Tag Archives: Andrew Martin

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.


Extrinsic Rewards and Painting Fences

moneyrocks-teenA recent survey by Vouchercodes.co.uk* has found that parents spend around £4.2 million on incentives in the hope that money and gifts will encourage their children to do well in their GCSE exams. Around a third of parents offered cash averaging at more the £35 per subject for an A* grade while each grade C would earn more than £17.

The trend is mirrored by the increasing number of schools who offer cash incentives and prizes such as Xbox games and iTunes vouchers as rewards for good behaviour and hard work. Such is the desperation for success that both parents and schools are entering into costly financial arrangements with young people that have no guarantee of success, and while such decisions might work well in the short-term, long-term outcomes remain problematic and untested.

While we might intuitively believe that cash motivates, the reality runs counter to the common sense opinion. Furthermore, withdrawing such incentives (perhaps due to increasing financial constraints) can outweigh any benefits obtained during the term of the arrangement. The problematic nature of cash and other material incentives have been known and understood for some time with the first systematic investigation being conducted as far back as 1973 by Stanford University psychologist Mark Lepper. Lepper found that offering incentives to young children for doing something they loved (Lepper chose drawing activities) led to significant reduction in motivation within two weeks of the implementation of the scheme. Why? Children believe that payment is offered in reward for work and when they view a task as work they are less likely to view it as enjoyable.

Enjoyment plays a major role in motivation – we often feel as if our independence is being eroded when we feel compelled to do something (even if we previously found that very same activity enjoyable). A stereotypical teenager might lie lazily on their bed thinking ‘I must really tidy this room’ but when mum appears at the door demanding that the room be tidied, the teen loses all motivation and reacts negatively to the request. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘reactance’ – as human beings we value our independence – try and take it away and we’ll react with hostility and rebellion.

tom-sawyer-whitewashing-the-fenceOf course, it can also work the other way. Remember when Tom Sawyer was ordered to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence? Tom eventually managed to persuade his friends that fence painting was so enjoyable that they actually paid him for the privilege of completing the task. The so-called ‘Sawyer effect’ might have less of an impact in the real world, but the results can still be powerful depending upon the circumstances.

Intrinsic motivators are therefore much more powerful than extrinsic ones. Enjoyment of learning (one of the 8 habits of highly successful learners) motivates from the inside and therefore isn’t based on any external reward – motivation isn’t a habit in itself – it’s the result of other factors. This is by no means to suggest that learning must be fun (although it can be).

The problem is that, in a society governed almost entirely by extrinsic motivators, encouraging motivation through intrinsic means becomes very difficult. Emphasising the importance of education and learning is lost on most young people who only see their lives as short-term snapshots. That said, using the knowledge we have of student motivation could help us to develop ways in which we can use this information to our students’ and our advantage.

One of the reasons many incentive schemes fail is, in part, due to this short-term outlook. University of Chicago economist Sally Sadoff found that extrinsic rewards only work when they are given immediately, suggesting that educators need to capitalise on students’ short-term outlook. What also requires investigation is whether intrinsic motivators can be used in the same way as extrinsic ones. Even the most troublesome student can be delighted by a higher than expected grade but this moment of elation is quickly lost when they fall back into their usual pattern of lower marks and slipping rank within the class. Psychologist Andrew Martin advocates the use of ‘personal bests’ as an antidote to the problem of peer comparison. We also really need to examine the validity and outcomes of the use of peer rankings.

There is certainly something within our psychology that rejoices in the moment when we have done even a little better than we did the time before, which can motivate us to do even better the next time. Incremental progress (no matter how small) can increase motivation – although we can argue whether such rewards are intrinsic or extrinsic (the reward being the progress, rather than something more tangible). This also exploits the short-term outlook because time-frames are flexible and can be negotiated between the parties involved – be it with teachers or parents.

So, do we need expensive and complex financial incentive schemes? There are certainly more effective ways of motivating our students and many other ways parents can get the best from their sons and daughters. Nudging the successful learner towards an intrinsic mindset is much harder than showering them with extrinsic goodies. In the long run, however, it will reap higher rewards.

*Although we must remain mindful regarding the the motivation of the organisation carrying out the study

Nurturing habits for successful learning

Why is it that some pupils achieve and others don’t? I have briefly touched on some of these both in this blog and elsewhere and I remain a fervent believer that the handicapping of academic achievement is as much caused by external (social) factors as it by internal (e.g. genetics/personality) factors. I have discussed issues such as social class and cultural capital before, so I want now to turn to more psychological factors that might impact on success and failure within a school setting.

The contributions of psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh have been somewhat neglected by educators, especially in the UK. Even though Herb Marsh is director of the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre at Oxford University and is probably one of the most prolific researchers into the study of academic self-concept, his theories (supported by a wealth of empirical data) have generally failed to permeate down into the classroom. Similarly, while Martin has become highly influential in the area of student motivation in his native Australia, few UK teachers are aware of his contribution.

Martin views academic achievement in evolutionary terms – achievement and success is something that evolves through our constant attempts to learn. During this process students will encounter both success and failure and future achievement is, in part, influenced by how we react to this. Such success includes things like marks, literacy, numeracy, effort, persistence, engagement, participation, cooperation, etc. and a students’ mastery of all or some of these have a cumulative effect on future success. Therefore, those students who make gains early on continue to sustain and increase those gains while those students who are slow to master them have a harder time catching up – essentially, the stronger get ever stronger while the weaker only get weaker. This phenomenon in education has been described as the ‘Matthew Effect’ by psychologist Keith Stanovich, specifically in relation to reading where Stanovich states:

“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do”
(in Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

So how do students succeed and why do some fail?

Martin’s research suggests that success can be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’ outcomes.

In the same way, failure can also be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’


Furthermore, Martin has developed what he described at the ‘The Motivation and Engagement Wheel’, an attempt to integrate the psychological influences on success and failure. Positive thoughts and positive behaviours logically lead to a higher degree of success as well as increased resilience and buoyancy (the ability to bounce back following set-backs and the ability to see failure more positively). Negative thoughts (such as anxiety and uncertain control) and negative behaviours (such as self-handicapping) not only lead to academic underachievement, they also sustain it.



Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2003)

Although Martin never explicitly relates his work to Dweck’s Mindset theory, integrating Dweck’s view of implicit theories of intelligence would certainly complement and extend the work of both Martin and Dweck. For those unfamiliar with implicit theories of intelligence, Carol Dweck has suggested that individuals tend to hold specific views concerning the nature of intelligence. These implicit theories of intelligence are described as either entity theories (where individuals view intelligence as innate and academic ability as fixed and beyond their control) or incremental (where individuals view academic ability as malleable and based on effort rather than innate ability). If we view entity theories as maladaptive cognitions and incremental theories as adaptive cognitions, we can assume an evolutionary path from the former to the latter (and sticking to the principle that thoughts influence behaviour) we can attempt to move our students away from destructive negative self-concepts towards more adaptive ways of thinking.

Part of our roles as teachers should be to identify and attempt to correct these maladaptive views of self in relation to learning. Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary and cumulative nature of motivation, engagement and self-concept, for many teachers (especially at secondary level) the damage becomes more difficult to repair as learners have already established fairly concrete views of themselves and have fallen so far behind their peers that ‘catching up’ seems impossible.

Within a culture obsessed with ranking children against their peers and schools against each other, we perhaps begin to lose sight of the individuals in our classrooms. Martin suggests that pupils should be measured against themselves, in terms of ‘personal bests’ (PB) in the same that athletes not only rank themselves against others but also rank their current performance against their previous performance.

Allowing pupils (especially the ones more vulnerable to negative self belief) to view their own progress far from the spotlight of others’ success could provide the first step on the road to overcoming the negative consequences of failure.