by Rydr Tracy
As educators, our primary goal is to set our students up for success. We focus a lot of our energy on teaching them everything they need to thrive, both inside and outside the classroom.
But despite our best efforts, rigid curriculums and narrow indicators for success are failing to prepare students for the rapidly changing world around them. To truly set our children up for success, we must teach them how to persevere.
The students of today are looking into a future where job markets are increasingly competitive, industries are rapidly changing, and the path from the schoolyard to the workplace is less clear-cut than ever. In this world, perseverance means the difference between success and failure, but it’s how we define these terms that really matter.
The truth is that the way we define and identify perseverance is setting our children on the wrong path. The word ‘persevere’ is too often associated with the concept of never giving up. Children are taught that if they are struggling with a concept or skill, they should continue to use the same narrow methods of learning until they succeed because our current curriculum relies heavily on old ways of thinking and rigid learning structures to determine whether a child is succeeding academically.
This is completely at odds with the dynamic skill set that many industries are searching for in the real world. As the world rapidly evolves, employers are looking for people with the ability to seek and evaluate information, identify and experiment with innovative approaches to success, and adapt themselves accordingly.
While it is undoubtedly important for our children to not give up on their academic success, teaching them that perseverance is about simply gritting their teeth and pushing through difficulties does not do them any favours in the real world. This unrealistic approach narrows the path to success and disempowers students from finding what works for them.
This is why it’s essential that students are equipped with three crucial skills before their key developmental stage ends; the ability to decide whether to sustain their current path, switch to a new approach or identify when they should stop altogether.
There are undoubtedly going to be times in our children’s lives when they should be encouraged to push forward despite failures and setbacks, but equally as important is the ability for them to understand when stopping altogether is the best option. Rather than teaching students that their decision to stop is inherently shameful, we should instead be instilling a sense of realistic optimism about what they can achieve.
Realistic optimism promotes hard work and encourages children to persevere until they reach their goals or find a path they feel aligned with. As much as we wish it were true, teaching children that they can do or achieve anything will only hinder them outside of the classroom.
This unrealistic optimism discourages hard work and facilitates the belief that success doesn’t come with challenges, setbacks, and moments of failure. If all it takes to succeed is belief and the ability to visualise success, then why would I need to work hard for it?
Realistic optimists, on the other hand, believe they can succeed because they have been given the tools to do so. A key component of this is developing a sense of self-concept and self-efficacy that offers a sense of buoyancy even during periods of setbacks or failure. Self-concept refers to our ability to perceive our behaviours – “I am good at writing” – while self-efficacy is the belief we have in our capacity to learn, i.e. “I will be good at writing.”
Self-efficacy, self-concept, and realistic optimism are the building blocks of perseverance. Without these crucial skills, children can develop a belief system that will ultimately let them down. If a student is continuously told that they can become an astronaut despite struggling to grasp basic mathematical concepts, we ultimately instil a sense of unrealistic optimism that leads them down the garden path and sets them up for a big fall. However, if they have a strong sense of self-efficacy and self-concept, they can accept that while joining NASA might not be for them, their realistic sense of self and ability to learn will allow them to find an occupation that complements their ability in a fulfilling and meaningful way.
While academic success is important, it’s the psychological impact of perseverance that makes it a truly critical skill for our students to learn. Studies indicate that academic self-efficacy, self-esteem, and academic engagement are intrinsically linked, not only helping students achieve greater academic success but alleviating negative emotions that may come from disappointment or setbacks.
There is no way to eliminate the risk of failure or disappointment, whether it’s in the classroom or out in the world, but it’s our job to help students navigate it. Perseverance provides students with a sense of buoyancy that is essential to navigating setbacks or having the strength to step off a train that may be leading them nowhere.
This ability to bounce back can help tether children to their goals or give them the confidence to alter their path without becoming disillusioned with their ability to succeed. A student who can persevere by identifying when they should sustain their efforts, adapt their approach, or stop altogether is one who will be better equipped to tackle the realities of highly competitive job markets and fast-paced industries that require adaptive skill sets.
It’s no secret that the students of today will inherit a uniquely complex and challenging world, one where the instant gratification of social media likes and the ability to consume anything, at any time can provide unrealistic expectations of the real world. The task that educators are now facing is how to prepare them with the skills they need to tackle anything that might come their way. In order to prepare students for real-world success, we must teach them what perseverance really means during the most critical years of their academic and emotional development.
Rydr Tracy is head of educational transformation at Creatable.