Malcolm Nicolson and Eleni Vardaki

Winning over the Doubters: Changing Hearts and Minds

WHO’S THE SPEAKER? Malcolm Nicolson is the Director of Erimus Educaton, and a former Head of the IB Diploma Program Development for the IBO. In this interview, he talks about:

  • the research that shows there is a link between stress, workload and emotional and physical wellbeing for IB Diploma students.
  • why some teacher feel uncomfortable delivering well-being education in their lessons.
  • what people who value well-being education can do to help teachers understand the value and need for top-down wellbeing initiatives in IB World Schools. 


ELENI VARDAKI: I’m so excited to talk about this very important issue – and very real word issue – of how we deal with people who’re doubting wellbeing initiatives in schools.


But before we dive into that: Why do you think it’s important for schools to teach IB Diploma students some basic wellbeing skills?


MALCOLM NICOLSON: A few years ago, I was the Head of the IB Diploma Program Development at the IB. And one of the issues that kept coming up, again and again and again, was that it’s too tough.


“The Diploma’s too hard. The students are stressed. The students are really struggling.”


And we often thought, “Well, we’re hearing all of this, but do we have any evidence of it? What’s the proof?”


We conducted a very large-scale project, a research project that’s done with thousands of students, to see if it was really causing stress, and did that impact on well-being?


So we looked at the relationship between workload, stress, and hence, well-being.


And what we found was, yes, there is a relationship between workload and stress. And yes, unfortunately, there is then a link with wellbeing, emotional and physical wellbeing.


So then you think, “Well, we’ve got to do something, because we’re producing students who need to be able to cope with not just the now and the Diploma Program, but to develop skills that they can then take into their university and their work life, and to be successful in their careers.


So, you know, we’ve got to do something.


The IB has six subjects, plus CAS, plus Extended Essay, plus TOK. It’s a very heavy workload.


So we must look at students’ self-management skills, and helping them to deal with the Diploma Program as it is, and then their lives beyond the Diploma Program.


It’s crucial.


ELENI VARDAKI: From the point of view of somebody who understands the importance of this, who cares about student well-being, who cares about teaching kids to cope better with the stress of the IB:


What advice would you give them with regards to how to deal with any trends that you see for why some teachers may doubt the value of well-being initiatives, and so get in the way of that?


MALCOLM NICOLSON: Well, there’s a number of factors that play into this about why teachers may or may not value it, and why they may or may not actually do any strategies or teach strategies to students.


One of the keys is that many teachers (potentially about my age!) were brought up in a time when the teaching and learning was very content driven. Very teacher driven, and very exam-oriented.


And the IB Diploma is a wonderful course that goes way beyond the learning of content and facts and information. It’s very much driven by values and attitude.


So it’s the idea that teachers grew up in a time where, maybe (unlike yourself, Eleni!) content was the greater focus.Teachers weren’t trained, through teacher training, to look after students.


I’m not saying that teachers are not empathetic, but they certainly weren’t trained to be mentors or coaches, guides, or counsellors even. So that’s one part.


Therefore, teachers may not feel comfortable with it.


They may also feel that the social-emotional side of learning is an add-on. They think that whatever is important is that which is examined.


There’s a great phrase, here: Do we assess what we value, or do we value what we assess?


And really, what a lot of educators are focused on entirely is what will be examined.


And of course, the development of strategies for well-being are not examined.


Therefore, they are not as important as other factors.


Teachers are preparing students for exams. And there’s also the high-stake nature of teacher professional performance; they’re judged on examination results.


So where will their focus and their direction lie? On examination. So you really need to start to win around the hearts and minds of teachers to show them why this is so important, when they may feel like other things, like the examination preparation, is more important.


ELENI VARDAKI: So it sounds like there are a lot of reasons for why people resist, that we first need to address, before we can help them access that emotional space where they can feel: “Yes, actually, I’m willing to take this on. It’s something that’s important,” and to move from seeing it as something that’s a “Nice to have” – as opposed to  something that’s a “Need to have”.


MALCOLM NICOLSON: That’s right. This is essential.



MALCOLM NICOLSON: I think there are a few strategies that one can use with teachers, and then teaching teams, to help.


As we said before, this is not something that’s a “Nice to have”; it’s essential.


So how would you persuade or help someone to see that this is really important?


There’s a lot of role modelling that goes on. One thing that I found works very well, when I’ve dealt with many teachers who are resistant to change (and that’s a normal human condition, to be resistant to change) is to maybe find a role model within the department, or within a friendship group. They can be your champion. And show them the value. Show them the research.Show them through your teaching.


You could be a role model teacher.


Or find a teacher that they can go to and watch, and say, “Look, these little strategies add up to a lot – a huge difference”.


There’s a huge place here for the role of student voice, student choice and student ownership.


Use different strategies to develop the student voice within the classrooms so that they feel empowered. It’s not just one thing or another thing.


It has to be a whole approach to really winning over the hearts and minds of those particular teachers who may resist, and show them why it’s so important.


And I will say one last thing on that, and it’s that sometimes teachers do see these things as “Oh, not another initiative”.


I’ve  heard people described it as “Initiative-itis”.


Looking after the students’ well-being, emotional and physical, is not a fad. It’s not an initiative that will go away.


And many teachers need to be persuaded and convinced that this is something that’s here to stay.


And that it’ll help the students, and it may even help improve students’ achievement level.


And if you can relate the health and well-being of students to improved achievement rates that will also help to convince many teachers.


ELENI VARDAKI: Is there anything else that you would like to add, before we wrap up?


MALCOLM NICOLSON: Well, you can’t teach a teacher to be empathetic, but you can help teachers to develop a wide range of strategies through pedagogical approaches.


And I really believe in the idea of student voice, choice, and ownership.


This is where the teacher let’s go of control of the classroom, and really supports the learners in being in charge of their own learning.


This will help with their well-being, and potentially reduce stress.


And I found – you know, I do a lot of consulting work with IB World Schools with my company, Erimused Education – and I found that when I work with small groups of teachers or with individuals, they really see it.


And sometimes in the busy lives of teachers, they just haven’t had the time to sit down with someone like me to talk it over, and think, “Ah! If I just changed what I did, a little bit, I could see huge changes, beneficial changes, for the students”.


And not just student learning outcome, but actually feeling happier. And that’s what we want. We want happy learners, because happy learners learn.


ELENI VARDAKI: Thank you so much for being here with us tonight, Malcolm. I really appreciate your time.