Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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A few weeks ago The Sunday Herald carried a big essay I had written for their opinion section which they called The Princess Syndrome – one of the lines in the piece. I’m not going to summarise the whole argument and anyone who is interested can read it as I’ve pasted it below.
In the article I say that we have to be careful, given America’s experience, that the Curriculum for Excellence does not equate confidence with self-esteem. I also then go on to argue that one of the difficulties with the Curriculum for Excellence may be its emphasis on ‘confident individuals’. I know from experience in running countless workshops with teachers that they equate confident individuals with speaking in class, performance and social confidence. This means that they are favouring an extravert type of personality and potentially demonising quiet, introvert children. It really isn’t useful to see confidence as the property of individuals as it is largely about how we feel about doing things. Even the most socially confident person will lack confidence about some things in life – spending time alone, for example or going on a retreat. But this subtlety is lost at a stroke by using the term ‘confident individual’ so that it works alongside ‘successful learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens’.
I didn’t manage to see the internet response to the piece but I did see a letter by Professor Brian Boyd, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Strathclyde. (See below.) I have a lot of respect for Brian and so his letter troubled me.
First, let me explain my respect for him. Brian is an inspiring and engaging speaker and anytime I have read his articles or heard him talk I’ve always felt on the same wavelength as him. Brian is instinctively child-centred and knows the importance of young people feeling valued at school. I don’t think anyone has written as well as he has on how young people feel about school and the importance of the teacher-pupil relationship.
Brian maintains that I am 'tilting at windmills' and finishes his letter defending the Curriculum for Excellence against anything I said by stating: “I’m sure that Craig’s Centre for Confidence and Well-being could play a positive role, with others, in ensuring that all children get the opportunity to become confident individuals as well as successful learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens.” It is the inclusion of the word ‘could’ in that sentence which I find particularly troubling.
Since we got going almost five years ago much, indeed more than fifty per cent, of our work has been on young people – mostly in school settings. Let me list some of this for you: We ran a one-day conference, at which Martin Seligman spoke on confidence and education. We held two separate events with Carol Dweck (who Brian quotes favourably in his letter). Indeed no other organisation in Scotland has done as much as we have to promote Dweck’s work. There is now a number of schools piloting her Brainology programme as a result of the Centre. We have also been involved in a major Glasgow University mindset project and we have a huge number of free resources on this site for people related to mindset. We have also run two courses on Bounce Back, an Australian resilience programme and various local authorities and organisations are using it. We have also various resources to support this including very popular resilience stickers for teachers and parents. I have written an entire book called Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People which is geared towards anyone interested in understanding confidence better. It has sold more than 2,000 copies. We have also devised a Confidence Research System which helps people measure the impact of their activities. This is being used by various projects. We have established close working relationships with the outdoor education sector and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and we’ve done some training on confidence with them and they are also using the CRS. On top of that I do countless talks to various educational bodies. Indeed I am just back from one I did tonight.
I have changed very little of the views I expressed in The Scots Crisis of Confidence. I still stand by most of the analysis. However, I am now more aware of the dangers of pursuing a psychological agenda. One of the people I have to thank for that is Martin Seligman. He alerted me to the dangers of the self-esteem agenda. I resisted this critique at first and, to be honest, it would have been easier for me and the Centre if I had just ignored these arguments altogether. But when I did the research and spoke to people I could see that we had to be very careful in how we went about trying to increase confidence in schools and that was why I quickly wrote Creating Confidence. When I give talks to parents and teachers I get such a positive response because they can see the dangers as well and respond positively to the position we are adopting as a Centre.
Like Brian I really want young people to feel valued at school. So it pains me to hear that in some local authorities teachers in primary school are writing on quiet children’s report cards that they lack self-esteem. It pains me to think that heavy handed teachers, or any one of a number of educationalists, are now devising learning outcomes or checklists for confident individuals and judging young people’s confidence against it. Is this not going to be another way that kids will get the message that they are not ok as they are? It also pains me when I hear about eight year old children having to think about how confident they are and setting targets for themselves. Does Brian know about the dangers of ironic effects?
So the idea that the Centre ‘could’ play a positive role in helping teachers and parents understand how they can develop youngsters’ confidence puzzles me. I think what Brian really meant is that I shouldn’t criticise the Curriculum for Excellence as it now stands. In his letter Brian refers to being part of the Ministerial Review Group which produced the original document for the CofE in 2004. I think that this has provided an innovative approach to education and contains many valuable elements. But the idea that all useful thinking in relation to creating confident pupils was done back then and that critical thinking is no longer required is simply not tenable.
So the Centre will continue to make a positive contribution to the Curriculum for Excellence not just by running events and producing resources but also by having the confidence to pose challenging questions. And we sincerely hope that a man of Brian’s wisdom and integrity will welcome this and participate in the ensuing discussion.
The Princess Syndrome, Sunday Herald, 2 August, 2009
Talk to teachers these days and they’ll tell you that parents are increasingly visiting schools to complain about their child’s mental state: ‘My son failed his spelling test and it’s bad for his self-esteem’; ‘my daughter didn’t get the lead part in the pantomime and she is devastated’; ‘my angelic daughter has fallen out with her friends and they are being cruel to her, so what is the school going to do about it?’ One lovely primary head teacher, recently complained: “So many parents seem to think I’m trying to make their children’s lives difficult that when I look in the mirror I expect to see Cruella de Ville.’
Teachers, as parents themselves, understand the problem: modern parents now believe that children’s self-esteem and happiness matter so much that they must protect their offspring from bad experiences. However, teachers can see that this mentality is not beneficial as it is undermining resilience. Resilience is our psychological immune system – it’s strengthened by being able to deal with life’s inevitable adversities and weakened by overprotection.
The emphasis on good feelings has other unwanted side-effects. In the past, if a child came home and said they had a difficulty with friends or the teacher, parents commonly thought that the child must have contributed to the problem. Now youngsters routinely decline responsibility for any difficulty and parents automatically back them up. Yet how can we grow and develop as individuals if we reject responsibility for our errors and don’t learn from them?
More youngsters are also saying that the can’t do things before they’ve tried. One football coach laments: ‘Ten years ago lads would come to a training session to kick the ball and maybe learn something. Nowadays, they hang back in case they kick a duff shot and show they’re not good at it.’ Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘self-worth protection’’ – it retards learning and the acquisition of skills, essential to the development of real confidence.
The emphasis on learning styles pursued in schools these days (much of it based on theories with no scientific foundation) also encourages young people to believe that somehow learning is an entirely subjective experience. One Renfrewshire head teacher recounts the story of a girl being told that she had got a maths problem wrong. The girl listened to the explanation and responded ‘thanks, but I prefer doing it my way’.
Employers are also aware of a shift in the attitudes of young people, often saying they find this generation unwilling to take instruction or do basic jobs and overly sensitive if criticised. One company who train production assistants for the media call it the ‘princess syndrome’.
Part of the problem is that, thanks to the media and the internet, young people are being raised on an unhealthy diet of contemporary American values. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, published in 2009, charts the rise of narcissism in American culture. The books reports solid empirical evidence which shows that narcissistic personality traits are increasing amongst young people. In effect this means a rising number of people obsessed with themselves and convinced they are more important than others. The actress Lindsay Lohan has a tattoo on her forearm which reads ‘stars, all we ask is our right to twinkle’. Note the word ‘right’ – an important term in the era of entitlement.
The authors say that one of the myths about narcissists is that deep down they feel insecure and need to prove themselves but current research indicates that these people genuinely believe they are better, more attractive and more talented than others even when the objective facts contradict this favourable view.
In America, and now in the UK, materialism is also rampant. Dr Tim Kasser, an expert on materialism, defines a materialistic lifestyle as one based on the pursuit of money, fame and appearance. In short, it is the values of celebrity culture and its obsession with success, consumer goods, make-overs and popularity. As we know to our cost, these values undermine society by leading to debt, greed and self-obsession. But they are not good for individuals either. Kasser’s extensive research shows that the more individuals pursue materialistic goals the worse their well-being. The problem is not just that there will always be more beautiful, richer, talented, popular people than you, materialistic goals divert us from what is really important for a good life – relationships, feelings of connection and belonging, interests and hobbies and a sense of meaning and purpose.
As Scots we may think our youngsters will be immune to such self-focus. After all are we not a collectivist culture with strong beliefs in society, volunteering and charitable giving? Traditionally yes but a 2007 Scottish YouthLink survey gives grounds for concern. Even before the financial crisis the number of youngsters who thought volunteering an important part of good citizenship dropped by 7-8 per cent. Even more worrying is that only 43 % of 17-25 year olds think it important to help poor third world countries – a drop of 23% between 2005 and 2007. Teachers and youth workers are very aware of this shift in values and report how common it is for young people to simply say ‘become famous’ when asked what they want to do when they grow up.
None of what I’ve described here is peculiar to Scotland – this phenomenon is apparent everywhere in the UK and Europe. Young people get a bad press and are often wrongly vilified by the media for being thugs and hoodies. What I recount here may seem critical of youth but they’re not to blame for the values they are absorbing on a daily basis.
The media and consumerist culture may be responsible for much of the rise in materialism and self-focus but there are other influences – most notably the self-esteem movement. In the 1980s in the USA psychologists started to talk about the importance of self-esteem. Within a short time self-esteem was presented as a panacea – all social ills would be eradicated if children were reared to think highly of themselves. With such, largely unsubstantiated, claims being made no wonder American parents and teachers felt they had to concentrate on self-esteem building.
Such practices usually involve lots of praise; restriction of criticism and the experience of failure; removal of competition in sports so that no-one feels bad; and being told to think that you’re ‘special’. During the period that self-esteem building practices have held sway academic standards in the US have plummeted. America invests large sums of money in education yet performs poorly in international league tables. One study showed that when children internationally are asked how good they are at maths Americans scored highest but came bottom when asked to undertake a maths exam. The opposite was true for Korean students
Many older Americans despair at this shift in values. They agree that America has always been an individualistic culture but they’ll point out that traditionally Americans believed in hard-work and self-reliance and did not promote the sense of entitlement which young people now display.
One of the things that concerns us at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow is that thanks to media influence, our parenting and education system in the UK has been affected by such views. For example, some school based emotional literacy programmes major on themes such as ‘all about me’ or ‘good to be me’. No doubt they are well-meaning but in the narcissitic age we inhabit they may simply intensify an unwelcome self-focus. If we’re not careful the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland may operate as a conduit for some of these potentially corrosive, if sometimes well-meaning, American practices and values. The Curriculum for Excellence sets out for the first time the four purposes for education in Scotland and it is for the creation of successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals. In short, by putting confidence at the core of the curriculum in this way schools might encourage the type of practices which undermine well-being and academic achievement.
So why do self-esteem building practices have the capacity to back-fire? First, they lead parents and teachers to be overly concerned with how children feel. If he/she is feeling negative about learning (and this might damage their self-esteem) then it’s very tempting to divert the child onto something else rather than encourage persistence. However, learning anything that is worth learning is usually challenging and involves persisting in the face of frustration. Another problem is that the focus on self-esteem leads teachers unwittingly to lower their expectations and reduce challenge to help protect the child. This then has the tendency to undermine resilience. In Scotland, particularly in poor areas, there appears to be many well-meaning teachers who are doing exactly this: putting the emphasis on protecting young folk’s self-esteem through the lowering of expectations. So, for example, pupils are praised effusively for iniadequate work and not pushed to tackle harder work for fear of failure. This then means these pupils are fail to learn skills or how to cope with challenges in learning and real feed-back.
International research shows that there is actually no link between self-esteem and academic achievement. Research we’ve conducted recently at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being confirms this. Pupils at one of the top performing schools in Scotland score lower in self-esteem than the mean level of self-esteem for Scottish pupils as a whole. This makes common sense: gallus boys who are full of themselves often don’t do well at school and shy, gauche girls can excel.
Another difficulty inherent in the Curriculum for Excellence is the idea of confident individuals. Confidence is contextual. People can be confident in one situation using a particular set of skills but faced with something different their confidence may evaporate. For example, someone can be socially confident but this doesn’t mean they would be confident about mountaineering. Some people can become confident in their ability to learn and so this can help them maximise their confidence but even then they may not be confident about something that involves different personal characteristics.
In the name of creating confident individuals schools are in danger of seeing quiet, introverted pupils as lacking confidence. They are favouring an extravert type of personality, comfortable with being the centre of attention. One parent of a quiet, studious eight year old girl who excelled at written work recently complained to me that her daughter’s report card, and teacher’s feedback, was all about how she had to speak more in class and be outgoing. ‘Why can’t they simply validate who she is and trust that she will develop these attributes in time when she is older, rather than giving her the message that somehow she’s inadequate’, lamented this mother, who is an educationalist herself. I couldn’t agree more.
Of course, schools should give pupils opportunities for self-expression, and applaud the successes of those who are verbally or sociall confident, but we’re on the wrong track if we see this as the model of confidence. Indeed promoting this type of confidence is potentially another way schools could unwittingly reinforce the current obsession with fame, attention and a narrow definition of what success looks like.
At the Centre we believe that good work can be done on confidence but we have to be careful. We have to focus on skills, challenge, resilience and real learning. We think the approach outlined by the psychologist Professor Carol Dweck has much to commend it. Dweck’s theory of fixed and growth mindsets is based on extensive empirical research. It urges us to see that people are not born with a fixed amount of ability or intelligence but that the brain responds to learning. Of course, some people are born with more natural talent and ability but anyone can get better – much better – if they are motivated, work hard and learn good strategies for improvement.
The Centre is also keen to support a variety of other approaches to boosting confidence and a positive outlook. Research shows that being fit and active can improve self-esteem and self-efficacy so getting our extremely sedentary Scottish youngsters more active could make a difference to their motivation and achievements. The Duke of Edinburgh’s award programmes are also good as they teach goal setting and provide young people with real challenges and independent learning. One award focuses on volunteering – an important anti-dote to today’s focus on ‘me’.
Finally, research shows that the biggest influence on self-esteem is parents. The type of parenting which fosters healthy, but not over-inflated, self-esteem is warm, but firm. It is the type of parenting that gives unqualified love and affection but provides rules and boundaries. It is not about indulging children, trying to be their best friend or encouraging them to believe they should always get what they want including the lead role in the pantomime. It is the type of parenting that accepts that adversities are a natural part of life and so encourages, rather than retards, resilience.
Copyright: Carol Craig
CAROL Craig's writing on the subject of confidence is always thought-provoking but I fear that in turning her attack on Curriculum For Excellence she is tilting at windmills. Far from being the villain of the piece, by" putting confidence at the core of the curriculum", Curriculum for Excellence seeks to explore what it is to be confident as a learner. Indeed, Professor Dweck, whom Carol Craig often cites in her writing, would surely approve of a definition of a curriculum which sets out to enable young people to develop resilience, stickability and self-awareness and, above all, to acquire strategies to help them deal with setbacks and failure in a positive way.
As a member of the Ministerial Review Group which produced the original document, A Curriculum For Excellence, in 2004, I well remember the debate which went on about the best ways in which to equip young people for the unknown as well as the known. The starting point for this discussion was the UNESCO aims for education globally: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.
For me," learning to be" is the fundamental aim. Dweck has written persuasively on the concept of" self-theories" and how an individual's conception of intelligence is linked in important ways to their selfknowledge and their likelihood of giving up when problems arise. Curriculum For Excellence supports Dweck's incremental or" growth" theory of intelligence; intelligence is not" fixed", inherited, stable over time, nor can it predict with any certainty, whether someone will be successful in the future. Rather, it is" plastic", it can be grown and it can be influenced by a whole range of factors, not least the determination of the individual.
Carol Craig should welcome the emphasis on confidence, not least because it recognises the ways in which traditional curricula, often based on questionable assumptions about which children can be given a chance to learn different subjects, have destroyed the confidence of many Scottish pupils. I'm sure that Craig's Centre For Confidence And Wellbeing could play a positive role, with others, in ensuring that all Scottish children get the opportunity to become confident individuals as well as successful learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens.
Brian Boyd Emeritus Professor of Education University of Strathclyde