Self-Control, Not Self-Esteem, Is Key to Academic Success

Schools and parents should take steps to teach students self-control if they want them to succeed, say a number of recent studies. Hans Bader, writing for OpenMarket.org – the blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute – explains that by focusing on self-esteem rather than self-control adults actually sabotage kids’ chances of reaching their full potential. [...]

Schools and parents should take steps to teach students self-control if they want them to succeed, say a number of recent studies. Hans Bader, writing for OpenMarket.org – the blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute – explains that by focusing on self-esteem rather than self-control adults actually sabotage kids’ chances of reaching their full potential.

Bader cites a number of studies that show that college students who heard self-esteem pep talks prior to exams performed worse than their peers who did not. Roy Baumeister from Florida State University says his own work in the area confirms the findings. Students whose self-esteem is not tied to effort don’t perform as well, possibly because they don’t have an incentive to apply themselves.

A year ago, The Washington Post reported on the failure of self-esteem to improve educational achievement: due to the self-esteem fad, American students’ self-esteem outstripped their achievement, which fell compared to their international peers. U.S. eighth-graders did worse in math than their peers in countries like Singapore and South Korea, but felt better about themselves and their ability in math.

According to Bader, the focus on self-esteem in schools with the hope that it might lead to better student outcomes has instead “backfired.” In pursuit of that goal, precious learning time was diverted towards feel-good efforts that paid no academic dividends whatsoever.

Due to inflated self-esteem, “More students say they’re gifted in writing ability” than in the past, “yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s,” says psychologist Jean Twenge. “And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.”

The efforts to pump up students’ self-perception are even more odd in light of recent research that shows that academic achievement and self-esteem are occasionally inversely related. Bader quotes from a RealClearPolitics.com article that explains that American students – while judging themselves the most competent in mathematics – actually performed the worst of the 8 countries studied. In contrast, while Korean students topped the list in mathematical competency, they viewed themselves as least capable in the subject.

Bader goes on to say that the growth of self-esteem training in U.S. schools could have come from the confusion about its relationship to achievement. The assumption seemed to have been that higher self-esteem meant better student performance, when in reality it was probably exactly the opposite.

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