Tenacity…..and Learning

I had an interesting and inspiring conversation last week. A woman called to say that her grandson—one of our middle school students—was having difficulty with math. The teacher had, it turns out, already spent a significant amount of time trying to help the student, but was not available as often as needed by the student. It is impossible for teachers to offer individual tutoring because of the structure of the school. Skype hours and emails did not begin to address the issues the student faces.

The student had missed almost all of sixth grade math. As anyone can imagine, missing an entire year of a subject—especially math—can be disastrous. The student struggled with almost every concept. The simple turned into the complex, the complex into the impossible. As math, probably unlike any other subject, is sequential, missing an entire year can really throw a monkey wrench into the operation.

Undeterred, the grandmother moved forward, refusing to accept failure as an option. She insisted on her grandson developing a schedule, on constantly connecting with the teacher, on focusing on supplemental activities, on practice and more practice.

When I spoke with the grandmother, I found that she developed many good ways to help him study, not just for math. She has a different system for each subject, ensuring that he focus on the material until he understands whatever he is learning. This of course works much better in subjects where he has a better background. She works on one subject at a time. She checks the work. She looks for alternatives. She encourages and praises. She focuses on hard work and determination. Some call this ‘academic tenacity.’

Academic tenacity has been studied, and defined, by a group of Stanford University researchers Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen in a publication aptly named, “Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning.” The study concluded that “Psychological factors—often called motivational or non-cognitive factors—can matter even more than cognitive factors for students’ academic performance. These may include students’ beliefs about themselves, their feelings about school, or their habits of self-control.”

While the study itself focused on physical school settings it is clear that tenacity cannot, and is not, restricted to a physical school. The study generalized to the encouragement that students received from a person—usually a teacher—significant in the learning environment. The grandmother clearly fulfilled this role.

We found some great ways to help her support her grandson. We connected to SAS Curriculum Pathways (https://www.sascurriculumpathways.com/portal/), which has online curriculum in English, mathematics, science, social studies and Spanish, in addition to several support apps. We also recommended the material available for free in Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/). Both SAS and Khan have great videos and explanations for material in middle and high school.

This student will succeed because tenacity is infectious. And in the long run, becoming tenacious will serve this student long after the actual lessons are forgotten and the math lessons are a distant memory.

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