The myth of self-esteem

A long-time educational myth is exploded:

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. . . .

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

via In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise – The Washington Post.

If they can’t pass the test, get rid of the test

For all that I love my native Oklahoma, education is not one of its strong points.  Harold Cole, writing in the Daily Oklahoman, gives  an example of the mindset that keeps holding it back:

A group of school superintendents recently expressed concern that about 6,000 high school seniors won’t graduate this year because of mandatory end-of-instruction tests. While others attempt to ascertain why this problem exists in order to propose preventive measures, Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, already knows what to do — simply pass legislation eliminating the tests. According to McPeak, “Every youngster who lives up to the contract the state has set up for them — which is complete this amount of coursework and you can graduate” — should receive their high school diplomas.

McPeak’s message seems to be, after serving time in classrooms, give students diplomas whether they learned anything or not. Never mind that giving out undeserved diplomas sets up students to fail in colleges and deceives prospective employers and military branches that require applicants to have legitimate high school diplomas that signify basic competency in math, logic and communication skills.

Rather than making conditions worse, legislators should do something to transform a public education system whose students struggle to pass end-of-instruction tests and, in comprehension of science and math, lag significantly behind students in other industrialized countries.

Correcting these deficiencies requires implementing mandatory coordinated science and math curricula targeted to grades 1-6. Quizzical young minds must be rewarded by instruction that expands understanding of surroundings. Such structured learning provides students with foundations and confidence to excel in future courses.

Science and math courses in grades 7-12 should be reviewed to ensure coverage of core subject matter. Weekly detailed course objectives and outlines should be made available to students, parents and others interested in improving student learning.

And most importantly, administrators and teachers must leave comfort zones and exert tough love by requiring students to earn grades by learning subject matter as indicated by performances on well-written quizzes, periodic exams and mandatory comprehensive final exams. Initially, enforcing this policy will cause consternation among students and teachers since traditions of allowing students to pass science and math courses without learning subject matter will end, and teachers’ abilities to educate will be spotlighted.

via Status quo in Oklahoma education not good enough | NewsOK.com.

I’ve heard school compared to prison, but this takes it to a new level.  If you do the time, they have to let you out!

College majors & unemployment

Colleges are getting blamed for turning out so many unemployable graduates with “impractical degrees” in the humanities.  Critics are saying that students should take “practical” majors like business or other job-training fields as a way to reduce unemployment.

But that’s exactly what college students, including the unemployed graduates, have already been doing!  Only 12% are humanities majors.  What we have now is a glut of unemployed business majors, computer programmers, and (especially) architecture majors.

Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel gives the facts and the economics behind the issue (such as supply and demand:  if everyone would or could go into the “high-paying” fields, they would no longer be high-paying):

Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be “skill-based education.”

A quarter of them study business, by far the most popular field, and 16 percent major in one of the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Throw in economics, and you have nearly half of all graduates studying the only subjects such contemptuous pundits recognize as respectable. . . .

Most are studying things that sound like job preparation, including all sorts of subjects related to health and education. Even the degree with the highest rate of unemployment — architecture, whose 13.9 percent jobless rate reflects the current construction bust — is a pre-professional major.

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.

That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.

Those who tout Stem fields as a cure-all confuse correlation with causality. It’s true that people who major in those subjects generally make more than, say, psychology majors. But they’re also people who have the aptitudes, attitudes, values and interests that draw them to those fields (which themselves vary greatly in content and current job prospects). The psychology and social work majors currently enjoying relatively low rates of unemployment — 7.7 percent and 6.6 percent respectively — probably wouldn’t be very good at computer science, which offers higher salaries but, at least at the moment, slightly lower chances of a job.

Whether they’re pushing plumbing or programming, the would- be vocational planners rarely consider whether any additional warm body with the right credentials would really enhance national productivity. Nor do they think much about what would happen to wages in a given field if the supply of workers increased dramatically. If everyone suddenly flooded into “practical” fields, we’d be overwhelmed with mediocre accountants and incompetent engineers, making lower and lower salaries as they swamped the demand for these services. Something like that seems to have already happened with lawyers.

Not everyone is the same. One virtue of a developed economy is that it provides niches for people with many different personalities and talents, making it more likely that any given individual can find a job that offers satisfaction.

As any good economist will remind you, income is just a means to utility, not a goal in itself. Some jobs pay well not only because few people have the right qualifications but also because few people want to do them in the first place. In a culture where many people hate oil companies, petroleum engineers probably enjoy such a premium. Plumbers — the touchstone example for critics who think too many people go to college — certainly do.

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

via Business: Washington Post Business Page, Business News.

I think the real problem is the academic collapse that has been documented in virtually all subjects that has taken place in most of today’s colleges and universities.  (Not at Patrick Henry College where I serve, I am happy to say, where our graduates with their classical liberal arts foundation are even doing well in today’s job market.)

Educational culture

What is the key to a successful school?  The educational culture.

Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake.

Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard. Its take away: Schools shouldnt focus on resources. They should focus on culture.

The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” earlier this year for his research into the driving forces behind student achievement. Fryer gathered extensive data from 35 New York City charter schools, which generally cater to underprivileged and minority communities. He interviewed students, principals, and teachers, reviewing lesson plans and watching classroom video, to try and pinpoint factors that correlated with higher test scores.

His findings could add some new fire to the debate about what makes a good school. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

What did make a difference? The study measures correlation, not causation, so there are no clear answers. But there is a clear pattern. Schools that focus teacher development, data-driven instruction, creating a culture focused on student achievement, and setting high academic expectations consistently fared better. The results were consistent whether the charter’s program was geared towards the creative arts or hard-core behavioral discipline.

If small classes, credentialed teachers, and plush budgets aren’t adding up to successful students, then what is? Fryer measured school culture in a way no academic before him had. He looked at the number of times teachers got feedback. The number of days students got tutored in small groups. The number of assessments for students. The number of hours students actually spent at their desks. Each correlated with higher student scores.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools that claimed a “relentless focus on academic goals” also tended to produce better test scores. Schools that focused on self esteem and emotional health? Not as much. (Sorry Gen Y.)

via Everything You Know About Education Is Wrong – Atlantic Mobile.

Perhaps this is one reason why homeschooled children tend to do so well.  In addition to following what is usually a more substantive curriculum, homeschooled children have lots of interactions with their teachers!  And they are indeed immersed in an educational culture.

HT:  Stewart Lundy

Chapel at Harvard

Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie Paulsell tells about worshipping at Harvard:

On Wednesdays at noon we gather for community worship organized by a student steering committee and the director of religious and spiritual life. When I first came to Harvard Divinity School, the weekly community worship service was deeply ecumenical. While the shape of the service was recognizably Protestant, it also possessed a flexibility born of a desire to create a welcoming, open space for people of different theological and religious backgrounds.

Over the years, as our school has become more multireligious, our students have urged us toward new ways of gathering for community worship. Even the most welcoming service can obscure our distinctiveness, they told us. We want to be with each other as we truly are, they said. We want to be present for each other’s prayers and rituals and practices. We want to be led in Torah study by the Jewish students and in Friday prayers by the Muslims; to listen to a dharma talk with the Buddhist students and hear a sermon with the Baptists; to be with the Episcopalian students for the Eucharist and with the Hindus for puja; to light Advent candles with the Roman Catholics, offer prayers at the flaming chalice with the Unitarian Universalists and keep silence with the Quakers.

These days our community worship is led by one of the religious communities in our school. We begin with brief opening words (our beloved Protestant forms persist!) and a lifting up of the prayers, hopes and longings collected in a notebook at the door of the chapel. Then we enter into the practice of a particular religious community, joining in where we can, maintaining a respectful presence where we feel we cannot. Each week, as the distinctiveness of each tradition becomes visible, we can see more clearly the differences between our ritual practices, our holy books, our music and our conceptions of the divine, and we see the family resemblances, the shared concerns—what Thomas Merton called the “wider oikoumene” of the human family.

The desire of students to be present to each other as distinctively religious people seems to me characteristic of this generation—or at least of this current crop of divinity students. While earlier generations sometimes muted explicit religious symbolism out of a desire to cross the boundaries of difference, this generation seems to be more convinced that it is from the specificity of our religious traditions that we will reach one another.

via Devotional difference: A pluralistic community’s worship life | The Christian Century.

Yes, this is syncretism, celebrated at one of our most prestigious mainline seminaries and lauded in the mainline Christian Century.  This is where liberal theology is these days.  But note the difference.  A few years ago, what was once the multi-denominational and then became the multi-faith worship service would mush all of the different religions in a worship service that would be recognizable to none of them.  Now, though, the distinct worship services of the distinct religions are carried out, but everyone participates in them and honors them all equally.

This is the difference between ecumenism and polytheism.

Don’t cheat. Don’t even try it.

Here is a great, eloquent, and right-on discussion of academic dishonesty, in which a professor, who blogs as “Tenured Radical,” imagines what she would say to her college-aged child on the subject, if she had one.  I offer it as a celebration of Finals Week, which students and us professors are celebrating (if you can call it that) this week.  A sample, though you should read the whole post (if you can handle some vulgar language):

Tenured Radical and the returning college student are having a final cup of coffee at the airport while waiting out a flight delay. This is how it would go:

Spawn of the Radical: Esteemed Parental Unit, you have taught at a selective liberal arts college for two decades. What advice do you give for the hellish, final weeks of school?

Tenured Radical: I am so glad you asked, Spawn. (Ruminates briefly.) OK, here goes. First piece of advice? Don’t plagiarize, buy a paper off the internet, pay someone else to write for you, or retype an ancient term paper secreted away in the files of your Greek organization. I will be far more sympathetic if you simply fail the class, or get a bad grade, than I will be if you are hauled up before a disciplinary board and hung out to dry. . .

Spawn: Why? It seems like such an easy and obvious solution to not having done the work for the course. Besides, so many of my friends get away with it.

TR: True dat. And yet, if your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and managed to live, would you do it too? My point is this: because cheating is evidence of rank stupidity, many people do not get away with it. In fact, many people are no better at cheating than they are at doing the work for the course. Others spend time that might have gone into conventional studying devising elaborate systems for cheating (Profs, follow these links and track what your students already know.) It would be far better to fail a course, take an incomplete, or throw yourself on the mercy of the professor than to be expelled from college. As my dear friend Flavia Fescue points out, even though it “breaks her heart” she catches one or two plagiarists every semester and she takes them down. It is part of our job to take you down (think, selling crack on the steps of a police station, ok?) Historiann concurs. . . “In my experience, it never pays to give a plagiarist a break. Hang’em high, regretfully if you must, but hang’em high, friends.”

Spawn: Parental unit, have you ever caught a plagiarist?

TR: Indeed, and those who cheat on exams. Even though there are some who slip through my net, even before Turnitin.com I have always known when I have snagged a plagiarist that I was right, even prior to being able to prove it. And I can always prove it because I am a far better at research than an undergraduate is at covering up plagiarism.

via If I Had College-Age Children, I Would Give Them This Advice for the Final Weeks of School: Don’t Cheat – Tenured Radical – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Tenured Radical and I probably see eye to eye on few things, but we seem to agree on this one.

Yes, it’s possible to get away with it, as so many people do.  But attentive professors can catch it easily, if they take the effort.  (I have lots of small informal writing assignments over the course of my classes, and I get to know each student’s writing style.  I can tell if a paper is written in a different style.  I’m not saying that no one has ever pulled one over on me, but I sure have caught a lot of them in my day.)  And it only takes getting caught once to ruin your whole college career.  What’s significant to note about what Tenured Radical is saying is that now even ostensibly liberal academics like her and her linked colleagues are sick to death, as well as being insulted, by so much academic dishonesty.  So they are adopting a “hang ‘em high” policy.

Please, students reading this from whatever school you attend across this great land, don’t try it.  I mean, it’s wrong in itself, but it could also do you great harm.

HT:  Jackie


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