10 Virtues For the Modern Age

Well worth 4 minutes of anyone's time. Striving for these ten virtues enables us to be a better person - and that's likely to be in our best interest as well as everyone else's.

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Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

Getting Creative

Creativity is a critical area for success in the world today. Sometimes, today, it can be tempting to see the most creative people as the ones who managed to ‘survive’ education without having all the creativity squeezed out of them!

If we want to be more creative, or be more successfully creative, it makes sense to take note of the views and ideas of thoise who are already doing it. There’s no single right way. I think each of us has to find the way that works best for us. However, that doesn’t happen if all we ever do is the ‘same old same old,’ if we never step out of our comfort zone and try things. In fact, resilience, ability to bounce back, willingness to step out and try as many different ways as possible figure prominently in the advice from some of the most successfully creative people.

Here’s a nice Fast Company infographic where they’ve taken thoughts and ideas from some of the most renowned creative people today.

Fast Company – The best Creative Advice

Some, after reading these, might be tempted to think that the advice given applies more to people who do inherently creative stuff, whether it’s writing, making music or TV programmes. However, I think that would be a mistake. Creativity is essential for all of us, in both personal and professional life. Apart from anything else, creativity brings originality and a greater variety of options or choices about how to tackle an issue, solve a problem or move something forward. It enables the creatively oriented to move beyond simply replicating what they or others have done before.

Educators and parents have a great deal of power over a young child’s creativity. I believe that some amount of it is innate in every child. However, conditional love and approval and narrowly defined expectations can soon cause the child to believe that creativity is essentially a sign of weakness, a foolish erring from the approved straight and narrow. Under such circumstances, so many bury that innate creativity so deep, that it may never emerge again to play a part in their lives.

The comments in the article are clear. Being creative takes courage, persistence and resilience. It requires the ability to step beyond what others expect or will approve of. Nevertheless, we live in a world today that has some massive challenges to deal with if humanity is to advance in positive ways. For that, vast numbers of creative minds will need to be unleashed. We, in education, have to give more attention to how we nurture creativty, rather than contributing to closing it down.

Grit and Perseverance

Closely associated to ‘Growth Mindset’ on which i wrote a few days ago, recent months have seen increasing focus on grit and perseverance as qualities that reflect the positive inclination to stick at tasks and to see effort and ‘trying’ as the means to effective learning (as opposed to the fixed mindset belief that intelligence and ability to learn is just innate and shouldn’t require effort).

I was so pleased to find that Edutopia had done a great job of bringing together a wealth of resources on these subjects.

The first link contains a curated collection of articles, websites, videos and other resources related to grit and perseverance:;

Resilience and Grit – Edutopia Resource Rounup
(Click on the link above to access all the resources)

The next is an interesting article about the value and merit of the growth mindset as applied to teachers and professionals, as opposed to thinking of it purely from the perspective of students:

Edutopia – Developing a Growth Mindset for Teachers and Staff

Finally, an article about strengthening and building executive functions – the skills related to controlling one’s own mind, points of focus and ‘mind management’

Edutopia – Strategies for Strengthening Executive Functions

For anyone who wants to know and understand more about these areas, this is a great set of resources with which to begin.