Whether you have children of your own, or are simply interested in the future of our society, you can’t help have noticed growing concern about today’s young people and their perceived need to stay ‘on and connected’ 24/7, 365 days a year, looking cool, in all the right places – via social media or a networked game. There’s little room for bad hair days, a bedroom as sanctuary, inky love letters pushed under the door, or the gradual discovery of the intimate. Even fewer chances to stare into the fire, or out the horizon, or generally get bored (which is good for creativity).
I recently attended a talk by one of the most dynamic speakers I’ve heard, Will Ord, an author and trainer in educational philosophy. Arriving late, I perched on the steps of the girls’ school theatre where he immediately invited the audience of assembled parents to call out what learning success looked like. These duly flowed, and included creativity, expression, academic commitment, love of learning, good grades and good relationships with others. I had a feeling he’d come back to them later…
THE STATE WE’RE IN
Ord proceeded to quote some shocking stats to describe the state we’re in when it comes to mental health, quoting Oliver James’s book Affluenza which states that levels of depression amongst girls in the top social classes rose from 24% in 1987 (when I was almost a teen) to 38% in 1999. A recent media article showed how between 2005 -2012 there was a 54% rise in the number of young people prescribed antidepressants in the UK, triggering the issue to be raised as a matter of concern by the World Health Organisation.
THE ANSWER IS BENDING IN THE WIND
So, why this worrying increase? Let’s take macro factors first. In 1968, our planet supported 3.5Bn people, but by the time today’s child reaches 18, it’ll be 10-12Bn, with all the associated pressures: water shortages, pollution, energy crises, conflict and jobs deficits as robots replace humans. This dystopian vision is not lost on our intellectually fervent, ear to the ground youth. So, how can we help them cope with such stresses at the individual level? “Help them grow roots so they can bend in the wind”, coached Ord. Yet, even he admitted that adapting takes time, indeed, the modern ‘thinking’ brain has taken some 350M years to evolve from its primitive, reptilian form, dominated by the limbic system of primal urges.
This past decade has witnessed one of the most notable brain adaptations for years as we have assimilated screens into our every waking hour. The 18 year old of today has spent an average of 4 years, 24/7, on a screen. Given that these devices light up our brains like pinball machines, it’s a wonder that adults, let alone young people, find it hard to relax, or even sleep the required 7-8 hours. Research this year showed 1 in 5 young people wake up in the night to send or check messages on social media. Hence, Ord welcomes techniques such as mindfulness being taught in schools to counteract or recalibrate the brain. But it’s not just screen time he’s worried about…
THE PENDULUM ALSO SWINGS BACK
Some see the UK’s exam-focussed education system, which has seen has attainment go up, but mental health go down, is the result of an attempt to reverse previous decades of declining literacy and numeracy. But have we conflated cramming with learning? The new style GCSEs our 16 year olds will sit in 2018 are akin to the old O-levels, with hardly any coursework to give exam-stressed teenagers a chance to prove their ability, and by association, their worth. Is it too simplistic a notion to suggest the pendulum has swung back too far, and is cutting off our nose to spite our face? Incidentally, Ord confessed he attended no fewer than 6 schools over 8 years, ending up at one of the most academic in the nation, whereupon he became adept at getting other pupils to do his work for him. Funnily enough, the strategy didn’t pay off when it was exam time. On a serious note, Ord cautioned us not to be ‘curling parents’ – constantly smoothing the ice in front of our children’s path. It was becoming clear that our true mission should be to educate young people to cope better with life.
LET THEM F.A.I.L.
By definition, learning involves the undulation of understanding a new concept, and then finding it tricky when left alone to solve a task, as with homework. (Hence the tendency for some parents to leapfrog the hard stuff by doing it for them.) But, as Truman Capote, author of novella-turned-film, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, remarked, ‘Failure is the seasoning that gives success its flavour’. Echoing this, Ord noted that failing isn’t failing if it stands for F.A.I.L – First Attempt In Learning, noting that, contrary to popular belief, IQs are not fixed, but can increase: it’s all down to mindset. Sketching a helpful diagram, he referred to the importance of letting children fall into ‘the pit of learning’, and letting them learn how to get out – by themselves. Archimedes did it, and that Eureka feeling of ‘I solved it!’ is usually followed by, ‘Let’s do it again!’
Practice + Strategy + Effort -> Change
Getting out of the pit alone takes optimism, focus, patience and determination. Apparently, in any classroom, 50% of pupils don’t mind the pit, and 50% hate it. The former have a growth mindset, so will find life easier. The latter have a fixed mindset, believing there’s no room to improve: I’ve always been bad at maths, there’s no point trying harder – which is an attitude that just gets worse when problems arise.
As I listened to these theories, I wondered, could the failure to teach children to get out of the pit explain the fact university drop-out rates have more than doubled in recent years, due to poor mental health. (There was a sharp rise (28%) in the number of students requesting counselling in 2015-6 compared to 2013-14.) Mindset is now of such interest to educationalist and employers, thanks to the likes of researchers such as Carol Dweck, that her theories are being embraced in the Far East (traditionally seen as a harbinger of ‘rote learning’) as well as Europe, where she insists the word, ‘Yet’ is added to statements such as ‘I can’t do this’ (Yet).
THE ‘GROWTH MINDSET’ VS THE ‘FIXED MINDSET’
So it’s incumbent on us to foster the growth mindset because, as Oliver James notes in his latest book, Not In Your Genes, genetic variants are only responsible for between 1-5% of our psychological individuality. Nurture wins over nature. But the right sort of nurturing is needed. Consider this: on their 5th birthday, a child from the top social class will have received 5 and a half times more positive feedback than their working-class counterpart. Yet, the grass isn’t always greener. Ord described the middle class hazard of nurturing ‘The Brittle Bright’ and ‘The Imposter Syndrome’ borne out by children who are told they’re geniuses, yet feel like failures. These are the kids who are highly coached to remember facts, rather than take risks in their work, (not ‘pit’ for them) and they’ve rarely had their bubble burst! We’ve all met one or two of them…
LET’S GET ‘PIT HAPPY’
As a music player who wields the ‘No practice means no screens!’ placard with my own children, I was heartened to hear that activities that nurture the growth mindset include sport and music. Indeed, basketball hero, Michael Jordan, famously stated, “I’ve failed over, and over, and over again. That is why I succeed.” Yet our arguably over-academic curriculum sees most timetables include just an hour’s sport per week, despite increasing evidence showing exercise boosts cognitive function. (Notwithstanding the physical benefits, and not to mention our childhood obesity crisis.)
“Let’s get our kids pit happy,” was Ord’s rallying cry, but he also called for chances for students to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to help young people imagine how their actions will affect others, and how to be kind and collaborative. My 17 year old nephew just returned from a Kenyan village where he’d helped construct new school buildings. When I asked what he’d got out of it, he replied he’d been struck by how happy the pupils were despite having nothing of any material value, and few life-changing opportunities. Such experiences also nurture creative thinking, and how to prepare an argument.
Ord also underlined that listening is the key to forming good relationships, adding it should also include listening to the inner self before deciding whether to react to a situation. Importantly, he urged us parents to take care people don’t always listen to their ‘inner critical voice’, taking it to be ‘the truth’. Then, returning to the start of his talk, we all noted how few of the concepts described above were included in those ‘measures of success’ we had called out earlier. Chief amongst our omissions was, arguably, ‘the ability to care’. And when looking for cures to today’s mental health decline, perhaps we should reflect that the word ‘cure’ is derived from the Latin to ‘care’. This struck a personal chord, yet, above all, I left reflecting on the fact that in 1967 we were invited to ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’. Sixty years on, perhaps now’s the time to ‘Turn off, tune in, climb out’.