Monthly Archives: March 2014

What do we really mean by resilience?

Character, resilience, buoyancy, grit – these concepts have been floating about a lot lately.

In February the All-party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility published the document ‘Character and Resilience Manifesto’ while in the same month Tristram Hunt told conference delegates at the AQA Creative Education conference that character and resilience can and should be taught in schools (a point he returned to recently in an address to the Institute for Effective Education in York). In March Liz Truss suggested that mindfulness lessons should be introduced to improve resilience in schools, adding weight to a growing agenda on the importance of non-cognitive skills.

If I’ve learnt anything over the past few months it’s been that educationalists are concerned that our obsession with exam success is neglecting the importance of these non-cognitive skills. The politicians, I cynically assume, are just along for the ride. I’ve blogged about resilience before, only I don’t tend to call it resilience because resilience as it stands in the research literature isn’t always the same resilience as the one I’m interested in. More recently, the term ‘grit’ has also entered the non-cognitive skill lexicon, unfortunately it’s often seen as synonymous with resilience – which it isn’t. Ultimately I often end up discussing the wrong thing with people because what I mean by resilience and (occasionally) ‘grit’ just isn’t the same thing. And herein lies the problem.

Resilience, according to the literature, is the ability to overcome major adversity. Much of the research has focussed on the way in which certain at-risk groups cope with major negative outcomes. This isn’t necessarily what others think it is – what they mean is day-to-day resilience, what psychologists Herb Marsh and Andrew Martin call ‘buoyancy’. Academic buoyancy refers to individuals’ ability to cope with all those everyday challenges (like a bad mark on a test or an impending exam) which a more characteristic of the lives of students than those covered by resilience. Buoyancy assumes minor negative outcomes, the accumulation of which can lead to major academic underachievement. Like resilience, buoyancy is a dynamic process – it isn’t stable and is state dependent (in the same way academic self-concept is state dependent). What we mean by this is that a student might be confident in, say, maths where they display a positive self-concept and high buoyancy but less confident in English where their self-concept is negative and their buoyancy low. Self-esteem represents a global measure and doesn’t necessarily relate to either academic or non-academic self-concept – increasing a child’s self-esteem won’t make them more confident in English if their English academic self-concept remains negative.

So what about ‘grit’? Duckworth defines ‘grit’ as “persuasiveness and passion for long-term goals” which is distinctly different from buoyancy and resilience (although all three are related). Grit does appear to predict resilience, which in turn predicts buoyancy but grit remains a rather vague term with a research base much lower than either resilience or buoyancy. Hunt used the terms ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ interchangeably at the IEE, assuming that the former was simply an American manifestation of the latter. Angela Duckworth (the American psychologist who coined the term), however, suggests that ‘grit’ is a trait (it remains relatively stable over time) – resilience and buoyancy (as already mentioned) are dynamic processes – they aren’t stable.

So, with what appears to be a number of misunderstandings and misconceptions, how does all this play out on the ground? Several schools have certainly embraced the ‘idea’ of resilience but have interpreted it in different ways. The Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), in the United States, is certainly one of the more successful ones. KIPP has identified 24 characteristics that schools should try and develop, while Bedford Academy in the UK has narrowed these down to ‘the magnificent seven’ (grit, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and self-control) while Rossett School in North Yorkshire, UK concentrates on the ‘3R’s’ (Resilience, Reflectiveness and Respect). Marsh and Martin identify the 5C’s (or motivational predictors) of academic buoyancy (Confidence, Coordination, Commitment, Composure and Control), suggesting another set of characteristics that could form part of a resilience or ‘character’ intervention.

Measuring day-to-day resilience presents yet another problem. KIPP, Bedford Academy and Rossett all issue pupils with a score (dependent on the system used) as part of the reporting system. In the case of Rossett, this appears to be subject specific – correctly identifying resilience as state (not trait) based. However, research into resiliency and buoyancy tends to use self-completion psychometric tools and it would be interesting to discover if these pupils would rate their resiliency as similar to the teacher rating (and which one we should choose as ‘accurate’). Unfortunately, any systematic investigation into the effectiveness of these systems is proving hard to track down and outcomes measures don’t seem to exist.

I’m certainly in favour of programmes that help to improve resilience and improve character. The problems lie both in a common terminology and accurate measurement, in terms of progress and outcomes. If we can’t trust the tools and we can’t measure the outcome it all turns into a bit of a farce.