Education Is Adversity

39392028284_d591c31a8f_cMost people love a good underdog story and are inspired by the critical thinking and problem-solving abilities of the underdog as the odds are stacked against them. When they overcome and succeed, personal achievements are understood to be of greater worth because they were ‘earned.’ We cry when a strong woman like Cristina Rae steps on stage at America’s Got Talent and we learn of her struggles with homelessness during pregnancy only to be stunned by one of the most powerful voices we could have imagined. She pushed through and reaped the rewards! In my time, I have found inspiration in The Rose That Grew From Concrete, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and when one of the world’s greatest athletes credited his success to failing over and over again (Jordan, 1998; Shakur, 1999; Smith, 1943). British Prime Minister and writer Benjamin Disraeli once stated “there is no education like adversity,” and while the human experience has supported this claim throughout history, contemporary times have provided scientific credibility to the notion as well.

TreeGrowsInBrooklynNeuroscience points to the need for learners to be challenged at an appropriate level in order to achieve higher levels of thinking. Caine and Caine’s (1997) compilation of brain/mind principles describe the mind as social, adaptive and capable of thriving when challenged, but not when threatened. Learners must face adversity, experience chaos and seek disequilibrium according to this research because “a brain that achieves equilibrium does not internally need to process, create, or construct but rather has achieved a state of calm and no need. This phenomenon actually reduces brain activity” (Jones, 2013, p. 809). Other theorists talk of the need for learners to foster creativity by taking on challenges. “Hu and Adey (2002) stated the reason why scientific creativity is worth attention is because research requires creativity and going beyond what is already known” (Meenakshi, 2015, p. 33).

business-businessman-man-difficult-royalty-free-thumbnailThe largest meta-analysis ever synthesized on what works best to improve student learning, seemingly aligns with the tenets of neuroscience and offers recommendations for educators seeking to accelerate student achievement. Hattie’s research (2020) has attributed a sizeable enough effect size to both setting ‘appropriately challenging goals’ and ‘teacher expectations’ that they are worthy of teachers’ consideration when facilitating learning experiences. There is a fine balance to effective teaching in the 21st century that requires the creation of learning experiences that are accessible to students, but also challenges them to overcome obstacles that lead to the creation of their own knowledge. Education IS adversity, and it is the job of teachers to establish learning environments where students feel safe to experiment, they understand that mistakes are learning opportunities and they value feedback from multiple sources to enhance knowledge. Students should know that when faced with adverse conditions, these are not permanent roadblocks, but challenges to be inspired by. Then, teachers prepare students to tackle challenges, by focusing on critical thinking, problem solving, and technology skills that help develop independent learners.

Written by Christopher Gardner (June 25, 2020)


Caine, R. N. & Caine, G. (1997). Unleashing the Power of Perceptual Change: The Potential of Brain-Based Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hattie, J. (2020). Visible Learning Meta. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Jones, T. B. (2013). Complexity Theory. In B. Irby (Ed.) Handbook of Educational Theories. 815-819. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Jordan, M. (1997). Failure. Beaverton, OR: Nike.

Meenakshi. (2015). Effective of Inductive Thinking Model on Achievement in Scientific Creativity of Class IX Students. International Journal of Education and Psychological Research. 4(2). 32-37.

Shakur, T. (1999) The Rose That Grew From Concrete. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Smith, B. (1943). A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. New York, NY: Harper.


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