressed the recent conference of SELMAS, the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (see TESS, 7 December 2012), the theme of which was ‘Up-front and visible educational leadership, challenging the Scottish psyche’.
She analysed why individual self-confidence in Scotland was low and why modern, materialistic culture profoundly and negatively affected how people judge themselves.
Americans, she suggested, believe that they are all of equal worth and, consequently, anyone can become President. Europeans, a tad more reticent, believe simply that they are all of equal worth.
Scots also believe in equality but they deliver a quite different message to themselves and their children: “We’re all equally worthless. Don’t get above yourself.” It’s a parody but like all parodies contains profound truth.
In Scotland’s binary culture, individuals are judged worthwhile or worthless, virtuous or bad, clever or thick. When reviewing the attainment gap in our schools, we should consider how these attitudes predispose young people to live down to the lowest expectations.
The 60 years from 1919 to 1979 saw a slow but steady decline in the income gap in Scottish society.
Barriers were breaking down. That progress, however, has stalled. Some of the roots of that stalled process is that Scotland is a labelling culture, one in which people, including school students, are seen as fixed entities.
Teachers and parents, Craig suggested, remain too fixated on inherent ability and young people are quick to intuit these negative expectations. Her advice to teachers was superbly simple: Don’t judge. Teach!
To teachers and parents, she suggested a new model of praise, not for seemingly fixed abilities (“That’s excellent; you’re very clever/artistic/good at maths”) but rather for effort and hard work. She reiterated an often-shared position, that the ‘self-esteem’ agenda undermines both resilience and academic attainment.
Teachers must avoid the provision of low challenge experiences as a means of creating quick (but ultimately meaningless) success.
Self-esteem is not without value but it should not be encouraged by praising attainments of marginal value. The best boost to children’s self-esteem, she said, was loving, caring but authoritative parenting.
Teachers were far better focusing on self-efficacy than self-esteem. Self-efficacy is based on the acquisition of real and useful skills and of putting real effort into the process.
Craig concluded by referring to her new book, The Great Takeover (Argyll, RPP £5.99) in which she asserts that in our materialist world, it’s money, fame, possessions and success that matter. What have been lost are relationships, enjoyable tasks and selffulfilment.
Wellbeing, she suggested – and wellbeing is now part of a wider Scottish educational aim – comes from a sense of meaning and purpose and from serving a goal bigger than yourself.
Increasingly, however, despite the elimination of the great killer diseases, too many of our young people suffer from a range of socially created maladies: depression, anxiety, obesity, self-harm and eating disorders. Adult pursuit of material satisfaction, as well as family breakdown, plays a major part in the neglect of children. Above all, the relentless commercial targeting of children as consumers creates a crass materialism in the young.
Craig also slates the increasing application of business paradigms to public service and to education in particular. There is now so much pressure on children to achieve that many feel stressed by it.
Educational reform is justified in terms of improving national economic efficiency rather than as developing children for life.
Carol Craig has challenged the Scottish teachers. Her more profound challenge is to their political masters and to our materialist, consumerist culture.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 28 January 2013:

One Comment

  • Bill Boyd says:

    Good article Alex. Where I do agree with Carol is in her comments about the tendency towards labelling and a ‘fixed mindset’, and the need to move towards a ‘growth mindset’, which I assume come directly from Carol Dweck. As for the message that ‘we’re all equally worthless’ we could discuss at length how that has become part of the culture, but there will be plenty of opportunity to re-examine that one in the near future.
    Best wishes as always,

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