Has the Resilience Ship Sailed?

Times Educational Supplement, March 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

Has the Resilience Ship Sailed?


As exam season approaches, efforts to boost student resilience will be in full flow. But psychologist Marc Smith argues that such interventions are deeply flawed. Instead, he says, we should be fostering 'academic buoyancy'

Battling extreme adversity and managing, somehow, to find your way out of it requires resilience. Having a home life that seems almost too horrific even for fiction and managing not just to survive but thrive - that also requires resilience. But what about being able to recover from a poor mark on an essay, dealing with a fleeting lack of motivation, or not giving up the first time you get a maths question wrong? The prevailing opinion in education suggests that overcoming these setbacks requires resilience, too. I am not so sure.

Education has been obsessed with resilience for some time. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has made "character education" her mantra, and she passionately defends the concept whenever it is questioned (see box, page 33). Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb has said that education is about the "practical business of ensuring that young people...have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed".

Where the Department for Education leads, everyone else follows. Academics that offer variations on the resilience theme - such as Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck and Paul Tough - have become well-known education names, lauded at conferences and discussed in countless column inches and blog posts. At ground level, consultants have spotted a market ripe with rich pickings: resilience inset days are big business.

It's easy to get carried away with it all but education needs to take a moment to reflect. When it does, it will find that very few people actually know what resilience really is. More worryingly, what schools believe is resilience is likely to be something entirely different: "academic buoyancy".

Potential failure

Resilience has attracted significant attention owing to widespread concerns about the ability of students to cope with setbacks and potential failure. New statistics and studies revealing high levels of student anxiety are seemingly released weekly and the current school intake has been labelled the "snowflake generation" owing to its apparent fragility in the face of adversity. Suddenly, we are led to believe, the kids can't cope, and so we need to intervene with resilience programmes to "fix" them.

The methods used by the programmes are numerous and many of them have been reviewed by academics. A cursory glance suggests that these interventions have been effective, and yet dig deeper and there are numerous problems. For example, in a review of the academic literature on resilience-based interventions for schools published in 2013, Angie Hart and Becky Heaver, of the University of Brighton, discovered that many of the papers defined resilience in such a "vague and conceptually weak manner" that the authors cast doubt as to whether the intervention could actually be described as "resilience-based".

The intervention landscape remains diverse and fragmented, too. Some interventions target long-term wellbeing to reduce the incidences of mental illness, but most either target negative reactions to setbacks resulting from the normal process of learning or aim for a kind of catch-all toolkit of techniques in the hope that these tools will work on a number of levels.

Considering the significant interest in resilience being shown by the UK government and the teaching profession, it is disturbing to discover large differences between interventions and, in some cases, the absence of any understanding of important concepts and measurable outcomes. If resilience is so important, why are we not sure what it is or how to instil it in our young people?

Yet as concerning as this is, we have a bigger problem: we are not only getting resilience interventions wrong in a large number of cases; we shouldn't even be targeting resilience in the first place. …

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