The long awaited student report card arrives home. A treatise of a student's school year in a neat, little and well-presented book. There's a mark, rank and comment on mathematics, english, science, physical education and a range of other subjects. There's likely to be a list of outcomes achieved and at what level. The modern report card deals predominantly with academic development.
In fact, this report card tells us more than just the students' achievement. It is a guide to the state of education. It is an outline of what is seen to be the essential elements that define a student's learning and development. There's something amiss. If the report card does reflect what is most important in education, it reveals that academic achievement shadows the development of character and well-being. It shouts that schools place a higher value on Pythagoras, Shakespeare and Marie Curie than happiness, well-being and emotional intelligence.
There is no reason to claim that happiness is more important than Shakespeare or that well-being is more important Pythagoras; it serves no point. This isn't an "us or them" discussion, nor is it a competition. This is the premise of positive education.
Imagine if schools could, without compromising either, teach both the skills of well-being and the skills of achievement. Imagine positive education.
The pursuit of happiness or "the good life" has been a discussion of contemporary western thinkers ever since Plato argued, "happiness is obtainable through human work". This argument isn't just a preamble for positive education but is also the beginning of the discussion on growth mindset and grit.
What is positive education?
Positive education is education that develops academic skills alongside and in conjunction with character and well-being skills. Positive education doesn't oppose traditional teaching, learning and the development of academic skills, but seeks to build upon them by applying positive psychology to create happier, smarter and more engaged citizens in the future.
In such a fast moving world, teaching students how to be happy, positive and optimistic might be the only skills we can guarantee will be useful as they progress into adulthood.
What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology is the scientific study of how humans become happy. It is the study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. It is not the plethora of self-help "be happy and smile" we see everywhere. Psychology is science, and science is subject to the scientific method. It's not a vibe or spoken about through anecdotes and personal experience. It's legitimate, and it's powerful. People want to live full and meaningful lives; they want to do better, and they strive for happiness. Positive psychology deals with how to get there.
What is happiness?
Joy, contentment and well-being are all key aspects of happiness.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher of positive psychology, describes happiness as "the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile."
It's the feeling you get when you're exhausted from helping your dad all day in the backyard, just as you sit down at the dining table with all your family to eat your mum's famed lasagne, knowing full well there's apple crumble in the oven and litres of ice cream in the freezer.
Happiness is not a destination; it's a journey. A journey that never ends. A journey that is your life. Happiness is what you make it to be, it's personal, relative, subjective and attainable.
There are five key elements to happiness as outlined by Martin Seligman's PERMA model.
Remembering to look on the bright side is a good first step to happiness.
Find the half full cup, see the silver lining and look on the bright side. It's easy to build up a habit of finding the positives in your everyday life. Make sure you do your best to find the best in everything you do.
While negative situations may not be your fault, it is always your responsibility to make them positive. Don't see mistakes as failures, see them as learning milestones. Milestones you will look back on as personal growth in the future.
Engaged / mindfulness
Try to be present in all things you are doing. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and desires. Take time out of your busy schedule, step away from your devices and stare into space.
Mindfulness isn't a strange practice. Everywhere you go, and in everything you do, something is vying for your attention. With all the distractions of the modern world, it can be difficult to focus, organise your thoughts or find positivity.Take a step back and practise mindfulness; happiness will be much easier to find.
You can start building positive relationships with all the people around you right now. Help people and let them help you. Give and receive, take advice, leave thoughtful notes, help on a project, listen more. Compliment a stranger, hug your mother, call your brother.
It's not just people; it can be food, pets, plants and exercise. It's simple. Build positive relationships!
Meaning and accomplishment go hand in hand. Setting goals and making accomplishments gives meaning to our lives. If you are working towards a goal, it will give you purpose and meaning. Some meaning, like finishing a video game is easy to achieve. True meaning is found when it's derived from activities that we do for ourselves and others. Meaning can is found by being there for someone in good times and bad. A life without meaning will be tiring, boring and frustrating. Meaning makes life easier to deal with and hence makes you happier.
Set goals. Set big ones. Set small ones. Set long term ones and set short term ones. Set goals with friends and set goals with families.
Setting goals such as "I'll eat eight serves of vegetables each week" and "I'll exercise 4 times by next Sunday" are great ways to get started. The process of setting goals and accomplishing them makes us happy. Research tells us that even just setting goals can promote happiness.
If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.
The next step is to look at a bigger goal. The goals "what do you want to be?" or "where do you want to go?" are perfect. When you set big goals and work on them a little every day, you'll always have something to do, and you'll never be bored.
Every ten minutes you spend on a goal, dream or project gets you ten minutes closer to realising it. Want to end world hunger? Donate a little today, travel next year and make a difference. Want to earn a PHD in Psychology? Read a blog right now, email a professor next week, work on it a little every day and you'll be there before you know it.
Quick start guide for positive education
Use this guide to get started with positive education today.
1. Praise children for effort rather than intelligence
Stop saying "wow, you're so smart" and instead say "wow, I'm amazed by your energy".
2. Engage students for the benefit of others
Foster collaboration on tasks, assign a duty to one child and ask another to help them. Get fast-finishing students to help slower students or get older siblings to help younger with homework.
3. Turn off the devices
Use devices as a reward. TV and devices can teach boredom because when removed, children don't know what to do. Foster hobbies outside of technology such as musical instruments, bike riding, dancing, etc. Skills give children identity and are intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding.
4. Create a classroom / household code of conduct
Engage students in the creation of a code of conduct that highlights positive behaviours and relationships.
5. Spend five minutes a day completing a mindfulness activity
After lunch, it can be a challenge to bring children back to energy levels that are conducive to in-depth and relevant learning. A five-minute mindfulness exercise will get them in the right frame of mind for learning faster.
6. Always be positive and neutral, never accusatory
When children aren't behaving within the classroom code of conduct, ask them how their actions affect their peers. This allows the student to tell their story and helps them take responsibility for their actions. Take positive turns when steering students in the right direction.
7. Catch children doing the right thing
If you see a young learner doing the right thing, invite her into the office and tell her how awesome he/she is!
8. Check in with children personally
Ask: “What did you get up to yesterday? Oh, you sound like you enjoyed that, why do you think that is?”
This can be turned into kick starter game for morning roll call, as played at Geelong Grammar in Australia, a worldwide leader in positive education. Ask your young learners "what went well last night?" It's not just about applying it in school, it can become part of everyone's lives.
9. Turn positive behaviour reward games into positive psychology games
For example, get in a big circle and compliment the person next to you using an adjective that has the same letter as their first name. Get students to talk about three things they are good at while still in the circle
What can you expect from positive education?
When students participate in positive education programmes, they gain emotional and academic intelligence.
The outcome of positive education for students is academic and emotional intelligence. Within their routine studies, students develop key characteristics such as grit, confidence, respect and happiness. These characteristics generate engagement in the classroom. When students are engaged in their education, they develop deeper understanding and knowledge and higher order thinking. This shows that positive education aids student academic achievement.
Positive education, as discussed by Martin Seligman, is teaching and learning the skills of well-being and achievement, at the same time and in support of each other. It 's hard to imagine one without the other. Plain and simple, positive education can only be a positive, and the conclusion is clear:
Get happy, get smart.