Staying afloat

As a species, human beings are extremely resilient. The very fact that we still exist and thrive is testament to our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and come back even stronger. Despite this, however, conversations and debates over the past few years indicate a view of humans as somehow lacking in resilience. These notions may be associated with a number of complex issues, including the increase in people seeking help for mental health problems or conversations around the implementation of trigger warnings and safe spaces. These views are generally, and inevitably, directed towards young people, resulting in labels such as 'snowflake' and as somehow less resilient than their more mature accusers. Unsurprisingly, this implied deficit has been used as a way of explaining academic achievement in both directions. While some arguments insist that to assist young people there is a need to reduce the number of high-stakes exams and general academic related pressure, others are suggesting the need to raise resilience by testing more or by placing young people into situations where failure is more likely, a kind of 'tough love' approach.

This implied resilience deficit, therefore, is used as an explanation for everything from poor mental health to academic failure and even knife crime - a go-to for all the worlds ills, especially in respect to children and teenagers. However, there are many factors that lead to academic underachievement (and poor mental health and criminality) and there is no single solution that will ensure that all young people thrive in school and reach their full potential. More importantly, certainly for the purpose of this book, it's unlikely that resilience has very much to do with it, even if we do manage to agree on what we actually mean by the term. Once we adopt a broader stance we begin to realise that our definitions and general understanding of what resilience is and how it can (or cannot) be nurtured, encouraged or taught are so disparate that there are doubts over whether resilience as a construct is even useful. This problem not only arises within general views of resilience, but can also be seen in the academic research literature. This is not to completely disregard those carefully tailored and implemented programs that already aim to increase young people's capacity to thrive in difficult circumstances, only to advise caution.

Resilience is evolutionary

Traditional views of resilience adopt an evolutionary position, in that resilience is related to a person's ability to successfully adapt and alter their behaviour as a result of changes in the environment. Change leads to stress and this stress is neither positive nor negative, it simply leads to necessary adaptations. How individuals react to these changes is, however, related to their ability to adapt. In other words, some people may be more resilient than others; they may display lower levels of anxiety or a higher degree of conscientiousness, for example. This is fairly obvious and uncontentious - humans beings differ in innumerable ways and their capacity to adapt to change is no different. However, research into these differences has generally concentrated on incidents of extreme adversity, such as how young children cope with challenges raging from extreme poverty, neglect and mental illness. Those young people who thrive are said to be resilient, but factors that encourage this resilience are both internal (such as innate dispositions like personality) and external (including factors in the wider environment such as strong family ties and support from other institutions like church and community groups and schools). Unfortunately, we all too often take the evidence gleaned from studies of resilience to extreme adversity and attempt to apply it to the daily trials and tribulations of school life.

The challenges young people face at school simply aren't comparable with those faced by children raised in poverty or suffering from parental neglect, even though academic achievement is certainly influenced by these circumstances. The average student will face many challenges, including competing deadlines, disappointing grades and dips in motivation. Many will also experience anxiety over impending tests and exams and fears surrounding failure, status and perceived ability. Even those raised within stable and supportive families will experience these challenges, while those attempting to cope with non-school related adversity will be faced with a great deal more.

Often these aspects of learning are termed non-cognitive because they appear to be separate from those directly related to the learning process (that is, retaining learned information) and directly measurable components (such as intelligence). However, cognitive components are challenging in their own right, specifically in relation to pressure (or load) placed upon limited mental resources, particularly memory. These cognitive aspects of learning have been encapsulated within a model known as Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) and advanced in recent years through Load Reduction Instruction (Martin & Evans, 2018), a process by which students learn in a manner that places less strain on cognitive processes. Through these interrelated theories, it becomes possible to employ both cognitive and non-cognitive techniques to decrease the burden or, quite literally, to lighten the load. Indeed, the process may further cast doubt on the strict cognitive-non-cognitive dichotomy as a whole as well as debates around so-called progressive versus traditionalist modes of teaching (Martin & Evans, 2018, p. 204).

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