Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.

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