2020 was a difficult year for young people. While many no doubt welcomed the initial “freedom” that was lockdown, so many more were excited about going back to school and now dread the thought of entering another lockdown. Many yearned for the intrigue of the classroom, the questionable school dinners, and those pesky teachers whose physical and sonorous presence they can’t believe they actually missed!
The children that struggled in lockdown were those for whom moving from the classroom to the kitchen table was only a physical, and not a psychological, move. These children were those so imbued with a culture of learning that they were un-derailed by the circumstances. And this lack of derailment did not always correlate with high academic ability – both high- and low-ability students struggled during this period. It was the children that demonstrated the greatest level of resilience that were able to hold their heads in the ensuing chaos that was the 2020 academic year.
In this article, we are going to discuss the defining features of academic resilience, and its importance in helping young people to take ownership of their education, remove anxiety and cultivate success.
Building Academic Resilience in your Child
- What is Academic Resilience?
- Gaining a deeper and wider understanding of education
- The Incremental and Iterative Nature of Learning
- A Sustainable Culture of Learning
Resilience is a word that has been in vogue for some time in the adult self-help genre – the idea that success comes not from preventing challenges but from being able to weather them, and even thrive as a result of them. Attainment has long been the measure of success for young people, but the idea of resilience is beginning to take hold – not least as conversations about stress and anxiety increase and it becomes clear that the focus should be on the sustainability of learning, at the heart of which sits resilience.
“Resilience means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge”
The older definition of resilience reduced it to simply the ability to bounce back after a set-back. Resembling the famed stoicism that characterises the British mentality, it came to mean simply the ability to go on like nothing happened. Keep calm and carry on to the exam no matter what. The destructive narratives at the heart of such thinking are easy to imagine.
But the word is undergoing something of a re-imagining. Understood.org, an education charity, notes that ‘resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge’. For them, resilience is not an excuse for burying problems, but is an opportunity to learn in itself. Thus, by their definition, resilience goes beyond simply understanding one’s problems to actually using them as the fuel for further development.
In a similar vein, a study by researchers in Iran defined resilience as having ‘good, stable and consistent adaptation under challenging conditions’. There’s that concept again, that resilience is not about pushing through, it is about being able to identify opportunities to take stock and take action, and then actually doing it.
People often talk about “learning moments”, experiences that young people have which act in some way to teach them a lesson about the ineffectiveness of their methodologies. But resilience goes beyond that; it is a culture of learning, where all experiences from their outset are framed as endeavours in learning. This means that all that emanates from experience is constructive as even disappointing experiences contribute something to the gaining of a deeper understanding of one’s self and the world. Thus, it is better to think of resilience as a culture and not a personality trait; a culture rooted in a sustainable approach to learning in which knowledge is appreciated at the micro- and macro level, at the formal and informal level, at the individual and collective level.
The first key feature of academic resilience in a young person is an enthusiasm to gain a deeper understanding of their education. That is, having been “let in” on the machinations of the systems of learning that underpin their education, they want to engage with them more and help to facilitate their smooth functioning as much as possible.
Young people that shy away from understanding the bigger picture of their learning will almost never develop resilience. And parents that hide these systems from their children are undertaking perhaps the most counterproductive step in their attempts to develop in their children an appreciation of education.
Essentially, young people must be afforded the chance to develop an interest in their education and to care about their studies, this is almost impossible to achieve if they are kept in the dark about the systems that underpin it. This could include, never informing your children of term dates, exam dates, exam content; excluding children from parents’ evenings without reason; attending school open days without them; filling in school application forms without them; hiding results, reports and rejection letters from them.
How can young people care about a system of which they only encounter the curated veneer? Once you decide to nurture academic expectations in your children, you must allow them to be privy to all conversations about their education unless there is a specific reason to exclude them. Resilience is born from ownership; one cannot withstand setback, undergo reflection and alter behaviour if one doesn’t even know what is happening and what it’s all for.
I refuse to teach a child something twice without reason.
I’ve taught children who don’t even know the names of the schools they’re applying for! How can you prepare such a child for an interview? How can you explain to a child the idiosyncrasies of different admissions standards? How can you expect the child to even care?
The second key principle of resilience in a young person is having an understanding of the incremental and iterative nature of learning. Full knowledge is the culmination of packets of knowledge acquired over time. Knowledge is also the result of iterative processes of learning. Just like painting a dark wall a lighter colour, knowledge is acquired by the repeated rolling of the paintbrush of information and methodology over the same point until it is fixed, and the darkness of ignorance is blocked out permanently. And like all paint exposed to light, knowledge fades and needs regular re-touching.
This deep understanding of how people learn comes only from practice – children must see for themselves, after successfully learning many different things, that time is essential to all learning, that large pieces of knowledge are the sum of small packets of knowledge, and that regular re-engagement with knowledge is the only way to compound and retain it. You cannot preach this to a child; they must experience it.
I refuse to teach a child something twice without reason. And that reason must be a good one – namely that the way I taught it the first time didn’t work for the child, they never understood it, and I must teach them the same thing in a different way. But if a child has understood something before, I will not teach it again, and here is why.
One of the biggest challenges I have when I first start teaching a child is instilling in them the use of their notes. For many it is the first time they’ve been expected, on meeting a familiar challenge, to reach back into previous work, re-learn it, re-practise it and apply its teachings to the latest challenge. The dread that comes over their faces at the thought of referring to their own notes is striking; they feel like they are being punished because they have to re-learn something.
It takes several weeks, several forays back to the same page whose corners become worn down, for a child to learn that each time it takes a little less effort to re-learn; each time they are painting second, third and fourth coats of knowledge and are blocking out the darkness of not knowing. They come to stop expecting that they will just “know” something after learning it the first time, and come to appreciate that last time was just the first time that they learnt it, and they may have to re-learn it several more times until they know it.
Is this activity not the definition of resilience? I struggle to believe that anyone can truly learn anything without this process, whether it is undertaken consciously or unconsciously – ask any actor that has to learn lines or any pilot who carries his aircraft manual beneath his arm like a bible.
The final key indicator of resilience in a young person is their ability to thrive in a culture of learning where understanding the world is seen as a natural part of life alongside eating, sleeping and leisure. To not eat is to starve, to not exercise is to atrophy, to not discuss is to be stymied and to not learn is to wilt. A lack of learning leads to the atrophy of one’s mind; children become stunted in their outlook, more resistant to new experiences, more fearful of the unfamiliar, more un-willing to engage in critical thought.
Educating children about the world and how to thrive within it is the ultimate goal of parenting, and the only real goal of educators in my opinion. Our goal in young people’s lives as parents and educators is thus to teach them how to survive without us, and that means nurturing the natural curiosity that defines our species by championing engagement with the unfamiliar, embracing the unexpected, and finding adequate space for the experiencing of consequences.
3 key features of academic resilience in young people
- An enthusiasm to gain a deeper and wider understanding of their education
- An understanding that learning is an incremental and iterative process
- Thriving in a culture of learning where understanding the world a natural part of life
A parent should be as concerned about their child not wanting to learn new things as them not wanting to eat. They don’t have to want to eat everything, but they cannot decide to eat nothing. And if they do eat, they cannot decide to only eat sugary things. It is perhaps easier to imagine the devastating consequences of a failure to cultivate healthy eating and exercising habits in young people than to imagine the repercussions of a lack of inquisitiveness and a resistance to learning, but the results are effectively the same – a less than optimal lived experience.
Resilience then is not only an ability to weather difficulty; that ability must be based on an appreciation that knowledge is not the result of a single experience but is the sum of several experiences, and one must keep experiencing in order to retain knowledge.
Resilience is thus a way of thinking about experiences, a culture that sees them as a necessary part of growth, a way of experiencing the world that requires the scope and depth of the boundaries of knowledge to be regularly surveyed, tended to and expanded.