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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

self esteem : Study of mathematical skills

A 1989 study of mathematical skills compared students in eight different countries. American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest. But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics. The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while the Koreans ranked lowest. Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment. This is certainly an example of a feel-good psychology keeping students from an accurate perception of reality. The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well, which is supposedly why all students need it. But in fact, feeling good about yourself may simply make you over confident, narcissistic and unable to work hard. Now, I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment. Rather, the research mentioned above shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative. In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use. But for other reasons we should expect this failure in advance.

We all know, and know of, people who are motivated by insecurities and self doubts. These are often both the heroes and the villains of history. The prevalence of certain men of small stature in the history of fanatical military accomplishment is well documented. Julius Cesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were all men determined to prove they were big. Many great athletes and others have had to overcome grave physical disabilities and a lack of self-esteem. One might call this the Demosthenes effect after the ancient Greek with a speech impediment. He practiced speaking with his mouth full of pebbles and later became a famous orator.

Many superior achievements appear to have their origin in what psychologist, Alfred Adler, called an inferiority complex. The point is not that feeling bad about ourselves is good, but rather that only two things can truly change how we feel about ourselves. Real accomplishment and real love.

First, accomplishment in the real world affects our attitudes. A child who learns to read, who can do mathematics, who can play the piano or baseball, will have a genuine sense of accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self-esteem. Schools that fail to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, corrupt the proper understanding of self-esteem. Educators, who say don't grade them, don't label them, you have to make them feel good about themselves, cause these problems. It makes no sense for students to be full of self-esteem if they have learned nothing. Reality will soon puncture their illusions and they will have to face two disturbing facts: that they are ignorant; and that the adults responsible for teaching them have lied to them.



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