Students at the ASMS challenged me with some excellent questions


Located on the Bedford Park Campus of Flinders University is the Australian Science & Mathematics School – – a senior secondary school (years 10, 11, 12) focused on science and mathematics education.

I got the chance to speak to all 300+ of the students yesterday. I talked about the role that I play here at the university, and how some of the stuff I am exploring regarding Mental Fitness in university students might be just as relevant to them. What is very cool is that the Student Health and Wellbeing Blog is actually being used as one of the resources they are exploring in a topic they are doing around mental wellbeing.

Prior to me talking, Learning Studies Leader Simon gave me a tour of place. It has a great feel to it. Open plan and inviting learning areas, no uniform dress code, no bells to mark the start and end of classes. Considerably more responsibility is giving to the students to take control of their learning and they seem to respond to that in a very respectful way; diligent, friendly and warm. I’m sure there were a few students hiding in the corner gaming, but mostly what I could see was students interested in what they were doing, engaged with each other, and with the teachers.

It reminded me of my time at Eynesbury, where there were fewer ‘rules’ and students were assumed to be there with a specific goal in mind: to prepare themselves for university study. Whilst I recognise that these more relaxed models of education aren’t for everyone (some people prefer the strict order and routine of some schools), I personally find them quite exciting.

Consistent with my expectations, Simon informed me that most students from the school end up going to university – 60% of them end up here at Flinders which is very cool. I imagine the student experience at ASMS is good preparation for university where a) the work ramps up in terms of difficulty and b) the freedoms afforded to students increase. Students who have already honed their self-management skills at ASMS probably find the transition easier.

After my talk, which was about 20 minutes, a number of students asked some excellent questions. I wanted to take a brief moment to revisit a few of those questions and my responses to them. This is because I find I like to refine my answers, having taken a little extra time to reflect on the questions.

Mind over matter

A student asked me on my thoughts about ‘mind over matter’. I drew on my own experiences of illness to explain that I saw at least 2 clear uncontroversial pathways through which our minds could exert some control over our matter (e.g. our bodies). The first relates to learning as much as you can about how the body works, and what it needs to be healthy. This involves developing some knowledge about things like nutrition, physical activity, sleep. The more knowledge you have, the more likely it is you can make informed decisions about your health.

The second involves our behaviour and exerting some control over that, so that we engage more in healthy behaviours and less in unhealthy behaviours. Controlling our behaviour involves a lot of mental activities: knowledge, planning, scheduling, setting goals, impulse control, memory, emotion management. The more you learn about these concepts, the more likely you are to apply them to making good choices in your life.

But there are other pathways as well. One obvious one is stress reduction. We know that ‘stress’ can lead to a wide range of physical symptoms. In extreme cases, psychological problems can manifest as serious illnesses. There are types of ‘epilepsy‘ that are of psychological origin. As a result, reducing stress can often reduce physical symptoms. However reducing stress is a complex skillset that involves a lot of mental activities like those mentioned above in the behaviour section.

Finally, there are plenty of examples of individuals using psychological strategies to achieve quite remarkable feats of strength or endurance or pain management. I am reminded of learning about individuals who could use hypnotic inductions to put themselves in a state where they could have surgery without anaesthetic.

So yes, I believe there are multiple examples of mind over matter 🙂

Work life balance

A couple of questions focused on the concept of work/life balance. What is a good mix? What if you hate your work?

I’ll start with the fact that some ‘work’ is just necessary in order to advance to the next level. Doing well at high school (or an entrance exam) is necessary to get into university, and university study is necessary to get into certain careers. In those cases the short-term annoyance or frustration with the work is outweighed by the potential long-term benefits of getting that work done so you can progress to the next level. You are also learning in the process how to cope with boredom/disinterest in the service of a higher goal. In such situations, you need to repeatedly remind yourself of what you are working towards, and use that as the motivation to deal with the short-term sense of disconnection.

Once you are past those ‘mandatory’ stages though, you now have the responsibility/opportunity of trying to shape your career in a way that is both personally rewarding, but is also of value to others (remember you need to get paid!). For some this will mean trying a few different jobs before working out what they like the most. In the modern economy, this isn’t a big deal as it is common for people to spend only a few years in a single job before moving to something else. However, if you find yourself constantly unhappy in your jobs, you might need to shift your focus away from ‘finding the right job’ to instead ‘finding meaning in my existing job’. This could mean:

  • focusing on what impact your job has on other people
  • trying to be the best at your job of anyone else
  • looking ways to modify your job so that it has greater value

Finally, the balance of how much time you spend doing paid work versus how much time you spend in other activities: family, friends, hobbies, rest, community service, is up to you to work out. There isn’t a magic ‘balance’ that is applicable to everyone. Consider each aspect of your life and how much meaning/happiness it gives you. Focus on those activities that give you the greatest meaning and happiness. For some this will be their paid work. We might think of them as ‘workaholics’ but they are most content when they are working. For other people, it will be their family and friends that give them the most meaning and happiness. They will happily trade higher wages/work opportunities for more time with the people they love. I can’t tell you what your balance is. I can say you will need to be willing to explore this issue in your own life, perhaps by spending periods of time focusing on different activities and see under which situations you are most content.

Do you pick passion or talent?

I liked this question cause it kinda stumped me at the time. In a choice between something you are really good at, but only kinda like, versus something you love but aren’t that great at, what do you pick?

I think I was stumped because I have conflicting answers in my head.

If I take the question purely at face-value, I would probably say ‘do the thing you are really good at‘. It is hard to stand out in this world, and your employability is a function of your talent and competence. When you are really good at something, it opens up new opportunities that you can’t always forsee. You may also find that interest in the area will increase as your opportunities increase. A topic that you are great at at school but don’t really like, is probably going to be a lot more interesting once you get out of school. In this scenario, the thing that you love should remain part of your life, but in a hobby/interest format.

But I also want to challenge the question and say it might not always have to be a choice. Increasingly I am noticing that the combination of skillsets often yields new and interesting career opportunities. For example, I made a choice when I started uni between computer science and psychology. I chose psychology. However I have had multiple opportunities to combine those interests over the course of my career and now much of my communication is done through internet platforms: websites, blogging etc. I am now in a position where my interests in both areas have identified my as unique within my field. So before assuming you have to choose between the options, make sure you aren’t ignoring the opportunity to combine them.

Final words

I just want to say thankyou to Simon, the ASMS students and staff, the students that asked questions, and the students that came up afterwards to speak to me, for making me feel very welcome at ASMS. I look forward to us having contact in the future around the topic of mental fitness and I look forward to being stumped with increasingly more challenging questions.


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