If you’ve been around education for any amount of time, or if you work in any field that rewards hard work, you’ve probably noticed that there is one character trait that seems to separate those who rise to the top from those who blend in. It’s not intelligence, it’s not natural born talent for a particular skill, it’s not your education level. It’s perseverance.
Perseverance is often bundled together with “grit”, which can is described as “persistence + resilience”. It is also often associated with “firmness of character” or an “indomitable spirit”. It is also the subject of many a study linking particular character traits to long term success. In short, perseverance is most simply described as “not giving up”. Without a doubt, we can each point to an important point in our lives when perseverance saved us. And probably a few where it could have if we only had a bit more.
When it comes to perseverance and kids, it’s like almost any other skill. It comes naturally to some, and not so naturally to most. I’ve had kindergarteners tell me, “I knew it was going to be really hard, but I just kept working at it and I got it right!” I’ve had more than a few middle-schoolers and high-schoolers throw their hands up and give up at the first hint of a challenge. And I’ve seen just about everything in between. Like any skill, however, perseverance is something that can be learned, practiced, and cultivated. While we all may have our breaking point at which enough is enough, raising that threshold is a must for the success of any student.
So how do we teach kids perseverance? And where are they learning it now? In my time teaching in the classroom, I’d like to think I always did a pretty good job teaching persistence. I gave kids plenty of additional opportunities to work towards challenging problems (I literally had a wall of challenging problems), and rewarded their efforts for sticking with something long enough to solve a difficult problem. There are quite a few teachers who do similar things, especially in “gifted” classrooms, but there are even more that do not. Even at that, what I was teaching and having my kids practice wasn’t perseverance, it was persistence. The difference between the two is that one requires resilience, and one does not. Persistence is sticking with something long enough even though it’s hard. Perseverance is sticking with something even though you’ve already failed. And there’s quite a big difference between the two.
Our schools are set up to reach mastery of certain goals, called standards. While there is a sort of system in place to accommodate what kids should do when kids surpass that goal, it almost never happens that way. Time is the number one limiting factor of all teachers everywhere, and there simply isn’t enough time to plan for all such scenarios with the hundreds of different standards across all subject areas. In addition, if a student does not meet a particular standard, there is almost never an opportunity to go back and revisit that. Fail, and that’s it. Kids are indirectly taught to put their failures in the rearview mirror and hope it doesn’t come back around. In a perfect world, we’d revise our approach, reteach, reassess, and then move on from there, but with 20+ students all rising and falling in different places, this a completely unrealistic ideal.
Our schools generally do a good job raising most kids to a minimum bar, but not so much raising those that can surpass it above that bar. For most students, the qualities of perseverance and grit lie above that bar. In fact, students who routinely struggle in school often have a lot more practice and therefore a lot more perseverance than gifted students who have had most things come easily in their academic career. Our gifted students are often most at risk for going through their academic career without developing any real sort of perseverance.
So if our schools aren’t able to give our kids the time to practice perseverance, when are they getting it? Before school? After school? Hopefully!
At Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead we have put teaching perseverance at the core of our mission, and here’s how:
In addition to our enrichment classes which give kids extended amounts of time to work on projects they love, we have also developed what we’re calling our Renaissance System (™). This system is a series of challenges and badges that kids can earn in various skills ranging from Minecraft, 3D Printing, Piano, Jump Rope, and even Juggling. Each skill has 3 badges, a silver, a gold, and a legendary badge. These badges are structured so that the silver is a challenge, but attainable to just about everyone. The gold challenges require some more advanced knowledge and definitely some practice or perseverance. Kids who consider themselves “really good” at something will often still have to work to accomplish these tasks. Our legendary challenges are what separates the dedicated from the experienced. These challenges are designed to push our students’ perseverance to the limit. They require advanced knowledge, practice, patience, and persistence.
All of these challenges are designed to give the experience of failing, rebounding, and then overcoming. This is core to the experience of perseverance. And before you ask, “aren’t we just setting students up to fail?” No way! Well sort of no way. Ok, we are, but it’s in a controlled, pressure-free environment designed to teach them to overcome failure. First of all, none of these challenges are mandatory–every one of them is a student’s choice any day they attend. Also, by attempting these high interest challenges in areas they are already comfortable with, they are setting themselves up for future success. There is nothing attached to these challenges except positive reinforcement through “STEAM Cents” and a whole bunch of excitement from teachers and peers. Having the practice of failing, rebounding, and overcoming in a low pressure situation will prepare them for when it counts, and they eventually do stumble on something more important (though what could be more important than designing a Minecraft server with command blocks?).
The beauty of the Renaissance System doesn’t stop there. Once kids have felt the success of accomplishing challenging tasks in skills they were already comfortable with, that feeling becomes contagious. It gives them the confidence and the motivation to try out some new skills. Knowing that the silver badge is always within reach, it gives kids an excuse to try something new. Our daily enrichment classes support the badges and teach kids how to accomplish these goals, but it’s critical that students can earn the badges on their own.
It has often been said that success begets success. However, without the opportunity to feel success in areas that the kids are passionate about, and without the guidelines to determine what success might look like, and without the support from knowledgeable teachers who believe in them, too many kids either never start to feel that success or become complacent in their perception that success is equivalent to easy.
From day 1 at Full STEAM Ahead, we let the kids know that while they are going to have fun, we are also going to be presenting them with some big time challenges! We let them know that we will support them, teach them, believe in them, but ultimately we want them to accomplish these things on their own. We emphasize that our challenges are not meant to be easy. They are challenges! They will require hard work, and they probably won’t succeed your first few tries. These expectations help kids deal with potential failures and prepare for real perseverance.
The highlight of my day comes around 6:00pm each day once the parents start to pick up their students. One could be forgiven for thinking that’s because I soon get to go home, eat dinner, and be with my family. However, what happens at 6:00pm is magical for a different reason. When the parents arrive, almost every one of our students does everything they can to beg, implore, bargain, and plead for more time. They want to keep working. They aren’t ready to throw in the towel for the day. All while I sit back and watch with a big smile on my face. Once the gears are in motion, nothing can slow them down. That, to me, is the personification of perseverance.