Training for Resilience: Building Students from Steel, not Pot Metal

Resilience is “… the inherent and nurtured capacity of individuals to deal with life’s stresses in ways that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives” (Howard & Johnson, 1999)

Pot metal can be prone to instability over time, as it has a tendency to bend, distort, crack, shatter, and pit with age. (Pot Metal, Wikipedia)

The steel is then tempered, […]which ultimately results in a more ductile and fracture-resistant metal. [S]teel [is] used widely in the construction of roads, railways, other infrastructure, appliances, and buildings. Most large modern structures […] are supported by a steel skeleton. Even those with a concrete structure will employ steel for reinforcing. (Steel, Wikipedia)

Building strength, in terms of people and materials, has been a human pursuit for as long as we have been human. Stronger civilisations were able to resist invaders, bronze swords shattered and deformed under the blows of iron, steel allowed us to build our cities, our ships, our cars and our air travel industries. Steel requires some care in the selection of the initial iron ore that is used and, for a particular purpose, we have to carefully select the alloy components that we will use to produce just the right steel and then our smelting and casting must be done in the right way or we have to start again. Pot metal, on the other hand, can be made out of just about anything, smelted at low temperatures without sophisticated foundry equipment or specialist tools.

One of these metals drives a civilisation – the other one flakes, corrodes, bubbles, fails and can’t be easily glued, soldered or welded. Steel can be transformed, fused and joined, but pot metal can only be as fit as the day it was made and then it starts a relatively rapid descent into uselessness. Pot metal does have one good use, for making prototypes before you waste better metal, but that just confirms its built-in obsolescence.

One of the most important transitions for any student is from external control and motivation to self-regulation, intrinsically motivated and ready to commit to a reasoned course of action. Of course, such intention is going to wither away quickly if the student doesn’t actually have any real resilience. If the student isn’t “tough enough” to take on the world then they are unlikely to be able to achieve much.

The steel industry is an interesting analog for this. There are many grades of iron ore and some are easier to turn into steel than others because of carbon levels or things like phosphorus contamination. (No, I’m not saying any of our students are contaminated – I’m emphasising regional and graded difference.) While certain ore sources were originally preferred, later developments in technique made it possible to use more and more different starting points. Now, electric arc furnaces can convert pig iron or scrap metal back to new steel easily but require enough power – sensible use of the widest range of resources requires a cheap and plentiful power source.

The educational equivalent of pot metal manufacture is the production of a student who is not ready for the world, is barely fit for one purpose when they graduate and whose skills will degrade over time – because the world develops but their fragile skills base cannot be extended or redeveloped.

Steel, however, can be redeveloped, reworked, extended. We can build ultra-flexible steels, strong steels, hard steels, corrosion resistant steels and we can temper it to make it easier to work with and less likely to break. The steps that we take in the production process are vital but they incur a cost, require careful planning, take skill and can undergo constant improvement if we keep putting effort into the process.

The tempering process is as vital for students as it is for steel because we want the same things. We want a student who will stand strong but be able to bend without breaking. We want a student who is held up by strong ideas, good teaching and a genuine faith in their own abilities – not the rough and ready imitation of completeness that we get from throwing things together.

I’m not suggesting that we heat up our students and throw them into cold oil, as we would quench and temper steel, but it’s important to look at why we heat steel for annealing/tempering and what we intend to achieve. By understanding the steel and the materials science, we know that reaching certain temperatures changes the nature of the material, changing properties such as hardness and ductility. Sometimes we do this to make the material easier to work, sometimes to make it more flexible in use. The key point is that by knowing the material, and by knowing what happens when we apply changes, we can choose what happens. By knowing which factors to combine at key points we can build something incredible.

There’s a lot of literature on resilience, a lot dealing with disadvantaged students, and the words that spring out are things like “attention” and “caring”, “support” and “trust”. Having a positive and high expectation of students helps to build self-esteem and sense of intrinsic worth through the application of extrinsic factors – you don’t have to make life easy for people because all you’re doing then is taking the Pot Metal approach. But making life too hard, through ignorance or carelessness, doesn’t produce resilience. It breaks people.

The notion of the modern steel foundry is probably quite apt here as we’re at a point in our history where we can offer education to most people, with a reasonable expectation of a good outcome. Our processes are steadily improving, resources for assisting students who have previously been disadvantaged are becoming increasingly widespread, students can now study anywhere (to a great extent) and we have a growing focus on educational research as it can be applied back into our teaching institutions. The problem, of course, and as we have already seen with the Electric Arc Furnace, is that smart and powerful machinery needs power to run it.

In this case, that’s us. The high quality students of the future, coming from every possible source, don’t depend upon limited amounts of rare earths and special metals to form the most resilient people. They need us to make sure that we know our students, know how we can build their strength through careful tempering and then make sure that we’re always doing it. The vast majority of the people that I know are doing this and it’s one of the things that gives me great hope for the future. But no more Pot Metal solutions, please!

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