Building Resilience in Students

An Action Research project by Ursilla Brown (Science)

[Featured image: ‘Resilience by Ron Mader’- ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) ]

Focus

This action research focused on the concept of resilience and how it impacts on learning among our students.

Background

Throughout my teaching career, the link between work ethic and success in students has been obvious. What is less transparent are the factors that lead some students to relish diving into a problem and being prepared to take the risk of charting unknown territory while others desperately cling to the edge, afraid to take the plunge. This fear can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. While some students are absorbed in the challenge of cracking a code or finding connections, reasons for or ‘what if’s’, those on the periphery of learning can be sitting passively, getting distressed, engaging in off task behaviour or defiantly declaring that the content is boring or pointless. With a critical mass of students in the latter category the teacher invariably works much harder than these students as she guides, cajoles, pleads and, yes, even sometimes threatens detentions for lack of effort. So, while the issue has been of long term interest to me, the catalyst to embark on a journey of discovery was the coincidence of the launch of this Learning Focus cycle of research in school with my first experiences of my Year 10 GCSE Chemistry class. Since the beginning I feel I have had a good relationship with the students. They are a friendly bunch and came to me as a class seemingly happy to be in the room but mainly passive and pretty hard to strike up a dialogue with about anything to do with Chemistry. My lesson starters engaged around half the class while the others sat in a frozen position, not doing anything wrong, but not learning or seeming to engage with the activity. My mission was to shake them out of their lethargy and take charge of themselves as learners.

Objectives

My aim was to cultivate resilience amongst the students. The success criteria for this were to get the students:

  • To be able to concentrate for long/longer periods of time. (not give up)
  • To be able to control their thoughts and emotions
  • To enjoy challenge and problem solving
  • To see failures/mistakes as part of the learning process and be prepared to have a go
  • To show initiative when ‘stuck’
  • To recognise that learning is a process and takes time

Context

The class was a middle mixed ability class. I teach them the Chemistry component of the Science GCSE.

These were my thoughts about the class at the beginning of the year:

  • Lovely class – friendly, polite but quite passive
  • Majority of ‘resilient’ students quiet and self-contained so maybe not obviously modelling to others
  • Happy to listen to instructions but want to be ‘spoon fed’
  • Not really making the connection between effort and achievement
  • I was working harder than them – re-directing, re-assuring, checking, cajoling in some cases
  • Many students would give up if they did not already know the answer

Actions

  • De-mistifying ‘being clever’. At every opportunity reinforcing to the students how the brain works and how we learn. I have explained to them and continuously remind the students how we commit information to long term memory and used two examples to unpick ‘being clever’ :
  1. How amazing we all are at speaking our own language compared to how
  2. challenging we find it to learn a new language in school. The students can see the clear link between mastery and frequent repetition, often getting things wrong initially.
  3. Me as a teacher – I reminded them why I appear to be so effortlessly good at what I teach and discuss the fact that I am immersed in it, teaching it many, many times. The reason I am an ‘expert’ is that I teach the subject matter often so my neural networks are well developed FOR MY SUBJECT MATTER
  • Resilience poster – This has become a whole school tool and it reflects the effort that is put into becoming an effective learner. I continue to refer to the iceberg at every opportunity.
  • During Directed Improvement and Response Time (DIRT – time dedicated to allowing pupils to respond to teacher feedback/making to correct, develop or improve their work) taking the opportunity to Facilitate reflection on progress and relating it to effort
  • Linking to Science of the brain – unpicking the reasons for repetition and consolidation for mastery with reference to my above examples or other skills and aptitudes. I have a visual representation of the neurone connections in the brain that I refer to when reminding the students of why practice is important and why things seem hard at first.
  • ALWAYS praising effort not achievement and linking this to life skills
  • Seating resilient students with less resilient ones and encouraging a climate of mutual support where students can move around when appropriate and support one another in their learning.
  • Liberating students from the fear of committing mistakes to paper by allowing them to write on the desks. This seems to be very effective at getting some students to take the plunge and ‘have a go’.
  • Avoid re-assuring answers to questions – reflecting back to students.
  • Scaffolding resilience training by having selected differentiated resources available to enable students to help themselves to become unstuck (Links well with SOLO)

Impact

The last column shows the actual results achieved in the GCSE. Bearing in mind the target grades are actually for Year 11, the majority of students made expected progress. It is hard to say how much is attributable to the emphasis on resilience but, anecdotally, the vast majority of the students are focused and open to giving the challenging Additional Chemistry content their best shot and, importantly, bouncing back and returning to the drawing board when they get things wrong. The pupils highlighted in red were ones I was still concerned about the level of commitment from at the time of preparing to share my findings with colleagues in our learning focus group meetings but subsequently the majority of these have sought out advice from their peers or myself to help them progress.

ub-stats

Conclusions

To summarise the findings of the ’Developing resilience’ Learning Focus group of which my research was a part:

  • We believe our strategies have made a difference but……it would be more powerful if the language of resilience was consistent across the school
  • This approach supports stretch and challenge you have higher expectations and avoid ‘helicopter’ teaching
  • This work supports pupil independence and less teacher dependence
  • Rewarding attitude and effort is crucial – sending the right messages about what we value

Next steps

I will continue to employ these strategies with the students I teach. I will continue to focus on resilience development in the next round of Action research and explore ways of embedding the language of resilience across the school.

Sources/references

‘Mindset’ by Dr Carol S Dweck

Lesson Plans for teaching resilience to Children by Lynne Namka

Promoting resilience in the classroom by Carmel Cefai

The Iceberg Illusion poster by Sylvia Duckworth

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