Careful, not too far

When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.

This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.

But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.

Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.

Schools are still there, for now

If you hadn’t noticed, the purpose of school – from a student’s perspective – has changed radically in the last twenty years. Kids used to have to go to school to find out stuff. However, somewhere between 2002 and 2004, Google became the most widely used search engine on the planet, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to discover information.

By 2010, there were already more than 3 million articles on Wikipedia offering a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn information

In November 2005, the first YouTube video to reach 1 million views was online and by July 2006, more than 65,000 new videos were being uploaded every day, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn skills and share information.

And by the middle of 2009, Facebook had 300 million users, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to meet, hang out, and communicate.

Remember when every town had a video-rental store, photo-finishing shop, newspaper stand, record store, a couple of public phones, and a few schools? At least the schools are still there, for now.

What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.

I don’t know where to start!

Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’. 

Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.

The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:

“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”

We are the system

It seems that at every education conference, there is an educator wanting to complain loudly about some perceived unfairness in ‘the system’. Inherent in this complaint is a sense of powerlessness or subjugation in the face of ‘the system’.

This is understandable. When faced with significant challenges or obstacles, it’s easy to feel that there is some organised, impenetrable machinery that is working against us.

But the fact is, we are the system.  It’s us and our colleagues and other people working in and on education. There is no ‘system’ outside of this group of people. And so changing ‘the system’ is all about changing people’s ideas and thoughts.

It’s not easy, but it does happen all the time.