Try, try, try again

31st July 2015 at 01:00

Don Quixote always gets my vote for the most endearing character in literature. I particularly admire the dogged determination of this fine Spanish "knight" to keep on tilting at those threatening windmills.

I am often reminded of Don Quixote at exam time when pupils abandon their attempts to tilt at tough questions and opt to leave the exam hall early. Many years of work are forfeited too easily.

Some commentators have suggested that this is part of a new "quit-quick" culture - the work of a spoiled and mollycoddled generation. But I remember my own exam days and watching just as many candidates stand up early and stride, sometimes quite spectacularly, out of the exam room.

Young people are largely herd animals and there is always the fear that students will walk out en masse. This was the case some years ago with a class of Higher English pupils, who trooped out in anger, with considerable justification, because their teacher hadn't introduced them to the text the exam referred to.

But many of those who depart the exam hall early have no such excuse. Instead, they are displaying a lack of that most enduring quality - perseverance. It is the drive and the optimism to keep trying that is sadly missing in too many of those who fail to realise their true academic potential.

It is also evidence, in many cases, of sloppy thinking and pupils not being able to make connections between what they know and what they are being asked. I have gone through numerous exam questions with disappointed candidates who, with greater patience and persistence, would have worked out some impressive answers.

A lack of problem-solving skills - which all teachers should be developing in their students - is partly to blame. The real problem, as one ancient sage noted, is not so much that exams contain problems but that many candidates perceive encountering problems as a problem.

Education should be about acquiring a positive attitude and looking at perplexing questions in different ways. It should be about learning to keep going when you encounter adversity.

Many of our finest learners are those who cope best with setbacks and have the resilience and resourcefulness to overcome barriers. We see plenty of grit and tenacity on our sports fields, where the idea of throwing in the towel is thoroughly scorned. There is a strong case for encouraging more grit in the classroom.

But perseverance is one of those soft skills that is hard to teach. Initiatives to introduce more lessons on "character development", as it is sometimes awkwardly called, have largely failed.

And yet persistence is such a useful and relevant attribute in higher education, work and home life. People who can stay the course have a far greater chance of achieving in life.

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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