Can we learn resilience?

Definition of Resilient

Building a resilient generation?

The Department for Education has just released a report which evaluates the effectiveness of ‘emotional resilience classes’ in British schools. The classes were designed by Martin Seligman, professor at Penn University and the inventor of Positive Psychology, and rolled out in 22 secondary schools in the UK in 2007, then evaluated over the following three years. If the classes were shown to reduce children’s emotional problems, there was a good chance they would be introduced into the national curriculum.

Unfortunately, the final report is not exactly a home run. It found a “significant short-term impact” on students’ depression symptom scores, but that impact faded off soon after the classes finished. There was no impact on life satisfaction scores, on academic scores, on behaviour scores or absence scores. The only area the classes seemed to have a significant and lasting impact was on the worst-performing children – who may have simply benefitted from receiving special attention.

This latest report follows on the heels of another report into the British curriculum’s existing emotional well-being subject – Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). The SEAL report, produced by the University of Manchester and published in October 2010, also found no significant impact of SEAL classes on either students’ emotional well-being or their academic scores.

That report has led the Department of Education to question whether any new funding should be put into SEAL classes. The DoE has been looking around for alternate approaches to teaching well-being, which are more evidence-based and scripted than the rather free-form SEAL approach. There was hope that the emotional resilience (ER) classes would provide a strong alternative to SEAL. The ER classes enjoyed strong political backing, through Richard Layard of the LSE, Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation, and Anthony Seldon of Wellington College – the three founders of Action for Happiness.

However, it now looks unlikely that the ER classes will become part of the national curriculum, at least in their present form. Richard Layard told the RSA last month that he was examining various different approaches to teaching well-being from around the world, suggesting the search is not over for an effective way to teach well-being.

The report hasn’t been reported yet in the UK press, though I wonder if the US press will get hold of it eventually. The Pentagon recently introduced Seligman’s resilience classes to the entire US Army, at teh cost of $125 million, without ever doing a pilot programme.  The fact this latest pilot study found little emotional impact of the classes is potentially embarrassing for the much more ambitious and expensive US programme.

Still, a three-year pilot programme is not exactly measuring ‘resilience’, is it? For that, you’d need to see how the students responded to major life challenges over the course of several years. You’d also need to see the effects of the ER classes over the long-term, particularly to study the incidence of depression or other emotional problems in ER students when they’re 16-22, which is when emotional disorders typically hit. This study only looked at children from the ages of 11 to 13.

Personally, there is much that I like about Seligman’s resilience classes. They teach young people the ABC model of emotions – the idea, taken from CBT, that our emotions follow our beliefs, and therefore we should learn to Socratically examine our beliefs, to see whether they are coherent and rational, and to understand how they lead to our emotions.

This approach was derived by the inventors of  CBT from ancient Greek philosophy, particularly from Socrates and the Stoics. Indeed, Aaron Beck, one of the founders of CBT, says that CBT teaches people the ‘Socratic method’ for scrutinizing their own beliefs and assumptions. So in some ways, emotional resilience classes take education back to its classical roots. They re-connect us to the classical idea that young people should be taught not just how to pass exams, but how to govern themselves, how to live good lives.

However, in some ways the ER classes are very different from the classical model of philosophy. The ER classes are a tightly-scripted programme, which presents itself as a science, and which adolescents are expected simply to learn and absorb, without question or debate.

By contrast, philosophy in the ancient world trained young people how to think, how to debate, how to dispute. They depended much more on the personal relationship between the teacher and the student, rather than on any pre-prepared ‘script’. A good teacher did not force-feed answers to the student, but rather taught the student how to arrive at their own conclusions.

There is another movement in the UK, to teach ‘critical thinking’ or ‘reasoning’ skills in schools. It’s being spear-headed by the Philosophy Shop, a charity run by philosophy graduates Peter and Emma Worley. Their approach is much less explicitly aimed at emotional well-being, and more at sharpening young people’s reasoning skills to help them become ‘independent learners and thinkers’. In other words – it tries to train young people how to be critical, rational and autonomous, rather than merely ‘happy’. However, the roots of this approach are not so different from the classical Socratic roots of the ER classes – both teach the ‘Socratic method’, but they take that method in different directions, present it differently, and have different stated goals: one tries to teach ‘well-being’, the other to teach ‘critical thinking’ and ‘independence’.

A third movement argues that you can’t teach ‘emotional resilience’ just in the classroom, that we learn it by doing, not thinking. We learn it through volunteering, through outdoor challenges, through sports, through social services, even through military service – all of which, it is argued, train us to face challenges and to work together for the common good. This is the approach of the Scouts, the Raleigh charity, the Duke of Edinburgh award, and the government’s new National and International Youth Volunteering Service. This approach also has its roots in classical culture, particularly in the pedagogical ethos of Sparta, and its method of training young people to be resilient by taking them out of the classroom and putting them into challenging situations.

I wonder if the merits of all three approaches can be combined. You train young people how to rationally examine and consider their own beliefs about themselves (the emotional resilience approach). And you train them to critically examine and debate broader arguments about society, ethics and the Good Life (the critical thinking approach). And, finally, you get young people to put their resilience skills to the test in challenging situations (the outdoor challenge approach).

A combined approach would, perhaps, score better both in improving young people’s emotional well-being, and their academic scores. It should train young people both how to consider an argument, how to detect illogical or biased arguments in politics and the media, how to argue a point-of-view in a debate. But it would also turn these critical skills inward – teaching young people how to consider their own beliefs and see how they lead to their emotional reactions. The classes would teach them to look both inward and outward with the same rigorous Socratic enquiry. That, it seems to me, would be the best approach.

Jules Evans


One thought on “Can we learn resilience?

  1. Dear Sir, I am sorry that my Wikiledia comment is yet being edited. I am entirely in your corner in regards to the part the emotions play in education but as Vygotsky taught the emotional scaffolding to be productive in learning is attained by the individual in contact with the necessary information. If educators ever need a model for this it is now. I have attempted this with my theory of Psychartechnology and hope it will initiate further research. I may add in passing as Arnheim has it : science just as art can only function if it spans the whole range………..Regards Harry

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