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On Perseverance in the Classroom

Boy studying with partner

By Eric Toshalis for Students at the Center

Have you ever sat through a difficult or dry lesson and were told by your teacher when you began to struggle that if you simply tried harder, you would succeed? If so, didn’t it sound like your teacher was saying, “If you just banged your head harder against this brick wall, you could break through!” You likely realized then what researchers have known for decades: that simply isn’t true. While effort is important when attempting work of any kind, perseverance in school is frequently depicted as a quality either a kid has or doesn’t have, as if the circumstances surrounding that student’s struggles were irrelevant. And far too often, teachers and others use concepts like perseverance to blame students from disadvantaged backgrounds for “lacking motivation,” when it is the learning environment itself that is largely to blame.

I’ve been thinking about this concept of perseverance because I recently had the opportunity to review the report, Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles, by RAND authors and commissioned by Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center initiative. I applaud the authors for tackling a tricky subject often glossed over and under-researched in the rush to advocate for competency education. Their treatment presents a broad and well-organized array of scholarship that highlights the enormous potential of competency-based reforms to elevate achievement and enhance equity. However, the paper raises a lingering concern: discussions of the concept of perseverance can easily devolve into a blame-the-victim ideology rather than an improve-the-context search for solutions.

Perseverance can be a seductive explanation of student failure due to the way it shifts attention away from pedagogical factors that may hinder students’ achievement and instead draws attention toward perceived deficits in students’ motivation. This effectively absolves adults of responsibility for students’ struggles. Given the culture of blame that surrounds the profession of teaching these days, it’s not surprising that some would seek shelter in explanations that deny culpability in student failures. I would argue, however, that to overcome academic struggles, it is the educator’s responsibility to teach the skills necessary for success and to present material using techniques that motivate students to engage. In this way, perseverance is less a prerequisite of learning and more a product of good teaching.

Research has indicated time and again that students tend not to persevere in a learning experience when:

  • They feel excluded
  • They don’t have reasons to value the outcomes or the process
  • Ability differences highlighted in the learning environment make them feel stupid
  • The material they are learning is culturally exclusionary or personally irrelevant
  • Behavioral norms alienate and marginalize them
  • They do not believe they will be successful
  • They haven’t been taught the skills necessary to achieve
  • They are given insufficient voice and choice in how they learn and what they do
  • Their relationships with educators are strained or nonexistent

A central contention in my book, Make Me! Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School (Harvard Education Press, forthcoming 2015), is that if students are forced to learn in a context in which any (or several) of the above experiences are common, it doesn’t make sense and surely won’t help to blame students’ failures on their apparent lack of perseverance. It’s a much more powerful and productive conclusion to say that students aren’t trying because the learning environment doesn’t support their effort; then the onus is on us, on the things we can change—our practices.

So, how do we avoid lapsing into counterproductive, blame-the-victim ideologies? Instead of focusing on students’ intrinsic qualities that may not be very malleable, I recommend targeting motivational factors we know are much more receptive to educator influence. Fortunately, researchers have identified a host of psychological, social, and pedagogical phenomena that drive students’ decisions to engage and exert effort even when faced with temporary setbacks. Those factors include students’:

  • Sense of self-efficacy—how confident they feel that they can rise to challenges and attain success
  • Their expectancy-value calculations—whether current supports and competencies make eventual success plausible, and whether the activity is of much worth to them either in the short or long term
  • Their ability to self-regulate—the learned skillset that facilitates the initiating and sustaining of focus despite distractions and competing opportunities, and the techniques learners use to reflect on their performance to guarantee continual improvement
  • The extent to which they feel they belong—the level of inclusion, appreciation, and bonding that occurs in a learning environment, and the extent to which alienation, marginalization, and “othering” is curtailed
  • Their level of connectedness to peers and adults—the prevalence of meaningful relationships with age-group friends and educators
  • How culturally responsive the learning environment is—the extent to which the learning environment adapts to students’ racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and invites contribution and critique from a diverse range of perspectives
  • The extent to which self-determination is integral to their academic work—the frequency that students experience competence, relatedness, and autonomy in learning activities

These factors are all highly conducive to educator input and intervention and are therefore promising areas of focus in any effort to improve instruction and elevate achievement. To positively impact student academic outcomes, we need to focus our efforts where they will produce results. With limited resources and time, our best bet is not to change the student per se, but to use research-proven techniques to improve the circumstances in which we expect that student to learn.

Labeling students with fixed mindset evaluations (e.g., “This student has perseverance, but that one doesn’t”) runs contrary to competency-based pedagogies, which at the most basic level are about developing mastery in all learners at all times through incremental and differentiated challenges matched with targeted supports. I am convinced we can implement competency-based reforms in rich, heterogeneous, and culturally diverse learning environments particularly when we work hard to locate where the greatest motivational leverage exists and then use those factors to our students’ advantage. Learning to teach in ways that enhance self-efficacy, expectancy-value, self-regulation, belonging, cultural responsiveness, and self-determination can positively contribute to the success of competency-based reforms and help to sustain student-centered, equitable classrooms. In the end, it’s not the students’ perseverance we should focus on; it’s ours.

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Eric Toshalis has served public education for more than two decades—as a middle and high school teacher, coach, mentor teacher, teacher educator, teachers’ union president, community activist, curriculum writer, researcher, author, professor, and consultant. He is currently on the faculty in the Teacher Education Department in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he directs the Summer Middle Level/High School M.A.T program and teaches courses in adolescent development and classroom management. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Make Me! Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and its companion website EngagingResistance.com, and he is the co-author, with Michael J. Nakkula, of Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators (Harvard Education Press, 2006) and its companion website, Understanding-Youth.com. Toshalis and Nakkula are also the research team behind “Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice” from the Students at the Center initiative.

Photography copyright 2012 Nellie Mae Education Foundation and made available under a Attribution-Noncommerical-Share Alike 2.0 license