Resilient at what?

Chester Draws, a regular contributor to the comments on this blog, made a point about ‘resilience’ that really had me thinking:

“We have plenty of what amount to infinite problems out there. They are called computer games.

The thing is that the kids who supposedly have to learn “resilience” are extremely resilient at playing them. They don’t, generally, lack resilience as such. What kids lack, but many develop as they get older, is resilience at tasks they don’t like.”

I think this cuts to the heart of two key issues in the debate about education. Firstly, generic skills such as ‘collaboration’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘creativity’, ‘resilience’ and so on are highly context-dependent. A kid can be a great collaborator in his football team but very poor at collaborating over housework. Beyond a few social skills that children will generally pick-up in early childhood – ones they were learning long before schools existed – there doesn’t really exist a general set of collaborative skills that can be taught.

‘Resilience’, seems highly dependent on personality. But the way Chester defined it is interesting. It would be almost impossible for a progressive educator to work on such a skill because they shrink from tasks that students don’t like doing.

This extends right the way from the unthinking progressivism of cool activities where teachers call on technology and popular culture in an attempt to ingratiate their subject towards the students, all the way through to the high Rousseauian romanticism that underpins educational convention: children are in a more natural state than adults and we should follow their interests so that they may learn in school as effortlessly as they learn to walk or speak.

A good test of where you fall on this is Shakespeare. Few children love Shakespeare from the outset because the words are difficult and the plays are set in a different time. Should they be allowed to refuse to study Shakespeare and be given other literature instead? Perhaps something more ‘relevant’? Or should the adults assert their authority and coerce students into studying The Bard?

To many professional educationalists, coercion is basically wrong. Yet most teachers are masters at it. Despite the rows that erupt on Twitter, very little of it is done with overt sticks and carrots. Much more is about expecting students to conform and a refusal to accept that matters may take any course other than the one the teacher has planned.

I think this places most ordinary teachers practically at odds with our philosopher kings. Yes, many of us will pay lip-service to progressive slogans but we fundamentally operate on a different level. There is a vast literature where academics bemoan the failure of teachers to properly implement the academic’s preferred reform. Perhaps this is why. There is a mismatch.

It also gives us another way of looking at the world. I suspect that most teachers will, at some point, have been told that a student misbehaved in their class because the content wasn’t interesting or engaging enough. But if everything is engaging – if all lessons follow the children’s interests – then how will they ever learn to be resilient at tasks they don’t like?

Followed to the extreme, we would end up with a generation of snowflakes who can’t bear anything out of their comfort zone and who give up easily. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in the 21st century.

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8 Comments on “Resilient at what?”

  1. Good post. Progressives don’t even need to bother thinking about ‘hard tasks’ because they lump resilience in with mental health and always assume that making everything fun or easy will help the children to be constantly happy. This constant happiness in children will then, according to the progressive, lead to lots of resilience.

  2. Janita says:

    I agree. Teaching methods do influence character, but they do it indirectly. If we don’t want snowflakes, we should stop trying to make everything fun. Forget instant gratification. By requiring kids to stick at a task that doesn’t appeal to them, we are teaching them that lasting rewards come after effort.

  3. Mike says:

    Good post. The current obsession with resilience among academics and school executives often misses the point.

    I think one of the conceptual problems here is the conflation of two distinct qualities (although there is, of course, some overlap): resilience and persistence. The latter is far more important when it comes to academic matters. A resilient 14-year-old will come to school dry-eyed and sociable after a painful break-up with his/her first girlfriend/boyfriend the day before; a persistent 14-year-old will keep going with the practice questions until s/he has mastered quadratic equations.

  4. howardat58 says:

    This is a little poem on this subject:

    https://howardat58.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/i-cant-do-math/

    “Don’t like….” and “Can’t do….” are very similar.

  5. mhorley says:

    Yes, every teacher engages in coercion. Of course they do, every teacher is trying to coax, cajole, coerce, convince children to do something that, if the teacher wasn’t there, they would not otherwise do. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been in a classroom for a very long time.

  6. David F says:

    Hi Greg—thanks for this. I’d say, though, that what you describe progressives as doing (and I’ve seen it too) is a misapplication of what Marty Seligman at Penn intended when he developed resiliency as a concept. Instead, he wanted to promote building “mental toughness”, so that students (or soldiers or managers) when faced with failure or traumatic circumstances don’t slip into a learned helplessness. Part of that building is to train people/students not only to bounce back, but also to know what their strengths and weaknesses are.

    I’d say that this second part–which Seligman describes as promoting optimism in the internal narrative we have with ourselves when faced with a task–gets turned into the touchy-feely nonsense progressives peddle in the classroom.

    See this—I think Seligman would actually agree with much of what you wrote: https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience

  7. chrismwparsons says:

    I’m not sure what to make of this post. I think – pretty much by definition – resilience is about ‘putting-up’ with and getting through things that are awkward, uncomfortable, undesirable. The computer game instance is surely an example of persistence in the face of stimulating challenge?

    I’m also intrigued that you (perhaps knowingly?) did that ‘skills movement’ thing of linking resilience together with things such as collaboration and creativity as a ‘skill’. It’s surely a fundamentally different kind of thing?

    Resilience comes from 3 things: a genetic predisposition to pugnaciousness; fundamental worldview beliefs regarding what is and is not important to you; the experience of having got through difficult things previously.Possibly you could add-into that mental coping strategies such as mindfulness – but I would suggest that the success of those is entirely dependent on the state of the previous things.

    Interestingly, I think self-esteem/efficacy, and growth mindset also rely fundamentally on the same things.


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