Do bullies have low self-esteem or a surplus of esteem and narcissism? Why I changed my mind.
It's always satisfying to read something that makes you turn one of your views on its head. A good example is the Scientific American article 'Violent Pride', where the traditional attitude towards bullies and violent young men was truly trounced. It was affirmed again in Scientific American, in 'Kiddo knows best' by Adrea Alfano, confirming the view that relentless praise of children promotes narcissism. ‘Don’t praise the child, praise the work’ was another excellent piece of work by Professor Black, that relates this work directly to the classroom.
My memories of school are not good. Two tough, often violent, Scottish, secondary schools where few went on to Higher Education. As a bookish sort of kid, my day started with anxiety, and was punctuated by breaks and lunchtime, which I dreaded, when predators would prowl. I'd like to say that the classrooms were safe refuges but back then there were a couple of teachers with leather straps, who literally broke the blood vessels in my wrist with the 'tawse', a thick, two-tongued leather strap. I'm still burning with the injustice of those incidents. In any case, I had many years of witnessing the problem I'm about to describe.
Low self-esteem theory
The traditional view in schools and social work, is that problematic, and often violent bullies, suffer from low self esteem. When Roy Bauermeister looked for research to support this view, he found zilch. Not content with this, he went on to complete a thorough set of research projects to see if his hypothesis, that they have an overabundance of esteem, even narcissism, was true.
Bullies have high self-esteem
What he found was shocking. Far from having LOW self-esteem, they were egoistical with grandiose views of themselves. Their inflated sense of self-importance meant that, when threatened, or perceived to have been threatened, they turned to violence. Their research was confirmed when they extended their studies to prisoners, where murderers and violent offenders, on the whole had high scores on self-esteem studies. Alcohol often acted as a trigger as it boosted their esteem. In a series of clever trials he showed that threatened egoists and narcissists were the norm in bullying and violent behaviour, not threatened low self-esteem.
Tough on outside, weak inside?
But couldn't it be that their low self-esteem is just hidden, deep inside? This was the orthodox view, on the back of the Freudian paradigm, where unconscious drives lurked beneath every act. The research here was also clear. Those who have studied violence, from playground bullies to gang culture, have found no evidence of hidden low self-esteem. "In contrast to a fairly common assumption among psychologists and psychiatrists, we have found no indicators that the aggressive bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface".
Don’t praise the child, praise the work
Sounds a bit kooky but this gem of advice, from Professor Paul Black backs the above theories up and makes perfect sense when you look at the evidence in schools. He is not saying don’t praise your child as a parent. This is advice for teachers when a child produces verbal or written work for feedback. “Never praise a child, praise what they did” says Professor Black, and by this he meant praise the work of the learner, not the learner. To praise the student encourages two ideas that are powerfully corrosive in learning; a) the idea that it’s all down to ability b) the idea that the ‘teacher’ likes me. Praising the person stops students from trying harder. Learners must believe they can change for the better.
Wait 3 seconds
Teachers have been observed to jump in too early when asking questions (less than a second) and rely on ‘hands up’ techniques, which encourages the narcissists, extroverts and achievers but discourages the rest. Target questions to individuals, then wait, for at least three seconds.
Don’t pass judgement
Every answer deserves a positive response in terms of building confidence in their work, not esteem and ability, and not knocking them down. You have to steer between being too dominant and too open, but steering students in the right direction is the real art of feedback.
Right questions get right answers
Reflect on the questions you ask. Many questions just fill time or don’t stretch the students or probe understanding. Hinge questions are carefully structured to diagnose students, which is why coloured cards and clickers can accelerate a teacher’s diagnosis of whole class performance.
Comments on student work is hard work but some simple rules help. Avoid vague, general, “Needs more detail….expand…add a few thoughts of your own if you can” comments. Be specific about the error and recommend a specific action. A good comment would be, “You’ve used ‘particle’, ‘element’ and ‘compound’ in your answer, look at the glossary in your textbook to see how they differ”.
Far from being a trivial issue, it is a serious lifetime health issue. The long-term effects of bullying are well known. Two thirds of teachers have experienced bullying, one in four pupils and similar numbers in the workplace. The danger that lurks in many schools and institutions is that staff are encouraged to boost already bloated egos in the mistaken belief that they have low self-esteem. This is to inflate already overblown egos to become larger and more dangerous. Praise, in other words, needs to be tied to actual behaviour and performance, not dispensed freely. Could it be that our schools have become more dangerous because the bullies have been inadvertently molly-coddled?