There is but an inch of difference between the cushioned chamber and the padded cell.

G. K. Chesterton

Resilience – being able to bounce back from setbacks and cope with challenges – seems an obviously good thing. If we can make ourselves, and our children, more resilient, then we definitely should. Trouble is, it doesn’t seem we can.

In 1907, William James – often dubbed the grandfather of modern psychology wrote the following in an article for the journal Science:

Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental resources. . .men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.

In her 2007 paper, Angela Duckworth addressed James’s challenge to work out how best to unleash humanity’s potential. In her own words, “Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence?”

It’s a good question. Lots of factors matter when predicting an individual’s success. For instance, according to one study, the correlation of socioeconomic status with academic achievement is r=0.4 and general knowledge comes in at a whopping r=0.81. Interestingly, this is identical to the effect of IQ on GCSE results. Ian Deary, one the world’s leading intelligence researchers, found the correlation between IQ tests taken five years previously and GCSE results taken at age 16 is also r=0.81.* But is there something else, something missing from these analyses?

Clearly, the finding that intelligence correlates with educational achievement does not predict the performance of an individual. It’s perfectly possible, indeed commonplace, for two individuals with the same IQ score to do very differently in a set of exams. There could be all sorts of prosaic reasons for these differences: health, injury, a never-ending list of possible personal crises. But that doesn’t tell us anything useful about how to support children to do better at school or in life. What we need is a thing. A thing we can measure and teach lessons on. Once we’ve identified a thing, we no longer have to wonder about the unpredictable, capricious nature of the universe.

Duckworth says that while there are all sorts of potential things from which to select, “some traits might be essential to success no matter the domain. We suggest that one personal quality is shared by the most prominent leaders in every field: grit.” Great, so what is grit?

Duckworth defines it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Sounds an awful lot like resilience, doesn’t it? This is one of the problems when attempting to review the literature. Some psychologists are researching self-efficacy, others resilience, yet others conscientiousness. And now we have grit too. Are they distinct, psychological traits? And most importantly, can we measure how much they matter?

In the case of grit Duckworth has suggested it’s a factor underlying success for groups as disparate as Ivy League undergraduates, West Point military cadets, elite athletes and National Spelling Bee competitors. It’s exciting to believe that the achievement of difficult goals in life depends not upon talent alone, but ‘a sustained and focused application of talent over time’, but, in the case of the West Point cadets, grit didn’t turn out to account for all that much, increasing the probability of the cadets successfully completing their training from 97% to 99%.

Despite the enthusiasm, a recent meta-analysis has cast doubts about whether the concept stands up to scrutiny. The research looked at results of studies from 88 different samples involving over 66,000 individuals. They appeared to find that grit was only modestly correlated (0.18) with performance and strongly correlated to the personality trait of conscientiousness. Given these problems, can we have any confidence that interventions or initiatives based on the idea of developing grit will have an effect on student outcomes? Certainly, there’s no robust evidence to suggest so. Even Duckworth has admitted her findings of the independent impact of grit are what personality psychologists would place in the ‘small-to-medium’ range.

One of the common issues is that evaluations of programmes designed to develop character are often intensely subjective. Many of the glowing, positive claims come from evaluations carried out by those who were implementing the initiative in the first place! We need to remove confirmation bias, expectancy effects and plain wishful thinking to provide anything genuinely helpful for our students. Where more robust evaluation has been conducted, interventions to develop character traits have not always demonstrated long-term positive outcomes for students.

For example, a report in 2011 for the Department for Education evaluated the UK Resilience Programme. The programme, based on the Penn Resiliency Program (a curriculum developed by a team of psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania) attempted to improve children’s psychological well-being through resilience and the promotion of realistic thinking and coping skills. Cognitive behavioural therapy was an explicit part of the training. Unfortunately, the studies met with limited success: the one-year follow-up found a small average impact on pupils’ depression scores, school attendance, and English and maths grades However, even this modest effect had disappeared at the two-year follow-up, suggesting that, on average, pupils who had participated in resilience workshops were doing no better on these outcomes than pupils who had not.

For the majority of school-based character education interventions, we know even less about what their impact has been. It could be that schools have wasted teaching time and added to teachers’ workloads to no discernible effect. But this isn’t the worst possible outcome. Professor of education, Kathryn Ecclestone suggests that there may be a darker side to this well-intentioned focus on character. She suggests we’d be better off focusing on “a stimulating, enriched, challenging curriculum and extra-curricular activities” to help students develop the resilience we’d like them to have. A recent article by Paul Tough seems to share this view. His research led him to question whether qualities, like grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism, or conscientiousness actually exist as skills which can be taught. None of those educators he interviewed who appeared to be highly successful at engendering these traits gave pep-talks or motivational speeches to students.  In fact most made no mention of these ‘skills’ at all. What appeared to work was talking to the child and giving detailed feedback about the mistakes they had made and what they could have done differently.

And this leads me to the conclusion that resilience (or whatever you want to call it) doesn’t really exist as a teachable skill. I’m not saying that people don’t display a quality of resilience in their lives, just that we probably couldn’t teach it even if we knew what it was. This paper by André Tricot and John Sweller presents compelling evidence that there are no teachable generic skills. They say, “all educationally relevant knowledge acquired during instruction is, and only is, domain-specific.” That is, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience and whatever else you care to mention are evolutionary adaptations that we pick up from the environment as very young children, and, to be meaningful in school and later, they rely on hard-won, biologically secondary knowledge.

This interpretation is consistent with logic. A friend of mine recently told me that his 11-year-old son wanted to give up playing rugby, but that he was unwilling to let him quit as he felt that rugby would teach him to be resilient. I pointed out that the skillset required to be  resilient in rugby was unlikely to lead to resilience in, say, maths. In order to stick with tricky maths problems you need to know quite a lot of maths. The experience of holding fast in a scrimmage is unlikely to be of much use. I also pointed out that we all quit stuff all the time. We make choices about what we want to invest our time and energy in, and these are, usually, based on what we’re good at. Just because I gave up being a Cub Scout after a few weeks didn’t predict that I would drop out of university or be unable to hold down a job. I just didn’t like Cubs.

And that’s my conclusion. People are no more resilient than they are lazy. No one is lazy at doing what they most enjoy and no one – or vanishing few people – resiliently stick at stuff they think is pointless and stupid. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist, but in the ability to start over.” We make calculations about how much effort to invest based on our feelings, the approval of those around us, the carrots and sticks waved at us and a multitude of other imponderables.

Of course, we don’t want children to give up when things get tough. We all probably need to be a bit better at sucking it up and getting on with chores.  I love, Housman’s advice: “Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.” But still, I tend to think we need to offer more than ale. My suggestion is simply this: if you want someone to be resilient, first ask, at what? Then help them improve their performance at whatever it is: getting better at something is the best way to improve motivation.

* If you need a reminder about how correlation works, take a look at this post.