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Resilience - New Education Fad

05/09/2014 12:36 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Education has always been blighted by fads and interventions devised in the fields of business administration, scientific management, psychology and social policy. Resilience is the latest such import. Since the turn of the 21st century resilience has been emerged as an all-purpose policy objective within business and public sector institutions. Both New Labour and Tory policy wonks present resilience as a solution to problems in the domain of health, social policy, policing, community life as well the antidote to dramatic high-profile risks such as the threat of terrorism and natural disasters. Now it's the turn of education to extol the benefits of resilience.

Mention the word resilience at a meeting policy or consultants and all the heads in the room will nod sagely in agreement. So it is not surprising that the big idea highlighted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility(AFPG) was the need to teach resilience in the classroom. Titled 'The Character and Resilience Manifesto', the AFPG report was immediately acclaimed by the usual suspects. Nick Clegg declared that it would 'drive innovative thinking. Shadow Education Secretary Tristam Hunt embraced it and claimed that the report 'tackles one of the most pressing questions currently facing our education system'.

Whatever resilience means it has become the policy makers 'must use' word. Which is why when Michael Gove talked about 'great teaching' last year he declared that it 'involves empathy and energy, authority and resilience; detailed planning, constant self improvement'.

Yet, despite all the acclaim heaped on concept of resilience it is far from evident what it actually means. In the real world, resilience is a highly contested concept and there is little agreement of its meaning. Definitions of resilience are predicated on the agenda of its promoters. In official documents the term is used as a metaphor that signifies the capacity to cope, adapt or bounce back. Its advocates avoid the challenge of giving it a clear and precise definition by offering a list of its alleged positive benefits. The AFPG manifesto adopts this evasive strategy. It couples Resilience with Character claims that they constitute an 'umbrella term for a range of concepts variously categorised as aspects of social and emotional development' and as "non-cognitive" soft skills'.

If the advocacy of teaching resilience merely represented a rhetorical gesture signalling good intentions there would be little point in questioning it. However the coupling of resilience with character and their interchangeable usage betrays a confusion of the medical and the moral. Anyone who has invested time and effort in attempting to cultivate children's character in the classroom knows that what they are engaged in is encouraging the development of their moral qualities. Character is a moral concept and implies the possession of virtues, the most important of which is the virtue of judgment.

Throughout history the question of whether character or virtue can be taught has been a subject of debate. Although disagreement about the formation of character and the possession of virtues continues to this day it is generally recognised that what is at issue are moral and not technical accomplishments. Virtues such as that of the capacity to judge are not technical skills but achievements acquired through reflection and the gaining of wisdom. When the advocates of resilience teaching praise the qualities of non-cognitive or soft-skills they speak to an ethos and language that is alien to that of character.

Resilience is a technical metaphor that originally emerged in ecology, engineering and systems theory. Originally, it communicated the capacity to rebound or resume the original shape after compression or bending. Its subsequent adoption by the field of child psychology served to medicalise this metaphor and highlighted the quality of being able to deal with adversity and recover swiftly. The attempt by psychology to understand how resilience can be fostered is a worthy aim. Unfortunately psychology often attempts to transform positive personality traits into skills which can then be fostered through techniques of behaviour management.

Turning the moral issues associated with character into medicalised ones linked to resilience legitimises the role psychological intervention in schools. Positive Psychology insists that it is both possible and necessary to teach children to develop attitudes and skills necessary to make them resilient. But there is little evidence that such interventions have the desired outcomes. That does not inhibit the authors of the AFPG manifesto from proclaiming the virtues of resilience interventions. Though it states that the 'research base around Character and Resistance must continue to develop' - which is another way of saying 'we haven't got the evidence' it also claims that 'policy makers must act'!

One reason why the Manifesto's call to action has such resonance is because the resilience and character agenda appeals to otherwise diverse agendas. For those of a conservative or traditional disposition the teaching of resilience holds out the promise that it could provide children with greater moral clarity. Both Gove and Hunt have recently pointed to the importance of children learning the traits of 'grit' and determination from their teachers. Good old-fashioned grit has become one the hurray words of the resilience psychology vocabulary.

The promise of resilience teaching has also attracted the attention of supporters of the business oriented skills agenda. The AFPG manifesto claims that resilience teaching assists the promotion of soft skills. Though it pays lip service to academic rigour its main slogan is that 'so-called "soft skills" can lead to hard results'. John Cridland the director-general of the CBI concurs and praised the manifesto on the grounds that it showed that schools needed 'to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want'.

But what does all this have to do with character? Whatever the merits of soft skills they bear little relationship to character. Confusing the moral with the technical can only diminish the capacity of schools to both foster character and provide children with knowledge and skills. Education not quick-fix interventions is still the most important resource we have for developing the character of young people.