Students’ Declining Resilience and Emotional Health: A Challenge

Peter Gray has recently discussed a decline in college students’ resilience and ability to emotionally cope with college, its expectations, and failure.  His initial blog post provoked a large number responses, many of which agreed and offered explanations.  Gray has written a follow-up piece that surveys these explanations from the five dominant perspectives: primary and secondary school teachers, college professors and staff, employers of recent graduates, parents, and students.  This, as well as the accompanying comments, is a must-read and is very intriguing.

Gray’s follow-up is a nice sociological overview that tries not to blame anyone for the social phenomena that we’re experiencing now (and its negative impact on our students’ well-being).  He does, though, mention that almost all perspectives focus on extrinsic motivations (grades, ratings, evaluations, and expectations for jobs).

He also suggests how to fix some of this problem: “unschooling” in which children skip some or all of the traditional educational structure and  follow their own interests through play or independent study (for more, see his blog posts [1, 2, 3, and 4] and this article).  As I understand it, unschooling essentially focuses on letting students find something that they find intrinsically interesting and pursue that interest.

In a comment to this piece, Peter Bergson offers this insight, essentially supporting ideas like unschooling:

Those with a financial vested interest in maintaining the status quo–politicians, textbook publishers (or the modern version–computer manufacturers and programmers), school administrators and most teachers and counselors, school architects and producers of school furnishings and supplies, etc. etc.–will never foment the transformation/revolution. Such basic change always comes from outsiders. We must coordinate our efforts and make our move before too many more lives are lost.

Other commenters sing the praises of homeschooling.

But this is not necessarily how I see things.  True, a new structure could develop to challenge the dominant social structure.  This idea is nicely discussed by Michael Mann in his The Sources of Social Power.

Alternatively, revolutionary changes (to use Peter Bergson’s phrasing) can result from people in power and outside of power working together.  The Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement made progress with outside protesters and activists clamoring for change while politicians accepted some of the ideas and passed laws to grant more rights to workers and to African Americans.  Social changes like this prompted Howard Zinn, in The People’s History of the United States of America, to argue that social movements are coopted by the two ruling political parties.  Some of their ideas are accepted, some are rejected–and the winning party’s will gets implemented. (You can sort of see this happening with the Occupy Movement or the Black Lives Matter movement and the Democratic Party, and the Tea Party with the Republican Party).

Whether or not you agree with these historical models, they suggest large scale social change happens through two methods: (1) when outside activists and parts of the Establishment work in the same direction, or (2) an alternative social structure challenges the Establishment.  Unschooling and homeschooling (which reach small populations) reflect method 2.  Teachers trying to address students’ emotional needs and desires reflect method 1 (and currently have the potential to reach larger populations), and I do see some teachers doing this.

So, here’s the challenge: how do we, as teachers within the Establishment, address students’ lack of resilience and poor emotional health? How do we help students cope with the rat-race and focus on extrinsic goals?

  • How do we focus less on extrinsic goals and show their intrinsic value, to make our subjects matter to our students? Or at least more fun, through games or an epic finale?
  • How do we make sure we don’t play into the rat race of meeting goals/ratings/extrinsic motivators and make sure that students are learning?
  • How do we help students gain the skills to succeed in the rat race?
  • How do we show students the value of failure and struggling to succeed?

Each of us need to consider these questions, and I would love to hear your perspectives on these issues.  I will attempt to offer ideas to address some or each of these issues in subsequent blog posts.


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