We already teach grit, if you know where to look

7th March 2014 at 00:00

Nothing helps you achieve like screwing up first. Bob Dylan - often wise, often totally incomprehensible - was on the money when he wrote: "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all."

Failing, and the chance to learn from one's mistakes, is the making of the man (women are a little more complicated). It is said to build backbone, strength of character; the chance to cultivate one's self. Sparky inventor Thomas Edison was never disillusioned when his bright ideas didn't work. "I haven't failed. I've found 1,000 ways that don't work," he is reported to have said.

And of course success in life requires this kind of determination and persistence. Or grit, as many experts prefer to call it. One individual with more grit than a council truck in a snowstorm is Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most successful football managers in history, who in last week's TEScredited his teacher with giving him the determination to succeed, to never give in. She "endeavoured to make you the best you could be", he said.

However, when life is giving you a good kicking, can you be taught how to toughen up, how to cope with life's hospital passes? England's shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt is the latest in a line of politicians to call for character to be taught in schools, but what does it actually mean?

It's a complex patchwork of courage, resilience, self-confidence, self-control, positive thinking and determination that is difficult to unpick. Is it a matter of encouraging and nurturing what is already present, or is it giving children the skills to be able to cope, to pick themselves up when they fall down, or a combination of both?

After years of teachers and educators being accused of downplaying competition and cultivating a so-called "all must have prizes" culture, it is perhaps refreshing that schools are now being encouraged to foster the opposite.

One man at the forefront of the resilience movement is Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, who believes that if we teach children to be optimistic they will fare better. "There is good evidence that when children have good well-being, when they are happy, they learn better than when they are sad or depressed or anxious," he says in our feature. So far, so uncontroversial.

With children under immense pressure and talk of a looming epidemic of mental health problems, focusing on learning to cope and problem-solving strategies appears to be a no-brainer. But we seem to be treating the symptoms and not the cause. And looking to the Far East for inspiration as we plot our rise up the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings isn't going to help: that kind of success often comes at a very high cost to children's well-being.

But the solution is not explicit lessons in character, in having a course of study labelled resilience. The solution lies in doing what the best schools have always done: teach subjects well, encourage competition among students, foster independent thinking. Do this and your students will develop the confidence - and, dare we say it, the grit - they need to face up to the challenges of the future.



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