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Educating Positively

by Tim Oughton

After more than 30 years of teaching (and learning!) my perspective on what matters most in a student’s education has evolved considerably. As a beginning chemistry teacher, I used to think that effective learning in chemistry could only happen if a student was familiar with the language and big ideas that underpin the wonderful subject of chemistry. I still believe that to this day, but it is only part of the complex picture of effective learning.

Students come to school with a vast array of life experiences; some largely positive (e.g. enduring love, interest in learning material, healthy diet and lifestyle) and some negative (e.g. family breakdown, family violence, alcoholism), and, of course, there are those who live with a mixture of positive and negative experiences.

Our hope, as teachers, is that most of our charges come to school with a background that is heavily weighted in the positive zone. We cannot change a student’s family, experiences or history but schools can – and do – help children feel valued for who they are. This improves their chances of developing resilience and a more optimistic future. Most significantly, however, it also makes a difference to how effectively they learn.

Kristin has always placed high value on student well-being but recently a number of staff have been involved in researching and developing learning programmes that relate to a relatively new international movement – specifically positive education and its relationship to student and staff well-being. Much of the original research in this area has come out of the University of Pennsylvania and, in particular, the work of Professor Martin Seligman and his team. We will be looking to use the findings of their work to place an increased emphasis on explicit teaching programmes and pastoral themes that focus on student well-being. Seligman (2011) defines a theory of well-being that contains five elements:

• Positive emotion (happiness and life satisfaction)
• Engagement (were you switched on by the material)
• Relationships (the importance of positive relationships for people working together)
• Meaning (belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than one’s self)
• Accomplishment (what you achieve in life)

Seligman refers to these five elements by the acronym PERMA. (For those interested in exploring the notion of PERMA more deeply, I thoroughly recommend his latest book Flourish. It is a book I strongly believe would be a wonderful reference in every family library.)

Teachers who say that they have no time for the promotion of well-being – saying that they have a curriculum to deliver and complete – ignore the fact that emotions and relationships are part of the fabric of school life and culture. John Hattie’s meta-analysis (2009) on effective education emphasises the importance of the quality of the relationships between teachers and students. He strongly advises of the need to teach students first, and subjects second, to optimise the learning environment.

I believe that if we, as educators, focus on promoting overlapping dimensions of well-being such as using strength-based approaches, enhancing social and emotional learning, promoting positive behaviours and fostering a sense of meaning and purpose, then our students will flourish, as will our job satisfaction.