Just like the business and professional worlds, education has its buzzwords and its trends. While some of these are valuable and enduring, quite a few aren’t. I feel that ‘Resilience’ and ‘Growth Mindset’ are vital in the work that schools do. I hope you will agree with me.
Before we decide if ‘resilience’ and ‘growth mindset’ are indeed ‘valuable’, though, some background is helpful. ‘Growth Mindset’, embodied by the word ‘yet’ in the phrase ‘I can’t do that …yet’, is often associated with the research and thinking of Carole Dweck. Published in 2007, her book Mindset: The New Science of Success highlighted the vital role of having a ‘growth’ mindset, rather than a ‘fixed’ one, when meeting learning challenges. While Dweck’s work and its conclusions were focused on school learners, the wider lessons apply to personal, professional and creative development throughout teenage and adult life.
While ‘resilience’ does not have a breakthrough moment in the same way, it does have a similar prominence when we think about learning. I once met a headteacher who felt his school had ‘fragile thoroughbreds’: the students excelled when the going was good, but stumbled at the fences. As far back as the Stoics in Ancient Greece, acknowledging that life has its challenges and almost certainly its disappointments has led thinkers to ask how we can best manage our own reaction to setbacks. Should we see failure as weakness, and reward only success? This is of course relevant to schools. As places of learning, given the means and the obligation to help our pupils, should we allow – even encourage – failure?
The answer to this question – is it important to fail? – is worth exploring. Failure is unpleasant: it can be both public and humiliating. I can’t think of a single time when I have wanted not to succeed. That said, many of us know of people who learn successfully through enduring effort. The acronym G.R.I.T. captures some of the qualities of these people (who may not be of school age, of course, nor learning in a formal environment). They exhibit Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity. If that seems a little cheesy, I agree. All the same, it takes courage to risk not succeeding. Absorbing the lack of success requires resilience. Finding another route to learning often needs individual problem-solving. Remaining committed, and not giving up, rounds out the qualities of these successful learners.
This is all well and good. So far, I assume few people would disagree. A significant problem, though, is the role that schools can, or should, play in developing both resilience and a growth mindset. One possible answer comes from the late 1970s and the work of a cardiologist named Peter Nixon.
Nixon identified the ‘Human Function Curve’ as a way to map the ‘sweet spot’ of our success in any skills-based task. This could be managing a difficult conversation, learning a piece of music, preparing for a challenging presentation – it’s a flexible idea.
Between ‘the Drone Zone’ and ‘the Panic Zone’ is the peak of the curve. Leading to it is ‘healthy tension’, the spice that adds performance and prompts us to do our very best at the task that we are taking on. However, the line that leads downward from fatigue towards burnout is steep. If we are to support our pupils – and ourselves as parents, teachers and coaches – we must respect this curve.
Whether in sports, relationships, academic work or creative pursuits, our best work is likely to be in what Nixon terms ‘the C Zone’. Sometimes, though, and especially with new skills and situations, we overshoot. We want to impress our friends, or our teachers and coaches. Almost certainly our parents. Probably ourselves too. This leads to physical and emotional fatigue. Schools are pressured places, and sometimes the structures of merits, house competitions, sporting fixtures, and internal and external academic judgment creates a damaging level of expectation. Young people’s lives, increasingly presented via the filter of social media, can seem destined for the steep slope on the right-hand side of the curve.
Resilience, like growth mindset, plays a huge part in returning successfully from the fatigue zone. Knowing that we can try again, that failure is a temporary state, allows us to move back to a healthy place.
How, then, can schools help pupils both to recognise and to manage their own position on the curve? At the risk of adding yet another acronym, let’s remember that we’re in South-East Asia. The educator Dr Eric Jensen suggests that in building a growth mindset we should encourage learners – which, of course, is all of us! – to remember what is, and what is not, in our control. This idea takes us back once again to the Stoics, who urged their fellow Greeks to understand how futile it is to challenge what we cannot change. Jensen argues that we should focus on Strategy, Effort and Attitude as the keys to learning. Each of these is within our control when so much else is not. Each can be taught, and learned, within the school context. Likewise, each of these can be developed as part of resilience. If you feel you can find alternate ways to do something, you have strategy. If you feel that success comes from effort (at least as much as from talent), you will continue to try. And if you take a positive attitude towards failure (remembering that FAIL = First Attempt in Learning), you are well equipped to learn.
Building resilience, then, comes as part of a thoughtful and deliberate approach to challenges. Schools support this through opportunities to succeed, and through thoughtfully presenting the realities of failure. Thoroughbreds, yes, but not fragile ones.
Mr John Shaw | Deputy HM Wills House, Head of English
Dweck, C. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success USA: Ballantine
Nixon PG. The human function curve. With special reference to cardiovascular disorders: part I. Practitioner. 1976 Nov;217(1301):765-70. PMID: 995833.