Why settle for resilience?

I’m fortunate to work with many schools around the world. Not only do I get to share my work with them, I get to learn about the goals they see as most important for their students.

Developing resilience in students is one of the most common goals I hear about. In fact, it is often the reason why schools are drawn to my work with Growth Mindsets and Learning Agility.

But recently, I’ve been questioning resilience. By making “resilience” our goal, do we set the bar too low? Could we do better?

Let’s take a look at what resilience is and why schools are so interested in it.

What is resilience?

Dictionary.com defines resilience as: “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. The power or ability to return to original form.”

Toni Noble and Helen McGrath, authors of Bounce Back!, discuss resilience in terms of the “ability to cope or ‘bounce back’ after encountering negative events, difficult situations, challenges or adversity and return to almost the same level of emotional wellbeing.”

Mindmatters.edu.au defines resilience as “the ability of an individual … to manage life challenges or adversities so as to maintain mental wellbeing.” It goes on to discuss the balance of risk and protective factors.

Richard Sagor, Associate Professor at Washington State University, says [1]resilience can be thought of as an antibody that enables students to ward off attackers that might stop even the most formidable among us. He defines resilience as a set of attributes that provides people with the strength and fortitude to confront the overwhelming obstacles they are bound to face in life.

It seems to me that much (but not all) of the discussion about resilience centres on a belief that students need protection from negative disruptions. That without resilience, they will undoubtedly suffer from the overwhelming challenges and negative events they encounter. Schools, therefore, seek to equip students with the skills to defend against these disruptions and then rebuild and return to their original state, unharmed.

The assumption is that students are fragile. That when they encounter challenges or difficulties, they are prone to breaking – often recognised as poor mental health or a lack of progress at school. In this light, our job as educators is to “toughen them up” so they can withstand or recover when the big, bad world happens to them.

But why do we regard these events and challenges as negative? And why is getting back to the “original state” our goal?

Antifragility vs resilience

In a [2]recent blog, I introduced you to the concept of antifragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb makes the point that everyone understands what fragile means: something that breaks easily when it encounters a disruption or disturbance. But he notes that we don’t have a word that describes something that is the opposite of fragile.

When considering the opposite of fragile, many people think of the words “robust” or “resilient”. But these are not the opposite of fragile. To be robust or resilient simply means an object can withstand disruptions without breaking and return to its original state.

Something that is the opposite of fragile – something that’s antifragile – benefits from disruption and challenge. It grows stronger because of disruptions. For example, think of the way many plants recover from a good prune. These plants could be described as antifragile because they improve and grow back – not to their original state, but with more sprouts. They benefit from the disruption of a decent prune more so than they would from being left alone.

I like the term antifragile. I think it’s an extraordinarily powerful concept, and it has an especially powerful role to play in education. By giving a name to the concept of benefiting from disruption and challenge, it has the potential to transform the way we talk about some of our educational goals – including resilience.

Look again at the way our discussion of resilience has (typically, but not always) been framed. We’ve talked about “negative events”, “adversity”, “recovering”, etc. It seems to me that we’ve been engaging in a deficit discourse, assuming disruption is harmful – that we need to develop the “strength to withstand” and the “ability to recover”.

But events aren’t negative. Outcomes are negative. Situations are only adverse if they have unfavourable outcomes. Recovery is only necessary if there has been damage.

The antifragile student

What if an event that we often assume to be “negative” could lead to growth and positive outcomes? What if we could teach students to look at challenges and disruptions not as unavoidable evils, but as things to seek out and welcome as a necessary way to grow? What if we could teach students how to be antifragile?

Antifragile students would grow in the face of challenge. They would be courageous in the face of adversity. Just as pruning a tree makes it stronger, healthier and with more branches, antifragile students wouldn’t return to their previous state. The disruption would leave them stronger and better able to face future challenges.

So, how might we develop antifragility in students?

An important foundation is a Growth Mindset. It teaches students that although some challenges are beyond their current abilities, those abilities are not fixed. They can develop their talents, abilities and intelligence to become better able to succeed.

However, a Growth Mindset on its own is not enough to develop antifragility (or even resilience). A Growth Mindset is the understanding that you are capable of growth, but it is not actual growth. Growth requires action. Without the behaviours and processes to achieve growth, “not yet” will become “still not yet”.

A Growth Mindset is the beginning. To develop antifragility, we must also develop the necessary Habits of Mind. We must engage students in Virtuous Practice so they can turn disruption and challenge into the growth of their abilities.

In other words, a challenge isn’t something to fear and overcome. It’s something we must leverage to help us improve!

A Growth Mindset, Habits of Mind and practice unite in Learning Agility: the ability to turn your Growth Mindset into actual growth. It’s with the understanding that you are capable of growth, and with the capacity to achieve this growth, that students become antifragile. Challenges and disruption become a source of nourishment rather than fear.

In a world of disruption and challenges, resilient students will survive. But Learning Agile students will become antifragile and thrive!


  1. Sagor, R., 1996, Building Resiliency in Students, ascd.org, accessed 29th January 2018, www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept96/vol54/num01/Building-Resiliency-in-Students.aspx
  2. Anderson, J., 2017, Why we need Agile Learners, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 29th January 2018, www.mindfulbydesign.com/need-agile-learners/



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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