A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.
The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.
Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.
The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)
Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.
There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:
Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.
Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch
‘The best ideas are simple ideas.’ This was the assertion of a friend I met up with earlier this week for a pie and a pint, with a side order of his own-recipe barstool wisdom.
I found his stance difficult to agree with at first – it reminded me too much of my terrifying old English teacher gesturing at my waffly essays and barking, ‘What’s your argument? If you can’t explain it in ten seconds then you don’t have one!’ Yet over the course of this week I have come to see that he has a point. While we must always be mindful of the complexity of the problems we face as a society, if an idea cannot be expressed or enacted in a way that is meaningful to others then it is of very limited value.
Last Tuesday’s launch event for the new ‘Science, Medicine & Society Network’ at University College London served as a lesson in this principle. The Network is a new international academic partnership bringing together experts in health from a range of disciplines, and I had been worried that I would understand little of what the distinguished panel of medical clinicians, political scientists, lawyers and anthropologists would be discussing. Refreshingly though, the central, easy to comprehend message of the event was that although the challenges to global public health are complex and varied, the solutions must be grounded in simplicity, attainability, and relevance to the communities they affect.
For example, Lord Nigel Crisp, the former NHS senior manager and author of Turning the world upside down: The search for global health in the 21st century, spoke about his discussions with public health officials around the world on the question of how to reduce maternal mortality. An Indian government minister had presented a complicated series of rubrics and metrics, lofty policies and programmes, and a confusing mishmash of approaches that Lord Crisp struggled to follow let alone imagine being implemented. In contrast, an official at BRAC, the hugely successful Bangladeshi NGO, responded to Lord Crisp’s question simply: ‘Empower the women’. In recent years, this radically simple approach has contributed to a dramatic fall in Bangladesh’s maternal mortality figures.
Another speaker at the event offered a different example. Professor Cyril Chantler shared a story that he likes to tell his UCL first year medical students. When he was a consultant to Guy’s Hospital in the 1970s, a young boy was brought to see him with rectal bleeding apparently caused by a small cut on his skin – a straightforward diagnosis, one might think. However, Prof. Chantler suspected that the underlying cause was more complicated than this, so he began to investigate further. Why did he have this cut? Because he was constipated. Why was he constipated? It transpired that the boy’s family, who lived in a poor neighbourhood, did not have an indoor toilet and instead shared a communal lavatory with other households in the street. The roof above this communal toilet leaked, and the little boy didn’t like getting his head wet, so he stopped going to the toilet. Prof. Chantler said that he likes to challenge his students to suggest a solution to this problem: many say that the family needs an indoor toilet. This may be correct, but Prof. Chandler is not a plumber. The more politically-minded students might suggest that the socioeconomic situation is the problem, and that the boy’s family should not have to be so poor that they share an outdoor toilet with other people in their street. This also has the ring of truth, but again it is beyond Prof. Chandler’s capacity to change this from his clinical consulting room. So what did Prof. Chandler do? He gave the boy an umbrella. The boy no longer had to get wet when he needed the loo, he stopped getting constipated, and the bleeding went away.
I was again alerted to the potential for apparently simple ideas to help solve complex problems when the RSA, in partnership with Kingfisher PLC, hosted a seminar this week on the subject of building ‘sustainable, stronger communities’. Luminaries from business, the public sector, think-tanks, and charities discussed the potential for businesses to help promote community cohesion and social change through initiatives such as those pioneered by Kingfisher, including the online local networking website StreetClub. Much of the debate centred on whether initiatives like these should be high-concept, ambitious attempts to organise society and ‘create new cultural norms’, or whether a simpler, lighter touch was called for, striving to ‘do one thing very well’. Personally, I found the latter option more compelling. StreetClub’s core strength in encouraging neighbours to share tools is reminiscent of that other simple idea I blogged on recently, the Big Lunch. Both of these schemes harness the latent potential for communities to become more connected around a simple excuse to get together; to borrow a ladder or to share a lunch. As one attendee at our seminar sagely observed, successful initiatives like this ‘don’t change communities; they create the platform for change’.
Simple ideas which create the platform for change are what the RSA’s Connected Communities programme is all about. Our research found that some older people in South East London have low wellbeing because they are isolated and don’t have any way of transporting themselves away from their homes; we’re developing a project that will provide them with a social environment a free lift in a minibus to help them get out and about. We found that people’s mental wellbeing can suffer when there is a lack of social support; we’re going to identify key members of local social networks and train them as peer support counsellors.
Complex problems: simple solutions. My friend in the pub swears by this equation, and so, presumably, did the little boy who trotted down the street with an umbrella every day. It’s an equation I’m coming around to too.
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.
Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.
This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.
Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.
Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.
It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.
Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.
I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?
When did you last send a tweet? What did your Facebook friends have to say about how they’re feeling this morning? How important are online networks to your sense of who you are? Chances are you’ll have something to say about at least one of these questions. For a majority of Britons, online persona and virtual networks are becoming increasingly definitional.
Monday saw the publication of a new report that looks at the impact of technology on identity, by the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington. The report, The Future of Identity, identifies ‘hyper-connectivity’ – near-continuous access to the Internet – as a very significant development. Beddington argues that hyper-connectivity is likely to have a profound effect on how people regard their place in the world and define themselves.
The report suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones is changing the way we relate to others, and may lead to place-based communities becoming less cohesive. In tandem, hyper-connectivity enables greater connectivity between otherwise disparate groups, making it very easy for groups to organise themselves quickly.
The Telegraph, reporting the publication of Beddington’s report, emphasises the risk that the rise of social networking may “fuel social unrest”. The role of smartphone technology in the riots of 2011 was well documented, and it’s clear that these communication platforms offer the means to facilitate phenomena like rioting, protesting and social disturbance.
But is it really accurate to say that hyper-connectivity can in itself be a cause of social unrest? I’m not convinced that these developments in technology are responsible for bringing about the motivation or impetus for groups of young people to loot and riot across the UK’s cities. Sure, they provide the communication platform to make it easy for large groups to organise themselves, but why should the existence of such technology be a trigger?
the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted
Having said that, it occurs to me that there are other ways in which in hyper-connectivity is likely to impact on us, as individuals and as a society. I’m sure the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted. As Jonathan Rowson noted in this blog, connectivity comes at a cost, undermining deeper connections that are all too easy to take for granted. Whether or not we’re aware of it, the reality is that many of us are addicted to receiving new information – the kick we get out of receiving new emails, SMS, and reading the latest Twitter feed is unrivalled by face to face interactions. Comparing ourselves to others is an inevitable side effect of online social networking, and this can have hugely negative consequences for self-esteem and assumptions about what is ‘normal’.
All of this must be affecting our brains somehow, whether the impact is on our patterns of concentration, expectations for instant information, or ability to focus our attention deeply. What we pay attention to can have a profound effect on our overall outlook, as Nathalie Spencer discusses here. Hyper-connectivity must also impact on our inner life – how comfortable would you be to spend half an hour doing nothing, without a Smartphone to engage with? What would it mean for your sense of self if all your online presence were to be erased?
Beddington’s report suggests that in the future, it is very likely that someone with no online persona will be regarded as unusual or even suspicious. This seems to indicate that the blurring of the boundary between online and offline identity is set to intensify. All of this makes me think that we may need to force ourselves to disconnect, unplug, and make space to notice and appreciate our offline selves.
But, do we have the willpower? Are we prepared or able to face up to the possibility that hyper-connectivity might be damaging, and whose responsibility is it to put preventative or protective measures in place? Which public or private bodies would fund research to find out whether and how smartphone usage is harmful to our wellbeing? Are we already in some sort of collective denial about the damaging impact of hyper-connectivity and might this mean sleep walking, in a hyper-connected way, into future problems?
So how are we progressing with our new year resolutions? Fallen off the diet bandwagon yet? Exercise commitments already forgotton? Has the email inbox exploded from unread spam? Every year I await the media shower of new year commitments and ambitions. Magazines full of diet suggestions, clearing out your closet and managing your time more effectively. As my colleague Emma Lindley has already blogged its clear that we relish a blank page at the beginning of the year and in this digital world its harder than ever to do so (although there is always the reset button).
Don’t get me wrong starting afresh can be a good thing, it’s heartening and positive but I am conscious that too often we feel we have failed and then demoralised from our inability to change the little things and keep to our personal goals. But let’s not be too disheartened and give ourselves a break. 2012 was a challenging but celebratory period and 2013 looks as though we are in for the same, but being a positive person I firmly believe we will get through to the other side.
Volunteer as a business mentor?
The RSA’s involvement in enterprise has long been established. Here is an opportunity for Fellows with business experience to be trained as mentors through the Get Mentoring, which offers free training and supports a community of enterprise mentors across the UK.
Research has shown that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs. Experienced mentors not only boost capability and capacity in small, medium and micro businesses, but also radically increase survival rates. As well as the benefits for the businesses, Mentors report major benefits including an insight into the hot topics effecting businesses today, development of skills which can be applied to other interactions and the chance to build some meaningful contacts with individuals in the next generation of businesses. Training is free and can be undertaken at workshops or online. Register on the Get Mentoring website
Become a School Governor with SGOSS
The RSA is working to alongside the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) to try and fill some of the many school governor vacancies that currently exist across the UK. SGOSS is a small charity that recruits and helps place governor volunteers working in partnership with employers, local authorities and schools. It has already helped place over 15,000 volunteers and its services are free to all.
Why do it?
- Children need all the help they can get to equip them for life after school. SGOSS are looking for great school governors who can help improve educational standards across the UK.
- Good governing bodies make a material contribution to the performance of their schools. (Ofsted)
- The need for governor volunteers with transferable skills has never been greater. There are 33,000 vacant governor places in schools in England.
You will need to be 18 or over; however you don’t need to have children or have any detailed educational knowledge. Schools want governors with varied experience from all walks of life. The role involved 6-8 hours per month in term time only. I myself have recently agreed to be a governor for a school in Furness Vale, Disley.
As for my own resolution for 2013? Four years ago I made a resolution not to have any more new year pledges and have stuck to it ever since!
Deputy Head of Regional Programme
This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.
This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.
The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.
Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.
With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.
All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.
I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.
As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.
Lilian Barton FRSA outlines a major initiative for the North West.
We have seen the tremendous success of the Olympic and Paralymic games over the summer. Most of us have associated with its identity in more ways than one. it inspired a new generation of volunteers, gave many a sense of pride and joy to see young athletes do so well and for some lifted their mood. The Olympic motto “Inspire a generation” has been everywhere and has been used as the rallying cry for all athletes competing.
“It’s not about the way we live, it’s about how we live responsibly”
In the North West Fellows have been planning a new approach, kick-starting activity with a conference looking at living responsibility. This Conference is called Keep Calm Prepare for Change. So why this branding? Why use it as our rallying cry? We know that you see various ‘Keep Calm’ mottos in gift shops but its origins was a morale raiser in difficult times and we are hoping to help raise peoples spirits by helping them find ways in changing.
The “Keep Calm Prepare for Change” conference takes place on Thursday 18 October and will draw together industry, entrepreneurs, social enterprises and community groups to discuss and learn how we can change the way we live, work and do business in a more sustainable way. We all know people are wrestling with the ‘triple bottom line’ concept and are also struggling to understand how, for example, waste from one produce can be the raw material for another. We aim to help others understand how businesses and communities can create jobs, build up social capital and stimulate entrepreneurship. In addition, the North West team are using the event to identify projects and ideas for further development or incubation.
The Conference has three parts, panel debate, workshop sessions and closes with a Lecture all on the theme of how can we live responsibly. Spaces are still available so if you want to answer the rallying cry why not join us on 18 October you can register online.
Lilian Barton is Chair of the RSA North West
Yesterday, straight from an energising discussion with our Projects team about future RSA approaches to public services issues, I rushed to deal with something more current and tangible. My twelve year daughter has a long term health condition, which means regular appointments and occasional bouts of hospitalisation. After twelve years navigating a Victorian monolith, we now have the airy complexity of a brand new PFI building. We’ve gone straight from Dickens to Huxley.
My daughter has always been intense and feisty – most people who spend a few hours with her need to come up for air at some point – but in her regular interactions with medical people and places, this is amplified. And adolescence is now adding to the mix. Yesterday, she refused to answer questions that weren’t using the correct medical terms on the piece of paper in front of the physiotherapist. She asked irritating questions, gave cryptic answers, and her body language was moody, sullen and horizontally sprawled – she looked like she was on our sofa watching something excruciatingly boring on TV.
Like any parent would, I often plead for her to be more polite to a group of people that definitely want her to be as well as possible. At the same time, I know that her assertive games are a form of resilience – a way of coping with loss, setbacks and change, and steeling herself for future battles and disappointments. She is an expert patient now, and her attitude in some ways ensures that the system treats her as such.
I remember Maria Balshaw, now Director of Manchester City Galleries, arguing that ‘arsiness’ was a key attribute of creativity, so should possibly be taught in schools. I doubt if this idea will catch on, but we do need to accept the need to develop qualities in our young people that aren’t always pleasant. Whether it’s the liberal perspective on social and emotional learning, or the more traditional approach through character education, both emphasise qualities and attitudes that, in essence, make children easier for us adults to deal with. Just be nice. Even our Opening Minds framework, which includes ‘coping with change’ as a key aspect of the ‘managing situations’ competency, might not be quite ready to develop and assess approaches which elicit and celebrate the nasty.
This links to an emerging idea for a broader RSA project: can we harness new insights into the teenage brain and other research to ask how can schools and society relish rather than fear the teenage years? What kinds of behaviour change do we need to promote, in both teenagers and the adults and institutions which deal with them, to ensure a happy, productive adolescence?
‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.
The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.
Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn’t correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.
One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.
Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.
Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn’t make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.
So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.