What's the big deal about Positive Education?

 I’m going to tell you a story. Get comfortable, settle in and listen carefully, for this is not fiction but a true story……..

 Once upon a year (2007 in fact), Sir Anthony Sneddon, Headmaster of the prestigious Wellington School in the UK, biographer of John Major and Tony Blair and a historian for the Tory party, stood before a gathering of teachers from around the world at a conference in New Jersey. “In two words or fewer, what do you most want for your children?” He asked. The reply was immediate “happiness, meaning, contentment, fulfillment, joy, health, enthusiasm, courage, stick-to-it-iveness”. 

“Now in two words or fewer, what do schools teach?”

“Discipline, numeracy, hard work, science, literacy, conformity” came the reply in somewhat embarrassed hesitation.

“Notice,” he says, “there is no overlap between the two lists. Now imagine that well-being, joy, meaning, fulfillment, engagement …. The whole first list, could be taught without compromising the traditional goals of the school, the achievement list.” And Positive Education was born! 

 The story hasn’t ended. We are still working towards the happy ever after. And although a great deal has been done, there is still much to do.

 Positive Education is an approach to education that blends academic learning with character and well-being. It focusses on preparing students with life skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, growth mindset, engagement and mindfulness, amongst others. Positive education is based on the science of well-being and happiness.

 So why the need?

·      Depression has been on the rise since World War II, despite increasing national wealth.

·      Almost one in five will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school.

 But there is hope – we can turn this around.  Research has shown that character traits plus well-being are malleable or skill-like and can be improved with good teaching and practice.

 Why now?

·      We know that youth on average spend more than 30 hours a week in school.

·      Some research has shown that character traits like grit can be just as important as IQ in academic performance.

·      9 out of 10 parents want schools to offer this kind of education

·      2/3 of parliament support teaching character education

 “While we should be cautious and continue to rigorously research positive education – we believe that our students need new skills to flourish in the 21stcentury.” The State of Positive Education report, delivered at the World Government Summit in 2018, lays out what we know from research, policy and practice.

 Australia is leading the world in Positive Education.  Geelong Grammar in Victoria started the ‘wave’ and appointed Prof Martin Seligman to help them explore, develop and implement positive education in their school. Their vision was to have children who have pleasure, engagement, good relationships, meaning and are also high achievers. They decided to:

·      Train all the two hundred teachers and staff in Positive Psychology, strengths and resilience

·      Arrange visiting lecturers from the major figures in Positive Psychology from across the globe

·      Appoint a full-time director of positive education

·      Have a curriculum designer lead the faculty in creating a K-12 syllabus in positive psychology.

 St Peter’s College in Adelaide have followed Geelong’s lead and in NSW, Ravenswood School for Girls is also leading the way in their innovations to ensure their girls achieve positive, successful and meaningful lives.

 What all these schools will tell you, is that the research and data they have gathered, shows that their students are happier, much more resilient and are achieving at higher levels from their work on positive education.

 In Sir Anthony Sneddon’s final words, he says, “The emergence of positive education this century has enabled whole schools to move from a welfare model towards a well-being model.”  “This concern about the rise of mental ill-health, depression and anxiety and its burden on society, is global.”  “The role of governments, schools and systems has often been criticised. In the face of these concerns many schools and teachers feel unprepared to manage whole school approaches to the well-being of the students they serve. Alongside concerns about students, there are equal concerns about the well-being of staff as they struggle to achieve the educational goals and objectives they are set.” “the growth of positive education is an exciting development and one that is starting to receive greater global attention as we seek to strengthen the school improvement agenda. As Malala Yousafzai reminds us, ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.’”

 Adapted from The State of Positive Education report, delivered at the World Government Summit in 2018.


Jo Opie