Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 January 2020

Positivity makes happier and smarter school pupils

Education should focus as much on happiness as on academic achievement, writes Justin Thomas
Happy teachers can help produce  happy, and smart, pupils. Klaus Vedfelt for The National
Happy teachers can help produce happy, and smart, pupils. Klaus Vedfelt for The National

What do you most want for your children? Now ask yourself: what do our schools teach? These two questions have been posed to parents from around the globe. The first question tends to elicit responses such as happiness, joy and contentment. Responses to the second question centre on words such as numeracy, literacy and science. The discrepancy is glaringly and embarrassingly obvious.

Last week, I was invited to a session at the World Government Summit titled “Positive education”. The basic proposition of positive education is that, without compromising traditional cognitive skills, schools and colleges should foster happiness, optimism, purpose and so on. After all, these are the things we say we want for our children.

Speaking at the session, the founder of positive psychology, Prof Martin Seligman, argued convincingly that positive education leads to improved well-being and improved grades. Happier students, it seems, get higher grades and this improved academic performance is a byproduct of improved well-being – not the other way around.

Positive education isn’t only about focusing on students. Teachers are powerful role models, for better or for worse, and positive education targets the well-being of teachers too. Prof Seligman’s own international research has found that when you improve the well-being of teachers, the well-being of students improves too, along with their academic performance.

One factor in this is greater engagement. If students are disengaged, if they are inattentive, then lessons are lost. It seems that happier teachers improve student engagement, which has a positive impact on academic performance. If a teacher is bordering on major depression, we can hardly expect pedagogic performances that have students on the edge of their seats demanding encores.

So, improving student well-being improves academic performance and improving teacher well-being improves academic performance. Imagine a school that focuses on the well-being of students and staff, and perhaps offers well-being programmes for parents. Might such an institution produce the very best and brightest?

Beyond grades and academic performance there is also the issue of preventing depression. The roots of positive education stretch back to the depression-prevention programmes of the 1990s. These programmes help children develop thinking styles (for example, optimism) that bolster resilience in the face of adversity, thereby reducing the likelihood of depression.

Given our current rates of depression and the associated economic impact, positive education makes sound financial sense too.

Improving grades and reducing depression are the obvious arguments for increasing our integration of well-being and character development within education. However, the strongest argument for promoting the well-being of our young people, teachers and society at large, is simply that it is the right thing to do. If we don’t care about how other people feel, then something is broken – a psychiatrist might begin to talk about antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy). If our organisations don’t care about how people feel, then they are broken too.

Positive education asks young people to consider their purpose in life over and above their occupational aspirations. Rather than asking, “What do you want to be?”, positive education might ask, “What kind of a person do you want to be”?

I asked my 10-year-old daughter, Nafisa, this very question, to which she replied: “Kind, caring, generous and funny.” Now, do I want my daughter to be kind, caring, generous and funny, or do I want her to be a doctor? Of course she can be both, but being a kind, caring doctor with a good sense of humour is a much higher aspiration.

Positive education can help our young people discover and achieve their higher aspirations.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Updated: February 19, 2017 04:00 AM