Wed 06 Jan 2021 3 min read

#22 Why 2021 will be all about The Stockdale Paradox

Kai Vacher

Schools need to keep optimism and reality in balance this year but trust a better future awaits.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”

These are the words of Admiral James Stockdale, who was a US prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than seven years.

He managed to survive his terrible ordeal by embracing the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism – a view of a situation that is now termed the Stockdale Paradox.


The road ahead

As 2020 draws to an end with the knowledge that the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us for some time to come, it is clear that the sensible way forward is to accept this reality and make long-term plans accordingly – to embrace the Stockdale Paradox.

We’ve done that at our school. We all want everything to get back to how it was in 2019, but it won’t. We can’t simply beam back. So we’ve identified the upsides in what we’ve learned.

Giving us optimism is our return to our wonderful campus after nine months online, and with that, tighten our grasp on our mission to nurture our students to be the best they can be for the world.


Adapting to challenges

Those at the top age group of our school left last June and are now at university. Our current A-level students are performing admirably. Our teachers are multitalented – more than ever before – and are handling direct and remote teaching.

The use of technology as a teaching platform has been embraced by all, so much so that our idea to introduce a “provision of a Chromebook scheme” has been leapfrogged already by a “bring your own device” strategy.

Students pop a packed lunch, a drink and their favoured device into their backpacks at home to equip them for their day.

A smartphone isn’t good enough – it must be a laptop or tablet, and familiarity with one’s own device means downtime is reduced. Also, for those who need to leave school for illness or quarantine, support from us can continue. Parents haven’t blinked an eye at this.


Facing down the hardships

The realism part is harder to accept but crucial in order to achieve the required Stockdale balance. Our new “hybrid” way of teaching is here to stay because so is the virus.

Our parents have certainly realised this and we’ve found that many students actually like a balance of traditional “at school” experience, online synchronous and asynchronous lessons, task-setting and pastoral care.

Anecdotally, some parents of both primary- and secondary-age pupils are reporting that online and blended approaches to learning have enabled their children to become more independent as learners, resulting in improved engagement and motivation.


Motivation when needed

However, the same conditions are leading to higher levels of “learned helplessness” in other students, who now struggle to do anything without help and encouragement.

Our teachers and support team now know how to maximise their effectiveness; we continue to innovate, train and mentor so that levels of expertise are lifted across the board. It isn’t perfect because so much is unpredictable, but we think we can handle what comes our way.

Being an international school competing in a challenging local, regional and global economy, we know that student numbers may fall, so we are tightening our belts. We’ve frozen fees. We expect that some of our teachers may leave to return home to be close to their families.

So we are training our own with programmes for newly qualified teachers, with Straight to Teaching and support-teacher initiatives. We have also mentored senior personnel to join our leadership team. These innovations provide us with continuity, and everyone likes stability.

Last March we were turned upside-down by the need to close the campus and immediately find other ways to educate our students. Everything was opaque. Now we have had the chance to take stock and, having seen what works best for us, we know that if the pandemic stops us in our tracks again, we can regroup and carry on. In our minds, this is a good place to be.

Understanding the Stockdale Paradox helps many businesses to guard against disappointments, stay grounded, and plan logically and optimistically for the future.

We believe it works for our school, too.

This article was first published in TES in January 2021.