Teaching perseverance

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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After tackling wisdom and optimism, Dr Stephanie Thornton now considers how we might ‘teach’ and encourage our students to develop skills of perseverance

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

Perseverance is an ancient virtue that has recently received a lot of attention. It’s easy to understand why we value perseverance: the obvious truth is that giving up when the going is tough is a sure-fire recipe for failure, whereas going on trying might just lead to success.

Indeed, there is research that suggests that the tendency to persevere is more predictive of eventual success even than IQ (Duckworth & Seligman 2005).
And a tendency to give up too soon is associated with a downward spiral: you give up and thus fail, and your view of yourself as lacking in ability is reinforced – a view that feeds forward, undermining future efforts in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Individuals vary in their willingness to persevere with difficult tasks. Some will keep on trying despite failures and setbacks, whereas others quit. The tendency to persevere (or not) is often a very general characteristic: those who are persistent in one task are likely to be persistent in another.

As a consequence of this generality, the popular lay view is that persistence is a personality trait, set by our genes and therefore fairly immutable, unteachable.

Luckily, this view is comprehensibly refuted by research. In fact, personality traits as a whole are far more determined by experience, and far less determined by genes than the media suggest or the popular imagination assumes (Quiggle et al 1992; Westen 1991).

Even basic personality traits can be changed by therapy (Jarret 2017). And teaching interventions can certainly change the tendency to persevere (Blackwell et al 2007).

Why do some teenagers give up so easily? Research suggests that this tendency has roots in direct experience and is importantly mediated by the theories individuals hold about themselves, and about the general nature of ability. Four issues, each with direct practical implications are key:

Experiences of failure

The experience of failure teaches a negative lesson. Repeated experience of failing induces what Martin Seligman (1972) has labelled “learned helplessness”. This is a debilitating mind-set that says “I can’t”, and undermines the ability to use even skills one has previously mastered. Seligman’s classic demonstration of the phenomenon involved asking people to solve impossible anagrams. After experiencing repeated failures, these individuals became unable to solve even simple anagrams of a kind they had previously solved easily.

The debilitating cycle of learned helplessness is a common experience for many teenagers. It subverts any tendency to persist when problems are tough – after all, why go on trying when failure seems inevitable? The obvious counter to this problem is to provide these teenagers with some experience of success, by setting tasks which match their abilities and stretch skills in manageable steps – through what Vygotsky (1978) called the “zone of proximal development”.

Succeeding in solving problems can mitigate against learned helplessness, fostering a “can-do” mentality. However, it pays to be careful in organising such experience of success: an individual who succeeds easily every time in some task is more likely to quit after a fresh setback than one whose experience of success has been more intermittent, or harder won. Intermittent success teaches the individual about coping with setbacks in ways that continuous success does not (Hogarth & Villeval 2010).

Growth mindset

A “growth mindset” fosters persistence and success Individuals who fail to persevere often hold negative views, not only about their own abilities (“I’m stupid”) but about the possibility of changing those abilities. Fifty years ago many educationalists would likely have endorsed their pessimism: intelligence was thought to be largely fixed by genes, and more or less unalterable in an individual’s life.

We now know that this is not so: IQ scores, for example, commonly change by 30 to 40 points through the school years (McCall et al, 1973). Blackwell et al (2007) established that individuals who are persistent tend to hold a “growth mindset”, that is, to believe that their abilities and intelligence can improve, and through their own efforts. It is easy to see why this growth mind-set fosters persistence – and success.

Most intriguingly, Blackwell et al found that it is relatively easy to induce a growth mindset in the classroom.

Their intervention involved a number of short sessions, about half-an-hour a week over eight weeks, discussing the nature of intelligence and ability with the young, and the fact that these things are far less fixed, far more malleable than is popularly supposed, and emphasising that even quite large changes in an individual’s IQ over time turn out to be fairly common. Inducing a growth mind-set in this way led to markedly improved perseverance, and greater academic success.

Persistence is a skill

Teenagers who are low in persistence often have a surprisingly naïve view about what persisting actually involves. It doesn’t mean carrying on with the same strategy over and over.

Individuals low in persistence may well grasp the folly of repeating unsuccessful strategies – yet lack the metacognitive skills needed to recognise why a given strategy is not working, or to discover a different way of approaching the problem. Even the basic idea of looking for a new strategy may be a surprise for some teenagers.

Helping adolescents beyond this issue seems to call for a creativity that not all possess. However, modelling the skills of finding new strategies in problem-solving can be effective. Small group work may be the best approach here, pairing the struggling with more adept problem-solvers.

Provided that the adept can include the less adept in their search for a new strategy, not only modelling this problem-solving but also discussing and explaining ideas, the less adept may be “scaffolded” toward better insight into ways of persisting effectively when a first approach doesn’t work.

Knowing when to quit

Learning when to quit is as important as learning to persist – and knowing when to quit is an often undervalued skill. The more able and dedicated the individual, the more likely he or she is to persist in trying to solve difficult problems, even to the point where this persistence becomes damaging and discouraging.

Such individuals need to learn to recognise when further effort is futile. But equally, those prone to quitting prematurely need to learn that sometimes giving up is the right thing to do: they too will encounter impossible tasks. The trick, for both the overly persistent and for those lacking in persistence, lies in knowing how to recognise when it is appropriate to quit and when not. This is a subtle matter, and one that can be hard to address. In the end, it will always be a judgement call in the specific situation.

Expert opinion suggests that an effective way to address the issues both of the power of persistence and the need to know when to quit is through group discussion, perhaps in relation to some generally challenging task.

Such discussion can bring important issues into the open, confronting teenagers with views very different from their own and provoking reflections which may both alter attitudes and foster the development of the meta-cognitive skills and strategies vital for managing one’s efforts better.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, including in this current series, go to http://bit.ly/2o1BVxK

Selected references

  • Duckworth A & Seligman, M (2005) Self-Discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents, Psychological Science 16 939-944
  • Seligman, M (1972) Learned Helplessness, Annual Review of Medicine 23 407-412


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