Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
1 October 2019
Resilience has become one of the most discussed character traits in the media in recent years. Popular psychology and self-development articles, podcasts and videos on the topic abound. It has also become a hot topic in education. Resilience has become a staple part of character education programmes offered by some schools. In a speech given in 2014, Shadow Education Secretary at the time, Tristram Hunt, stated that resilience is a vital part of education and should be taught in schools and as part of teacher training. The UK school inspection bodies, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (‘Ofsted’) and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (‘ISI’), identify resilience as one of the character traits they monitor when assessing schools’ provision of personal development for pupils. Resilience is a focus of several educational research organisations, such as Resilience, Wellbeing, Success and Stanford University’s Resilience Project.
What is resilience and why is it an important part of character education? This blog post addresses these questions.
- What is resilience?
The OED entry for ‘resilience’ provides five senses, the fifth of which is closest to how we use the word today in the context of human activities:
The quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness; adaptability.
This definition brings out two important features of resilience. First, the ability to resist being affected by difficulties. Second, in circumstances where one cannot help but be affected, having the ability to bounce back from the negative ways in which difficulties affect us.
In a 2014 Spectator article discussing the heightened use of ‘resilience’ in various areas of life in recent years, including governmental educational policy decisions, Spectator columnist Dot Wordsworth discusses the word’s etymology and how its meaning has changed in recent decades. Wordsworth observes that etymologically, ‘resilience is connected with resiling, or ‘going back’’. Nowadays, Wordsworth writes, we understand ‘not resiling’ to mean possessing determination. So, ‘it is regarded as just as bad to resile as it is to lack resilience’.
One of the meanings of ‘resile’ is to abandon a position or course of action – for example, to withdraw from an agreement, a commitment or an opinion. Sometimes, resiling can be laudable: one might resile from the negative views they espoused in the past or supporting an unethical cause. But this sense of ‘resile’ can also be used pejoratively: to retreat or shrink back from something. This is what resilience equips us with the ability to avoid. Resilience enables us to avoid jumping ship when things get tough. Resilience is the ability to face up to the difficulties that might otherwise tempt us to give up pursuing the fulfilment of our desired ends.
‘Resile’, Wordsworth further notes, comes from the Latin word resilire, meaning ‘to recoil’. The etymological connection between resiling and resilience brings out the second aspect of resilience. One of the meanings of the verb ‘to recoil’, given in some dictionaries, is to rebound or spring back. To be resilient is to have the ability to recover, or ‘bounce back’.
One of the examples Wordsworth offers of resilience is the praise Ghandi received in the 1920s, for the resilience with which he ‘came back from his mourning and fasting more determined than ever’. Another commonly cited example is Nelson Mandela, who, even after 27 years’ imprisonment, continued to campaign against apartheid and became president of South Africa.
But we don’t need to look to political revolutionaries to find examples of resilience; there are plenty of everyday cases. A good example is given on a podcast on resilience by State of the Human, the radio show of the Stanford Storytelling Project: working in a call centre. Most of you reading this will have experienced ‘cold calls’ from companies trying to convince you to buy things you don’t need. Most of you will have rejected all of the sales pitches, and on occasion have probably hung up the phone quickly or interrupted the caller mid-sales pitch to tell them you’re not interested. The salesperson is likely to be working in a call centre where they’re monitored in various ways to ensure they’re working at the respective company’s desired efficiency level: computers that monitor how long their phone has been off the hook; how long they’ve spent away from their desk; their sales success rate (on the basis of which they’ll receive commission); and they’re probably sat in an open-plan office, but not in order to promote collaboration and office camaraderie, but so it’s easy to check they’re working.
All of this monitoring and incentivizing is implemented partly because the work can be incredibly humdrum, but also because it’s incredibly difficult to motivate yourself to attempt to fulfil a goal in the face of repeated rejection. What’s required just to do this job, let alone succeed in it, is a great deal of resilience: sustained, persistent effort despite experiencing repeated rejection and the likelihood of success being very low. Unlike the revolutionary goals of Ghandi or Mandela, the goals here are insignificant; but they nonetheless require a significant degree of resilience.
Resilience helps us to endure and grow stronger through the vicissitudes that life throws our way. It enables us to recover from setbacks. It supports our perseverance towards attaining life goals in the face of obstacles and difficulties. It allows us to strive towards achieving our ends despite the odds being stacked against us. Only by being resilient can we fulfil many of the aims we set ourselves.
- The focus on resilience in character education
Why is resilience important in education? Put simply, because everyone needs it in order to lead a flourishing life. No matter how brilliant a person is or their life is, at some point they will face a difficulty they have to overcome. Job applications and interviews; career setbacks and changes; being a victim of crime or discrimination; enduring bereavement or the collapse of a relationship; having one’s performance assessed in various ways; trying to get others to support a cause you’re promoting; trying to sell something; and so on. These are just some of the many areas of life where we face difficulties we need to resist being knocked down by; or, if we are knocked down, to possess the ability to bounce back.
Examples such as those above often involve rejection. Resilience is important because it enables us to overcome rejection. That is important because everyone faces rejection at various times in their lives. Resilience enables us to face up to rejection rather than being demotivated by it.
Some of the examples above also involve failure. You can fail to be shortlisted for the job you applied for; or, if you were shortlisted, you can fail to be appointed as the successful candidate after interview. You can fail a test or as a friend. Students need to learn how to fail, because at some point they will experience failure.
Important to this process is not to always see failures as failures. A failure can, rather, be understood as a failed attempt at success. A 2015 Forbes article describes failure as ‘not a step backward’, but ‘an excellent stepping stone to success’. This kind of attitude can enable and empower a person to bounce back from perceived or apparent failures, in order to potentially succeed in the future.
This does not mean always ignoring failures or abandoning the notion of failure. It means embracing failure and understanding it as a path that can sometimes lead towards growth, rather than a sign that one should give up. This is one of the ways in which resilience is connected with Carol Dweck’s influential work on ‘growth mindset’, which aims to change students’ underlying beliefs about learning and intelligence such that they develop their ability to recover from setbacks – in other words, such that they develop their resilience. This involves trying to replace students’ beliefs that their abilities are fixed (a ‘fixed mindset’) with beliefs that their abilities can develop (a ‘growth mindset’). Adopting a growth mindset can yield more resilient attitudes towards failure.
Dweck’s work illustrates one of the ways in which the importance of learning how to fail and become more resilient has been recognised in education. Another widely influential theory is Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000-hour Rule’. This holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to gain expertise in a discipline. This process involves regular failure, because in order to continue improving to the point where one reaches expertise, one must persistently aim outside one’s comfort zone, where failure is always likely. A stand-up comedian, for instance, cannot succeed in their career unless they learn how to handle situations where no one laughs in response to their show, or how to bounce back after a show that received few laughs. Athletes and performing musicians cannot succeed in their careers without learning how to recover after a sub-par performance.
To become a better learner, one must learn how to fail, because only by moving outside one’s comfort zone, in environments where the likelihood of failure is high, can one get the best out of themselves. That requires resilience. Since one of the principal aims of education is to teach students how to become better learners, resilience is a vital part of character education.
Resilience has become a staple part of character education programmes offered by some schools in recent years. Wellington College, for example, has taught resilience as a timetabled subject since 2006. It also occupies a prominent place within school inspection frameworks. As discussed in one of our recent blog posts, Ofsted announced in their new Education Inspection Framework, published this year, that resilience will be one of the character traits they monitor in their assessment of schools’ provision of personal development:
Inspectors will make a judgement on the personal development of learners by evaluating the extent to which … the curriculum and the provider’s wider work support learners to develop their character – including their resilience, confidence and independence…
The sections under ‘personal development’ in Ofsted’s 2019 School Inspection Handbook for maintained schools and academies and their Non-association Independent School Inspection Handbook state the importance of building resilience and confidence, and the relationship between these and maintaining good mental health.
Personal development is also a key area of the inspection framework by ISI – the inspecting body for ‘association independent schools’, which are those independent schools that are full members of the associations which form the Independent Schools Council. The existing ISI inspection framework outlines how ISI evaluates the extent to which pupils develop character traits including resilience, as well as self-esteem, self-confidence, social awareness, awareness of moral responsibility, respect for diversity, independence, sensitivity and tolerance.
Resilience is also mentioned in the sections of Ofsted’s new framework which discusses how they will monitor areas such as community engagement and its impact on character development:
Schools can teach pupils how to build their confidence and resilience … but they cannot always determine how well young people draw on this… In this judgement, therefore, inspectors will seek to evaluate the quality and intent of what a school provides (either directly or by drawing on high-quality agencies and providers, for example the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, Cadet Forces and the National Citizenship Service)…
Resilience is an important character trait to inculcate in students. Its role within character education programmes and as an area of educational research has increased in recent years and only looks set to do so for the foreseeable future.
 See, for example, the Huffington Post’s 2013 article on ‘5 Resilience Traits We Can All Learn from Nelson Mandela’.
 See Carol Dweck, Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2006).
 See Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Penguin, 2008). On Gladwell’s theory, ‘deliberate practice’ and the importance of failure to the 10,000-hour rule, see Gordon Stobart, The Expert Learner: Challenging the Myth of Ability (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2014), pp. 3-4.
 Ofsted, The Education Inspection Framework, §28, p. 11.
 Ofsted, School Inspection Handbook (2019), §§214-5, pp. 58-9; Non-association Independent School Handbook (2019), §§204-5, pp. 51-2.
 ISI, Inspection Framework (2017), p. 13.
 Ofsted, School Inspection Handbook (2019), §214, p. 58; Non-association Independent School Handbook, §204, pp. 51-2.