1 March 2021
Much has been written about the importance of developing resilience in our young people – that is to say, the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and determinedly continue in the face of challenges and adversity.
As we see the green shoots of life after the pandemic, it is ever more prescient to discuss how we can properly equip the children in our schools to develop this essential life skill. And that’s what it is – a skill developed through life, as we see that despite the worst that we thought might happen, the sun did indeed rise again and life continued – no doubt with us feeling older and wiser as a result.
So given the irrefutable importance of resilience, is it something we can explicitly teach in schools? Obviously, teaching resilience is not the same as teaching Physics or any other academic subject. One is almost wholly factual, whereas the other is far more emotive and comes from within the individual.
For 20 years, I competed at a high level in cross country and marathon mountain bike racing. I certainly found the old adage that whilst you might play football or rugby, you do not play at cycling, to be wholly true. Two particular events come to mind in the context of this article. One, a 24hr team relay race where the incessant rain and wind made dragging myself out of a tent at 2am to go and ride a lap particularly unpalatable (although at least we fared better than a neighbouring team, whose gazebo had somehow skewered the side of their van, rendering both useless). The other, a 140km race across the Alps where we set off, at 6am on a July day, to ride up a series of mountains in a series of thunderstorms. Now, lightening is supposed to be one of the only things that cancels mountain bike races, however the French marshalls simply ignored it, gesturing “allez” and “courage” as we grovelled up the fire road in torrential hail. Hail really hurts on a bicycle.
Having suitably put most people off ever following in my footsteps, I can at least say that both of those events classify as what gets called Type 2 Fun. That is to say – pretty awful and full of self-doubt (can I do this?) and fear (what might happen to me?) whilst doing it swiftly followed by elation, joy, smiles and an enormous sense of achievement upon completion. You finish knowing you have beaten whatever was placed in front of you and I can tell you nothing creates an unbreakable team from a random mix of friends like scrubbing grit out of each other’s eyes at 1am whilst attempting to stuff copious amounts of pasta into your mouth. Certainly Type 2 Fun.
Type 1 Fun is far easier to explain. It’s the sort of fun we enjoy when we do something we are good at, enjoy doing and – this is the crucial bit – we quickly move on from, and often forget having not really learnt anything about ourselves. There were plenty of sunny, dry, fast races which fell into that category! The problem with Type 1 fun is that it is safe. To develop resilience, we need to experience a mix of both Types. Too much of either in isolation is unhealthy for different reasons.
Turning back to schools, left to their own devices our pupils would have no trouble at all garnering experiences of Type 1 Fun. That’s human nature for a lot of people. Our pupils benefit from a huge range of co-curricular activities tailored to their interests. They go on educational trips and play in sports fixtures. They might enjoy their music lessons and love building the set for the drama performance. It might be all too easy for a pupil to slip through their school years without ever truly being led to try something new, let alone something they weren’t terribly good at or felt worried by.
And that’s where a culture of “compulsory fun” comes into its own – here, everyone opts in and is carried along by a pervasive can-do attitude. Coupled with a first-rate personal tutoring system where every pupil is truly known, the scene is set for some encouragement towards Type 2 Fun and developing real, lasting resilience.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and CCF are often flaunted as resilience-building machines – and they are. But it should run much deeper than that as building resilience comes in many forms. It might be the PE teacher quietly encouraging a pupil to come along to a sports practice and to play for the team, knowing they have it in them even when they doubt it themselves. It might be the drama teacher noticing the stage presence of a saxophone player and encouraging them to take a part in the next play, when they wouldn’t see themselves on the stage. Or it might be the Geography teacher relentlessly believing that someone can write that A-grade essay even when they might think they don’t know where to start.
So, to the teachers – know your charges and don’t accept them tumbling through their schooling having only accomplished that which was safe. To our pupils I say ‘seek out Type 2 Fun’. You might not enjoy it at the time, but that’s where the true learning, self-discovery and resilience-building is found. Parents – encourage your children to do the things they find hard by standing behind them rather than in front of them. Avoid always being the snowplough – your children will thank you later.
We did eventually win the 24hr race – after 17 years of trying.
George Budd, Principal, Moreton Hall School