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Education Bookcast

Oct 31, 2022

Among the huge academic tomes that I've been ploughing through recently is The Cambridge Handbook of Motivation and Learning. I've long felt that my understanding of motivation is superficial and incomplete, and I wondered whether motivation was understood at all by anybody in the academic literature, or whether remained a mysterious and convoluted problem. The Handbook has shown me that there is much good research that has been done that sheds light on motivation, interest, curiosity, and how they relate to learning.

The Handbook starts off with five chapters on "The Self and Its Impact". I have previously covered a number of self-related concepts on the podcast, such as self-esteem, stereotype threat, self-affirmation theory, and self-compassion, but my conclusion was that raising self-esteem does nothing to help people academically or to improve their character, and in fact could lead to narcissism, which is now at epidemic levels following the self-esteem movement that began in California in the 1980's.

However, the Handbook has shown me that a closer look at self-related beliefs paints a more positive picture, and shows that such beliefs are central to students' academic success, as well as to people's life outcomes. I have had to radically change my understanding of the role and impact of this kind of belief, as well as greatly increasing how important encouragement seems to be for young people to flourish.

In this first of two episodes on the science of self-belief and beliefs relating to the self, I will discuss self-concept, which is similar to self-esteem but domain-specific rather than global. For example, somebody might have a high self-concept for physical appearance (i.e. they think they are handsome / beautiful), but a low self-concept for physical performance (i.e. they think they are bad at sports); or a high self-concept for English (i.e. they think they are good at those classes) but a low self-concept for Mathematics (they think they are bad at maths). This domain specificity allows us to see through experiments where self-esteem interventions seem to do little, as often they do a lot for one specific self-concept, while not affecting the rest, thus making it seem that globally not much has changed, when in fact there has been a major positive impact.

Overall, self-concept seems to be a very important concept (ha) for understanding what makes people successful, and a vital lever to pull in helping people reach their potential.

Enjoy the episode.



13. The Psychology of Self-Defense: Self-Affirmation Theory by David Sherman & Geoffrey Cohen

45. The problem with self-esteem

46. Self Compassion by Kristin Neff


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