Schools looking to develop resilient and motivated learners must consider the environment they provide rather than trying to explicitly “teach resilience”, psychologist Bradley Busch told the Bryanston Education Summit.
In a talk exploring the research around resilience, he explained that even a highly resilient and motivated child could give up if the task was too challenging and not enough support was given.
Busch, who is director at learning company InnerDrive, said there were “only two factors to bear in mind” – the levels of challenge and support.
“How much do the pupils feel connected to the group, in the school and the classroom, do they know who to turn to for emotional support or technical support?
“The research suggests that the only way to help children develop resilience is this combination of the two.”
But it was very easy for teachers to fail to provide sufficient challenge, he said, as he had done in his early practice:
“It’s really tempting to dive in too much and too early because you don’t want to see them uncomfortable, you don’t want to see them struggle, but what that meant for me is I got into the habit of accepting people’s first answer and being grateful they said anything as opposed to their best answer because I wanted them to feel that they were supported….but I denied them the opportunity to have that challenge and struggle and that desirable difficulty.”
He added that it was important to bear in mind research that showed levels of resilience fluctuate in one person: “One of the biggest misconceptions around resilience is that individual motivation and resilience are good predictors of future behaviour, they are not a very good predictor of future behaviour because they can fluctuate so quickly.
“Within 30 seconds motivation can fluctuate so much and the research bears this out.”
“Students will often start a task with good intentions, but then there’s a disconnect between the intentions and the behaviours, and the habits and the routines that can often lead to the results those intentions want.”
Busch also touched on the importance of the right kind of feedback for students – something explored in research around the “Growth Mindset” approach popular in the 2010s.
Praising of a child’s effort – something they could change and control, was more effective for motivating children to push themselves than praising a child’s personal qualities and abilities, he stressed.
“Those who had been praised for their behaviours were much more likely to self-select a harder task,” said Busch. Children praised for being clever were more likely to choose safe tasks that they knew they could get right and emerge with their reputation “intact”.
Feedback that involved comparison to others, he stressed, could be motivating, but teachers should not employ it.
“The problem with relying on other people for motivation is that it might be quite handy whilst I’m at the gym but it doesn’t motivate to get me there in the first place…it’s hard to use other people as a motivator.
“Comparing yourself to others is a very weak form of resilience long-term. It’s not very robust because you’re always relying on an external source to provide that motivation and resilience.”
“Any form of learning in the classroom that relies on leader boards or comparisons to others is a terrible idea because it is a zero sum game…but what we are trying to measure is learning, and improving and development.
“And that comparison to others, although tempting shorthand is really bad for long-term memory…
“Students want to do that naturally themselves, we don’t need to be facilitating that, they do that enough, by themselves.
“Long term resilience is about measuring self-progress and individual development as opposed to comparison to others.”
Busch also stressed the famous “Marshmallow test” had shown the importance of pupil self-control in the path to success, but stressed the latest updated research showed children also had to trust the adult promising they would get more marshmallows if they waited.
“Every conversation about resilience has to talk about trust, reliability and consistency,” he said.
“Students are very good at being able to spot the discrepancy between what we say and what we do.”
Busch also talked about how the powerful influence of peers in the teenage years could be harnessed to motivate pupils in a positive way.