Wednesday, 16 September 2009

More happiness in schools please!

An argument for acknowledging happiness as a central educational priorities.

This document outlines ideas from recent research on wellbeing that support the need for education to provide more opportunities for understanding enjoyment and learning. It makes a case for developing children’s understanding of happiness by putting less emphasis on results, and increasing opportunities and developing the skills needed to support relationships.

Wellbeing … is indirectly but powerfully part of the educational and societal goal of dealing with the emotional and social consequences of failing and being of low status. (Fullan 2007)

Wellbeing in Education

Children’s wellbeing has always been of great concern to teachers. Appreciating the role of happiness in learning is hardly new; it promotes children’s participation, social interaction and ultimately gets results. However, with social and political pressures arising from a culture of testing and league tables, there is a fear that teaching priorities are subject to pressures that create specific stresses that affect the wellbeing of teachers, parents and children. Clearly, learning in an environment preoccupied with academic performance fuels feelings of inequality. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reconsider the principal purpose of education, and making happiness a clearer in purpose. This will also have a positive impact on success and therefore ultimately results. In other words, results are still important but not the only outcome of a more holistic and balanced learning experience.

A right to happiness

Learning is a personal experience, in which happiness is fundamental, so needs to be understood as more complex and long-term than simply pleasure or satisfaction. Having an optimistic attitude does more than make learning enjoyable, happiness literally unlocks potential, enables flexibility of thought, and allows openness to new information.

‘Schooling’, where it is still perceived as the delivery of curriculum content, imposes a homogeny on children that denies their fulfilment; the system stifles growth and inhibits flourishing by restricting options and limiting choice. A whole child approach requires a deeper understanding of learning as personal growth, it needs to be one that accepts all progress and effort as valuable. Human intelligence is far more diverse than intellectual capacity, and teaching needs to cater far more broadly than to the requirements of different learning styles or multiple intelligences.

Based on consultation, five principles underpin the Children’s Plan:

government does not bring up children – parents do – so government needs to do more to back parents and families;

all children have the potential to succeed and should go as far as their talents can take them;

children and young people need to enjoy their childhood as well as grow up prepared for adult life;

services need to be shaped by and responsive to children, young people and families, not designed around professional boundaries; and

it is always better to prevent failure than tackle a crisis later.

Community and family - relationships make us happy

According to Diener the factors that affect our happiness fall broadly into three categories: relationships, meaning of life, and interesting activities that use our strengths. Happiness levels can increase over time with different strategies and practice, as evidence suggests the skills and behaviours that raise optimism can be learnt. Although good exam results are an indicator of life chances, the belief that they ensure happiness in the long term is far too simplistic. Long-term enjoyment comes from joint activity, in jobs that satisfy, and qualifications only increase happiness for those who can make choices that suit their strengths (Diener 2008).

Our relationships are key to our happiness, according to Diener (2008), happier people are more likely to have supportive families and more friends, and people with good relationships are more likely to be happy – essentially the two are mutually reinforcing. Furthermore, evidence shows that both introverts and extroverts have more positive feelings when they share activities with other people, as other people’s ideas challenge, broaden and entertain, this fuels creativity, diversity and increases people’s the ability to specialise.

While schools have a limited influence on children’s background and community, they have an influence on relationships, as they can provide opportunities for social interaction on all sorts of levels.

In a culture where only high performance is valued, the cost is a widening attainment gap. A target focus can organise performance, but it marginalises more deep-seated needs such as enjoyment and collaboration. On the other hand, a value based system, places emphasis on what children need to learn – relationships.

An inclusive approach is no less concerned with achievements but with all the achievements of all children and young people, and with the meaning of achievements within communities. An inclusive approach is equally concerned with learning, but instead of focusing on outcomes gives equal attention to the conditions for teaching and learning, so that the resources and relationships that support the active and sustained involvement of children, families and practitioners in education are maintained. (Ainscow, Et al. 2006, page 29)

Raising aspiration for all children

The second of the Children’s Plan principles articulates a need for educational culture to be more proactive about children’s long-term success. Working with the expectation of positive outcomes raises aspirations and develops potential, ensuring greater success for all regardless of levels of performance. In essence, if children are happy while they learn, they learn more, and they also learn about what makes them happy. Happiness also has a role in addressing inequality, as it focuses on what people value: relationships and meaningful activity; and lessens the negative impact of competition: social comparison.

In short, if learning about happiness is seen as a central aim, it guarantees a culture in which all children grow and flourish. Working in ways that support relationships, uphold values and promote engagement also insures fairer distribution of resources, as collaboration and effort are seen as primary priorities and get most attention. In these conditions every child is better off, as those who previously languished are enabled do moderately well, and those that did moderately well are enabled to flourish. The key is to create a culture that reflects the idea that every child is capable of learning and the same effort. As such, all learners have a right to learn, their differences are accommodated and their strengths and needs are respected.

A right to enjoy - Broaden-and-build

What enables young people to be happy depends on thought, but also on movement and feelings, the whole gamut of human experience. Intelligence in this sense is far broader than academic ability, and providing ways to develop all its aspects is critical to young people’s development. Enjoying a rich choice of activity, whilst in a relationship with other learners not only gives personal pleasure, but also insures long-term happiness and resilience.

Put differently, to the extent that the broaden-and-build effects of positive emotions accumulate and compound over time, positive emotions carry the capacity to transform individuals for the better, making them healthier and more socially integrated, knowledgeable, effective and resilient. In short, the theory suggests that positive emotions fuel human flourishing. Fredrickson (Huppert et al, 2005, page 231)

In this way happiness needs to be seen not as way of ‘making fun’ the acquisition of knowledge and skills but a more fundamental requirement to optimal learning. Being happy is not just pleasant, it has a greater function, it adds to the learning experience by increasing personal capacity and strength. Positive emotions give children energy and drive, a portfolio of physical, intellectual and social resources, that can be used again in the future.

Responding to learning – a personal experience

While changes in education policy continually affect teaching, it is still often understood in terms of curriculum delivery, and in many ways the learner is expected to fit the system, not the other way round. Children remain complex however, intricate organisms requiring attention for growth on many levels and an academically biased curriculum deliver to age-standardised ability denies personal preference or circumstance. Every child’s starting point differs, but due to different sensitivity and perception their personal preference will be highly diverse.

But our view of the world is not only affected by what we can perceive; it is deeply influenced by other factors, which affect what we actually do perceive: the ideas, the values and beliefs through which we frame our understanding of it.

(Ken Robinson, 2001, page 118)

Children have already had many experiences before getting to school and will already know a great deal about how they engage well, so background and family context will be essential to enable young people’s development.

“They should listen to children and young people more and use their ideas. They just listen to adults and ignore children.”

Young person - Online survey (Time to Talk DCFS 2008, page 74)

Responding to what children need is fundamental, as it creates responsibility for

learning. Enabling young people to understand their own learning needs to be clear. As learning is not simply about acquiring new information, it is about taking responsibility for seeking personal meaning. As schools are rarely free from institutional pressures, and expectations put on individuals to conform to the institution’s aim – as such delivery is still bound by professional needs. This pressure affects learner control, she rarely has a choice in what she enjoys learning, or which subjects or methods are used, or whom she learns with. The underlying direction lies in the administration, from teacher to learner, which takes responsibility away from the learner.

As each child is different and unique, the only way the system can deliver is to respond to individuality. To do this there needs to be a greater acknowledgement of the significance in developing the responsibility of the child in their learning, by addressing the inequality in the relationship between teacher and child.

The paucity of our understanding of learning is often reflected in the lack of any shared or common agreement between teachers, let alone learners, as to what the process actually involves. … [Learning] is usually judged as a product rather than a process- ‘I have learned this’.

(West-Burnham & Coates, 2005, page 34)

It is the ‘shared and common agreement’ that often is not developed between learners and teacher. All too often decisions are made without any thought as to who holds power in decision making. Without consideration to the power differential, teachers will not be able to affect change necessary to nurture responsibility for choice.

It is too easy for teachers to organise lessons in ways that suit delivery. More importantly, happiness is rarely acknowledged as the aim, it seen as peripheral to the task. Children will never be able to identify their preferences in this sense, because they are not always introduced to subjects through activities they enjoy. This means that some children end up feeling stupid, when in fact they have not found a way of engaging that suits them.

Identifying happiness as a clear aim allows for a more respectful approach to learning. If developing an understanding of happiness valued foremost, it necessitates it to be demonstrated in attitudes, knowledge and skills. Both practice and policy rarely recognise happiness as needing to be learnt, it is perceived as an emotional response not an attitude to be developed. So how can children be expected to know what makes them happy, in the absence of learning?

From an equality perspective, prioritising the development of happiness is easier than having to decide which children are more deserving learners. As according to Ainscow, trying to define ‘social exclusion’ or ‘inclusion’ is misleading, as some definitions imply that there are forms of exclusion that are not social and therefore acceptable (2006). If the purpose of education is to support young people in learning to be happy, by which criteria is exclusion then permissible – who deserves to be unhappy?

Inclusive Practice - Celebrating growth

Encouraging the conditions for happiness, schools help children develop on all levels, because positive emotions enable a greater personal resilience through the ability to consider wider perspectives and larger opportunities for diverse solutions to problems. Negative attitudes, not only create self-limiting belief, but inhibit the positive behaviours that promote knowledgeable, flexible, creative and clear thinking. The broaden-and-build approach can be applied to widening participation, which underpins the ideas in inclusive practice (Fredrickson 2005). Developing a ‘whole child’ approach rather than a ‘whole system’ approach is key to developing inclusive practice.

“To know that I live in a community that cares about each and every one of us. Better praise if you get something right.” Young person - Online survey (Time to Talk DCFS 2008, page 74)

Inclusive practice requires adding increasingly flexible delivery to existing practice, not simply adding to unsatisfactory options, but developing new strategies and transforming the system. Inclusive practice necessitates demonstrating the ‘broaden-and-build’ theory above, and requires a willingness make the changes to deliver to the needs of all young people personally. As Carol Tashie makes clear in her articulation of the double-duty now imposed on schools when seeking to implement inclusive practice:

Inclusion is: All children belonging to the schools they would attend if they were not disabled AND support provided to children, families, and colleagues so that all can be successful.

(Carol Tashie, The University of New Hampshire)

The key word here is ‘and’, inclusive practice is not about options, it is about a right to choose, and this requires effort and development. From a rights perspective inclusive practice acknowledges that all children have an entitlement to learn, which puts the onus on the delivery method to change. An inclusive perspective requires a capacity to welcome, celebrate and accommodate learner diversity irrespective of their economic, family background, level of disadvantage or ability.

Preventing failure - Positive and possible

By definition, inclusion cannot be at the expense of the needs of vulnerable children, but schools will continue to discriminate if targets and performance are overriding priorities. This does not mean that standards and achievement cease to matter; it simply means relationships, values and engagement need to come first. Evidence shows that every learner, regardless of difference or ability, can be accommodated within schools (Mason and Dearden, 2004). However, what seems to be lacking is an ability to make this atypical practice commonplace within system culture. Ultimately, inclusive practice will be different in every school, and services will respond be uniquely to every child – as standard.

Inclusive practice needs to be understood as the ongoing process of growth and review, in order to adjust and accommodate to a wider range of learners. Inclusive practice cannot happen in an organisation whose culture is static, compliant or tick box. Inclusive practice implies movement, both in terms of ideas and practice - it is about valuing the journey not the outcome. Inclusive practice recognises a need to get to know others, a call for dialogue to identify the barriers to participation. Belonging implies deeper connection; therefore effort is required to engage ever child in the group, with an eye on the family and the wider community. Crucially, belonging is owned, it cannot be given or imposed, so inclusive practice also requires a culture of shared leadership at every level of the organisation.

In Summary:

In an effort to rise to the challenge laid out in the principles of the Children’s Plan, educational practice needs to articulate more succinctly what it values, and define its purpose accordingly. If it values equality, then more needs to be done acknowledge its influence on learners’ life-chances. Learners will never feel happy in a culture that values their results over their wellbeing.

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