The Magic Roundabout: why anxiety shouldn’t stop us learning

“I have had enough, I just want to get out
Let me off o’ this English roundabout”

So sang new wavers XTC on their 1982 album, English Settlement. The song, ‘English Roundabout‘, was inspired by the famous Magic Roundabout in Swindon. Less a roundabout, more a maelstrom of white lines; it looks like this:

Magic Roundabout, Swindon

If you’ve ever attempted to traverse this concrete vortex, you’ll be well aware that one must do so whilst repeating the incantation: ‘Omigodomigodomigodomigod‘, before endeavouring to leave the intersection. In some cases, one might have to re-enter the roundabout and repeat the ritual a number of times before the correct exit is finally negotiated. It’s such a dizzying experience that XTC weren’t actually the first to write about it – W.B. Yeats famously documented his (second) attempt at conquering it, chronicling the suffering he witnessed through the windscreen of his old Ford Falcon:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Okay, so that might not be entirely true. But such is the anxiety that the Magic Roundabout induces in those who seek to overcome it. And I’m definitely not alone in thinking this: over the years, it has been variously voted Britain’s worst roundabout, one of the World’s ten worst junctions, and one of the ten scariest junctions in Britain. You can even get an ‘I survived the Magic Roundabout’ t-shirt.

I was reminded of this rather un-magical roundabout this week when I read something that moved me to think about the idea of anxiety. I have had to deal with anxiety for much of my life, so when I read The Telegraph article decrying English lessons on the basis that “reading, writing, spelling, punctuation and grammar are creating “anxiety” among children and undermining their natural flair”, it made me balk (as I’m sure was the intention).

That report was actually a digest of this piece in the TES, written by Dr Heather Martin, Head of Languages at a prep school in Cambridge. Martin writes:

“Anxiety about English afflicts many parents and even more teachers. Schools have tended to address this head-on, squeezing ever more English into the school day and according it a hierarchical supremacy. The subject is jealously ring-fenced, measured, weighed and levelled.

But anxiety breeds anxiety, and the English problem will not be solved simply by doing more English.”

The idea that ‘anxiety breeds anxiety’ has a whiff of truthiness about it. It may be true in some cases, but it is important to note that it is also a rather pithy deployment of diacope, that persuasive tool of the Ancient Greek rhetoricians. I think it may not be the universal truth that it purports to be; might it also be true that anxiety breeds other, more positive outcomes? Anxiety breeds forethought? Anxiety breeds consideration? Anxiety breeds creativity?

As for the latter, I am sure we are all aware of the trope of the suffering artist, only able to create as a result of their anxiety. Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath were famously neurotic; and fellow poet T.S. Eliot was moved to express of his disposition that “anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity”. Lord Byron, Dylan Thomas and Franz Kafka were similarly afflicted, but it was philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who first supplied me with some reasoning and understanding about my own anxiety as a teenager.

That makes me sound terribly precocious, but I should note that Kierkegaard’s words came to me first via the last lines of the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘Stay Beautiful‘:  “Anxiety is freedom”. They had expanded on the reference in the song by etching it into the run out groove of the 12″ record. From this, I discovered Kierkegaard’s paean to his anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom”.

Indeed, the pervasive trope of the suffering artist seems to contradict The Telegraph‘s claim that anxiety undermines natural flair.

But anxiety does not only breed creativity; a study published in Academy of Management Journal last year suggests people with neurosis do better in group work and teamwork than expected; it also showed that extraverts tended to do worse.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson published a study in which they increased the levels of anxiety in animals when completing a task. They discovered that the animals completed the task better if they were “moderately anxious”. Of course, if the anxiety levels were too high, the performance levels dropped. These tests have been replicated in humans many times since and the principle of there being a desirable level of anxiety needed to perform tasks well is now known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. As  Atlantic editor Scott Stossel writes in his book My Age of Anxiety:

“It’s kind of a Goldilocks law: too little anxiety and you will not perform at your peak, too much anxiety and you will not perform well; but with just the right amount of anxiety – enough to elevate your physiological arousal and to focus your attention intensely on the task, but not so much that you are distracted by how nervous you are – you’ll be more likely to deliver a peak performance.”

In the same book, Stossel suggests that “Anxiety may also be tied both to ethical behaviour and to effective leadership.” Leadership expert and psychologist Robert H. Rosen’s book, Just Enough Anxiety, is based on this very idea that a great leader needs an optimal amount of anxiety to be successful. He cites various examples to support his suggestion that:

“Anxiety is a fact of life. How you use it makes all the difference. If you let it overwhelm you, it will turn to panic. If you deny or run from it, you will become complacent. But if you use anxiety in a positive way, you will turn it into a powerful force in your life. You will uncover the hidden driver of […] success.”

Sally Winston, director of the Anxiety & Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland (ASDI), says that “Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful. It’s your response to your anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.”

It is this approach to anxiety that helped me turn a corner in how I dealt with my own neuroses. It was in Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, that I discovered a way to deal with my anxiety: to acknowledge it, to understand what it is that is making me anxious, and to accept it – to know it is okay to feel anxious about it. Once I learned how to do this – not to try and ignore it or hide it or run from it, it became less of a burden.

So isn’t this the case with the anxiety of learning? If we are to ignore what makes us anxious in the classroom, isn’t that anxiety just going to hang around for longer and to grow bigger? If we are asking them to learn “by accident”, how do we know when they have overcome the things that made them anxious? Are we just deferring that anxiety while the children are in our care, only for it to cause greater anxiety in adulthood?

I think that what we do as teachers, on a daily basis, is plan and teach lessons that have an unconscious understanding of the anxiety of learning. We may not think about it explicitly, but what we do when we think about the elements of teaching: pitch, scaffolding, modelling, feedback, questioning, explaining and discussing – amongst everything else we do – is that we are ensuring that we make things challenging enough, but not too challenging that they cause anxiety. And if they do, we respond to that. We just don’t ignore things because they might cause anxiety in some. Sally Winston of ASDI says that anxiety is provoked by “unpredictability, uncertainty and uncontrollability”. I’d certainly say that the first two conditions are also perfect for provoking learning. And as for the latter condition? Well, that is why we have teachers.

One other thing I think that anxiety breeds is caution. When I started thinking about the Magic Roundabout again recently, I thought about how anxious it makes people and how it must cause many accidents. Actually, it turns out that the roundabout has an excellent safety record. For such a busy junction, it has had far fewer accidents than would be expected – this is very much a success as it was built to replace a roundabout that was something of an accident blackspot.

So is it fair to say that anxiety can cause people to take care over what they are doing? Isn’t that something we strive for so much in the classroom?

Rather than run away and hide from anxiety, it is my belief that we should embrace it, understand it and manage it as a vital element of learning. In fact, why call it ‘anxiety’ at all? It seems that all we are talking about here is the feeling of finding something difficult. It’s okay to find things difficult. Pupils should find things difficult if they want to learn. For something synonymous with creativity and caution, ‘anxiety’ seems a rather pejorative term for what is essentially learning. Perhaps the people of Swindon have it right – they don’t call their infamous rotary ‘The Anxiety Roundabout’. So rather than classroom anxiety – that which leads to those desirable qualities of caution, care and creativity – how about we just call it classroom ‘magic’?