Saturday, October 16, 2010

Over-confidence Vs. Low Self Esteem.

Any French parent or educator will be struck by how Americans praise and encourage their kids, for even the smallest little thing they can do. In fact, it seems the education is all about building self-confidence and most Americans will probably agree that the more a kid will believe in himself or herself, the more he or she will achieve: "To succeed, you must believe in yourself," is a real credo in America.

As a result American pupils and students show very high self-confidence by the time the reach high school, but unfortunately, this does not necessarily translate into better achievements, if we look at international results at least. (see here for instance).
In fact, a 2006 study seems to indicate that "some of the highest-confidence eighth-graders were some of the worst performers":
the Brookings Institution is reporting today that countries such as the United States that embrace self-esteem, joy and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that don't promote all that self-regard. (WP)
And another report suggests a similar pattern in in reading and that's mostly because for some students self-confidence has become over-confidence.

If the French may be struck by how the Americans praise their kids, it is because it is literally a foreign concept to them. In fact, in many ways the French squelch their kids' self-worth.
In a recent book, called On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?) a British teacher at one of the leading universities in Paris has an interesting perspective that all the French should reflect on:
"Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?" he writes. "I believe France is missing a key element of what's wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.
"It's a culture you can sum up as T'es nul (You're worthless). You hear these words all the time in France." The Guardian.
This comes from the French view that childhood is "not an age of innocence but an age of ignorance, and so children must be set straight and corrected" (Nardau). As Raymonde Caroll put it in her great book on France and US cultural differences, Americans tend to "express their surprise at how French childern can remain quiet (sage) for hours. Even the expression être sage, or rester sage is litarally untranslatable into English - the expression well-behaved does not work. "For an American," she continues, "a child who remains quiet for a long period of times is either sick or, in a sense, oppressed by his parents who restrain his movements, his space his words and his freedom".

This view may now become a bit outdated and literally passé, and most teachers will tell you that the authority of the teacher has been largely undermined and that students today are anything but quiet, but the toughness of the French system has remained, and it is often the students themselves who claim "Je suis nul", ("I am worthless")
In fact, the French pupils are among the most anxious ones in the world, and France ranks 22nd (out of 25 countries) in quality of life in school by the OECD. (France Info and here too).

So have the French at least better results?
Well, yes, compared to the Americans but they are still below OECD average. And yes, France can boast the best mathematicians in the world - it is only 2nd in the world after the United-States in the number of Fields medal - the Noble Prize for Mathematics - rewarded since 1950 - a good result for a much smaller country, BUT that's mostly because maths is the king subject in French schools and because of its rather elitist system of education and also, as a result, its excellent Grandes Ecoles (i.e. French Ivy League schools).

Another outcome is that France has the 5th highest gap between low and high achievers, a cruel irony in the country whose motto is "liberté, égalité, fraternité".
According to the OECED,
This inequality may help explain the low rates of French children reporting liking school. Only around 1 in 5 French children report liking school, 6% below the OECD average.
Worse still, it is in the lowest social classes that the French are the most anxious about schools - about 1/3 of them are sick to their stomach. It seems a high price to pay for mediocre achievement that only benefit the elite.


How ironic that France and the U.S. should on two different ends of the spectrum but as always, extremes mean dysfunction and so in this very instances, as in many others, the Americans and the French should really start learning from each other.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank You... You just explained a lot. I have close French friends. They are great people. but wow- Immensely self deprecating... to the point of self degrading... to the point of 'functional' hopelessness in their ability to achieve anything / any new goal in life. Where as an American, jumping in and 'grabbing the bull by the horns' is definitely our way. I had to search the topic of 'self-esteem in France.' I'm thinking it has to be the school system. It seems as though they really get beat down... wow. I just find that self confidence is one of those fundamental things. However, they seem to function 'well' without it. But then again we you look at use of prescription drugs in France for emotional issues... it makes a bit of sense. Thanks for the Article. All the Best !