Schooling in America:
Myths, Mixed Messages, and Good Intentions

Frank Pajares

Lecture delivered at Emory University, Cannon Chapel, January 27, 2000
Great Teachers Lecture Series

Before I begin this lecture, I want to remind you that the word "lecture" comes from the Medieval Latin word "lectura," from lectus, which is the past participle of legere, which means "to read." In Middle English, a lecture meant "a reading." In its modern usage, particularly at the university level, a lecture is "the process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without ever passing through the mind of either.'' And finally, Ambrose Bierce defined a "lecturer" as "one with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear, and his faith in your patience.

I begin my remarks with these informative tidbits for a reason. I have absolutely no confidence in my ability to deliver this lecture without actually reading its contents, which is woefully ironic since my lecture is about the critical importance of academic confidence. I could try, of course, but I am confident that I would meander senselessly from one topic to another and woefully exceed my faith in your patience. As it is, I've timed the lecture very carefully so that I will speak for just about 40 minutes, which I'm sure is more than you'd like . . . but less than I could. But I do promise to keep my hand out of your pocket and my tongue out of your ears, especially since it's a freezing night and one can't rightly know what would result from that activity.

My great fear is that what I am going to say this evening will strike all of you as so little more than mere common sense and so patently obvious that you will well wonder just what it is that we are up to in education, and in educational psychology in particular.

The premise of my talk is founded on a critical assumption that I hope you will find sound. The assumption is that the beliefs that students create and develop and hold to be true about themselves are vital forces in their success or failure in all endeavors and, of particular relevance to my comments this evening, their success or failure in school.

Rather obvious isn't it? After all, any parent or teacher knows well that the beliefs that kids get into their heads become the rules that govern their actions. This assumption seems so sound, in fact, that one would think it has always been instrumental in framing the discussion around educational concerns. Consequently, one would think that educational research has always focused on a student's sense of self.

But this has not been the case. Why not? This seems an appropriate juncture at which to remind ourselves of two aphorisms appropriate to this question.

  • The first is Voltaire's dictum that "common sense is not so common."
  • The second is Wittgenstein's lament, may God grant philosophers the wisdom to see what is before their very eyes. If Wittgenstein believed that philosophers eschew the obvious, I dread to imagine what he thought of educational psychologists.
Before I engage the main themes that I will discuss this evening, let me provide you with a brief historical overview that I hope will help explain how it is that education has often skirted common sense and declined the wise invitation to see what has always been before their very eyes (and, may I add, what poets, playwrights, novelists, and children's story tellers have always known) - that understanding critical issues related to our students' sense of self is crucial to understanding the manner in which they deal with life's tasks and challenges.

Historical Overview
(for a broader treatment, see this chapter)

At the turn of the 20th century, when American psychology began to take its place among the other academic disciplines, there was much interest both in the Self and in the role that self-beliefs play in human conduct. When William James wrote the Principles of Psychology, his chapter on "The Consciousness of Self" was the longest in the two volumes. In addition, James was one of the first writers to use the term self-esteem, which he described as a self-feeling that "in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do."

Critical to the quest for understanding internal processes were the writings of psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung, who framed the self as the regulating center of an individual's personality and shed light on self-processes under the guise of id, ego, and superego functioning. Erik Erikson later focused on critical aspects of self to trace adolescents' development of their ego identity.

Notwithstanding the efforts of James, the psychoanalysts, and other proponents of self-study, psychologists espousing a behaviorist orientation swelled their ranks by pointing out that only a person's tangible, observable, and measurable behavior was fit for scientific inquiry. When the smoke cleared, this behaviorism carried the day. Psychology was redirected, attention was turned to observable stimuli and responses, and the inner life of the individual was labeled as beyond the scope of scientific psychology.

Very nearly coinciding with the zenith of behavioristic influence came what is now often referred to as the humanistic revolt in psychology. Apprehensive about what they considered the narrow and passive view of human functioning that behaviorism represented, a group of psychologists called for renewed attention to inner experience, to internal processes, adaptive functioning, and to self-beliefs. The most powerful voice in the new movement was that of Abraham Maslow, who outlined a motivational process based on the human desire to fulfill certain needs and culminating in the need to become self-actualized, that is, to develop one's full potential as a human being and to reach self-fulfillment, inner peace, and contentment.

During the 60s and 70s there was a resurgence of interest in self-beliefs, most notably an effort by many educators and psychologists to promote an emphasis on the importance of a healthy and positive self-esteem. What was also born in schools at about this time is the self-enhancement view of academic functioning. That is, the view that, because a child's self-esteem is the critical ingredient and primary cause of academic achievement, teacher practices and academic strategies should be aimed at fostering students' self-esteem.

Through the years, schools have followed the prescriptions of psychologists. After all, teachers are trained in the universities that spawn these psychological movements. It was unavoidable that when psychology abandoned the self from early to mid-century so did education. It was also unavoidable that when humanistic psychology reclaimed the self and began a crusade of sorts that emphasized promoting self-esteem as the primary vehicle toward personal growth, education also followed suit.

Some of you may remember magic circles, open classrooms, Leo Buscaglia, validation exercises, daily affirmations, journals entitled "what I like best about myself," and classrooms filled with children shouting in unison "I am terrific" or "There is only one Me" or "I believe in Me!" I began teaching in 1973 and my school had an extended home room devoted to self-disclosure, as many schools did. My middle school kids and I sat in a circle and I urged them to self-actualize by self-disclosing. I recall the story of the elementary school teacher who responded to disgruntled parents during a teacher-parent conference by finally saying to them, "I tell you what, if you promise not to believe everything your child says about me, I promise not to believe everything he says about you." Kids were self-disclosing the most interesting things.

Please keep in mind that we were very well-intentioned.

Regrettably, the humanistic crusade had profoundly uneven results, and many laudable but misguided efforts to nurture the self-esteem of children (and adults) fell prey to excesses and, ultimately, ridicule.

  • In Montgomery, Maryland, citizens were once warned by police to be on the lookout for a man suspected of a series of rapes. He was described as in his 30s with a medium build and "low self-esteem."
  • As many of you know, California actually appointed a state commission to promote self-esteem, which was propelled to notoriety in numerous Doonesbury's cartoons regarding the Ministry of Self-Esteem.
  • Minnesota became home to the (VIK) "Very Important Kid" program designed to boost self-esteem.
  • When Peewee Herman was arrested in 1992, Jesuit scholar William O'Malley made the observation that "masturbation isn't the problem, it's lack of self-esteem."
  • Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire school teacher convicted of having her husband murdered, met her teenage lover at a "Project Self-Esteem" workshop in their town's high school.
Adding to the uneven results of the humanistic promotion of self-esteem in education was the troublesome fact that research on the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement either was inconclusive or provided unsettling results.

  • A respected analysis of self-esteem studies revealed that correlations between self-esteem and academic achievement ran the gamut from a positive .96 to a negative .77. Which is to say that in some studies low self-esteem was actually associated with higher achievement. The researchers also reported that when they actually evaluated the validity of a study, the better studies tended to show the less significant connections between self-esteem and academic achievement.
  • As regards the idea that self-esteem is a major determinant of academic achievement, after reviewing the evidence, and keep in mind that there have been over 10,000 self-esteem studies to date, scholars at the University of California concluded that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent. The non-relationship holds between self-esteem and teenage pregnancy, self-esteem and child abuse, self-esteem and most cases of alcohol and drug abuse.
  • As regards self-esteem and social outcomes, self-esteem has been positively and negatively correlated with aggression. And some researchers have provided qualified support for the contention that delinquent behavior might actually serve to enhance self-esteem.
  • Some studies have even shown that high self-esteem correlates positively with increased sexual activity by teens. How could it not?
What followed, of course, was not only a reduced interest in self-research in education but a backlash against the self-esteem movement itself. During the 1980s, educators began to shift their interest in academic motivation and achievement to cognitive processes and information-processing views of human functioning. This cognitive revolution, as it has come to be called, has been influenced by technological advances and by the advent of the computer, which serves as the movement's signature metaphor and model of mind. In education, this new wave of theorists and researchers have emphasized internal, mental events, but this emphasis is primarily on cognitive tasks rather than on exploring issues related to the Self.

Again, schools followed suit. Alarmed by what they perceived to be plummeting academic standards and fueled by comparative studies that erroneously made it appear as if American children graduate from high school practically illiterate, parents and educators demanded a back to basics approach to curriculum and practice. It should be noted that research on students' self-beliefs in education did not merely wane; it was viewed as antithetical to sound educational understandings (as a type of "psychology-lite" undertaking).

In the back-to-basics national mood, students' emotional concerns were regarded as irrelevant to their academic achievement. Reforms were accompanied by an effort to dictate curricular practices according to their success in raising achievement test results. What was called for, critics cried, was a return to the old values of hard work and Hard Knocks.

Today the notion of building healthy self-perceptions in individuals is mired in "the self-esteem controversy" that has been the subject of intense dialogue and much ridicule.

Fortunately, prominent voices in psychology and in education have again signaled a shift in focus as regards the issues critical to human functioning, and students' self-beliefs have once again become the focus for educational psychology research on academic motivation. In important ways, however, the shift toward renewed interest in self-beliefs as a key to academic motivation represents a marked departure from previous conceptions related to self-esteem.

I now want now to accomplish four things.

  • First, I want to spend a few minutes describing self-efficacy, one of the self-beliefs prominent in the field of academic motivation and which represents a marked departure from previous conceptions of self-esteem.
  • Second, I want to explain to you the difference between self-efficacy and self-esteem.
  • Third, I want to briefly provide you with some recent research evidence that speaks to the importance of self-efficacy beliefs.
  • And finally, I want to discuss some of the implications that emanate from these findings and take that opportunity to explain why those who continue to be skeptical or critical of efforts to focus on students' self-beliefs in American education may be missing an important opportunity.
Self-Efficacy Beliefs, Academic Motivation, and Achievement

There is now a saying to the effect that only Nixon could have gone to China; in the sense that only a staunch anti-communist could provide the credibility required to shift America's dealings with communism. Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura was similarly poised. Bandura achieved national prominence in the 1950s by espousing a social learning theory that largely extended classical behaviorist principles related to modeling, imitation, and reinforcement. In Social Foundations of Thought and Action, published in 1986, Bandura rejected the mindlessness of behaviorist principles in favor of a social cognitive theory that emphasizes the role of self-beliefs in human functioning. In this perspective, individuals are viewed as self-organizing, proactive, and self-regulating. They are not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded either by internal or by external events. They are not rats in a maze, and they are not computers. This is a view of human behavior and motivation in which the self-efficacy beliefs that people have about their capabilities are critical elements.

What are self-efficacy beliefs?

In the landmark book How We Think, John Dewey put forth the idea that individuals evaluate their own experiences and thinking through the process of self-reflection. Bandura would later contend that self-reflection is the most distinctively human characteristic. Self-reflective judgments include perceptions of self-efficacy—the beliefs that we hold about our capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations. In essence, self-efficacy is the confidence that we have in our own abilities.

How are these beliefs developed and what do they do? Self-efficacy beliefs are developed from four sources.

  • The most influential source of self-efficacy beliefs is a student's mastery experience, that is, the interpreted result of one's own performance. Success typically raises self-efficacy; failure lowers it. Students who perform well in school and earn high grades are likely to develop a strong sense of confidence in their academic capabilities. Poor school performance obviously weakens students' confidence in their capabilities.

  • The second source of efficacy information is the vicarious experience of the effects produced by the actions of others. As so many of you have personally experienced, the actions of a significant individual, perhaps a teacher who came your way at just the right time, helped instill self-beliefs that influenced the course and direction that your life took. Part of one's vicarious experience also involves the social comparisons we make with others. And this is where peer groups and peer pressure can come into play. What peers value, what is honored, and how they behave are of major importance to preteens and teenagers who wish to fit in with the peer reference group.

    • Herbert Marsh has written of the big-fish-in-the-little-pond effect, which is the idea that self-efficacy and self-esteem can be raised or lowered depending on the nature of the peer groups in which students find themselves. Many high school valedictorians, who were quite big fish in their high school ponds, arrive at Emory with a robust sense of academic confidence only to have that confidence shaken on discovering that they have become much smaller fish in a larger pond filled with numerous other valedictorians.
    • And, of course, there's nothing like a competitive graduate program to shake the academic confidence of any healthy individual.

  • Individuals also create and develop self-efficacy beliefs as a result of the social messages, persuasions, and dispersuasions they receive from others. Most of us can recall something that was said to us early on that has had a profound effect on our confidence throughout the rest of our lives.

    • My son came home excitedly at the end of one of his middle school years to show me how one of his teachers had written in his yearbook that he was like a fine bottle of wine that would just get better and better with age. He has believed it all his life.
    • The expressed confidence of others can be very powerful. I recall one discussion with a doctoral student who was struggling with a portion of her dissertation that was given her no end of trouble and even undermining her confidence. It was a dissertation on self-efficacy, by the way. At a particularly low point she said to me, "You know Dr. Pajares, I've come to the realization that, although it is important for me to believe that I can do this, it seems equally important for me to believe that you believe I can do this." William James was indeed right to observe that "our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case."

    Just as positive messages may work to encourage and empower, negative messages may work to defeat and weaken self-beliefs. We all have memories of these messages as well.

    • Being counseled at an early age that one is not "college material" can have destructive effects if the child is not endowed with a resilience to withstand and counteract such judgments.
    • When I first came to the United States at the tender age of 10, my teachers hoped to increase my English-fluency, and so they talked Sister Margarita into making me part of her school's choir. The first day of rehearsal the good sister went from one singing student to another, her hand cupped behind her ear as she listened intently to each voice. When she came to me she lingered for a very long while as I warbled on. Satisfied with her assessment, she whispered to me, "Frank, it would be better if you just mouthed the words." I haven't sung a note since. This may be a poor example, of course. Sister Margarita doubtlessly did the world a favor.

    It is usually easier to weaken confidence through negative messages than to strengthen it through positive encouragement. It can take many voices to see us through rough spots; only one voice is required to shatter us for a good long while.

    We must be careful with the things we say, because children will listen.

  • Finally, physiological states such as anxiety, stress, arousal, fatigue, and mood states also provide us with information about our self-efficacy beliefs. We do well to heed the messages that our body and our mental states so frequently convey to us.

As a result of these influences, self-efficacy beliefs are strong determinants and predictors of the level of accomplishment that a student finally attains, indeed how people behave can often be better predicted by their beliefs about their capabilities than by what they are actually capable of accomplishing.

The fact that mastery experiences are the most influential source of self-efficacy information has important implications for the self-enhancement model I earlier described which contends that, to increase student achievement in school, educational efforts should focus on raising students' feelings of self-worth and making them feel good about themselves (even if there is nothing tangible to feel good about). It seems critical to shift that emphasis and embrace a joint effort to raise competence and confidence in tandem primarily through genuine success experiences with the task at hand, through authentic mastery experiences.

Of course, there are times when simply raising confidence is itself a noble enterprise. There are few things sadder to a teacher (or parent) than being faced with capable children who, as a result of previous demoralizing experiences, or even self-imposed mind-sets, have come to believe that they cannot learn, when all objective indicators show that they can. Often, much time and patience are required to break the mental habit of perceived incompetence that have come to imprison young minds. But even in such cases, effective persuasions should never be confused with knee-jerk praise or empty inspirational homilies. Decades earlier, Erik Erikson argued that a weak ego is not strengthened by being persistently flattered and that

"Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but what I call their accruing ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their culture." In fact, "a strong ego, secured in its identity by a strong society, does not need, and in fact is immune to any attempt at artificial inflation."
And it is critical to remember that teachers who attempt to bolster students' self-esteem with transparent flattery, inspirational homilies, and holistic praise disconnected from real accomplishment quickly lose credibility. If you have taught, you know that students very quickly see through a teacher's efforts at impression management. What they learn is simply to distrust the things you say, even when you mean them.

If that is where they come from, what are the effects of self-efficacy beliefs

  • First, students' confidence influences the choices they make and the courses of action they pursue. Students engage in tasks in which they feel competent and tend to avoid those in which they do not.
  • Efficacy beliefs also help determine how much effort students will expend on an activity, how long they will persevere when confronting obstacles, and how resilient they will be in the face of adverse situations. The higher the sense of efficacy, the greater the effort, persistence, and resilience.
  • Of course, our confidence influences the amount of stress and anxiety we experience as we engage in a task.
A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in countless ways.

  • Confident students approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.
  • They have greater intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities, set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them, and heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure.
  • Moreover, they more quickly recover their confidence after failures or setbacks, and they attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable. For confident students, failure is a healthy reminder that they need to work harder.
  • Conversely, students with low self-efficacy may believe that things are tougher than they really are, a belief that fosters stress, depression, and a narrow vision of how best to solve a problem. When students lack confidence in their capabilities, they are likely to attribute their failure to low ability which they perceive as inborn, permanent, and not acquirable. For them, failure is just another reminder that they are incapable.
  • Students who doubt their academic ability typically envision low grades often before they even begin an examination.
As Alexander Dumas wrote, "a man who doubts himself is like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms against himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it." Linus, of Peanuts fame, once quipped that "there is no burden quite as heavy as a great potential." Teachers know that academic potential seldom can be realized in the absence of the child's belief in that potential. The Roman poet Virgil was on to something when he wrote that "they are able who think they are able."

Because there is often much confusion about the difference between Self-Efficacy and Self-Esteem, let me take some time with it and emphasize some key points to help clear the waters.

Recall that self-efficacy is a judgment of capability to perform a task or engage in an activity, whereas self-esteem is a personal evaluation of one's self that includes the feelings of self-worth that accompany that evaluation. Self-efficacy is a judgment of one's own confidence; self-esteem is a judgment of self-value. Because self-esteem involves evaluations of self-worth, it is particularly dependent on how a culture or social structure values the attributes on which the individual bases those feelings of self-worth. Self-efficacy is dependent primarily on the task at hand, independent of its culturally assigned value.

And there is no fixed relationship between one's beliefs about what one can or cannot do and whether one feels positively or negatively about oneself. Some students may feel highly efficacious in mathematics but without the corresponding positive feelings of self-worth, in part because they may take no pride in accomplishments in this area. Other students may readily admit to dismal self-efficacy when it comes to writing but suffer no loss of self-esteem on that account, in part because they do not invest their self-worth in this activity. I went ice skating with my children many years ago only to discover that my ankles would not permit such atrocious treatment. Please trust me when I tell you that it did not diminish my self-esteem. I would be willing to wager that there are many things that you do poorly but which have no influence on how you feel about yourself. Alternatively, one could surmise that skilled soldiers in war may possess strong efficacy beliefs about their professional capabilities but take no pride in performing them well, plagued as they may well be by the emotional distress that accompanies the rendition of their skills. In fact, in these cases such high self-efficacy could even be the source for crippling self-esteem.

The contention I bring to you this evening is that students, faced with the academic challenges of school, look to their confidence to manage academic tasks and activities, rather than to their beliefs of personal worth (their self-esteem), as the arbiters of what activities they will and will not select, how much effort they will put forth, how long they will persevere, how resilient they will become, and how much anxiety they will experience. As a result of these factors, it is their self-efficacy beliefs that will determine how much they will accomplish.

In other words, beliefs of personal competence, not beliefs of personal value, are the self-beliefs that are most predictive of their choices, their work habits, their fear and apprehension, and their achievement.

Moreover, confidence and competence are the key ingredients in self-esteem. Our students will feel good about themselves academically to the degree that their confidence and competence act in tandem to help them master the requirements and challenges posed by their day to day school lives.

I want to conclude this section by emphasizing that self-esteem and self-efficacy beliefs each influence human functioning and help mediate the impact of other motivation and achievement constructs on behavior. It is clear that both contribute in their own way to the quality of human life.

Self-Efficacy, Motivation, and Academic Achievement - The Research

I would be remiss if I did not buttress my contentions with some research results. During the past decade, self-efficacy beliefs have received much attention in educational research, primarily in studies of academic motivation. In this arena, self-efficacy researchers have focused on three areas.

  • Researchers in the first area have explored the link between efficacy beliefs and college major and career choices, particularly in science and mathematics. Findings indicate that self-efficacy beliefs influence the choice of majors and career decisions of college students, in many cases to a greater degree than any other factor (including interest). We typically fight the battle that we think we can win. In many cases, young women avoid math- and science-related courses and careers, not because they lack competence, skill, or interest, but because they come to doubt their capability to succeed in that male domain. The fact that boys tend to express greater confidence in their mathematics, scientific, and technological capabilities, even though there are few achievement differences, has come to be called the confidence gap, and this is a troubling findings that merits study.

  • Findings from the second area suggest that the efficacy beliefs of teachers are related to their instructional practices and to various student outcomes. For example, unconfident teachers tend to hold a custodial orientation that takes a pessimistic view of students' motivation, emphasizes rigid control of classroom behavior, and relies on extrinsic inducements and negative sanctions to get students to study. Underconfident teachers are highly skeptic of the abilities of colleagues. Teachers not confident in their ability can be harsh judges of the abilities of others. Confident teachers create mastery experiences for their students whereas teachers with low instructional efficacy undermine students' cognitive development as well as students' judgments of their own capabilities. As regards doubt in self-belief, misery does indeed love company. Confident teachers breed confident students. We have always known that confidence really is contagious.

  • In the third area, researchers have reported that students' academic self-efficacy beliefs strongly influence their academic performances and achievement. Researchers have demonstrated that self-efficacy beliefs influence these attainments by influencing effort, persistence, and perseverance. Other researchers have reported that self-efficacy also enhances students' memory performance by enhancing persistence. In studies of college students who pursue science and engineering courses, confidence students are more likely to possess the academic persistence necessary to maintain high academic achievement. Students who believe they are capable of performing academic tasks use more cognitive and metacognitive strategies and persist longer than those who do not. As many of you know, general mental ability, or psychometric g, accounts for the single largest component underlying individual differences in mental ability and has typically been acknowledged the most powerful predictor of academic performances. In other words, if you want to predict a child's academic achievement, assess her intelligence. But when researchers tested the joint contribution to achievement of math self-efficacy and general mental ability, they found that, despite the influence of mental ability, self-efficacy beliefs made a powerful and independent contribution to the prediction of mathematics performance.

    Which is to say that it's not just a matter of how capable you are, it's also a matter of how capable you think you are.

The import of recent scholarly findings, then, is that students' difficulties in basic academic skills are often directly related to their beliefs that they cannot read, write, handle numbers, or think well—that they cannot learn—even when such things are not objectively true.

That is to say, many students have difficulty in school not because they are incapable of performing successfully but because they are incapable of believing that they can perform successfully—they have learned to see themselves as incapable of handling academic work or to see the work as irrelevant to their life.

Academic Implications

What, then, are the implications of these conclusions to the real-life educational world of teachers and students?

The first implication is that teachers do well to take seriously their share of responsibility in nurturing the self-beliefs of their pupils, for it is clear that these self-beliefs can have beneficial or destructive influences. Let me add that those college professors who view nurturing their students' often-fragile egos as beyond their purview or who believe that their instructional responsibility consists merely of dispensing information would do especially well to rethink their teaching mission and reflect on the nature of their roles as educators of youth.

Second, in 1902, Cooley introduced the metaphor of the looking-glass self to illustrate the idea that children's sense of self is primarily formed as a result of their perceptions of how others perceive them. That is, the appraisals of others act as mirror reflections that provide the information we use to define our own sense of self. Others define us, and then we use their definitions to define ourselves. In a sense, he argued that we tend to become what we think other people think we are.

As children strive to exercise control over their surroundings, their first transactions are mediated by adults who can either empower them with self-assurance or diminish their fledgling self-beliefs. Young children are not proficient at making accurate self-appraisals, and so they must rely on the judgments of others to create their own judgments of confidence and of self-worth.

The third implication is that parents and teachers who provide children with challenging tasks and meaningful activities that can be mastered, and who chaperone these efforts with support and encouragement, help ensure the development of a robust sense of self-confidence and of self-worth. Beliefs of personal competence and of self-worth ultimately become habits of thinking that are developed like any habit of conduct, and teachers are influential in helping students to develop the "self-belief habits" that will serve them throughout their lives.

It is wise that teachers should pay as much attention to students' perceptions of competence as to actual competence, for recall that it is the perceptions that may more accurately predict students' motivation and future academic choices. And recall that unrealistically low self-efficacy perceptions, not lack of capability or skill, can be responsible for maladaptive academic behaviors, avoidance of courses and careers, and diminishing school interest and achievement. Given the generally lower confidence of most girls related to boys in the areas of mathematics and computer technology, it seems that young women may be especially vulnerable in these areas.

Having pointed out some implications, let me also raise some cautions.

Many critics have quite rightly railed against the tyranny that can result from an unbridled self-oriented emphasis in education. It can be a short voyage from self-reflection and self-fulfillment to self-obsession, self-absorption, self-centeredness, self-importance, and selfishness. Children taught that the nurturance, maintenance, and gratification of their sense of Self is the prime directive of their own personal and social development do not easily learn to nurture others, to maintain lasting and mutually satisfying relationships, or to defer or postpone their own perceived needs.

Artificial self-esteem is naked against adversity; unwarranted confidence is cocky conceit.

When what is communicated to a child from an early age is that nothing matters quite as much as how he or she feels or how confident he or she should be, one can rest assured that the world will sooner or later teach that child a lesson in humility that may not be easily learned. An obsession with one's sense of self is responsible for an alarming increase in depression and other mental difficulties.

As is evident from the proliferation of self-esteem kits, programs, and gimmicks, complex issues related to self-esteem have been oversimplified and caricatured. Self-esteem programs of the sort that have been in fashion are ineffective either in raising self-esteem or achievement. Clearly, in most cases efforts are better aimed at transforming schools, classrooms, and teaching practices than at altering students' psyches.

Over 100 years ago William James cautioned his audience of teachers that "soft pedagogics have taken the place of the old steep and rocky path to learning. But from this lukewarm air the bracing oxygen of effort is left out. It is nonsense to suppose that every step in education can be interesting. The fighting impulse must often be appealed to." Indeed, but let me emphasize that institutional, curricular, and pedagogical transformation and a focus on students' intellectual development are not incompatible with concern for students' personal, social, and psychological needs and well-being. Alfie Kohn put it well when he argued that positive self-regard need not result in arrogant self-satisfaction.

Nel Noddings observed that the ultimate aim of schools should be to nurture the "ethical self . . . to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people." Schools can aid their students in these pursuits by helping them to develop the habit of excellence in scholarship while at the same time nurturing the self-beliefs necessary to maintain that excellence throughout their adult lives. As Bandura argued,

"educational practices should be gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use but also by what they do to children's beliefs about their capabilities, which affects how they approach the future. Students who develop a strong sense of self-efficacy are well equipped to educate themselves when they have to rely on their own initiative."
It seems clear that many of the difficulties that people experience throughout their lives are closely connected with the beliefs they hold about themselves and their place in the world in which they live. I hope the evidence I presented tonight indicates that students' academic failures in basic subjects, as well as the misdirected motivation and lack of commitment often characteristic of the underachiever, the dropout, the student labeled "at risk," and the socially disabled, are in good measure the consequence of, or certainly exacerbated by, the beliefs that students develop about themselves and about their ability to exercise a measure of control over their environments.

One need only cast a casual glance at the American landscape to see that attending to the personal, social, and psychological concerns of students is both a noble and necessary enterprise.

Let me close by reminding us that William James ended his lectures to the nation's teachers with the gentle admonition that if they could but see their pupils as young creatures composed of good intentions, and love them as well, they would be "in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers." As this is our aim, we do well to take heed.


How to cite this document

Pajares, F. (2000, January). Schooling in America: Myths, mixed messages, and good intentions. Lecture delivered at the Great Teachers Lecture Series, Cannon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta.

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