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The case for Positive Education

10 Dec 2014 | James O’Shaughnessy and Emily Larson

The new International Positive Education Network is encouraging a shift in education priorities. But what does this mean in practice? James O'Shaughnessy and Emily Larson explain.

Work Hard Be Nice

"Work hard, be nice"

No phrase more succinctly captures the idea behind positive education than KIPP Schools famous motto. Its power comes from expressing something that every teacher and parent wants for young people: academic excellence achieved through outstanding teaching and dogged determination; and, an induction into the world of character virtue, service to others and the pursuit of happiness.

This 'academics + character' approach is the essence of positive education, and its deep popularity with parents and practitioners is its greatest strength. As the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues found, nearly 9-in-10 parents want schools to offer this kind of education. [1]

However, as Copernicus showed it is perfectly possible for popular ideas to be proved wrong. So while widespread support is necessary to the success of the positive education movement, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to be demonstrably right too, philosophically and scientifically.

Unless we can show that the arguments for positive education are true in practice, as well as in theory, then we will not deserve to change education in the way that our new International Positive Education Network (IPEN) is proposing.

This blog tries to answer some of the most burning questions with the strongest evidence currently available to support our proposition. Its structure is based on the kind of questions we tend to experience when discussing positive education with an interested but sceptical audience.

Question one: What is positive education? What do you mean?

Positive education represents a paradigm shift: away from viewing education merely as a route to academic attainment, towards viewing it as a place where students can cultivate their intellectual minds while developing a broad set of character strengths and virtues and wellbeing. This in a nutshell is the 'character + academics' approach to education.

Manifesto _DNA

Question two: I recently read in the news that school test scores are declining. Shouldn't we be directing our attention to academic success rather than taking time away for building character?

This question represents our tendency look at character development and academic achievement as two separate entities, but this is a false dichotomy. We wholly support rigorous academic study in school and the achievement of the highest possible standards. Too often these are lacking in schools, usually causing the greatest harm to the poorest.

Positive education rests on the premise that teaching skills that promote positive emotions, relationships, and character strengths and virtues also promotes learning and academic success. [2] So it is important to argue that, aside from its own intrinsic value and the wider benefits it brings, educating for character and wellbeing can help the quest for academic excellence. [3],[4]

School interventions that focus on social emotional learning, character development or wellbeing have been shown to increase academic performance as an outcome. [5],[6] A report by Public Health England has shown that an 11% boost in results in standardised achievement tests has been linked to school programmes that directly improve pupils' social and emotional learning. [7]

Further evidence suggests that positive educational interventions have been found to increase facets of the student experience that contribute to academic success such as:

  • Hope [8],[9],[10]
  • Engagement in school [11],[12]
  • Academic expectations [13]
  • Motivation [14],[15]
  • Perceptions of ability [16]
  • Life satisfaction [17],[18]
  • Self-worth [19]
  • Classroom behaviour [20]

In separating mental health and wellbeing from academic achievement we are ignoring the fact that depression has been on the rise since World War II despite increasing national wealth, [21],[22] and even worse, almost one in five will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school. [23]

This is deeply worrying in itself, but it directly impacts academic achievement too. Adolescents who experience poor mental health at ages 16 to 17 have been found to be less likely to obtain higher education degrees than adolescents without such challenges, suggesting that mental health problems during secondary school have lasting implications for achievement later on in life. [24],[25]

Question three: But isn't IQ what matters and that really depends on students parents, so why waste time on building these other skills?

The raw intelligence of an individual is an important determinant of future success and wellbeing but it isn't the only thing that matters. Research by Angela Duckworth has shown that the character trait called 'grit', or passion and perseverance for a long-term goal, is a better predictor of some success outcomes than IQ. [26] And James Heckman has show that character traits are malleable or 'skill-like' and can be improved with good teaching and practice.[27]

In a meta-analysis of positive education interventions, researcher Lea Waters found that interventions targeting students' character can indeed lead to development of character strengths. [28]  So even if our characters and IQs are partially determined by genes and upbringing, then there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Question four: Aren't students meant to get these skills at home?

"Just because character can be taught, doesn't mean it should be taught in schools."

At face value this is a valid argument, and it's undoubtedly the case that parents, families and even religious organisations can be more important character educators than schools. But not every child is exposed to good influences at home, and for those young people the experience of character education at school is vital.

About 50% of students in the US are exposed to violence every year, and 10% witness violence between family members at home. [29] In addition, the 20% of students under 18 who live in poverty are more likely to experience violence, abuse, and neglect at home. [30]

So if not at home, where? Next to home, school is the place students spend most of their time. It has been estimated that youth spend on average more than 30 hours a week at school. [31] Schools and other educational institutions, like colleges and universities, have the unique potential to help disadvantaged students prepare for the tests of life, not just a life of tests. [32]

Question five: What about the children in poor areas? Don't they need all the time they can get for traditional academic skills like math and science?

We strongly favour rigorous, stretching academic development as an essential route out of poverty. But on its own it is not enough. Carol Dweck has popularised a construct called the 'Growth Mindset', which is the belief that intelligence is malleable and can be changed through hard work and perseverance. It stands opposed to the 'Fixed Mindset', which is the belief that intelligence is inherited and cannot be changed. [33]

Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck supported this research in their study, which found during difficult transition periods at school, students who have a growth mindset displayed superior academic performance even though the students entered with equal skills and knowledge. [34]

Additional research has found this effect was especially prominent in students who have a stereotype against them, such as being female or from a minority. [35],[36],[37]

A note of caution must be sounded, however. Impressive as these results are, Dweck and her fellow authors note that, "believing intelligence to be malleable does not imply that everyone has exactly the same potential in every domain, or will learn everything with equal ease.

Rather, it means that for any given individual, intellectual ability can always be further developed." [38] What this means is that, like academic education, character education can make us better version of ourselves, but it cannot change everything about us.

Question six: Well, this is good in theory but what about in practice? How can we really implement this kind of education? After all, our teachers aren't trained psychologists!

What does positive education look like in practice? On a national level, schools in Bhutan and Singapore have adopted a positive education model. In Bhutan, students who received positive education increased their standardized test scores compared to the control group. [39] The Singaporean Government has just introduced a new Character and Citizenship Curriculum for all its schools. [40]

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) was developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and has been one of the most extensively tests programs in positive education. The results from 19 controlled studies of PRP found that compared to control groups, students who received PRP: [41]

  • Reduce and prevent symptoms of depression
  • Reduce feelings of hopelessness and increased optimism
  • Prevent clinical levels of depression and anxiety
  • Reduce and prevents anxiety
  • Reduce behavioural problems

In addition, schools such as St. Peters College and Geelong Grammar School in Australia and Wellington College in the UK have wholly implemented positive education in their schools, and are continuing research its effects. KIPP, a charter school network in the USA, has integrated character education and seen tremendous success in getting low-income students into college.

And there are new schools and organizations contributing the breadth of practice every day. These include Character Lab and the Jubilee Centre, which are dedicated to introducing the best theory, research and practice into schools and testing the outcomes.

In this short blog we have attempted to compile the best evidence and support for positive education. If you have more to contribute to this growing movement please get in touch.

Ipen -round -logoIpen JamesIpen Emily

James O'Shaughnessy is Chair of IPEN and Managing Director of Floreat Education. Emily E. Larson, M.A.P.P. is Head of Research for IPEN.

 

References

[1] The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. (2012). A Framework for Character Education Jubilee Centre Parents' survey. Retrieved from http://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/471/character-education/populus-survey

[2] Waters, L. (2011). A Review of School-Based Positive Psychology Interventions. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(02), 75-90. doi:10.1375/aedp.28.2.75

[3] Adler, A. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (in review). Does teaching well-being improve academic performance?

[4] Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. oi:10.1080/3054980902934563

[5] Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O'Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J., (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58(6-7), 466-474. doi:10.1037/0003066X.58.6-7.466

[6] Durlak, J. a, Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x

[7] Public Health England. (2014). The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/370686/HT_briefing_layoutvFINALvii.pdf

[8] Green, S., Anthony, T., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidence-based life coaching for senior high school students: Building hardiness and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2, 24-32.

[9] Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, T. (2010). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6, 71-83.

[10] Marques, S., Lopez, S., & Pais-Ribeiro, K. (2011.) Building hope for the future: A program to foster strengths in middle-school students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 139-152.

[11] Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, T. (2010). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6, 71-83.

[12] Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. doi:10.1080/3054980902934563

[13] Austin, D. (2005). The effects of a strengths development intervention program upon the self-perception of students' academic abilities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 66, 1631A.

[14] Austin, D. (2005). The effects of a strengths development intervention program upon the self-perception of students' academic abilities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 66, 1631A.

[15] Bernard, M., & Walton, K. (2011). The effect of You Can Do It! Education in six schools on student perceptions of wellbeing, teaching, learning and relationships. Journal of Student Wellbeing, 5, 22-37.

[16] Austin, D. (2005). The effects of a strengths development intervention program upon the self-perception of students' academic abilities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 66, 1631A.

[17] Froh, J., Sefick, W., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessing in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213-233.

[18] Marques, S., Lopez, S., & Pais-Ribeiro, K. (2011.) Building hope for the future: A program to foster strengths in middle-school students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 139-152.

[19] Marques, S., Lopez, S., & Pais-Ribeiro, K. (2011.) Building hope for the future: A program to foster strengths in middle-school students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 139-152.

[20] Weber, M., & Ruch, W. (2011). The Role of a Good Character in 12-Year-Old School Children: Do Character Strengths Matter in the Classroom? Child Indicators Research, 5(2), 317-334. doi:10.1007/s12187-011-9128-0

[21] Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. doi:10.1080/3054980902934563

[22] Layard, R. (2003). Has social science a clue?: What is happiness? Are we getting happier? In: Lionel Robbins memorial lecture series, 03-05 Mar 2003, London, UK.

[23] Lewinsohn, P. M., Rohde, P., Seeley, J. R., & Fischer, S. A. (1993). Age-cohort changes in the lifetime occurrence of depression and other mental disorders, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(1), 110.

[24] McLeod, J. D., & Fettes, D. L. (2007). Trajectories of failure: The educational careers of children with mental health problems. AJS; American journal of sociology, 113(3), 653.

[25] Jonsson, U., Bohman, H., Hjern, A., von Knorring, L., Olsson, G., & von Knorring, A. L. (2010). Subsequent higher education after adolescent depression: a 15-year follow-up register study. European psychiatry, 25(7), 396-401.

[26] Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-101. doi:10.1037/00223514.92.6.1087

[27] Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2013). Fostering and measuring skills: Interventions that improve character and cognition (No. 19656). Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w19656

[28] Waters, L. (2011). A Review of school-based positive psychology intervention. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(2), 75-90.

[29] Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children's exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

[30] U.S. Census Bureau. (2009). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2008 (Current Population Reports No. P60-236). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

[31] Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311. oi:10.1080/3054980902934563

[32] White, M. a., & Waters, L. E. (2014). A case study of "The Good School:" Examples of the use of Peterson's strengths-based approach with students. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-8. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.920408

[33] Dweck, C. S. (2008). Growth Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, New York: Random House Publishing.

[34] Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transtion: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

[35] Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transtion: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

[36] Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113-125. doi:10.1006/jesp.2001.1491

[37] Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645-662. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2003.09.002

[38] Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transtion: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

[39] Adler, A. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (in review). Does teaching well-being improve academic performance?

[40] Student Development Curriculum Division. (2014). 2014 Syllabus: Character and citizenship education primary (ISBN: 978-981-07-4289-8). Singapore: Ministry of Education.

[41] Brunwasser, S. M., & Gillhman, J. E. (2008). A meta-analytic review of the Penn Resiliency Program. Paper presented at the Society for Prevention Research, San Francisco, May.

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