Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Lessons in Adversity - Teaching Resilience

"What I don't understand is why, all of a sudden, my dad is so broke" 

This may be the kind of comment that educators hear quite often these days, as students may be having to experience and endure adversity because of the economic climate. Ever consider what the medium or long term impact that these challenging times might hold as these youngsters grow up?

The comment above is what one bright young student told his 4th grade teacher. However, this particular comment was from a few years ago, and any temporary financial setbacks he and his family faced did not have too much of an adverse affect on this young lads' prospects... his name was Steve Jobs. 

Indeed, some commentators say adversity may actually have helped. Malcolm Gladwell highlights this by looking at the experiences of post WW2 Jewish immigrant families in the 1950's who came to the US with nothing but a strong work ethic 

"The most important consequence of the miracle of US Immigrants was what happened to the children growing up in these homes where meaningful work was practiced. Imagine what it must have been like to watch the meteoric rise of their parents through the eyes of their children. They learned a crucial lesson: if you work hard enough, assert yourself and use your mind, you can shape the world to your desires. The Farkas study traces Jewish family trees and has pages of virtually identical outcomes, until the conclusion becomes inescapable: Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins."

Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, had similar experiences. He faced adversity growing up as this was during the 1930's depression and his dad lost his job when he broke his leg. “If your dad had been successful, maybe you wouldn't have had as much drive as you do.” a friend once commented to which Schultz agreed, part of what drove him was a fear of failure.

In "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" Studs Terkel documents the impact growing up in depression had on a generation and how it affected them - keeping their money under their beds, never getting credit, saving more for a rainy day and that children growing up under these conditions became over-achievers - they wanted to ensure that they would always have money so that their kids would never share the experiences that they had.

All of which give weight to Andrew Carnegie's observation that; 

"It is not the rich man’s son that the young struggler for advancement has to fear in the race of life. Let him look out for the “dark horse” in the boy who begins by sweeping out the office"

I wonder what the impact will be on this generation who are enduring some horrendous experiences as they grow up and enter the work place? These experiences just might prove to be useful;

"I look for a trajectory in background stories, because that's a far better indicator of focus, intelligence and experience than what you can glean from a CV. For instance, an Ivy League alum with a high GPA is great, but even better is the person who was the first in the family to go to college and did well while working an extra job" Todd Carlisle, Google HR Manager

Can and should educators be using examples like the ones above and of Shackleton, Lincoln, Victor Frankel, stories from the Great Depression for people who all of a sudden face unsettling changes and, in some cases, terrible disruption and horrendous living conditions to give them hope? 

Its not as if these things have not been taught in the past. In "Does Education Matter" Alison Wolf observes that 

"We have almost forgotten that education had any purpose other that to promote [economic] growth. To read government documents of even 50 years ago, let along commentaries of the 19th Century, gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognised that education had relevance to people's livelihoods and to the nation's prosperity. But their concern was as much, if not more, related to values, citizenship, the nature of good society & the intrinsic benefits of learning"

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Picks up on this by highlighting that "Ideally the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is no longer to make the grade, earn a diploma, and find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what is happening around you, to develop a personally meaningful sense of one’s experience. 

Finding meaning in these experiences is surely a priority, after all if you all of a sudden find that you're living in a car or eating rats how are students who are living through this supposed to concentrate? Its easy to see why their poverty might make them too traumatized to focus on school 

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