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  • Joe Haig

What doesn't kill you...

Updated: May 12, 2020

The old adage "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is a comforting thought in times of difficulty. Like many comforting thoughts it isn't always true. Unwelcome events often fail to deliver net positive results and post trauma outcomes can go either way. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger - or ruins your life forever.

COVID19 has been the catalyst for massive changes in our lives, our economy and our education delivery system. When will things return to the way they were before?

Probably never. And that may not be a bad thing. Many have argued that our education system is long overdue for an overhaul and while the "lockdown" has confronted us with a new set of problems it has also provided us with a unique opportunity. We don't know what things are going to look like on the other side of #stayhomesavelives. If there's a pathway to "stronger" we should be looking for it.

In 1943 J T MacCurdy published a paper called The Structure of Morale based on his observations of the behavior of English citizens during the blitz. People were forced to get on with their lives amid constant explosions. Each night they slept knowing there was a real risk of death to themselves and their loved ones. In the morning they emerged from houses and bomb shelters to find more buildings reduced to rubble.

MacCurdy was interested in the way people responded in these exceptionally disrupted circumstances. He found that there were essentially three outcomes from bombings. The first outcome is fatal: a "direct hit". The second is a "near miss". In this scenario you don't die but are badly injured or traumatised. MacCurdy called the third outcome a "remote miss" - your neighbour's house is obliterated but you survive, relatively unscathed.

The most critical thing to understand with respect to the current crisis is the distinction between a "near miss" as opposed to a "remote miss" and the difference in the way these play out.

Londoners who experienced a near miss tended to have very low morale and were unable to continue living their lives happily and productively. They suffered from an ongoing "stupor or jumpiness and preoccupation with the horrors they have witnessed." MacCurdy, 1943. The bombs didn't kill them - but they made them weaker.

On the other hand, those who experienced a remote miss developed a confidence and "a feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability." MacCurdy, 1943. The bombings made them stronger. Malcolm Gladwell summarises this in his wonderful book David and Goliath, "a near miss leaves you traumatised. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible."

Whether an incident plays out as a "near miss" or "remote miss" is determined not just by the nature or severity of the incident itself but by the mindset and resilience of the survivor. The outcome for Australia will largely be determined by our response. Will the pandemic constitute a near or remote miss to our economy and our education system? At this stage there are encouraging signs that we're on track to achieve "remote miss" outcomes from the crisis.

This is particularly true in the area of adoption of, and effective use of, new technologies by educators. The shift to NAPLAN online (a straightforward, browser based UI) is a good example of the relatively slow adoption of technology in education. NAPLAN has been available online for several years but only 50% of schools are using the online version. Some schools don't have the required technology, or may have pedagogical based objections to digital testing, but in many cases it's not the technology that's the issue. It's the human factor. We're generally reluctant to expand our comfort zone and try new things. In education change occurs at a painfully pace but we can't afford to fall behind in a world where digital literacy equals power.

A certain amount of resistance to change is natural, and understandable. COVID19 has managed to overcome much of our instinctive resistance to change. In the past two months we've made significant progress - probably several years worth - as teachers have been forced to expand their comfort zones. They're leveraging technology in ways they never have before. According to ABC news nearly 90% of surveyed teachers said their digital technologies skills had gone "through the roof" as a result of remote delivery during COVID19.

There's been plenty of talk of "flattening the curve" but one curve which hasn't flattened, at least in the education sector, is the diffusion of innovation bell curve. It has peaked as late majority adopters and "laggards" have been forced to adapt to new ways of doing things, and our education system is going to be better off for it.

We've dodged a direct hit. Whether the impact of COVID19 constitutes a near or remote miss for our country as a whole is yet to be seen but I'm cautiously optimistic.


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