The question is not “Can resilience be learned?” Of course, it can, and a growing body of research confirms this. But let’s be clear: Learning resilience and teaching resilience are far from synonymous. In fact, in spite of our ability to identify the characteristics of resilient people—such as virtue, positivity, purpose, and gratitude—we struggle with how to teach resilience as a skill, as one would teach a student various academic skills: how to solve for x, understand why plants need sunlight, or identify the learning needs of Generation Z. The difference between teaching the knowledge of resilience (facts) and teaching the development of resilience (application) is significant.
As a writing teacher, I impress upon my students the importance of showing in addition to—and more important than—telling. Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell readers about a scene, a character, or an allegory; show them. Lead them down a path to discover it for themselves—to feel it, to understand it, to apply it. This is where we need to take our students: down a path toward personal affect, concept, and relevance. There is a way, when we don’t get in the way, to foster resilience.
While the current movement to incorporate the explicit instruction of resilience is encouraging and constructive, resilience is not transferrable or transformative. That’s not bad, biased, or fake news; it’s just news, one of the current events that perplex, frustrate, and discourage educators. We are keenly aware of how this makes us feel, but imagine how it makes many students feel, knowing (because we’re telling them) that resilience is a real thing—that there are specific characteristics of resilience and resilient people—knowing resilience is tangible but somehow, in spite of their best efforts, elusive to their touch. They hear us talk about it, but they can’t touch it. It’s an entirely different, deeper level of frustration.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we should stop (or that we should not begin, as the case may be) teaching resilience. I am suggesting that we move from telling to showing, that we take our knowledge of resilience and offer it to students in the context of introspection—theirs, not ours. The best way to learn something—to truly learn something—is when it becomes personal, when students can test it and assess it themselves, manipulate it, mold it, apply it to their own situations, their own experiences and expectations, perceived strengths and weaknesses, hopes and regrets. When students see resilience in relation to their subjective views of self, this is when facts transfer to action.
But how can students see resilience in relation to self if they can’t see the self? Our next step in teaching resilience should be teaching—or rather facilitating—the exploration of “self.”
Actually, it’s not my suggestion; I’m just passing along information from the original source, the missing variable in our flailing attempts to make students more resilient: students themselves. For the past two years, I have interviewed people, adolescents mostly, hundreds of 15-to-25-year-olds across the country, and collected their lived experiences, interpretations, and suggestions about how school (especially middle school and high school) can better prepare graduates for productive, fulfilling lives. To know thyself, most say, should be the most important “subject” to learn in secondary school. From more than 300 interviews across 48 states and 20,000 miles—not surveys or questionnaires, but face-to-face, open-ended questions and at times in-depth discussions – young people shared that the need to explore who they are would be the key difference-maker in engagement, resiliency, and motivation.
I believe them. I believe adolescents, not just from two years of interviews but also from 20 years of teaching. However, to test this theory based solely on the opinions of a few hundred young people (and anecdotal evidence from a single teacher) would be foolish, right? After all, there is no quantifiable fact to justify such a shift in educational approach, no “what works” research or “best practice” strategies to support a connection between self-knowledge and resilience. How could we risk investment of precious time and resource on the theories of adolescents, especially with the constant pressure of test-score judgment looming over us?
How could we not?
Research is how we confirm, discredit, and discover. There is simply not enough research to meet the criteria for What Works Clearinghouse evidence of SEL or resilience initiatives in high schools. We need to know what works. Therefore, I am calling for more research on resilience. Not a fundamental change in the structure of high school, curriculum, or instruction—just research to test the opinions of teenagers, too often ignored as one of our multiple measures of data-driven decision-making.
Chris Holmes holds a Masters in Educational Psychology and 20 years of experience teaching in both public and private schools. Recently, he helped found a high school for adolescents who learn differently. He works with a broad range of teenagers, from those on the verge of dropping out to those with exceptional gifts and talents, and focuses on introspection, executive function, and self-determination. He is currently writing a book about academic motivation based on hundreds of interviews with teenagers across the country.
Chris is the 2015 Missouri State Teacher of the Year.