Many of the students with whom we work are not confident learners. When they misstep and make mistakes, they often blame themselves. Successive failures can leave them despairing and looking for ways to avoid being revealed as poor learners. They may misbehave, become the class entertainer, or evolve into a skilled distractor and excuse-maker to avoid discovery.
Yet, the reasons behind a pattern of less than successful learning are typically not lack of adequate aptitude and capacity to learn. Students may have poor learning skills and habits. They may lack confidence to take learning risks. Or they may simply doubt their own learning abilities. Interestingly, many of these students will go on to be successful in life once they leave school and discover that they have the potential to succeed in ways they never imagined.
Our challenge is to help students move from positions of doubt, questioning, and self-protection to become resilient learners who can tolerate temporary failure and setbacks without giving up and retreating to avoidance. The key to building resilience is to see failure as a momentary experience not a judgement about who they are or what they are capable of. Resilience is not avoiding failure but learning and growing from it.
We can begin the process of building resilience and “stick-to-it-iveness” by sharing with students that many, if not most, successful people experienced failure in their lives and often in their learning. Famous people such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and J. K. Rowling all experienced serious setbacks before they became successful. Of course, you will want to find examples that are familiar to your students and with whom they might relate. What’s important is to help students to realize that failure is a temporary condition, and we can change it into success if we follow six key principles.
We can frame these principles in “I” statements for students to repeat and apply when they experience setbacks and missteps:
- Regardless of what happens, I always have a choice. When bad things happen, we can decide to give up or choose to persist. When students experience negative events, we can remind them that they have a choice. The choice they make will matter far more than what happened to them. Choice means students have control. They do not have to be victims.
- I look for what I can learn, not what or who made me fail. Every experience contains a potential lesson that can teach us what we need to know to succeed. However, if students focus on what led to failure, they risk not learning what will make them successful. What is learned from failure is often more valuable than what can be learned from success. Success often disguises mistakes and leads to overlooking what needs to be learned.
- I know that effort and good strategy are more powerful success tools than intelligence. Of course, natural aptitudes for some skills and tasks can offer a potential advantage, but unless talents are applied, they are worthless. Research studies consistently find that people who persist with good strategy and consistent effort are more successful in life than talented people who fail to make the necessary effort and fail to learn and apply good strategies.
- I think “Not yet” when I don’t initially succeed. Learning and growing are processes. We improve as we continue to practice and use what we experience and learn. “Not yet” recognizes that just because students are not successful now does not mean that they cannot or will not be successful. “Not yet” positions students to keep trying so that in the future they can say, “Got it.”
- I know that motivation comes from within me. When we set goals, develop plans, and work hard, we can motivate ourselves. Students do not have to depend on adults or friends to stimulate their interest or give them a purpose for learning. They can generate enthusiasm and choose to be interested. Motivation can make students ready to learn. It is within their control.
- I know that when I feel stuck, I am on the doorstep of learning. Feeling stuck can be frustrating, but it often comes just before a breakthrough idea, new understanding, or discovery of a new strategy. Pushing forward in the face of difficulty not only increases the likelihood of success, but it can also build confidence to carry forward to the next challenge.
Teaching students to become resilient learners can be among the greatest gifts we can give them. Resilience is especially important now as many students face pressure to accelerate their learning and “catch up” with where they are expected to be as they begin the next school year. Yet, when we nurture resilient learners, we also offer them a tool for lifetime success.