Of all the High Performance Learning characteristics we focus on in HPL, those in the ‘Hard working’ group seem the most familiar. Perseverance, practice and resilience have been the underpinning philosophy behind much recent educational dogma – including Character Education in the UK and the work on ‘Grit’ in the US – so that these elements of the framework appear almost ubiquitous.
To be clear:
- Perseverance is the ability to keep going; to encounter obstacles and difficulties but never give up.
- Resilience is the ability to overcome setbacks; remain confident, focussed, flexible and optimistic; and to help others move forward in the face of adversity.
- Practice is the ability to train and prepare through repetition in order to become more proficient.
The Marshmallow Experiment
A great deal of time and effort has gone into proving how vital these characteristics are, not just for success, but also for health and happiness. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of the 1960s, which tested the ability of young children to resist the temptation of a marshmallow on the hope of more marshmallows to come, concluded that:
‘The pre-schoolers who were able to wait for two marshmallows, over the course of their lives, have a lower BMI, lower rates of addiction, a lower divorce rate and higher SAT scores.’
This experiment, with various adjustments, has been repeated many times with similar outcomes. If we know, therefore, that these things matter, why aren’t we all teaching our children to be resilient and persistent?
It is, of course, nowhere near as simple as it appears. Those children who are least successful in our schools often lead lives which require them to learn greater resilience than many of us will ever need and demonstrate remarkable persistence just to be in school, on time, with at least some of the required equipment. It also obviously isn’t enough just to develop these characteristics – high performance requires that we recognise them and learn how to apply them to academic and professional success.
Equally, many of the young people who have been supported from their earliest years to work hard and be academically successful in school have not had the opportunity to learn the resilience they need to bounce back from failure or to persist when their achievements fall short of perfection. There is a difference between aiming for high performance and chasing unobtainable perfection, and learning this difference is as important for mental health as it is for success.
Children need to be taught about resilience and persistence and how to apply it to their lives and their learning. Recovering from failure and trying again, understanding that not all tasks have a pre-determined outcome, learning that mastery is a process not an event, working with their peers to identify and overcome barriers and engaging in a productive discourse with their teachers are all part of establishing the classroom climate which develops these characteristics.
Interestingly, later research on that famous marshmallow experiment has demonstrated that the most important element in developing resilience is trust. Those children who did not trust the adult who promised the reward made an active choice to eat the marshmallow already in their grasp. Most of those who were confident the adult could be trusted to deliver on their promise chose to wait.
Since, like intelligence, behaviours are learnt and augmented by experience, it is unsurprising that teachers who are consistent and reliable are most successful in teaching children to be resilient and persistent.