Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I get knocked down, but I get up again

Apologies in advance to anyone who now has that Chumbawamba song stuck in your head; if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone.

Several weeks ago I was working with a student who had quite vocally declared that he was “done” with research. He’d hit a few roadblocks early in the process (he wasn’t connecting to his topic, as a result was having a hard time finding articles, was frustrated with citations, etc.) and had just decided to give up. As I kept trying to encourage him to stick with it, change topics, etc., he also made it quite clear that he felt like I was “picking on him.” I was coming at it from as many angles as I could think of, but nothing seemed to be working.

That encounter (along with many others) got me thinking again about resilience, a topic never far from my mind. I’m always trying to figure out ways to make my students more resilient in the research process. And as much as I know you can’t make somebody be something, I know that it’s possible to create environments in which it’s possible for students to develop these skills.

A crucial part of that process is, I believe, using formative assessments, which I do, but I don’t do enough. It’s hard when I’m not part of the day-to-day classes, and each teacher has different routine that they use, and levels of collaboration vary, but I know those are not particularly good excuses. So as I look ahead to spring research, I’m also looking at more ways to incorporate formative assessments into the research process.

This goes hand-in-hand, of course, with the issue of making students comfortable with failure that I’ve been struggling with. Many of my students see any roadblocks as a permanent state of fact, rather than as a temporary setback. In large part that's because this is what they have been taught to believe about themselves for years--that any failure is a reflection on them, not a reflection of the inherently messy and difficult process of learning.

Which of course makes me think of this excellent TED video, which is about remaking math classes, but I think there’s a solid argument that we need to do away with the paint-by-numbers coursework Meyer talks about in ALL of our courses.

Learning is messy--the learning I’ve done since leaving formal schooling is far messier than anything I did in school, and I am sometimes frustrated that my formal education mostly focused on finding the answer rather than creating good questions (with some notable exceptions, of course).

Luckily, I am a fairly resilient person. “I don’t know” is a starting point rather than a stopping point for me. And that’s part of the challenge for me, and I think for many other teachers; we are drawn to teaching because we are “good at school”--we like learning, and even if things don’t come easily to use, we like working at it. How do you teach a skill--like resilience--when you’re not sure how you learned it yourself?

But I need to figure out something, because it’s crucial to success. A friend posted this article from Wired, and while the researchers identified grit as the quality that's key to success, I think a solid argument can be made that the Venn diagram of how resilience and grit overlap pretty much looks like a circle (if you, like me, would prefer it if more of your world was explained via Venn diagram, I highly recommend thisisindexed).

The paper (which I haven’t read yet) referred to in this article focused on competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and came to the conclusion that grittier competitors (as Lehrer defines it, “those with grit are more single-minded about their goals – they tend to get obsessed with certain activities – and also more likely to persist in the face of struggle and failure.”) fare better.

That “persistence in the face of struggle and failure” is the bit that really resonated with me. I can help students identify and connect with what they’re interested in and passionate about--but how do I help them stick with it through the ups and downs? After all, frustration and struggle are pretty integral parts of the learning process.

And then another friend posted this article: The Right Way to Respond to Failure. I’d need to quote the entire thing in order to do it justice, so you should just go read it.

The crucial role of empathy really resonated with me; when I’m frustrated (with a project, with a colleague, with a seemingly unsolvable problem) more often than not I don’t want someone offering up possible solutions--I want someone with a sympathetic ear who will let me vent and acknowledge my frustration as legitimate.

Which brings me back to the student I was talking about at the beginning (remember him?). The real breakthrough with him happened when I joked with him that as soon as I was done picking on him, I was going to go pick on all his friends about the work they needed to be doing. It was like a light bulb went off for him as he realized that EVERYONE was struggling and frustrated--and getting “picked on” by me. It suddenly became clear to him that the frustrations of research were not unique to him--they were a part of the process that everyone was experiencing.

This kid did a complete 180. He changed topics to something he was really passionate about, and needed no prodding from that point on. When I offered corrections to his citations, he made them without complaint. He was well ahead on note taking and synthesizing information--and cheerfully so.

Now, my interaction with this student is not indicative of how these things usually go, but I took a powerful lesson from it.

I believe that empathy is important--crucial, really--to helping students become resilient. We need to acknowledge that their frustrations are real and valid. But beyond that, we need to help them broaden their perspective--to look around and see that the roadblocks they’re running up against exist for everyone.

In doing that, maybe we can help them develop a little empathy for their peers, and a little resilience of their own.


  1. Reading this reminds me why I miss working with you!
    Your kids are lucky to have you in their corner, KM..

  2. Excellent post! One of the most helpful charts I ever found is the Information Search Process chart from Carol Kuhlthau. It identifies the emotional stages of the research process. When you show it to a student who is frustrated, he realizes that all students go through emotional stages during the research process. Here's a link:


  3. Thank you both! And thank you, Mary, for the reminder about Carol Kuhlthau's work; I know I read some of it in grad school, but it got filed in the way back of my brain. I'll definitely be reflecting on those ideas as I design lessons.