Is resilience really what we want for students?

Should higher education be trying to cultivate tough, resilient students? Jon Rowlands makes the case for developing courage instead

Jon Rowlands is a Senior Lecturer and School Director of Teaching and Learning at University of Lincoln's School of Film, Media and Journalism

“It’s tough in the industry” is a line I have spent my career listening to – and yes, on occasion I’ve parroted it myself.

It is easy to see our challenge as educators (particularly in vocational fields) as moving our students from the gentle nurturing of school and further education to the ferocious fires of “industry”, and the nefarious, exploitative bosses they will inevitably meet on the journey to their chosen career.

Hostile climes

In recent years, we have tried to temper this scenario, and build our students’ ability to cope in such hostile climes.

I’d like to think that as educators we have moved on from the practice of emulating such pantomime villains ourselves, ditching the tradition of withering feedback and language deemed “good for them in the long run.” What has emerged in its stead though, is a curious word I have never been fully comfortable with: resilience.

I think I am beginning to understand why, and the fog began to clear after I received a diagnosis of autism earlier this year. I have spent much of my previous forty-three years considering myself a bit of a soft touch, prone to overthinking, and no doubt a prime candidate for a daily resilience supplement alongside my morning orange juice.

However, I am beginning to understand that these are not character flaws that speak of my privileged grammar school education having failed me in the grit and fortitude department; they are part of me. And if they are part of me, I do not need to apologise for them, nor do I need to raise the drawbridge and staff the barricades. Furthermore, I’m not going to let the world tell me I have a resilience deficiency.

The term has certainly gained traction in recent years, but our use of it (particularly in education) gives it an uncomfortable undercurrent. Resilience is a word that centres itself on an inner weakness. The subject needs to build resilience to account for that “lacking” within, that they are inherently flawed in some way, which requires specific focus and attention to redress. It is saying some people are strong, but some need to become stronger. It speaks of a need to fortify oneself against some unspecific onslaught to come. It is a word of conflict, and more importantly, of being the weaker power in that battle.

Human nurture

Shouldn’t we instead be building courage in our learners? Courage is something that can be grown and nurtured, and is relative to the individual.

To inspire a courageous learner places the individual at the centre of their own story, rather than setting them at odds with the world they hope to enter. For a neurodiverse learner, courage may simply be feeling empowered to use their camera in an online class, or finding their voice in a classroom discussion. It could even be learning to harness their own thoughts and emotions, understanding what works for them and when to walk away.

It certainly doesn’t have to revolve around contacting people from industry via telephone (a barrier for a lot of neurodiverse people) “because that’s the way it works in industry.” Just as the world is adapting to a landscape that enables and empowers neurodiverse people, rather than simply acknowledging them, we as educators should cultivate that environment in our teaching.

Courage can be grown organically, and will be greater as a result, rather than resilience forming like calluses on worn and beleaguered palms.

Beyond non-stick pans

At open days, I am far happier talking about developing courageous individuals than resilient ones. In fact, it becomes a delightful conversation to have, discussing all the positive ways in which projects, opportunities and events give an individual time, space and nourishment to find themselves and their style, to determine the shape of the footprints they want to leave on the world.

Rather than focussing solely on the skills and knowledge we think they need, we should be housing that amongst stimuli, inspiration and challenges to widen their perspectives, grow their awareness of the world around them and to consider themselves within it.

Surely it is far better to send our graduates out into the world with an open and questioning mind, hungry for inspiration and practised in engaging on complex topics, than it is to harden their hearts and deploy language of greater use to the non-stick frying pan industry; tough, durable, hard-wearing and “resilient”.

Just consider some alternatives to those four words; kind, adaptable, open-hearted and courageous. If we centre our approach and pedagogy on what we hope our students will be, rather than what we fear they might encounter, they will be far better prepared regardless of what the future holds.

15 responses to “Is resilience really what we want for students?

  1. Resilience, as behavioural scientists use it, or agency to which many social scientists refer, has a well-established evidence base for improving the lives of many people. It is also a mediator of mental health and wellbeing. It is a multi-dimensional construct; having it, or lacking it is not a sign of individual strength or weakness. It is perfectly compatible with most of the virtues, skills and characteristics described in this piece.

    1. That’s very true but a lot of people who promote the idea of developing resilient students are not behavioural scientists. And they don’t tend to have that nuanced multi-dimensional understanding of the concept – which can be dangerous.

      It can be very hard to get people to change the meaning of a word they are already using so, sometimes, it’s easier to encourage them to use a different word that better encapsulates the intended meaning of the original.

      Agency or courage are less easily mis-translated.

      1. Completely agree David. When thinking about what terms we use we should recognise and account for their everyday usage and not expect everyone to come with the knowledge of a behavioural scientist. I have always felt an underlying disquiet around the use of the term resilience in respect of students – in that context, being used as it so often is, it has strong defecit model vibes suggesting weakness and that struggling or doubt are defects with the need for people to ‘man up’.

    2. Exactly – this piece, while obviously thoughtful and heartfelt, seems to be addressing a strawman of the author’s devising. I’m not at all sure that resilience means what the author has decided it means; and the discussion that follows seems to be about a completely different idea than the concept as it is actually understood by those researching it. To argue that some people mean it a different way so we should change the way we refer to that concept seems to be a bit arse about face – shouldn’t we instead recognise our own misunderstandings first?

  2. I have an ambivalent relationship with resilience, which to me indicates a person’s “bounce-back-ability”. It seems to me that it is an indicator of strength, and therefore something we should try to encourage students to develop. But too often, resilience is seen as an unmitigated good. And yet bouncing back – particularly if one must do it repeatedly – comes at a cost. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting. It depletes one’s energy and capacity (even for courage). So I welcome this attempt to re-frame students’ engagement with the world. It seems to me that courage may well be a more positive approach to the large and small challenges of life within and beyond academia.

    1. I also think that nothing damages resilience more than a message that says, “you are the problem”, when actually the system and the context are the problem. I used to teach communication and professional skills to doctors, and we were frequently asked to teach “resilience”, which I was very uncomfortable with (and fortunately none of these enquiries ever turned into an actual booking!) ,but I loved teaching assertiveness. For me, resilience in a damaging and overworked system is the ability to say no, not the ability to say yes and absorb the damage.

  3. Why not reframe ‘resilience’ (a word I feel is too close to ‘pull yourself together’) as ‘problem-solving’. This suggests an active engagement with the situations one encounters, rather than the passive development of a shell or outer set of characteristics to repel challenges. Employers want graduates who have initiative and the ability to suggest solutions. If we nurture this skill in our students, we’ll be doing them (and us) a great favour.

    1. Absolutely Kirsty, and I feel that developing their courage will give them greater confidence in not only finding those solutions, but presenting them. In particular I find that our ND students often find solutions quite quickly, but it’s finding that ‘in’ to suggest them to a wider group that can be the barrier. I know I can often fix a problem in my head quite rapidly, but communicating that fix to a team (even one I’ve known for years) can be where I lose my lead!

  4. Very interesting personal observations. As others are stating, the word Courage and the sentiment ‘permission to flourish’ (agency) are certainly most desirable now, (for the purposes of the above article, within the creative vocational subjects), and especially amongst cohorts from backgrounds where Higher Education is a historic rarity in the family. Resilience is perhaps more of a consequence of experience, and so rather than attempt to build in resilience artificially, early on, this (thickening of the skin) will develop over time. The David Bowie quote ‘always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. ‘ comes to mind. One thing is certain, it’s a challenging time for Educators, charged with this task.
    Incidentally based on my experience of three offspring now in the world of work, the telephone has long since dropped down the list pf preferred communication methods. DM’s, WhatsApp, Messenger voice notes and grid-style project management apps, are much more prevalent.

  5. Strong agree! I saw a tweet about “courage” rather than resilience a few years ago, and it fed into a careers model I developed that divided career development activities into Curiosity, Courage, Clarity and Capability. I loved the idea of “courage” because it doesn’t make you wait until a time when you are “fixed”, but says, yes, this is scary, *but*. Saying that something is scary doesn’t mean you don’t do it, it means that you need a good enough reason to be brave.

    In my model, “Courage” is about engaging with employers and real work situations and building professional networks, and what I try and do is build up the *reasons* for doing it. So the Curiosity part comes first– supporting learners to identify what they don’t know but want to know, and showing them how to research passively, but always working towards the point where they need to engage with employers, industry professionals and work experience because they have questions to ask and information they need. This is the bit that’s really key for me: as careers professionals, we constantly tell students that they *should* engage with employers, but I think we just expect them to recognise the intrinsic value, and we don’t do enough to show them the *why*. Once you’ve got that intrinsic motivation, then it’s about demystify the process and providing small, scaffolded steps– attend an online industry seminar, ask a question in an employer panel, go to an employer fair, message someone on LinkedIn (key to make sure they have realistic expectations of the response rate!), and do what you can to provide positive experiences that increase their confidence.

    But I think the *why* of courage is really important– are we just telling you to do this, or are we showing you the possibilities and opportunities, in ways that relate to your personal goals, and giving you space and support to do the scary thing?

    1. I love this Mary! Curiosity is so important in our world, now more than ever. Creating opportunities where our students can be curious in a safe environment, build their understanding and develop that bravery in their own voice is key. Your model sounds really interesting (and I love a bit of alliteration!), and echoes an approach I co-developed at Lincoln where we revalidated our BA (Hons) Media Production programme and gave our years themes; Level 4 was ‘Explore’, Level 5 was ‘Experiment’ and Level 6 was ‘Employ’ (yes, I went for Es!), building that safe space for the curious in the first year, the forum to test out some of those findings in the second, and then to put them to professional use in the third. It remains a work in progress a few years into the delivery, but if I get a bit lost in the detail, I find these themes really helpful to come back to as guides.

  6. I really love this. As someone who has moved from teaching autistic people into EDI work in HE, it has verbalised a lot of my thoughts around the idea of resilience and the character traits we want students to develop. Resilience says “deal with it”, courage says “it is hard, but we’ll help you do it”. We should encourage, with an emphasis on the word ‘courage’, our students to achieve the best they can in the face of difficult circumstances, giving them the tools and strategies to do so. Resilience says the only thing that matters is how stiff your lip is when things go wrong.

  7. I agree with the ideas raised in this piece; My Phd is currently looking at the role of resilience training to support retention of students during their academic studies and beyond- this used to create a semester module for foundation year students (and potentially other academic years) that helps them to engage in critical open discussion to support their personal and professional development. As you have mentioned, resilience is often seen as an individual trait to develop when it includes so many other elements for development- problem-solving and courage being some of the elements that make a person resilient in nature. Unfortunately resilience, in my opinion, is labelled as purely the ability to ‘bounce back from adversity’ when it is much more than this and not something that can be developed in a short training session or through purely a self-help book!

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