Thom Markham

Reframing Resiliency: Let’s Make It an Outcome

The whole child movement, in my view, is weighed down by society's current inability to conceive of children as whole beings. Instead, we dissect them. Academic learning is distinguished from social-emotional learning, as if brain and heart operate in isolation. The brain itself gets divided into forebrain, hindbrain, mammalian brain, limbic system, and so on, furthering the mistaken assumption that the brain performs its miracles through isolated modules. A steady diet of units, pacing guides, and curriculum strategies reinforces this skewed view by taking a narrow aim at stimulating a child's cognitive apparatus rather than their inner life.

All this leads us further away from understanding how to prepare young people for 21st century life. In particular, these outdated assumptions do not offer a path forward for teaching, eliciting, and nurturing resiliency—the elusive but critical quality necessary to sustain success in an uncertain and ever-changing world. Over time, this will be fatal for industrial education. Resiliency grows out of a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, the capacity to see failure as a form of helpful feedback, and a growth mind-set. That's the definition of today's lifelong learner. For a 21st century education system, it's a core outcome. If we can't figure out a system to make it happen, we're in trouble.

How do we take steps in that direction? First, continuing to treat resiliency as a cognitive add-on won't be effective. Neither will it work to classify resiliency as an inherent personality trait. Rather, we need to create a system with conditions in place that support the growth of resiliency (another way of saying we need a whole child-friendly system).

It gets tricky here. The past 20 years of research in youth development, adolescent mental health, and risk and resiliency point to one direction: caring relationships build the internal assets necessary for resilient behaviors. There is a mysterious, but clearly defined, link between love and resiliency. That leads to an unsettling conclusion: Without a systematic ecosystem founded on deep respect, close connection, meaningful exchange, nonjudgmental actions, and affection for our youth, developing resiliency in the next generation will continue to be a random byproduct of education, not an intended outcome.

But it's not so hard to imagine a system founded on care, really. In important ways, we're progressing in that direction. Here are some ideas on how to move forward:

Teach in ways that foster resiliency. Front of the room instruction is giving way to inquiry-based and project-based modes of teaching and learning. These modes map perfectly onto the conditions that foster resiliency. They are relationship-driven, relevant forms of education that encourage a mentor-student partnership; a collaborative, respectful relationship between teacher and learner; and the opportunity to investigate meaningful, authentic issues. They encourage problem solving and engagement in community issues, service to a waiting world, and an appreciation for the unpredictability of the world. In the hands of good teachers, these modes develop good minds and healthy attitudes.

Use 21st century skills to teach resiliency. The 21st century skills movement suffers from the same limitations mentioned in the opening paragraph: The skills of collaboration, communication, critical inquiry, and creativity are treated as brain-based skills and put in the same category as learning to write an essay or do a math problem. But, for example, try collaborating if you can't feel empathy. Try being creative without a purpose that drives you to extend yourself. We need to rebalance our notion of these skills by seeing them as whole-body, whole-mind competencies. Once we do that, teaching these skills becomes a kind of resiliency training.

Teach the power of positivity. Educators should be taking deep note of the ongoing, powerful new research into positive emotions, including the power of gratitude and the capability of positive emotions to affect how our minds work, or even shift gene expression. From this research, it is clear that resiliency is deeply entwined with the ability to feel positive emotions and engage the world with a positive outlook. It's also clear that this is a malleable characteristic, and that much of the emotional shifts in people are driven by accompanying physiological changes in heart function. This argues for many new initiatives in schools, among them: more mindfulness and meditation, less classroom management and more people facilitation, and viewing a teacher's communication and relationship skills as equally important to subject mastery.

Encourage collective resiliency. It's not too soon to be thinking about resiliency in collective terms. Whether from research into mirror neurons or the emerging field of social neuroscience, the latest science is beginning to demonstrate that humans are connected at deep levels and exchange information with each other in surprising ways. In a tightly networked world, this has vast implications for how each of us contributes to a high-functioning community of resilient individuals. This is likely the reason that school climate correlates well with test scores. Collective purpose and communal satisfaction supports individual performance. In fact, why not think of resilient schools?

Thom Markham is a psychologist, author, speaker, educator, and international consultant focused on project-based learning, 21st century skills, and school redesign. Connect with Markham through his website or on Twitter @thommarkham.

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