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The learning environment

There are many excellent ideas and techniques to help maximise the learning experience. However many of these share a central problem— they fail to fully take into account individual difference. No technique works equally well for everyone. We believe that mental toughness is one of the key individual differences we should consider.

To illustrate this I will briefly describe an unpublished study we carried out at Hull as part of the initial development work for our model. Students were asked to do two independent tasks. Firstly they did a shooting task. We controlled how successful they were, ensuring that they did badly or well. They then completed a standard written exercise. The performance on these two distinct tasks should have been unrelated. However for the sensitive students failure of the first task led to failing the second one; success on the first task led to success on the second. For the mentally tough the two performances were indeed independent. This sheds new light on the old adage “we learn more from our mistakes than our successes”. Clearly this is true for the mentally tough, less so for the sensitive. Much experiential learning involves making your own mistakes and finding your own solutions. This may be less effective for some students. Two basic solutions exist. Either tailor the teaching or enhance the toughness of all the class members so that they can deal more effectively with failure.

Our mental toughness model allows us to dig a little deeper than providing an over arching “general” relationship between it and performance. For example, the commitment scale is a clear predictor of
academic success. Highly committed individuals simply stick to things. So a committed child will normally do their homework. They will set goals and try to meet these. Children scoring lower may not. In our opinion, this is not a result of not knowing how to schedule work but reflects a deeper issue. From our experience most people know how to manage their time, some people just don't do it. Skills training is important, but without an appropriate psychological foundation the information will often fail to become embedded.

Overall mentally tough individuals do better in performance tasks. It is possible therefore to generate some general rules of thumb on how to maximise performance in education. The mentally tough pupils will tend to follow these naturally; the sensitive may need greater coaching.

• We should help students establish a sincere belief that they are competent and that occasional imperfections or failures are the norm.

• It is not beneficial for students to attribute their successes entirely to ability. They need to recognise the impact of effort.

• When students perceive themselves as unsuccessful teachers can help them develop the conviction that they can still succeed if they try their best.

• It is important to arrange tasks so that students who work hard are able to perceive themselves as successful. There should not be too many possibilities to fail. Failure can spur on the tough but cripple the sensitive.

• Students should be made aware that just trying harder or spending more time doing ineffective activities does not constitute useful effort. The effort has to be correctly applied.

Bullying and being bullied are major issues in any educational environment. There is a significant problem and schools are working hard to deal with these issues.

We have found that there is a significant correlation between mental toughness and the extent to which an individual feels they are being bullied. Let us be very clear here. We do not endorse the existence of the victim personality. That somehow the bullying victims bring it on themselves. It is simply some individuals are more likely to see bullying in a behaviour than others do. Understanding this helps us understand
what is going on. It does not mean that a sensitive person's view that they are being bullied is any less valid. It simply provides another level of explanation. One student may find a teacher to be aggressive towards them whilst another viewing the same behaviour may see it as simply a necessary behaviour to control the classroom. One possible practical benefit of understanding the mental toughness profiles of those reporting bullying is that it might give an insight into upskilling them to deal more effectively with the issues.

Mental toughness has something to say about the bully themselves. It might be suggested as an initial starting point that the mentally tough individual is more likely to bully, as they are certainly more competitive and driven. Whilst it might be the case that they can be a little careless about “bruising other people” it can be argued that most bullying behaviour is carried out by people who need to score points to bolster their psychological wellbeing. Mentally tough individuals are more self-referent, and therefore need less external validation. In other words they have no desire or need to build their esteem at the cost of others.

 
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