Connecting the Dots: A Positive Education

It goes without saying that access to education advances a society, yet what is it that makes an education positive?

Positive education brings together the science of positive psychology with best practice teaching, encouraging individuals and school communities to thrive. Positive Education goes beyond acquiring factual knowledge and focusing on individual achievements – in addition to academics, it thoroughly incorporates wellbeing outcomes.

Strong relationships are the building blocks on which flourishing futures are built, for our children, our workplaces, and our communities. Human beings are primed to connect with each other – it is necessary for our survival. Education too, is not a stand-alone process; it is inextricably linked to our relationship with all aspects of life.

“The failure of education in the (twentieth) century is not the failure to teach humankind science, language or mathematics, but the failure to teach humankind to live together in peace and to harness the potentials in individuals and societies for full and equitable development”

(V. Ordonez, 1998) –

In the earliest years of life there is an intuitive understanding about the need to bond with newborns, in the same way that attention and care is naturally given to nurture a toddler as they navigate emotions. Yet many parents would agree, that when a child starts ‘big school,’ these early foundations of positive connection are often pushed to the side as we strive to achieve academic success. It seems, once a child starts formal schooling, there is a sense of disconnect or conflict between reaching education targets and fostering the life skills needed to flourish outside the classroom.

The movement of positive education is a response to increasing depression and anxiety levels in students, as well as a call from parents to close the gap between what is taught at school and what people ultimately want for their children – happiness, confidence, and resilience. So, how do we go about teaching these behaviours?

10 Tips for Teachers

The Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School (GGS) has been striving for many years to place wellbeing at the heart of education. As teachers are at the heart of this movement, GGS has shared tips for designing curriculum, summarised below:

#1 Start big – Gather your stakeholders, whether it is your whole faculty or just your grade partner and synthesise your objectives. Consider your sphere of influence and how widespread the change is going to be.

#2 Define the big ideas – As advocated by proponents of backwards design, it’s important to start by identifying the ‘big ideas’ and determine whether the core issues are meaningful and challenging (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011). These could be core concepts, ongoing issues or overarching principles. Big ideas have many layers and nuances, and yield great breadth and depth of meaning, making it necessary to dig deep to really understand the subtle implications and meanings.

 #3 Describe the markers for success – Ensure you can articulate what success looks like. What specific insights do you want your students to have? What essential questions will frame the teaching and learning, pointing toward key issues and ideas? What should students know and be able to do? What content standards are specifically addressed?

# 4 Use data to inform success – Map where your students are, compared to where they need to be, and identify the frameworks that will inform your curriculum.

# 5 Give students a voice – Although there are universal elements to student engagement (such as creativity, curiosity and interest, flow, and motivation), it’s important to also identify the specific types of activities that your students find engaging. How can you incorporate their ideas, suggestions and preferences into your curriculum in a meaningful way?

# 6 Teach students to think about their thinking – Metacognition is not just a buzzword; it’s an important tool that helps students self-regulate their understanding. By increasing students’ awareness and understanding of the learning process, students increase their control over their learning. This could include students evaluating their progress or monitoring their comprehension (State of Victoria DET, 2017).

 # 7 Encourage collaboration – There is strong evidence to support the use of collaboration as an effective tool when implementing curriculum in the classroom. Encouraging students to work together toward a common goal can also help to foster positive relationships.

 # 8 Peer tutoring – Encouraging students to learn in pairs or small groups is beneficial for both the teacher and the student! The effect size and months of progress that students make as a result of this specific collaborative strategy are significant. (State of Victoria, DET, 2017)

 #9 Incorporate digital technology – Research suggests that using technology to supplement teaching can have a positive impact. Students can use technology to engage in problem solving or open-ended research.

#10 Incorporate Social and Emotional Learning – Last, and not least, there is a wealth of research to support the fact that Social and Emotional Learning improves students’ wellbeing and their academic outcomes (CASEL, 2008).

Social and emotional learning (SEL)

Social and emotional learning involves students having opportunities to learn and practice social skills such as: cooperation, managing conflict, making friends, coping, being resilient and recognising and managing their own feelings. SEL is:

  • A process for helping children and adults develop the fundamental skills for life effectiveness
  • The skills we need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work effectively and ethically
  • Areas of learning include recognising emotions, developing care for others, building positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively
  • The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

In Australia there are numerous programmes that impact on SEL dimensions. These include Kidsmatter, Mindmatters, Bounceback as well as Circle Solutions.

Some of the successes for SEL programmes, according to various research (especially when delivered by teachers, not outside researchers), include:

  • SEL programmes, wither universal, targeted or after school, raised test scores by 11, 17 and 16 percentile points respectively
  • Improvements in social behaviour, such as getting along and co-operating with others
  • Decreased in behavioural problems such as aggression and disruptiveness
  • Increase in positive feelings about self, others and the school
  • reductions in levels of emotional distress such as anxiety and depression.

With the desire for more holistic school environments the connection between students, teachers and communities has evolved into a whole school model which incorporates SEL skills across all groups.

Learning to know – Learning to do – Learning to be – Learning to live together

As reflected in the whole school model, simply telling children about positive psychology initiatives is not enough. We need to understand, practice, and entrench the practices across all touch points of education.

UNESDOC has outlined a framework for integrated and holistic education for the 21st century. They have identified four interconnected pillars of learning.

Learning to know emphasizes knowledge acquisition; learning to do focuses on skills and methods; learning to live together reflects tolerance for diversity and connecting with and understanding others; and learning to be is about self-awareness, goals, and self-direction (Delors, 2013).

Celebrating Strengths

Focusing on strengths is an important aspect of positive education. Research shows that effective, strengths-based strategies enhance student learning. A progressive community of educators are now designing innovative wellbeing programs, implementing them at different levels, and generating results.

Positive Education fosters a growth mindset that sets children up for lifelong learning. It uses a strengths-based approach, which helps students and teachers build on their strengths and use the benefits of positive emotions, communication, and relationships to leverage learning outcomes.

“A strengths-based school is one where the focus is primarily on strengths, not weaknesses, where teachers and pupils aim not to be ‘OK, ‘ but excel.” 

– Jennifer M  Fox Eades, Celebrating Strengths –

Closing Thoughts

Albert Einstein said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” – reminding us that the gap between traditional curriculum and life education is not a new concept.

The great news is that schools are increasingly willing to explore how young people can become the best they can be in all aspects of their development. Positive educators are dismantling conservative teaching structures and looking far beyond the classroom walls. With emphasis on human values and social skills, our young people are engaged in their learning and more likely to succeed.

With the ever-shifting environment our children are growing up in, there has never been a more important time to connect the dots between education and leading a positive and flourishing life.

Ready to learn more?

Develop strategies for implementation to create positive education institutions is one of the six elective units of competency in the Langley Group Institutes Nationally Accredited Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. Designed for those working in a school or educations setting and explores application of positive psychology from a whole school approach.