Head's Blog

The Diversity of Needs of a Diverse Community

Over the last couple of weeks the UWC heads have been reflecting on the changing needs of our students today. The impact of COVID cannot be overstated, as is the fact that the global landscape has changed. How should a UWC education react to these changes?

Kurt Hahn’s educational model placed a huge emphasis on giving the young student autonomy and responsibility at the same time. Generations of students at UWC Atlantic College worked on the Atlantic College Lifeboat Station which was opened on its campus shortly after the school itself was opened. Those students patrolled the Bristol Channel and even saved lives themselves in very difficult circumstances, certainly a life-changing experience.

If we fast-forward fifty plus years, how are our students today similar and how are they different? The experience of joining one of the two-year residential colleges is certainly very different today: fifty years ago students often travelled to places they had never visited or knew much about in a huge leap of faith. Leaving home meant infrequent communication with families and friends, with queues to be able to use the telephone and regular checks of the pigeon hole hoping to receive the letter or, even better, parcel from home. I remember doing so myself when I was an Erasmus student at a university in Great Britain.

In our hyper-connected society, this aspect of the experience is completely different. Our students have visited the schools via Google Maps, the different social media platforms, spent hours watching videos of life on campus, and even connected to their future peers often before the schools have even received the student files!

This hyperconnectivity has positive aspects, namely being able to stay in touch with loved ones back home and elsewhere. At the same time, there is the risk of not being fully present and fully engaged in the school, spending instead inordinate amounts of time trying to stay connected with everyone far away, or even worse, trying to stay connected online with those away, while trying to monitor what is going on both on and offline at the school. This is exhausting not only physically, but also emotionally, and we notice in our campus how FOMO is a huge issue. 

Books such as Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep explain very clearly how it is essential to have good sleep hygiene not only to be rested, but to actually lead a healthy life, maintain a healthy weight and learn, as our brain processes what we learn while we sleep. However, as the parent of any teenager knows, sleeping patterns change during that age, and have particularly changed now with the combination of hyperconnectivity and the ensuing FOMO: “I can’t go to sleep as I will be missing out on the latest controversy/joke/meme/cat video… [insert your own choice here].”

From a physiological and psychological standpoint it is very clear: even if teenagers’ bodily clocks move to “the teenage timezone”, this does not mean that they are not under the same influence of circadian rhythms. In fact, given the tumultuous nature of being a teenager, with developing bodies, brains and a tsunami of hormones, sleep is even more important.

Li Po Chun UWC, our sister school in Hong Kong, was the object of an academic piece of research looking at the impact of improving sleep patterns. Amongst other measures, they moved the start of the school day to a later time and switched off nights in the corridors. Along similar lines, in my previous school we introduced an internet curfew, switching off the WiFi between midnight and 6 am. You can imagine the uproar when we started to socialise the idea, with reactions such as “I need to be able to call home at that time because of time zone differences” or “You are punishing students who cannot afford to have data packages.” While there was an element of truth in both arguments, it is also true that most of the internet traffic at night was… streaming video!

One of several UWC myths that is repeated until it is taken as a self-evident truth is that you can only have “two of the three Ss”: Social life, Study and Sleep. This is often used as a justification for harmful choices that affect the individual (and others when one is sharing a bedroom). As UWC heads we are faced with diverse needs: from those students who are mature and on “auto-pilot” who need no or minimal support, to students with severe needs who cannot self-regulate and who fall prey to unhealthy lifestyles that exacerbate their conditions. Evidently, an approach that works for the former will be disastrous for the latter, just like imposing a regime focused on the needs of the latter will be counterproductive for the former.

So far, this is logical. However, we also know that the teenage brain is particularly susceptible to perceptions of unfairness, and being treated differently is perceived not only as something unfair, but also as a potential social blemish (which, given the importance that the teenage brain gives to social connections, can be a huge issue). Common sense dictates that we need to be able to differentiate how we care for the young people entrusted to us in a way that is developmentally adequate and matches the individual’s needs. 

While I am in awe at the maturity and drive of some of our students, I also see behaviours that are hugely problematic as they are not conducive to healthy, balanced lives. If a student is constantly falling asleep in classes, being late or disengaged, running from the last class to have a siesta that makes them miss dinner (the Spaniard in me cannot quite call that a siesta), it is not difficult to see how that will become a pattern of living at night and then being a zombie during the day. If it happens once (staying up to watch a particularly important sports event, or to participate in an online synchronous event), it may be justified. However, when it becomes a pattern, then there is clearly an issue, and we have a responsibility not to let the proverbial snowball grow bigger and bigger. That does not mean going to extremes that deny autonomy in the search of total protection which, as Haidt and Lukianoff argued cogently in The Coddling of the American Mind, results in insecurity and lack of resilience.