Contribution of Resilience in Children’s Learning seminar - video transcript

(Jason Timmins is Manager of Insights at the Education Review Office (ERO))

Today we're going to be talking about not giving up.  So giving up's really easy.  I've done it, I'm sure some of you have done it in this room.  You know, if something's just too hard being able to give up and walk away, it can be quite nice.  But a lot of the cases, and I'm sure it's absolutely true in this room, that sometimes, you know, we don't give up and we don't want to give up.  You know, it's something important and we're going to keep trying.  And sometimes we don't give up because we love what we're doing, you know.  So my son loves playing video games and whenever I pop my head in, you know, just to see what he's playing, he dies a lot or exits the game, I think is the term we might use, but he keeps going, you know, he just sees that as a mistake that he's made and he's going to get round that and he keeps playing.

Sometimes we don't give up because we know that what we're doing is really important or that we're going to really enjoy the achievement of doing that task.  So some of you who know me know that I analyse a lot of data I often use computer programming to do that analysis.  I don't like computer programming, I find it really frustrating.  But what I do like are the results and the key findings and the information that I get out of that process that I get to share with everybody in a seminar like today.  And so for this presentation today what we're interested in is really about trying to understand, in a school, about what is it about the children who keep trying and try and understand about the kids who just seem to give up a bit too easily or when things get hard.  And what we're going to explore is whether, you know, the -- if children have more resilience or skills to help them overcome challenges can that help us understand some of the differences we see in the level of effort between different types of children in schools.  

This story is -- so the reason why we care about this is because there's good evidence to show that children that persevere and try hard in school do well in school they get good grades.  So when I was at school that was an A.  In the NCA that's getting an endorsement.  And importantly, what we are seeing is that doing well in school is obviously important for later life.  Kids that do well in school do well in education after school, tertiary, they do well in their careers.  And something that we'll touch on at the end of this, the exciting thing is, is that there might be things we can do to help build the resilience of the kids.  Which I'm hopefully going to show could be a way of helping them achieve better at school. 

The second part of my story is that there were a -- I'm going to talk about a set of schools in the North Island, I'm not going to name them, because while they were happy for me to use their data they didn't, for good reasons, want to be named because it's their data.  So I just want to acknowledge them for allowing us to share their data and allowing me to use in this presentation today. 

And the reason why we have this set of schools is that they were noticing stuff in their schools around the children who were trying hard not giving up and in particular they were also noting they were getting some new students who found it difficult or find it difficult to overcome challenges at schools.  One of the teachers said to me is that they go to pieces.  That's how they described it, they just don't know what to do when things get a bit hard.  And also another thing they also said is that there were some kids who were turning up to school, so attendance wasn't a problem, they were coming along, but they weren't really engaged when they were at school.  They didn't take their academic work seriously and they didn't really see much point in doing it. 

Now some things that might be -- mean they lack a bit of resilience and are unable to get, you know, to achieve when things get a bit harder.

And so I sent these slides in last week and I would've changed them around a little bit, but this is just reinforcing my previous point which is that these resilience skills or non-cognitive skills, which people often talk about, you know, working hard, persevering is really important in doing well at school.  And from a kind of a practice point of view in a classroom, there might be a danger that kids who lack perseverance and effort it might be because of lacking resilience or these non-cognitive skills, but it might also be misdiagnosed of just lacking motivation or not caring.  Maybe the school thinks it's something that's happening from outside the school that's driving that and there's nothing they can do.  Whereas actually in fact it might be a lack of resilience, which I'm going to hopefully show, might be able to be changed.

So the great thing was was that these schools identified these kind of problems or issues with their children.  And so they decided to actually ask them, and so they went -- Aero(?) was fortunate enough to be able to work alongside them and help them create a survey to ask some of the kids around these sort of resilience or non-cognitive factors, which meant that we could collect this information and for today's presentation I've been able to share that with you. 

So this is what I'm going to talk about today, I'll set up the research or the kind of questions I'm going to tackle in this presentation and we'll have a look at the link between these non-cognitive or resilience factors and their link to achievement.  I've got a bit of a model to help me organize that.  I'll talk about the survey a little bit and how we collected the data.  I'll then take you through some of our key findings and then we'll finish with a summary and then I've got a sort of a "So what" to start our discussion about what this might mean for policy and practice in the education sector to think about.

So just so we kind of all get on same page in terms of when I'm using these terms like non-cognitive skills or resilience, so the way to think about this or the way I think about this is that cognitive skills, that tends to be the stuff that you learn at school.  In terms of the content, you learn how to think, you learn how to use language, symbols and texts and you learn content knowledge, you know, you learn about New Zealand, you learn about different topics, whatever it might be.  I've taken these actually from the New Zealand -- I'm going to get this wrong, it's in my notes, but the core competencies - that's what I'm looking for, which come out the curriculum.

And then the non-cognitive skills, the way I think about this, this is how kids learn.  And so these are the skills that they have that helps them learn and this is obviously another important part of school.  So these might include things like relating to others, managing themselves, participating and contributing in class and study skills, help seeking or asking for help, I think is the way I describe that one.  And it's these non-cognitive factors or resilience factors that we're kind of interested in for this talk, both are important and what we're seeing is that there's been a lot of focus on cognitive skills and there's increasing literature and evidence around the importance as well of the non-cognitive skills. So here's a model to help us think about how these factors link through to academic achievement or performance in this one.  There's a really nice literature review by Farrington Attell(?) 2012 which does a nice job of just linking through the literature and then also goes on to summarize the practice stuff.  So if you're interested I'd recommend that as a read.  So we start at the bottom in the green box, we've got our academic performance, however that's measured and then what they do is that they say that's influenced by academic behaviour.  So that's actually doing the work, turning up to school, doing the homework if it's set, participating in class.  And then what's linked to that in the orange box is this perseverance.  So this is trying hard.  So in order for those academic behaviours to happen kids need to be trying hard in the class.  And then you can see there's some other factors there, there's some social skills as well.  And then linking into the perseverance we've got these learning strategies.  So how do you -- if you get stuck how do you get past that.  I go for a walk sometimes to try and clear my head.  There'll be other strategies that people use to do that.  They might ask a friend to get some help.  And then at the top in this this kind of red bar is this academic mindset, and the way that I describe that is that, you know, children -- an academic mindset is -- a child who has one is a child who enjoys being at school, it's a safe environment for them.  But they also know the importance of being at school and they also are confident that if they try hard or if they do the work they'll get better and they'll be able to achieve it.  So it's kind of that drive for being at school and taking part in the work.  They might also have some have -- they also might have the view that, you know, what they're doing now is important for their later life, that, you know, doing well at school will mean that they might have more success in whatever they do later in life. 

And so I'll take you through, what we're going to have a look at is what I'm particularly interested in here is in some of these resilience factors or non-cognitive factors around academic mindsets and learning strategies about how, you know, do -- look at our data, do we see a link between those and kids putting more effort in.  As part of the survey we weren't able to collect information about academic performance.  So we're going to make an assumption here that kids who tend to be trying harder, hopefully, according to this model and some of the evidence, will do better at school.  So in our survey -- and we'll go into a bit more -- I'll give you a bit more of a breakdown around the survey in a moment.  But just to help shape up this model, so we collected some factors that I'm going to call around resilience.  These were round belong, so feeling that they -- that children are part of the school and a growth mindset.  So the importance of working hard, knowing they can get smarter if they study, and these are kind of our academic mindset factors.  And we also have some learning strategy factors which in the survey were called self-efficacy.  So these are just strategies for when you get stuck.  It might be thinking about the problems slightly differently, asking a friend, those kind of ones, and I'll give you some examples of the questions we asked the kids.  And then this presentation, our kind of outcome variable, is around -- in the survey we called it "grit" and this is about not giving up and always finishing the work, even if it's hard.  And that links back to this model in terms of that's the perseverance.  So we're looking at the relationship between the red boxes there and the blue box and seeing where the kids who seem to be more resilient in terms of belonging, growth mindset and self-efficacy tended to have high levels of grit, more perseverance.

So now I've kind of translated it back to that model I took from Farrington just as so -- so what we're looking at today is that -- we have the red boxes and the blue box there and the green arrows and we're making some assumptions about, you know, we're just using the literature to assume that they will link through to academic performance. 

One important thing I didn't add into this slide which I should have done, you will have noticed from the first model there is a feedback loop from academic performance back into that academic mindset at the top.  And we'll talk a little bit about that more there.  But it kind of suggests that kids who have early success at school, that's going to reinforce some of these behaviours that might help them to continue to succeed.  And so I think that's just an important side note to take, is that, you know, it's not just about getting those factors in place, it's also about making sure kids get some early runs on the board, if you like, at school to encourage them that they can learn, that they can get better. 

So these are our research questions.  The key question I want to try and do today is can disparities in grit between children be explained by differences in our resilience factors.  And in order to answer that question we're going to have a look at differences between disparities and the level of grit between children, you're going to see some similarities here between my findings and Linda's findings.  You're going to see that boys, Maori children and older children have lower levels of grit than females, non-Maori children and younger children.  So there's some similar disparities to what Linda found in her relationship -- in her study.  We'll also look at the relationship between grit and resilience and what I'm going to show there is the children who seem -- who have more of these resilience factors have higher levels of grit, and then I'm hopefully going to convince you that if we control for that levels of resilience that some of the differences between boys and girls, for example, go away.  In other words high resilient boys and high resilient girls have similar levels of grit.  And we see the same for low resilient boys and girls.  So that's kind of the findings.  

The data that we collected, so we used an online survey.  It was run in these schools in the North Island in the Kohuiarko(?) Community of Learning.  The great thing about surveying children is that they're all in the class and there's a teacher asking them to fill out the survey.  And so what that means is that you get 100% response rates from a class.  And if that school, which it did largely in our study, and if the primary and intermediate schools run it in most classes you get response rates, so I had 2,500 responses and we had about 80% response rate for year 4 to 8 students across all of the schools.  A slightly lower response rate, so only a third of year 9 to 11 students.  So we'll be a bit more cautious about interpreting that information.  Unfortunately I haven't done any calculations on errors on those estimates, like you saw with Linda's presentation, so we'll just be a bit more cautious in how we talk about those. 

I did get some responses from year 12 and 13 students but the numbers were too low so I've exclude them for this analysis.  We asked these kids about 40 questions and they took about 10 minutes to complete them.  We also asked them as part of the survey, to make it a bit more interesting, we also just asked them some open ended questions about what they liked about school and what they didn't like about school.  They loved those questions and we got some great answers.  And much to the -- interestingly the teachers were quite nervous about those questions.  They thought we wouldn't get very interesting information but actually -- in one school, for example, the feedback we got from what they'd like to have more in their school, they said wastepaper or bins and better playground equipment.  And when we showed that to the teachers they kind of agreed that, yeah, there probably isn't enough wastepaper bins and their playground equipment was a bit tired and needs to be updated.  So you know they -- it's not as if the kids were asking for rocket ships or you know or trips abroad. 

So that's the survey.  So I won't go through too much detail but I'll just give you a bit of a sense of the kind of questions we asked.  So what we asked the children is we asked whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, agreed or strongly agreed to a number of statements.  And so we had a whole bunch of questions about -- there's about a dozen questions in each of these.  So we asked kids in the belonging questions we asked them, you know, can they be themselves -- I can be myself a school.  I feel included, I can talk to my teachers, my teachers understand me.  So some of that kind of emotional response to being at school.  In the self-efficacy, this is more around those kind of learning strategies and knowing what to do if you get stuck, I like working with others, mistakes help me learn, that's my son and his video games, and I know what to do when I have a problem.  One of the cool things I was -- the cool things about doing these surveys if you have children is that you can try the questions out on them and see what they say.  But, you know, for example, if I asked my kids  about what you do when you get stuck, the first thing they say is, "I ask my friend at my table".  So that's their strategy.  A growth mindset.  And so this is about that kind of -- the importance of doing the work and the confidence that by working hard they can get better.  So we had questions in there, for example, "I know I can become smarter.  I feel positive about my future.  I learned from my mistakes.  I get to do interesting activities at school".  And then finally we had some -- so they're our kind of resilience type questions.  And then finally we had some questions around the grit, the perseverance, the one -- the outcome variable we're kind of interested in and that says, "I want to be the best at what I do.  I always finish whatever I begin.  I don't give up easily.  I am a hard worker".  Just a quick comment, so these surveys are becoming quite popular and there's quite good evidence now that they do, you know, are quite a good predictor of kind of school outcomes, if you like, or children outcomes in terms of learning.  I guess when I was listening to Linda's talk I was kind of interested in whether some of the stuff -- so she's -- we're kind of a few years ahead of some of Linda's younger people.  I was just wondering about those kids at those much younger ages, whether there's a relationship between some of the stuff that Linda's collecting and some of these findings when we get into the school system.  I think there's clearly an overlap in terms of some of those questions.  The other thing about these is that -- so one concern about these is I'm going to pool across schools, partly because I want to disguise the schools.  There is a little bit of a concern about doing that because children might respond to these questions based on who's around them.  If they're saying, "I am a hard worker" they might take that as a reference based on who's in the classroom, for example. 

So one of the advice we gave to the schools when they were doing that is to be careful about looking across their whole community of learning because some -- there might be variations between schools, there also might be variation by age as well and we'll have a look at some of that as well.  Having said that though, I pooled them all across.  So that's a bit of caveat on using that. 

So here's some findings.  So what I've done is that these are all the questions we asked in the grit module, if you like, and what I've done is I've separately presented them for males who are the dark blue triangles and females who are the light blue circles.  And so what I've done here as I've got the proportion of students who either agreed or strongly agreed to each of these questions.  So we start at the top with I want to be the best about 90% of the kids - so these are year 4 to year 11 - say that they want to be the best.  That's great.  That's very positive.  When we start to look at actually what do they do in terms of perseverance and grit we start to see some differences.  So, for example, the third question down, "I get excited about new work".  We see that 70% of boys agreed or strongly agree to that statement.  80% of girls did.  "I always finish on time" and "I always finish on time even if it takes a long time" -- sorry, "I always finish my work.  I always finish my work even if takes a long time to complete".  Again we see some differences: boys were less likely to agree with that statement.  We see some differences between boys and girls, overall boys might lack a bit -- might have a little bit less grit than girls.  Which is kind of the finding to take from that one.  So a second difference.  I just looked at ethnicity, so these are children who we identified as being either Māori, which is your green circle.  New Zealand European, which is your blue square, or Asian which is your red triangle.  So again if we look at "I want to be the best".  All three groups said -- about 90% of them said, "I want to be the best".  When it came to those questions about finishing work, getting excited about new work, achieving a difficult goal, we started to see that Māori were less likely to agree -- Māori children were less likely to agree with those questions.  So there's some difference there. 

And then finally I looked at just children who were in primary school, so we're interviewing -- in primary schools we're interviewing children from year 4 to year 6 which is about ages 8 to 10.  And then for secondary I've put -- these are kids from year 7 to a year 11 which is age 11 to 16.  I hope I've got that right.  And so again we see a similar pattern.  We're actually seeing that secondary school children seem to be less likely to agree about finishing their work and not giving up easily.  So similar to Māori children and to boys, a similar kind of pattern.  So we do see some differences in the level of grit across children within this school community.  Just as an aside, we also see a bit of a fade irrespective of what kind of children we're talking to.  So here I've just plotted the proportion of children who agree with all of the -- agree or strongly agree with all the grit questions I've kind of aggregated across all of them.  The red line with the circle are female -- are children who are female and New Zealand European, the dash line with a blue square are male children and the darker blue line with triangles are Māori children.  And you can see here that in year 4 between 80-90% of those groups agreed or strongly agreed with most of those grit questions, by the time we get to year 11 it's below 80%.  So my numbers are a bit small for 9, 10, 11, but there seems to be a bit of a fade over time.

What's even more interesting is that we see this irrespective of the questions we asked the children.  So we see this in terms of the grit, which I've just shown you.  But we also see this in terms of belonging, self-efficacy, the learning strategies and growth mindset.  So our kind of resilience factors that we're interested in. 

So just for example, if we look at belonging, which is the red line with the circles, again between 85% and 90% of them say they feel like they belong at their school.  By the time they get to the end of high school, or at least a compulsory year 11, it's dropped below 60%.  And that's something you see in the international literature that engagement of children at school tends to fall with age. 

And one way of thinking about that is that maybe for some children that feedback mechanism isn't working for them, which is that they don't do well at school at the beginning of their school career and that just feeds into this loss of engagement.  They kind of -- that growth mindset gets -- the academic mindset, those resilience factors, get undermined because they're just not achieving at school.  Whereas for some children hopefully it gets reinforced and they still do well. 

So we've got some differences in grit across our children and so the next question I want to have a look at is whether the resilience factors controlling for that helps us understand some of the gaps between boys and girls, Māori and non-Māori and also -- oh they were just the two I'm to look at. 

So on this chart the first thing I want you to look at is I just want you to look at the solid lines and the dash lines.  So the solid lines are children who have high resilience, so I've taken the children -- I've basically split the children into two groups, those with the highest, who are more likely to respond agree or strongly agree with the resilience questions and those who are less likely to agree or strongly agree with those resilience questions around belonging, self-efficacy and a growth mindset.  So you can see that high resilient children, and then what I've done is I've plotted that against their responses to the grit questions.  So high resilient children are more likely to strongly agree or disagree -- sorry, strongly to agree or strongly agree with the grit questions.  They seem to have more grit, higher levels of grit, whereas the low resilience children have less levels of grit. 

Then what I've done is I've plotted them separately for males and females, so the males are the blues -- the dark blue lines with the triangles and the females are the light blue lines with the circles.  I guess what's reassuring to see is that when we look at -- when we compare particularly the younger ages, say years 4 to 7, so your primary school ages, that higher resilient males and females have similar levels of grit.  So that kind of difference that we saw before doesn't seem to be there.  It gets a bit messy after that, partly because I have low numbers, but at least we can say that high resilient boys have higher levels of grit than low resilient boys.  The pattern for low resilience is a bit more muddled, but there is that difference for boys and for females -- for males and females.  We've just done -- I've just done a similar graphic analysis for looking between Māori and New Zealand European children.  And again, we see a similar pattern.  So particularly at the younger ages we see that Māori children have -- high resilient Māori children have similar levels of grit to New Zealand European children.  High resilient New Zealand European children.  And we see the same pattern for low resilience.  So again we can say that the Māori who are resilient tend to have much higher levels of grit, they're going to persevere, they're going to try harder.  And so we hope that that will also mean they do better at school in the future than low resilient children.  So resilience seems to be explaining some of the differences in the perseverance, the grit levels of children within these school communities. 

So just to summarize.  So I'm going to start with the bottom bullet point first and then we'll just remind ourselves about the other one.  So, I think there's some evidence, at least from the simple analysis I've done here, that these resilience factors, these non-cognitive factors, may explain some of the difference in grit between boys and girls and Māori and non-Māori children that we observe across all of them, in terms of perseverance.  It seems to be particularly at those younger ages, and at the older ages it gets a little bit more -- it's less clear.  So some further analysis would be necessary, but it's also true that when we look at high resilience boys they're more likely to demonstrate grit than low resilience boys.  So there is that relationship between resilience and grit and association.  And so just to remind you of the other findings.  So we found that older children, boys and Māori children are less likely agree with questions around grit, to demonstrate grit.  Grit and resilience levels appear to decline with age.  And so that's that kind of feedback loop, so that, you know, maybe trying to address that might prevent some of that happening.  And resilient children are more likely agree that they try hard and persevere at school or demonstrate behaviours of perseverance.  

So they're my key findings.  So the policy question or the practice question is:  well can we -- you know, if resilience does turn out - and there's other evidence to suggest that it is - important, these non-cognitive factors, they do turnout to be important can we make children more resilient?

So interestingly the evidence seems to suggest that it's hard to change academic grit and perseverance.  It's hard to give kids more grit to make them try harder.  I've seen some studies that tried to reward, you know, monetary rewards and things like that.  But the evidence seems to say that's quite a hard behaviour to change directly without addressing academic mindset and effective learning strategies. 

So that might be where you could focus.  And the evidence seems to suggest that the academic mindset is something that you can change in schools.  There are some successful trials that seem to have achieved that.  And of course schools are always teaching learning strategies and that's something that fits very neatly into the work that they already do. 

And I guess my finishing point is that that developing resilience -- so if schools are potentially a good opportunity for developing resilience, well this is great for their school achievement because it's probably going to go up, but it's also great for their later life achievement in terms of whatever they do in their careers or in tertiary education. 

So it's kind of an early -- potentially an early intervention that could be thought about that not only will help kids achieve at school, which will also lead hopefully to a great life, but will also be skills that they can use later on in life as well.  That's all for me.