LEAD ARTICLE: “Evolving Pastoral Care for a New Digital Age” by NAPCE’s Charlie Walker
Evolving Pastoral Care for a New Digital Age
Of the many stories recalled by my grandfather, one always stands out: the day the first computer arrived at his school.
Not only the deputy headmaster, but also a very able mathematician, he was soon ushered in to work out just what they were going to do with it.
Whilst I am sure he was cautiously excited about the opportunities that such a development could bring, I
doubt that he or any of his colleagues imagined just how expansive technology would become in both
education and in wider society.
My own school journey took place in parallel with some of the fastest developments in this digital revolution.
To give some sense of scale, when I began secondary school in 2012, around 900 million people were signed up to Facebook.
Upon leaving the sixth form, this number stood at over 2.5 billion.
Now training as a neuroscientist, my day-to-day studies cover everything from mental health and addiction to learning methodologies and artificial intelligence.
Specialising in the policy and ethics of neuroscience, I am particularly fascinated by the ever-evolving relationship between young people and technology.
All too often I encounter sentiments that digital devices are merely dangers and distractions. There are indeed very significant risks that potentially lie in wait and these should never be underestimated.
Similarly, whether or not to ban mobile phones and devices in schools is a decision for individual leaders.
However, it is the responsibility of those entrusted with educating young people to do so in a way that best supports them in this new digital era, an era that will only continue to evolve when they leave school.
Reflecting on my own experiences of navigating the constantly changing world of technology, three key
challenges come to mind for school leaders.
Firstly, we must appreciate the very significant cognitive and biological effect that our interaction with technology induces.
Traditionally, downtime away from the classroom may have resembled a game of football in the park or a trip into town with friends.
Such events are periods of relatively low levels of brain activity; recognisable faces, familiar locations, repeated interactions and simple tasks do not require vast loads of neural processing.
This is very much downtime — a chance for the brain to rest — and such periods of recovery are
necessary to allow us to be at our best when required.
However, as technology becomes evermore engrained into the lives of many young people, downtime will now include significant periods using digital platforms and devices.
Yet such experiences, although they may seem fairly simple, are very different from a trip to the park. The endless scrolling, the countless videos and the
constant provision of new ideas and information provide an immediate sensory overload.
Although it might not feel like it, and even if the content seems relatively mundane, the brain is forced to process vast amounts of visual, auditory and logical information.
Additionally, such digital experiences are easy to access and provide instant gratification, quickly releasing quantities of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine.
Compare this to a game of football: the physical exhaustion, the necessity of teamwork and the dream of victory are replaced by a simple tap of the finger.
Too much time spent in this sphere of sensory overload is dangerous. The brain has little time to recover and, as a result, young people will be entering classrooms and other important environments having had little real downtime. This is without mentioning the impact on factors such as sleep patterns and eyesight.
Pastoral leaders should always preach moderation, educating young people and helping them to understand the harmful effects that such behaviour can unknowingly induce.
Working alongside students individually, to develop strategies to break dangerous cycles of behaviour, especially when they may not be aware of it, is potentially very valuable.
Secondly, is important that we do not underestimate the speed at which these digital tools and spaces are
developing. When I began secondary school, Facebook was the predominant social media website.
Now, it is largely considered dated and young people spend the majority of their time on other platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
New platforms deliver new trends and new interactions, and such mass fluidity in the way young people use digital spaces is important for understanding how to improve support.
Such influences may include patterns in
activities, challenges and fashions. In recent months, we have seen the particularly devastating effect of online trends with the TikTok ‘blackout challenge’.
Even for those staff who do not use social media, staying aware of the key developments in how and why young people might use certain platforms is essential.
This can help tailor care, improve awareness of behaviour patterns and even create a proactive environment where pupils who may be particularly vulnerable to certain trends can be supported more closely.
Just like teachers will understand the dynamics of the corridors and playground, they should also understand (to their best ability) the dynamics of the virtual alternatives.
Finally, we must understand the significant impact that social media can have on the wellbeing of young
A whirlwind of ‘likes’, influencers and virtual behaviours is now widespread.
The desire to compare and contrast these idealistic scenarios with our own lives is a natural human tendency; a seemingly perfect and care-free world, streamed straight to your phone and out-of-touch with real life.
Throw in the opportunity for anonymous messaging and comments, a competition for ‘likes’ and a narrow viewpoint of social acceptability, and you have a perfect recipe for distress and uncertainty.
Pastoral leaders must understand the exposure of young people to these alternative (and fake) existences, to these trends in behaviour and to these ideals of social acceptability.
Educating students on the dangers of this — and ‘finding reality’ again — can be incredibly powerful in raising awareness, building confidence and allowing young people to thrive, whoever they might be.
Now in his eighties, my grandfather has definitely kept up with the digital revolution; I know this all too well, regularly called in to act as an iPad technician.
The challenges that pastoral leaders face today, brought on by these digital tools and platforms, are a world away from that which he knew.
However, one underlying similarity remains, and that is the desire of young people to explore, to challenge, to take risks and to fit in.
With the landscape of the digital world constantly changing, keeping up with the right way to support them can be very difficult.
These factors render our digital age one of great excitement and opportunity, but also one of great challenges.
The danger is not in the tool itself, but in the way we use it; a hammer can break a finger or build a house,
depending on the care we take and the understanding we have.
Whilst the environment that surrounds them
may have evolved significantly, young people are still fundamentally the same. They try new things, they make mistakes but they often learn from them; that is the neuroscience of development.
Whether in the park or online, one aspect remains constant: it is the knowledge, support and guidance which surrounds them that is key.
Charles Walker FRSA
NEC Young Member
Adviser on Young People in the House of Commons