Across the span of 20 years experienced so far this century, 2021 is already not on my favourite’s list. It has a chance to rise up the rank order, to be fair, but of the years experienced to date it’s in the bottom 1. Nevertheless, I and so many others know we must set out to be brilliant every single day. Here’s why:
Dr Alan Watkins’ TEDxPortsmouth talk back in 2012 (and there’s also a Part 2 that completes the story) highlights that everything we do, think, feel or emote is underpinned by our physiology, essentially all that biology happening inside ourselves all the time. He’s not the first neuroscientist to explain that if we want to think clearly and be our very best every time, then we must have worked out how to have settled ourselves down to live in the flow, despite the roller-coaster that living a life causes us to endure.
The core premise that neuroscience has taught us is that we have to get our physiology under control if we are going to steady our emotions, bring our feelings and thoughts under control, enabling us to focus our behaviours on doing the right things right – bingo. A lot can get in the way of that core premise of getting our physiology under control. Diet is a major factor, as are exercise and those more general well being issues of being warm, secure and safe. Hit the panic button and all hell can break loose. For example, if you are prone to worrying and feeling anxious, that causes your body to release the hormone cortisol – a good thing in times of fight because it releases sugars and repair materials into your bloodstream which enables you to fight harder and repair damaged tissue. The downside is that it closes down some of your other functions, the ability to think creatively and flexibly for example.
Here’s Dr Watkins writing about the problem of Cortisol on our lives at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic last March: “The main thing I want to draw attention to is to point out that if you are worrying or feeling anxious about the possibility of catching the virus that worry will increase the risk that you do catch it. Worrying and feeling anxious increases your cortisol levels (the body’s main stress hormone) and cortisol impairs your immune system, making you more susceptible. So in addition to washing your hands often and being sensible about human contact the biggest thing you can do to protect yourself is to not panic. Stay as positive as possible, this pandemic will pass.“
What relation does this have on Wickedness per se I hear you say? Whilst my Christian religion introduced me to the concept as a child, it’s only as an adult that I have truly appreciated the concern about and the difficulty of Wicked problems. Let me explain more fully. Let’s start with a definition:
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
Now, education is beset by wicked problems, and never more so than now, when almost all the usual boundaries that frame the difficulties have been removed as the vast majority of the variables, that’s children and teachers are not in school! More generally, our wicked issues are colliding with other wickedness, including the coronavirus and the 4 horseman of the Education apocalypse* galloping towards our children (according to Robert Halfon, Chair of Parliament’s education committee). Most in education take exception to Mr Halfon’s colourful panicking in public earlier this week; after all, as a politician he’s helped create the chaos in the first place. To be serious though, those conflicting external factors of poverty, lost learning, poor mental health and safeguarding hazards are causing unparalleled challenges in our midst, with eating disorders for example rising by 400%.
Charlie Mackesy has it right in this recent drawing of his:
Your plan for each day and your life further ahead is to ensure you have a stable physiological platform, and adopt the general premise that your rules and sensors are good to go. In education this means each day has to have an introduction, an oiling of the wheels, warm-up time or whatever – not just 2 minutes because life genuinely is not like that. If a class are going to enjoy being in a bubble of well-being, they need time every day to explore and built the relationships therein. The curriculum needs to built around the principle of curiosity, as Simon Sinek would always approved of ‘starting with the Why?’, and of course those alongside can readily test each other on their progress by checking ‘Did you find out why?’ at the close.
What you do each day needs breaks to refresh concentration and also to reform the bubble. Whether it be child or adult, the purpose of coming to work is not just for the work itself, but for the communion that is associated with developing relationships, friendships, common goals and resolving threats. I am staggered when institutions, be they schools or workplaces ‘compress the day’ to make it more efficient. Companionship and team learning need more time not less together. In education terms I am amazed too that physical activity at secondary level as a requirement has been reduced to perhaps no more than an hour a week. Frankly, the adolescent or adult needs to raise their pulse substantially for an hour a day, if for no other reason to be able to do so in a controlled and steady way, to remain familiar with their body’s ebb and flow. And the days need to be filled with the thinking and doing in every dimension, artistic, creative and thoughtful too.
Today’s Times (12 Feb 2021) runs a story on Generation Covid, considering carefully whether GCSEs are still fit for purpose, and more generally whether the school day and year need reconsidering too. I’m not a fan of much of the current spate of lazy journalism, this article once again pandering to quote a school that used to educate the Cambridge’s children pre-pandemic suggesting they are now ready to start a new secondary school without GCSEs. That Royal connection does not give validity to such pipe dreams, what does of course is the ‘lived’ experience of inclusive senior schools like mine where 100+ children a year seek to matriculate for further & higher education and into careers where for the time being at least, having skills & qualifications matters. Why we succeed of course is because the young people with us have the additional time in-school (usually) to enjoy their childhood and test their adolescent dreams. Who wouldn’t want to be practicing to death their ‘Dance show’ routines, or prepare for the ‘big match’, or just check-out how to hangout on Saturday? Those little squirts of adrenaline are all part of the the excitement of being alive, and certainly missing in the current locked-in lives of teens.
As Dr Watkins highlights in his talk, if we can keep all the positive and joyful elements of life in sight and on our wavelength, then we can have the fun and joy of raising and lowering our pulse, ‘gotta-be-done-but-in-a-good-way’. At the same time, let’s plan to reduce the release of cortisol and its harmful side effects to the bearable minimum by avoiding approaches recommended by the doom-mongers and misery peddlers. We’ll find our body weight so much easier to control too, because we have lowered the number of occasions our body has considered we’ve been in a fight, used energy and need nourishment. Of course we have not, but our physiology is not to know!
When my own children were growing up, during the eighties and nineties ‘wicked’ morphed from being something to fear to an expression of ‘wonderful’, ‘great’, ‘cool’, ‘splendid’ etc. Sadly, the business community didn’t see their Wicked problems get any easier, because of course the unseen parameters didn’t get any more visible, nor did the conflict get any simpler. And therein lies the rub, because ‘complexity’ lies at the heart of the human condition, and we seek to reduce and remove it at our peril. Ask a physicist what causes gravity, a biologist about love or a mathematician about time and they’ll confirm we don’t really know. Ask those same questions of an craftsman, poet or musician and they’ll provide you with more answers than you ever dreamed possible.
To that end, my solution to the solving of wickedness has to be “being brilliant every day”, keeping alive every potential. In educational terms this means we are seeking to produce Albert Einstein or Leonard Bernstein, Garbo or Thunberg, from our midst, though it must be said, we don’t actually know which one will be which!
*The four horsemen of the apocalypse are four biblical figures who appear in the Book of Revelation. They are revealed by the unsealing of the first four of the seven seals. Each of the horsemen represents a different facet of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and death.