Resilience message hits home

26th March 2010 at 00:00
A firm of motivational speakers is convincing pupils that sheer determination is the vital ingredient in success

"I laughed so hard I cried" is great feedback for a comedy routine. But maybe not for a motivational talk to S4 students. So is Lauren Gillogley - who just said it to a friend - taking anything serious away from the hour-and-a-half she and her classmates have just spent in the company of Alan Black?

"I learned you should stretch yourself to your own limits - not what other people, even your mum and dad, think is right for you. That wasn't something I had thought of before. You should do what you really want to do."

Live-N-Learn, the company set up by teachers Alan Black and Scott Goddard in 2006, aims to build confidence in young people. But that's different from promoting self-esteem, Mr Black had explained two hours earlier, as he set up the show in the school hall at Bathgate Academy.

"We discovered that for ourselves, after a few years working for a company that focused on self-esteem," he explains. "At the start we enjoyed it. But we got disillusioned with the message - keep telling yourself you're fantastic, visualise your success. We started to doubt its effectiveness.

"We would sometimes go back to a school and ask the kids if they were using the techniques we had shown them. They weren't. It just wasn't working."

So they set up their own company and spent a year writing new materials with a different message, says Mr Black. "It was about resilience, taking personal responsibility, working hard to be successful. We also invested heavily in technology to make our sessions interactive and hold the kids' attention."

Around the time the firm launched, they also became acquainted with Carol Dweck's research on the fragility of self-esteem, and the importance of the growth mindset that brings resilience - and with Carol Craig's work at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow (TESS, January 15).

"It was encouraging to find all that research backing up our message, based on experience," says Mr Black. "It is very easy to get kids worked up and walking out the door thinking they're Muhammad Ali. But the first time they hit something they're failing at, there's nothing there. The resilience message is that this will happen - now how are you going to react?"

At this point, Mr Black's audience for the second of three sessions he is delivering today troop into the hall, take their seats and subject him to some easily-read stares - "We don't have high hopes of you."

But he grabs their attention immediately, with an irreverent introduction to himself, featuring funny photos that get controlled interaction going: "You think it's a laugh me supporting Partick Thistle - try watching them," he says.

But while his tone stays light, he soon moves from entertainment to instruction, with study tips and how to organise time so that studying can be combined with having a life.

The momentum of the lengthy session never flags, as sections of talking to the class and getting individuals to talk back are mixed with group activities at tables, and an interactive voting session that throws up some surprising results.

Asked if they have a reasonable chance of winning the Lottery, 44 per cent of the youngsters say "Yes". So Mr Black sets them a lottery simulation and explains, in an aside, as they watch the lottery balls rolling and check their numbers, that the response to this question is always high.

"It's never less than 25 per cent - which is a problem," he says. "If you think you're going to win the Lottery, you won't do the work needed to be successful."

No one wins big this time and Mr Black puts their chances of doing so in context: "You are more likely to be struck by lightning. You've a greater chance of having a heart attack when your alarm goes off in the morning."

Fully 20 minutes into the session, he comes to the heart of his message. "You are the person who has control of your life. Nobody is going to say, `Here's a fantastic life for you.'

"I've been to hundreds of schools and asked people your age what they're going to do, and they say they're going to be famous. I ask what for, and they go, `I don't know.'"

The youngsters laugh in slightly shamefaced recognition, and Mr Black introduces Carol Dweck's research: "People with a fixed mindset think you are born naturally good at things. You're sporty. She's artistic. I'm musical. That's the way it is .

"People with a growth mindset believe most things in life can be achieved through hard work, practice, effort. That's the one I encourage you to have. Get up off your butts, put the effort in and you can get what you want out of life."

The Live-N-Learn message is one teachers have been giving kids since schools began, Mr Black readily admits when the session is over. But it is being delivered by a new face with novel methods, and it now comes backed by modern brain and behaviour research.

At this stage, just prior to exams, the pupils need this shot in the arm, says principal teacher Ann Canning. "It's a reminder of what it's all about, what we've been doing, what they should focus on, where they are going."

"It's pulling together what we have been saying to them for four years. But Alan brings a fresh approach, and if we didn't think it worked - especially with the current financial situation - we wouldn't be employing him.

Douglas Blane

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