Should pedagogical theories always be in competition?
By Janis McMath, Editor-in-Chief
Education is never a one-size-fits-all scenario.
Self-esteem has been accepted as the holy grail for Western education. Society is filled with self-help books to boost self-esteem, and the schooling system is similarly filled with lessons that have the goal of increasing students’ self-worth. And high self-esteem does bear many benefits: increased initiative, increased happiness, persistence in failure, girls are less likely to develop bulimia, and some studies have even found that stress hormone levels are lower in those who have high self esteem. It’s clear why this approach to education about the self was taken, but there are plenty negatives to be considered in this pedagogical approach.
Narcissism is a growing problem—one that has been found to have strong correlations with the self-esteem education model. An oft-recited study, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals,” found that compared to Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials in high-school and post-secondary considered values like money, image, and fame to be more important than self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. The study also found that self-esteem had grown significantly between generations. Another issue blamed on the self-esteem pedagogy is bullying; as cited in the paper “The role of self-compassion in development” by Kristin Neff—perhaps the biggest name in self-compassion theory—bullies are just as likely as others to have high-self esteem, and they often gain self-esteem through putting others down. In a different article by Neff, she argues that individuals allow their inflated self-image to antagonize those who threaten that image—constant comparisons are seen as a huge downside of self-esteem teachings.
As mentioned before, self-compassion theory is seen as the solution to the problems of the self-esteem model. To clarify, self-compassion is “a way of relating to ourselves” according to Neff. This philosophy emphasizes that we must be kind with ourselves and accept that we are human and failures are a part of that; the ideology also emphasizes that we do not criticize ourselves or make self-evaluations of any kind. To be self-compassionate, we must intrinsically believe we are worthy of empathy instead of hinging it on valuations we and others make of us—unlike self-esteem.
It is argued, then, that self-compassion offers solutions to the problems the self-esteem doctrine causes—and research has shown that it is true in many cases. In a study of over 2000 participants called “Self-compassion versus global self-esteem” researchers Neff and Vonk found that self-compassion predicted much more stable feelings of self-worth than self-esteem did. The same study also found that because self-esteem was contingent on favourable outcomes, it was very susceptible to fluctuation.
A study called “Self-compassion protects against the negative effects of low self-esteem” surveyed over 2000 adolescents on how levels of self compassion and self esteem affected mental health. While low self esteem certainly predicted poor mental health, it was found that those who had low self esteem combined with high self compassion were much better off in terms of mental health. An essential result of this study to note though was that those with both high-self esteem and high-self compassion fared the best in terms of mental health improvements. Many proposing self-compassion as the new doctrine for education say that self-compassion should outright replace self-esteem—but should that really be the case?
Researchers for a 2017 paper called “A worthy self is a caring self” found that high self-esteem reliably led to the development of self-compassion—but not vice-versa. The scientists proposed several reasons for such, but regardless of the reasons, it is important to consider that perhaps the two concepts are not as black and white as they have been treated. Seeing how the previously mentioned study showed that those with both high self-esteem and high self-compassion fared better than those with just high levels of self-compassion, perhaps the education system should be looking to teach both. There seems to be a complex relationship between the two concepts—seemingly self-compassion picks up the slack of self-esteem—and clearly self-compassion is lacking some of traits that self-esteem contains.
Education is never a one-size-fits-all scenario. The schooling
system needs to be as fluid as the needs of the students that enter it, so
there should be space for multiple ideologies to be present. Different pupils
mature at different rates; a wide array of pedagogical tools is ideal for
educators. Teachers should not be looking to shun one method in favour of
another. It’s time we acknowledge that essentially every educational tool will
have some merit in some scenario for some student, so we should do our best to
be open to gradual incremental change in the system instead of complete