As usual the problem seems to lie with the sub-editors. I read a piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Struggling students are not lacking resilience – they need more support.’ Reading the heading on its own I thought that the article must be going to imply that resilience was somehow an optional extra in life and decided that was rather silly. However, the article itself made much more nuanced and important points, including the vital conclusions
“…we should never use the term when discussing mental health.
Being resilient doesn’t mean never asking for help or never being affected by difficult situations. We need to focus our discussion on boosting wellbeing, and teaching a set of skills that help students bounce back from setbacks in life and academia.”
As I have often said in talks, and probably on this blog too, asking questions should be regarded as a sign of strength not weakness, because it is the only way one is going to learn how to do things better. Asking for help is just one strand of improving. If you’re in a fog there is no point blundering on without seeking the equivalent of a spotlight to illuminate the desired direction of travel. Students should appreciate this and have the confidence to act upon it. Too many students find it easier and less threatening to hide their confusion; the larger the group being taught the easier this tends to be. One of the strengths of the Cambridge supervision system is that, being taught in a group of 1-3 means there is nowhere to hide. It is a very poor supervisor who lets a reticent or befuddled student not open their mouth throughout the hour of teaching or permits a mumbled ‘dunno’ to be an adequate response to a point blank question.
Setbacks in life are of course not limited to students. One only has to watch Mo Farah literally pick himself up from a nasty fall on the athletics track and still go on to win Gold in the Olympics 10k race to know what resilience in the face of potential disaster looks like. Or look at 58 year old Nick Shelton win Olympic Show jumping Gold 15 years after he had broken his neck, ‘retired’ and had a hip replacement before deciding to enter the fray again. That determination not to be deterred is what is required in the face of adversity, but frequently students will indeed need help superimposed upon that determination. University systems need not only to notice when students are falling behind or avoiding turning up at all because they are embarrassed by their struggling (again something that the Cambridge supervision system will naturally highlight because of the close and regular contact), but also to provide assistance with study skills, exam technique and time management. These further skills can make a massive difference to a student who has the brain power to master complex concepts but not necessarily the additional expertise required to maximise the product of that brainpower. One has to hope in the putative TEF, credit will be given for the teaching of these ‘softer’ skills.
But what of the first sentence in the quote I give above? What about those students who are struggling, not because they aren’t managing to get up in the morning or are ineffective in mastering the art of a well-reasoned essay? These are the students whose personal life is faltering and causing them distress through no fault of their own – perhaps the death of a close relative or the breakdown of a parents’ marriage – or those for whom depression or other mental health issues arise. These should not be talked to in terms of ‘picking themselves up’ and ‘trying just a bit harder’. In my own college (Churchill) we have a (part-time) counsellor who can act as a first port of call if depression beckons before a student can be slotted into to the longer term University Counselling Service. Having such a person on the doorstep as it were, available to students and staff alike, may seem like a luxury but it is one the College is willing to find the funds for because we recognize its vital importance. The tutorial team are also always on the alert to look out for incipient problems, such as eating disorders, to attempt to tackle them at the earliest stages if at all possible. Even if counselling itself is not needed, having concerned individuals in the form of tutors who look out for the students is a great resource. A tutorial team is a crucial part of the support students need, people who not only provide direct help but who can go further, for instance by organising friends to sit with a struggling student (and then provide support to the student circle itself, because caring for your friends can itself be draining particularly at times of high stress for all, such as exams).
I have come to believe that the way we bring up our children does less to foster resilience in our girls and young women than is the case for the male of the species. Cultural norms, anachronistic norms, mean that parents (and teachers) are too prone to talk to a youngster climbing a tree (for instance) differently by gender. Girls may be advised to be careful and not to get their clothes dirty; boys may be encouraged to see how high they can climb. Equivalently in lessons girls may be more praised for neatness than for originality. Those – teachers or parents – who do this, are likely to be completely unaware of how they parse their sentences differently for boys and girls. I wouldn’t be surprised if 25 years ago I wasn’t as guilty of this as any mother because I hadn’t thought it through. But now I am deeply suspicious we ingrain habits of excessive caution and unwillingness to take risks too often in the girls and, perhaps just as unhelpfully, promote a devil-may-care and never mind the consequences attitude in many boys.
We all should think carefully about how we interact with the young and how this translates into characteristics for tackling life-challenges later on.