The self-esteem bubble pops


The fateful year 1969, celebrated equally for the Apollo moon landing and Woodstock, also saw the publication of Nathan Brandan's The Psychology of Self-Esteem. This was the book that inspired what some predicted would be a revolution in parenting and pedagogy. Now, finally, the self-esteem movement may be running out of … well, self-esteem. One reason is because it never worked. We probably always knew, deep down, that juvenile achievement wasn't going to be as easy as laying in a supply of You're Awesome! stickers, even if they're the glittery kind. But it's one thing to argue from common sense, and quite another to get science on your side. Science is now speaking up, with a voice that could spell the end (eventually) for the insidious practice of showering schoolchildren with empty praise.

In a well-known 2006 study conducted by the Brookings Institute, students reported feeling very good about their academic performance, even while scoring lower than kids in other countries who did not report the same level of self-confidence. The shocking truth: When we tell kids they are "smart," their natural response is to protect that reputation. Therefore, they take fewer chances and back away from challenges, meaning their brains don't engage and school becomes an utter bore.

But a program called Brainology, based on neuroscience, is beginning to gain some traction in public schools (see video clip below). Developed by Stanford University's Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell, Brainology proposes to make the students partners in their own education. Instead of telling a class that they're all "above average," teachers share with the kids what's going on inside their heads when they learn. Vital to the curriculum is a beginner's course in neuroscience, where children learn that intelligence is not a matter of being smart, but becoming smart. Rather than a preexisting condition, intelligence is the process of creating connections between nerve cells in the cortex, pathways that grow stronger and faster with use. To fail at a difficult challenge doesn't mean you're dumb; it means that you're forging new trails in the brain. Brainology tries to create a "growth mindset" in the student, where struggle is expected and "being smart" is an achievable goal.

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About 300 schools have used the program so far, and the results are encouraging. It's a step in the right direction, so long as children are allowed to flourish in their own way and not pressed into the service of some utilitarian goal. That's a big if, and another, bigger IF is whether schools of education will adopt any of the research. It sounds a bit rigorous for them. One thing Christian kids and teachers can take away is that the brain is a marvelous instrument with tremendous potential, because it's designed by a marvelous Creator.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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