Grit, Resilience, and Conation in Adult ESOL: Part 2

It was Gatlinburg in mid-July…

In the classic country song “A Boy Named Sue,” popularized by Johnny Cash but penned by Shel Silverstein, the titular toughguy roams the west in determined pursuit of his sworn goal: to kill the absentee father who gave him “that awful name.” When he finally finds his father “at an old saloon, on a street of mud,” a brutal fight ensues (en-Sues), and Sue emerges the victor only after losing a piece of his ear. Staring down the barrel of Sue’s gun, the father explains his choice:

Son, this world is rough, and if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough,
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help you along.
So I gave you that name and I said goodbye,
I knew you’d have to get tough or die,
And it’s that name that helped to make you strong.

Now, this isn’t father-of-the-year material. But in his own ill-advised way, Sue’s father was trying to bestow upon his son an essential quality. And  it’s not just the ability to fight. Sue thinks of his father, “Every time I try and every time I win.” The virtue Sue has demonstrated isn’t physical strength, it’s determination, perseverance, goal-orientedness, grit: “You ought to thank me,” says father to son, “for the gravel in your guts.” We intuitively understand the value of conation. We try to instill it in our children.

Justin Gerald, whose excellent session at the Meeting Challenges, Exploring Solutions conference introduced me to conation, says, “Many people think that these are not skills so much as inborn personality traits that cannot be changed, and throw up their hands to focus on more easily-measured capabilities.” But experts agree that, despite our conventional conceptions, conative skills are not fixed qualities; they can be developed and improved. In this post, I will discuss several strategies that can be used to develop conative skills in adult language learners.

First, a brief recap.

The Missing Piece of Mind

As we covered last time, the world of education is seeing these new terms pop up all over the place: grit, perseverance, executive function resilience, self-efficacy. The tricky thing is that they’re all interrelated and overlapping, part of the same tautological constellation: We can only seem to define one term by triangulation with a few of the others.

There is a reason, however, for this sudden upcropping of constructs; something important has been missing. When we speak of the mind, we speak of cognition and affect, but as originally conceived these are only two of the three essential components. The long-lost third was conation, the way that that our thoughts and feelings come together to produce behavior.

(A quick teacherly btw: the noun, conation, is pronounced with second-syllable stress, the O completely schwaed: /kəˈneɪʃn/. In the adjectival form, the stress jumps to the first syllable, where the O remains open: /ˈkɒnətɪv/.)

Conation in the Adult Ed Classroom

The tips below borrow heavily from the recommendations of Huitt and Cain (2005). For each, I present a summary of Huitt’s and Cain’s recommendations, followed by a description of their relationship to adult language learners, including some sample exercises and strategies for incorporating them into your syllabus.

The good news is that you’re almost certainly already doing much to develop your students’ conative skills. Teachers get this stuff. We intuitively understand the importance of goal-setting, of thinking about thinking, of positive self-image. None of what I suggest is going to be coming out of left field. What conation gives us is a framework in which to organize and contextualize these ideas. What might otherwise seem like scattered ideas are in fact importantly interrelated. With the construct of conation, we can frame those relationships and develop our students’ conative skills in a strategic, deliberative manner.

Developing a Mission Statement

A personal mission statement can help students to prioritize and set goals. Articulating one’s values and beliefs is a simple but important step in directing one’s will in a deliberative way.

This obviously lends itself to an English lesson: Have students look at some organizations’ mission statements and sample personal mission statements, and guide them through the process of drawing up their own.

Identifying Personal Conative Style

Much of conation is about self-awareness: recognizing what can motivate or demotivate us, how we respond to particular situations. Just as we have a cognitive style and an affective style, we have a conative style, the manner in which we prefer to take action. The self is at the root of many conative constructs (self-esteem, self-determination, self-control), and before we can develop these, we must understand ourselves.

This could work well with sentence frames. Provide students with frames that will lead to personal reflection. Start with concrete experience, and lead them toward generalizations and patterns:

One time that I felt motivated was when…
Something that sometimes demotivates me is…
Three ways that I can control my motivation are…

Identifying the Possible Self 

There is actually a good deal written about the possible self in adult ESOL (often called the ideal L2 self). Students who have a strong, realistic image of themselves as proficient speakers are more motivated to become that self.

Try having other ELs, perhaps students from higher levels at your program, visit your class and talk about their own experience as beginners, the steps they took to advance, how they felt as they improved, and how their life has changed as their English improved.

Backward Planning

Once your students have articulated a few goals (an activity in itself), it’s important that they establish a plan for achieving them. Often a backward plan will work best.

Have students start with one of their primary goals (e.g., I will own my own grocery store), and identify the stage immediately before it (e.g., I will be a U.S. citizen, have $20,000 saved, and have my associate’s degree in business). Keep walking it backward until a full plan, between the present and the goal has been laid out. This can be developed into a goal portfolio in which students track their progress over time.

Further Reading

This is just a small fragment of what is out there on the conative domain. I’m sure we can all see the immense value of conative skills to our learners, and hopefully much more will be written with adult language learners in mind.

An indispensable resource for both of these posts has been the work of William Huitt, which is a good starting point for further reading. He’s sort of a quirky writer—you’ll come across eyebrow-raising phrasing like “channel the conative energy,” frinstance—but his survey of the relevant literature is exhaustive and presented clearly, and, most important, he always ties the theory back to classroom applications.

Major Caveat

When buzzwords sweep across a field as rapidly as grit and resilience have in education, some pushback is to be expected. Unsurprisingly, conation (by its other names) has had its share of critics. I don’t agree with the whole of their message, but their critiques contain some important takeaways. Parul Sehgal, writing in New York Times Magazine, warns that resilience is “indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.” The risk, she goes on, is that resilience and grit allow the representatives of the status quo to divert attention from systemic failures and biases by what amounts to victim-blaming.

This becomes especially important as we incorporate a conation-orientedness at the ground level: While we work to develop conative skills in our students, we must take pains never to get into a mindset (or allow our students or colleagues to get in the mindset) that success or failure depends wholly on the individual and self-determination. The conative revolution must be one that empowers our students, never one that blames them. Of teachers, it demands more work, not less: deeper curricula, stronger support systems, greater differentiation.

Swallow Stones: or, Consider the Gastrolith

In nature, many animals who subsist on the tough, hard-to-digest plants that their environment gives them, do something curious to compensate: They swallow stones. One term for these stomach-stones is the amazing Latinism, gastrolith. In large animals like ostriches, these can be cobbles larger than a baseball. In smaller animals like chickens, much smaller granules are needed: grit. With no choice but to ingest the tough stuff that life throws their way, animals ingest, internalize, something even tougher. We can do the same.


Huitt, W., & Cain, S. (2005). An overview of the conative domain. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from 


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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4 Responses to Grit, Resilience, and Conation in Adult ESOL: Part 2

  1. I enjoy reading your blogs, “Grit, Resilience, and Conation in Adult ESOL: Parts 1 & Part 2”, Robert, for your success in nicely weaving theory into practice, without the reader feeling they are pedantic and yet are well-supported by relevant research. Such pedagogical discussions are research-informed and educationally illuminating. Thank you very much, Robert, for sharing your wonderful ideas! I really like them!

  2. Another excellent post, Robert. Conation was new to me. Now it’s not. Anything you write, I read!

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