Thought-provoking talk from Erwin James as Wellbeing programme continues

By Kirsten McLintock, Head of Wellbeing & PSHE

Beginning in Block 3 with the theme ‘Empathy’, Bedalians are encouraged through the Wellbeing curriculum to develop emotional and cognitive empathy, whilst demonstrating empathetic practice through a healthy curiosity for the lived experiences of others. I hope the 6.2 Wellbeing speaker this week – the convicted murderer and columnist Erwin James – inspired students to embody such practice.

Erwin was released from prison in August 2004 having served 20 years of a life sentence. At the time of his conviction, he was an inarticulate and ill-educated individual with, in his own words, “massive failings to overcome”. From unpromising beginnings as a prisoner with bleak prospects, it was encouragement from a prison worker that inspired Edwin to embark on a programme of part-time education. Six years later, he graduated from the Open University with an arts degree majoring in history. Around the same time, he began writing for The Guardian, with the paper publishing his first article in 1998 and a regular column, ‘A Life Inside’, from 2000.

He is a patron of the charity CREATE, an organisation that promotes the arts and creative activities among marginalised groups; a patron of Blue Sky, the award winning social enterprise company that trains and employs ex-offenders; and a patron of The Reader Organisation, a national charity that, “aims to bring about a Reading Revolution”. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA) and an Honorary Master of the Open University, and works full-time as a freelance writer. 

Thank you to Erwin for sharing his story and experiences with our students.

Wellbeing update

By Kirsten McLintock, Head of Wellbeing & PSHE

Block 3 have been prompted to reflect on ‘character’ from The Guardian article, The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures. That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. As we are living through this unprecedented lock down and as our theme in Wellbeing for Block 3 this year is ‘empathy’ I felt this cross-curricular article would resonate with Bedalians. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other, and that we should always look for what is good and positive in people. As a Block 3 student reflects: “I enjoyed reading this article a lot. I found it very interesting and I enjoyed the expectations vs reality of it all. Books make it appear as if people being trapped on an island together will lose all sanity. Good to know that isn’t necessarily true!”

For Block 4’s theme on identity this year we have been exploring self-awareness and acceptance. Dr Brene Brown’s research and teachings permeate the entire Wellbeing curriculum provision at Bedales, so it was opportune to task students with watching her two TED talks.  Dr Brown is perhaps best known for TEDx talk, The Power of Vulnerability. Recorded at an event in Houston in 2010, the talk is one of the five most popular in TED history, with more than 60 million views. It summarises a decade of Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability and courage.

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Sleep, learning and wellbeing

By Al McConville, Director of Teaching and Innovation

The crucial role of sleep in learning and wellbeing has been much in the press recently. As scientists gradually understand more fully the underlying processes of memory and cognition, it is increasingly clear how central a good night’s sleep is to optimal functioning.

At a recent Friends of Bedales meeting, a group of staff and students presented the latest research on sleep and adolescence, and how it relates to our practice, now, and potentially in the future. What, for example, would the impact of a later start to the school day be…?

I produced a handout sharing some key messages harvested from several books: Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep; Till Roenneberg’s Internal Time; Sarah-Jane Blakemore’s Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain; and Dan Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

  • Sleep is strongly correlated with success in laying down new memories and other elements of cognitive performance, including focus, understanding, speed of processing and problem-solving; age appropriate levels of sleep lead to better memory and optimal cognitive function overall.
  • During the day we store information in our short-term memory bank, the hippocampus. It needs to be cleared out daily to make space for new memories; that clearing out, or transfer to long-term memory in the cortex, happens primarily at night. Short-term memory capacity is refreshed in proportion to the number of ‘spindles’ that occur during sleep.
  • There is a strong biological setting in all individuals which dictates their natural waking/sleeping times – chronotypes. It’s not good for you to try and work against this; very little ‘entrainment’ (i.e. getting used to forced alternatives) is possible.
  • Sleep deprivation is correlated strongly with the full spectrum of mental health issues.
  • Even a relatively small but regular shortfall of the necessary sleep leads to sleep deprivation indicators.
  • The most important sleep for strengthening memory and learning (REM sleep) tends to happen at the tail end of the cycle, when the sleep is most ‘spindle-rich’, which is also the bit that is most often cut short.
  • Teenagers need nine hours’ sleep on average; 8-10 hours is the range. However, their chronotypes shift later by 1-3 hours during adolescence, so their natural bed/wake times shift later.
  • There is evidence from America in particular that shifting the same start time of schools back leads to improved academic performance. Locally, Alton College (sixth form only) starts at 10am.
  • Even with enough sleep, there are variations in the cycle as to when we’re most cognitively capable of doing different kinds of work: earlier in the cycle is better for analytical thinking, while later in the cycle is better for more creative, ‘diffuse’ work.
  • There is a big slump in attentiveness in the early afternoon for most people, adequately slept or not. This is somewhat later for teenagers. We’re ‘bi-phasic’ – people who know when their ‘slump’ is can (ideally) plan less cognitively demanding activities for that period.
  • Naps perform something of a corrective to sleep deprivation, though are only really a sticking plaster, since a full cycle is necessary to perform all the functions of sleep.
  • Watch out for alcohol – for memories to be fully, reliably ‘laid down’ takes several days, or rather several sleeps, and alcohol can wipe out new neuronal growth three days after a new memory is formed. Nicotine also reduces the depth of sleep.