Monthly Archives: November 2014

Perceptions of Failure: Is there a role for Positive Psychological Capital?

Consider the following two scenarios:

Matilda has just been given an essay back from her teacher and it’s not the result she hoped for. The teacher has given her lots of feedback and advice on how to improve on her essay and she reads it thoroughly and pledges to correct her errors and re-submit it in a few days time. She is disappointed but understands that if she acts on the feedback her grade should increase.

Matty has completed the same essay and, just like Matilda, didn’t get the result he wanted. With Matty this always seems to be the case and constant poor grades have left him demoralised. Again, there is lots of feedback and advice on how to improve but Matty doesn’t read it – he’s a failure, he always fails and there seems to be very little he can do to fix the problem.

There are several psychological factors at play here. We could say that Matilda is displaying a Growth Mindset while Matty is surely a Fixed Mindset. We could also suggest that Matty is displaying a certain degree of learned helplessness (he has become so fixated on failure that he can’t see a way out) as well as showing self-handicapping tendencies. These can be viewed as both cognitive and emotional responses to failure – I see it all the time in my Sixth Form students.

As well as the established reasons for Matty’s behaviour explained above, we could also view Matilda’s and Matty’s responses in terms of Positive Psychological Capital (or PsyCap). Although PsyCap is a concept rarely applied to education, its related components of high self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency have been found to be important motivational components in academic success and, although these components might need revising in terms of education, the general framework seems suitably relevant.

The Role of Academic Buoyancy.

It’s highly likely that Matilda would test higher for levels of academic buoyancy than Matty as, on the surface, it would appear that she is more able to ‘bounce back’ from minor (yet personally significant) setbacks such as a disappointing grade on an essay. From his own research, Dave Putwain at Edge Hill University has speculated that buoyant individuals may not view academic failure as threatening to either personal aspirations or self-worth due to their belief in the ability to bounce back from failure. (Putwain et al., 2012) Putwain further suggests that buoyant individuals do not hold an expectation of failure because of a belief in their ability to respond positively to the challenge of evaluative-performance events, suggesting further that academic buoyancy is based on positive ways of approaching academic setbacks rather than attempting to cope with them. Another way to put this would be to say that Matilda has accumulated more positive psychological capital while Matty views failure as an end result due to his lack of positive psychological capital.

For teachers, this creates interesting opportunities. In a society so obsessed with success and failure how do we promote a more positive view to failure within our students? Boys appear particularly prone to this (although the evidence is mostly anecdotal) which would explain why my male students are less likely to hand in homework than my female students – they fear failure, partly due to their difficulties in dealing with it.

Putwain, D.W., Connors, L., Symes, W. & Douglas-Osborn, E. (2012). Is academic buoyancy anything more than adaptive coping? Anxiety, stress, and coping. [Online]. 25 (3). p.pp. 349–58. Available from: [Accessed: 10 December 2013].


Resilience, Buoyancy and Grit: Are they the same?

I’ve attempted to explain the way I view these terms before, while at the same time trying to conceal my frustration at the way they are often used interchangeably. Definitions are important to researchers because you need to know what you are researching and how it relates to similar issues – ‘jargon’ is sometimes necessary.

Last year I heard Tristram Hunt describe ‘grit’ as an American term for ‘resilience’. While they may be related, they are not necessarily the same, in fact ‘grit’ is a term coined by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (you can watch her TED talk here).

Of ‘resilience’, Duckworth states:

The word resilience is used differently by different people. And to add to the confusion, the ways people use it often have a lot of overlap. To give you an example, Martin Seligman, my advisor and now my colleague here at Penn, has a program called the “Penn Resiliency Program.” It’s all about one specific definition of resilience, which is optimism—appraising situations without distorting them, thinking about changes that are possible to make in your life. But I’ve heard other people use resilience to mean bouncing back from adversity, cognitive or otherwise. And some people use resilient specifically to refer to kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless.

Duckworth is aware of the confusion, and this confusion was my starting point when I began my research at PERC. I overcame the first hurdle by adopting the term ‘academic buoyancy’ (the ability to bounce back from daily setbacks) from psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh. On the other hand, I view resilience as a way of overcoming major adversity or “…kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless”.

Of ‘grit’, Duckworth states:

Grit is related [to resilience] because part of what it means to be gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity. But that’s not the only trait you need to be gritty.

So Duckworth states that resilience is a ‘trait’ contained within a wider ‘grit’ construct (although arguments continue as to whether resilience is actually a trait).

Duckworth continues:

In the scale that we developed in research studies to measure grit, only half of the questions are about responding resiliently to situations of failure and adversity or being a hard worker. The other half of the questionnaire is about having consistent interests—focused passions—over a long time. That doesn’t have anything to do with failure and adversity. It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term.

She concludes:

So grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.

Should we try to ‘teach’ resilience?

Resilience is the latest ‘buzz’ word in education. I’ve lost count of the times politicians have spoken about it (without actually understanding the concept) and the number of schools that have implemented programs to ‘teach’ it.

As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to use the term ‘academic buoyancy’ to describe the ability to ‘bounce back’ from those small but personally significant setbacks students encounter every day (everything from a disappointing grade on a test to those inevitable patches of poor performance). Such incidents represent low-level stressful situations rather than major attacks on self-confidence or perceived abilities.

Even though many schools have implemented programmes, these interventions remain difficult to assess due to few of them being similar to each other or measuring that which they are supposed to be promoting. A recent systematic consultative review found that many resilience programs within schools used the term ‘resilience’ is such a vague and conceptually weak manner that the authors found it difficult to identify those which could be realistically described as resilience-based (Hart & Heaver, 2013). Furthermore, results from the largest UK trial of resilience training in schools (the UK Resilience Project) continue to be largely ignored, perhaps due in part to disappointing outcomes and criticism concerning the intervention package (Coyne, 2013).

While the issue of definitions is certainly a problem, I think an equally destructive issue surrounds the view that we must teach resilience, rather than concentrating on factors that nurture academic buoyancy.

Four factors that (appear) to strengthen academic buoyancy.

1. Academic Self Concept.
Those learners who view their academic selves in a positive way appear more able to deal with daily setbacks. ASC represents a specific sub-category of self-esteem but recognises that our view of ourselves as learners is state rather than trait buoyancyspecific (so you might have high ASC for English but not for Maths). It would therefore follow that you could cope better with setbacks in those subjects where your ASC is high but not in subjects where it is low. ASC is, in part, related to our past experiences of ourselves as learners – poor experiences in Maths will lead to a negative view of ourselves within the area of Maths (e.g. Marsh & Martin, 2011)

2. Positive Emotions & Emotional Regulation.
Perhaps a little more controversial because of the relationship to the Positive Psychology movement. Nevertheless, evidence has found that negative emotions do negatively impact on buoyancy and that those who experience more positive affect manage to better safeguard themselves from setbacks through their ability to re-frame failure in more positive ways. (Putwain & Daly, 2013; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2011)

3. Implicit Theories of Intelligence.
Carol Dweck’s ‘mindset’ theory has been marketed to death but the general theory remains sound. Those who view their own intelligence as malleable (so-called ‘Growth Mindest’) are better equipped to deal with setbacks in a more constructive way (e.g. Dweck, 2000)

4. Growth Goals.
Setting goals can be a very powerful tool, particularly if those goals are incremental and represent a ‘better than last time’ or ‘personal best’ approach. And never neglect good feedback. (e.g. Liem, Ginns, Martin, Stone, & Herrett, 2012)

The assumption being made is that these factors influence and nurture buoyancy. Of course, there is more likely to be a reciprocal relationship and much more work needs to be done in order to better understand these complex relationships.

Ultimately, it’s less about teaching resilience and more about encouraging those factors that allow resilience to flourish.

Coyne, J. (2013). Positive psychology in the schools: the UK Resilience Project. PloS blogs. Retrieved October 18, 2014, from
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Essays in Social Psychology (p. 214). Psychology Press. Retrieved from
Hart, A., & Heaver, B. (2013). Evaluating resilience-based programs for schools using a systematic consultative review . Journal of Child and Youth Development, 1(1), 27–53.
Liem, G. A. D., Ginns, P., Martin, A. J., Stone, B., & Herrett, M. (2012). Personal best goals and academic and social functioning: A longitudinal perspective. Learning and Instruction, 22(3), 222–230. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.11.003
Marsh, H. W., & Martin, A. J. (2011). Academic self-concept and academic achievement: relations and causal ordering. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(Pt 1), 59–77. doi:10.1348/000709910X503501
Putwain, D. W., & Daly, A. L. (2013). Do clusters of test anxiety and academic buoyancy differentially predict academic performance? Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 157–162. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.07.010
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320–333. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.320.Resilient