Friday, February 29, 2008

Confidence Building Doesn't Replace Real Learning

In the Girls Just Want to Have Sums episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson asks her math teacher: “Confidence building can’t replace real learning, can it?” This is quite an indictment of current educational values.

Nearly everything in which children participate - sports, arts, school - is accompanied by a constant barrage of reinforcement, to the extent that children are showered with awards and trophies for just about everything they do. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, the “you’re all winners!” messaging won’t change the cold, hard reality that in any given activity, some people are better than others.

Of course, there are two sides to the participation trophies: if everybody won, then everybody also lost. Our children’s cabinets are filling up with “loser trophies.”

Skill and performance aren’t matters of opinion, they’re matters of fact. Denying this undermines a person’s development of self-awareness. At younger ages, participation in everything from arts to sport is primarily concerned with skill discovery and skill acquisition. Achievement is important, but achievement is meaningful only after sufficient skill development has taken place. To wit: recitals from introductory music students have more cute value than musical interpretive value. Cheapening achievement creates false confidence, and undermines work ethic to achieve. Nothing is served by this, as everybody will, sooner or later, come face to face with their limits. The question is, will they recognise that success comes from hard work and dedication and not just from showing up.

We shower children with awards and recognition because we hope to build confidence. This reinforcement is external and temporary. Confidence comes from within. It is a byproduct of self-awareness, a result of knowing our strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness comes from success and failure, independently achieved. There are no awards for self-awareness, but it engenders strength of character. Better to nurture this in children than to fill their cabinets full with loser trophies.