Grit, Resilience, and Conation in Adult ESOL

Two learners, both smart, both with strong extrinsic motivations to learn English, beset by similar adversities: one adapts, persists, overcomes, and emerges that much the stronger. The other becomes frustrated, loses heart, gives up, and ultimately fails to achieve fluency. Why? What is that quality that distinguishes them? What does the former have that the latter lacks? Can we name it? Quantify it? Perhaps even teach it?

Answers to these questions are popping up around the field of education, borrowed over from mainstream psychology. We hear of perseverance, grit, positive psychology, metacognition, something about children being tortured with marshmallows. We get a lot of nebulously defined, apparently overlapping concepts that run the risk of muddling more than they clarify.


The famous “Marshmallow experiment” found that those who were able to exercise self control at a young age—children who could resist eating a marshmallow for a few minutes would be rewarded with a second—went on to be more successful in life. (Image courtesy IgniterMedia.)

This is a big topic, and there’s surprisingly little written on it with regard to adult English learners, so I’m going to cover it in two posts. This first one will address The What of these noncognitive skills. In the second, I will address The How: strategies for tapping into what we know and boosting these skills in your classroom.

First, let’s talk terms.

Synonyms on Synonyms on Synonyms

The two terms I’m hearing most are resilience and grit. The former seems to be making the rounds in mainstream media, with recent articles in TIME, The Telegraph, New York Times Magazine, and The Huffington Post. From the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” Resilience hasn’t been studied much in adults, and the always excellent Maria Konnikova explains one reason resilience is particularly tricky to study:

Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are.

Grit, I’ve seen popping up a lot more in education blogs and articles: U.S. News, KQED, Education Week. The biggest distinction between resilience and grit is that, while resilience emerges in response to a critical incident, grit is about sustained effort and focus, even without any major adversity. Talk of grit has been around in education (mostly K–12) for a few years, and much of its popularity can be traced to the work of Angela Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, whose work has actually faced some scrutiny and criticism in the past year or two.

A couple of related terms are noncognitive skills, a term so vague as to be virtually useless (basket-weaving and SCUBA diving, for instance sound like skills that are noncognitive), but which is most often used as a catch-all for traits such as motivation, perseverance, and self-control. Metacognition also pops up quite a bit. This is actually a useful term. Basically, metacognition is just thinking about thinking, which can be a major way to  develop grit and resilience, as I’ll get into next time.

Cognition, Affect, and ________

But, with all these words floating around out there, I’m going to be difficult and use the obscure one. The term I’m going to use from here on out is conation, and here’s why: for one thing, it actually predates all the others. It’s a word with a history that for several reasons has fallen from popular use (more on that below). Fallen so far, in fact, that one Norman Schur included it in his 1990 volume of the 1,000 Most Obscure Words (which at this point may rank among the 1,000 Most Obscure Books). To me, this obscurity is itself a strength because it comes to most of us fresh, free from the knotty skeins of connotation and polysemy that entangle the others. Another point in favor of conation is that it describes a process, an action—to conate—unlike grit and resilience, which present themselves as character traits: you’ve either got it or you don’t. But conation skills, we can improve. Finally, and most important, conation is actually the long-lost key piece of a framework that you’re likely already familiar with.

Conation is neither the conjoining of nations nor the formation of cones. From the Latin word for endeavor, conation is, in the words of Huitt (1999), “the connection of knowledge and affect to behavior […] the intentional and personal motivation of behavior.”

In adult ed and ELT, we hear plenty about cognition and affect, two components of mind. The first, of course, refers to the processes associated with knowing, understanding, thinking, whereas the latter refers to feelings and emotions. But here’s the funny thing: these were never meant to be a dyad; the essential but lately neglected third component was conation, the way that affect and cognition connect and are expressed in behaviors.

It is no coincidence that these overlapping, hazy concepts like grit and noncognitive skills are popping up all over the place. They are attempts to fill the void that was left when the conation, the essential but elusive third component, faded from use. Huitt  (1999) suggests that one reason conation fell behind was that it is so inextricably bound up with cognition and affect, which are more easily defined and measured.

Conation and Adult Ed

Myriad and manifest are the implications of these skills upon education generally, and much is being written about that intersection. But these skills are particularly germane to adult language education. Many of our students have faced (and sadly, will again face) significant adversity in their lives. They’ll encounter racism and prejudice, roadblocks and red tape, economic hardship. We can’t protect our students from encountering these challenges but we can equip them to overcome them.

Even within the process of language acquisition itself, our students face the dreaded plateau, an adversity in and of itself when we consider the rippling consequences of stalled language development: financial insecurity, familial instability, personal goals and aspirations deferred, the effects upon the second generation.

Even barring major adversity (the resilience part of things), learning a language requires perseverance (the gritty side of conation). At first it’s fun and new, but that wears off, and you’ve still got a whole lot of the language left to learn. This takes grit.

Metacognition is also valuable for language learners. Our students are better off if they understand themselves and how they learn, their strengths and their weaknesses, what helps them relax and what might trigger their affective filter.

Truly, conation might be more important to adult language acquisition than to any other field of education. Yet, surprisingly little has been written on the topic of resilience in adult ed or second language acquisition.

Next Time

The most important thing about the rekindled interest in conation is that there is actually a practical application for it all. We can, should, must develop conation in our learners in order to prepare them for success in English and beyond. Next time, I’ll discuss exactly how we can do that.


Huitt, W. (1999). Conation as an important factor of mind. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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3 Responses to Grit, Resilience, and Conation in Adult ESOL

  1. Besma says:

    I’m a teacher of young learners and I am trying to develop this meaning of conation in my learners by being a good example myself and guiding them to reasonably “correct” behaviour. Still, I don’t feel they are responding well enough. I’m waiting for the “HOW” you suggest to make them persevere.

  2. The only way that teachers are going to be able to “develop conation in our learners” is to develop it in ourselves. Teacher education certainly does not deal with this and I would hazard guess that most teachers if asked to talk about how they have developed conation in themselves would struggle with an authentic answer.

    We are here talking about the development of personal qualities. A good suggestion here would be to ask teachers to use your ideas Robert ( yet to come.. I am eagerly awaiting!) and see what they can do with themselves. If real progress/change is made, hey go for it. If not, my suggestion would be to not even try. Teaching that which one cannot do is not a recipe I would recommend

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      That second post is up now, Andrew! Hope it addresses some of your concerns. Thanks for reading!

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