In recent years education has started to investigate the rather complex topic of ‘resilience’ in academic achievement. Much of this research is looking at how certain groups (for example, pupils with learning difficulties or ethnic minority groups) deal with adversity within an educational setting. While definitions of resilience vary, it is widely assumed that the term refers to an individual’s capacity to deal with acute and chronic adversities which can be seen as major assaults on the ability to succeed.
Of equal importance is an insight into how our students cope with the pressures of day-to-day academic life – everything from coping with minor setbacks and dips in motivation to being awarded a low grade on a piece of homework.
Academic ‘buoyancy’ describes a students’ ability to cope and bounce back from these everyday pressures and setbacks. While some may argue that academic resilience is synonymous with academic buoyancy, the distinction does provide a useful way of separating the ‘big’ issues (such as gender, ethnicity and special needs requirements) from those ‘seemingly’ insignificant issues that appear to be influenced by individual personality factors rather than more wide-ranging global ones.
As educators we often overlook the impact of minor setbacks on our students and how such seemingly insignificant factors (such a low grade on an essay or the frustration a student feels at their assumed inability to meet or exceed a target grade) can negatively effect their self-esteem and academic self-concept. Andrew Martin of the University of Sydney and his colleagues have suggested that academic buoyancy can be predicted through the identification of five motivational factors: confidence (self-efficiency), coordination (planning), commitment (persistence), composure (low anxiety) and control (low uncertain control). It would be assumed that the level of academic buoyancy would then relate directly to academic achievement seeing as buoyancy is more concerned with isolated poor grades and dips in academic performance rather than chronic underachievement. The extent to which one is related to the other (i.e. does it make a significant difference?) would certainly prove to be an interesting area of investigation and could pave the way for useful intervention protocols.
All this suggests that academic achievement is as much about personality as it is about any kind of innate intelligence or inborn academic ability (a view supported by Harvard University psychologist Carol Dweck in terms of her ‘implicit theories of intelligence’) and that those educators who primarily teach older adolescents have to overcome factors within students that might have been instilled at a much earlier stage in their education. A second related conundrum would be the precise environment in which such concepts arise and how much a student’s academic self-concept is moulded through the educational system itself.
The prickly issue here is the possibility that what we as teachers ‘do’ in the classroom might have less of an impact on learning than we would like to believe and that the student is more in control of learning that we are. Doubly problematic is the possibility that our attitude towards learners might have a greater impact on success or failure than how we teach. There is little new here – the consequences of labelling have been widely investigated by the likes of American sociologist Howard Becker for many years, yet education appears to employ strategies that reinforce these possibly damaging practices.
Is it therefore possible that the way we treat our students is far more important than how we teach them? Should we be identifying characteristics within ‘types’ of students (such as academic buoyancy) that could assist in their journey through education and determine to some degree how and why some succeed while others don’t?