Education reforms in China set to shift focus to “whole person”

prominent scholar in China has reported that the Chinese Ministry of Education is set to introduce a “major reform” to shift emphasis in education away from academic tests. The announcement, which comes just weeks after concerns were raised about the mental health of students in China, promises to “broaden” evaluation methods to fully recognise the health and wellbeing needs of students and “support development as a whole person”.

In a recent survey of 2,151 students in north-east China, almost 50% reported suffering from mental health problems. Last month, Lin Guiru, a mental health advisor for the Ministry of Education, told the China Daily, “The ultimate goal of education should be the cultivation of personality, ideals, an outlook on life and values, good human relationships and communication skills. Unfortunately, our education system places too much emphasis on the cultivation of skills that concentrate on the trivial and neglect the essentials.”

Guiru also emphasised the impact that global economic issues were having on young people, and spoke about work that was underway in universities to “popularise knowledge of mental health” and train students in psychological skills.

The planned education reforms involve the introduction of an evaluation framework encompassing five areas, which include ‘moral development, academic development, health (psychological and physical), wider interests, and academic burdens’. According to Yong Zhao, the quality of education will also be judged based on levels of student engagement, boredom, anxiety, and happiness.

There have been growing calls for similar reforms in the United Kingdom. Writing for the Independent earlier this year, Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, warned that urgent measures need to be taken to curb the rise in student suicides: “A key job, not only of schools but also universities, is to educate the whole person, to help him or her live an autonomous and meaningful life. It is no longer acceptable in the 21st century for universities or schools to hold up their hands and say, “We do exams only: get the rest elsewhere!”

In 2005, SEAL, a scheme designed to promote social and emotional skills was rolled out in British schools, but last month a professor at the University of Manchesterraised concerns that schools were currently being pressured by the government to drop the programmes.

Resilient Youth: Using Psychology To Prevent A ‘Lost Generation’

This article was originally published with the Huffington Post.

Switching on the news last night, I heard a young graduate telling a reporter, “I’ve done everything that society told me to do, and I’m still not finding employment.” As his words trailed off, the despair in his voice seemed to capture a generation that’s feeling let down and unsure where to turn. Increasingly, recent surveys from NUS and The Prince’s Trust suggest, the blame seems to be turning inwards.

There is research showing that in previous periods of high youth unemployment, those affected continued to be hampered professionally and socially long after the recession ended – a phenomenon that has been described as the ‘scarring effect’. It’s data like this that gives some weight to the otherwise melodramatic claim that today’s young people will go down in history as a ‘lost generation’.

One explanation for the scarring effect is the psychological impact of unemployment. Research links unemployment with a perceived loss of control, and what some psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ . Feelings of helplessness are a predictor of depression . They are also linked to decreased work performance – a correlation that exists not just in the western world, but globally .

There might be good reason for young people to feel helpless. 75 million young people around the world are out of work, the value of a degree has tumbled, and the so-called ‘scarring effect’ suggests that history isn’t on their side. But in the last recession psychological research and interventions were less developed. And what the latest research tells us is that helplessness is not inevitable and it can be reversed .

When a young american psychologist called Martin Seligman was researching depression in the late 1960’s, he found that if people were subjected to repeated and uncontrollable stressors then they would often come to resign themselves to their plight, remaining inactive even when opportunities to change their circumstances arose – a condition which he called ‘learned helplessness’. What he also found was that whilst some acquired this condition, others seemed to be more resistant. When he looked for distinctions between the two groups, he discovered that they had different ways of explaining the source of stress; those that were more resistant tended to see the stressor as confined and temporary.

The findings were consistent with assumptions underlying the emerging field of cognitive behavioural therapy, and Seligman hypothesised that if he could train people to develop a more optimistic ‘explanatory style’ using ideas from CBT then he could teach them to be more resilient to stress. His ideas gained support and helped establish a new field of research known as ‘positive psychology’, which argued that wellbeing is a legitimate focus for researchers and policymakers. This ‘wellbeing movement’ now spans psychology, economics, and politics, led by organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation.

Governments and businesses have picked up on the science and are transforming it into policy and interventions. Wellbeing programs have been introduced in certain schools – Wellington College, for instance, holds wellbeing classes for its students, and school PSHE programs are teaching emotional skills. But despite graduate employers criticising a lack of soft skills, wellbeing programs have not (as Anthony Seldon of Wellington College notes) been rolled out for students in higher education.

Given that educational institutions are supposed to be at the cutting edge of science, it’s surprising that most seem to be so far behind the curve, with some members of academia (such as this Vice Chancellor) apparently not believing that learning has much to do with psychology at all.

Counselling services have increasingly taken it upon themselves to offer group sessions on topics such as mindfulness and stress management, but these are limited to the narrow financial and political confines of ‘student support’. Research links a perceived sense of control with job searching strategies , motivation at work , and entrepreneurial potential . As employability and enterprise agendas continue to grow, it’s time that applied psychology was recognised as being crucial not just to student support but to student development.

So how we do this? For starters, universities can work to strengthen ties between support services and careers centres, bringing together mutually-compatible expertise; careers centres can look to offer students psychological training, and the growing number of university programs encouraging extra-curricular personal development can promote and accredit initiatives that help build resilience. The evidence base is out there; let’s apply it.

I’m not suggesting that a focus on applied psychology is a substitute for social action; it won’t solve the issues of inflated tuition fees and struggling jobs markets. But if psychology can help young people to gain an advantage over the problems they are facing then it might be enough to give them a bit more hope for the future. And if we act now, just maybe when we look back in ten or twenty years the young people of today will be known not as a ‘lost’ generation but as a resilient one.

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New mobile app helps young people manage moods

A mobile app designed to help young people manage anxiety levels has been launched in Canada. The Android and iPhone compatible app, called Mindshift, was launched last week to coincide with students’ exam period, CTV News reports.

The app, which is free, aims to help students keep track of their anxiety levels and identify symptoms of anxiety, and contains tips and strategies to hep users “put their negative feelings in perspective”. Strategies featured in the app include breathing exercises and visualisation. According to Anxiety BC, “ Rather than trying to avoid anxiety, you can make an important shift and face it.”

The app was created by Anxiety BC and BC Mental Health & Addiction Services (BCMHAS), organisations both based in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. More than 800 people downloaded the app on its first day of launch,  according to BCMHAS.

Mindshift joins a growing number of ‘happiness apps’ designed to help users track and improve their moods. In 2010, Harvard researchers launched Track Your Happiness, an  app that intermittently notifies users asking them to report how they’re feeling. Last month, the University of Cambridge launched their own mood-tracking app called Emotion Sense which aims to pull together data on emotions and mobile usage.

Optimism about the role that apps can play in promoting emotional wellbeing is far from universal.  Last month, concerns were raised about addictive use of smartphones after research in South Korea linked overuse of smartphones with “psychopathologies in adolescents”.

University students to undergo psychological evaluation

According to the online news website Colombo Page, new students in Sri Lanka may soon be subjected to psychological evaluation. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the measure is thought to be being considered as a way of addressing mental health issues fuelled by increasing academic pressures.

Earlier today, Australian newspaper, The Age, reported on plans to introduce compulsive psychological testing at Australian university, RMIT. According to the report, the tests would form part of a ‘Fitness for Study Panel’ that would evaluate the health of students, and identify whether any students with health conditions were likely to display “behaviour of ‘serious risk’ to the student or others”.

Compulsory psychological evaluations are controversial. Proponents claim that it would help distressed students to receive proper treatment, but there are concerns that such tests undermines civil liberties, and could be used to discriminate unfairly.

 

USA students donate $50,000 to wellbeing services

Graduating students at the University of Washington have pledged $50,000 to their university’s mental health services in recognition of the pressures affecting students. The donation is part of a tradition in the United States in which leaving students offer their university a ‘senior class gift’.

The donation is the university’s largest ever senior gift, according to The Seattle Times. The money will go to the Student Counseling Center, and be used to develop mental health awareness campaigns and educational materials to help students look after themselves.

In a USA survey of more than 28,000 university students, half reported “overwhelming anxiety” and almost a third reported having experienced depression. Earlier this year, USA Today reported that roughly 2.2 million students had accessed counselling services during 2012, and that services have become increasingly stretched.