What is Positive Education? This is a question I am asked on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Whenever I am asked this question, what immediately comes to mind is a visit to Bostock House, one of Geelong Grammar School’s junior campuses.
At the time of my visit, the Year 3 students were preparing to go on a camp. At 8 and 9 years old, the students were quite young to be away from home for three days and two nights. The Bostock staff had decided to focus on teaching the children some skills and mindsets for well-being — and specifically skills of resilience — to help them to really connect with each other and engage fully while on camp. With this end in mind, the teaching staff had taken the research and theory of leading scholars in the field, such as Karen Reivich, Jane Gillham, and Martin Seligman, and explored ways of making key ideas meaningful and relevant for young students.
Throughout the weeks leading up to camp, students completed projects exploring ways in which various plants and animals adapted to the environment as they survived and thrived in different terrains. Students read stories and considered how characters had used their strengths to overcome difficulties and embrace opportunities. The class had completed a (somewhat messy) experiment on the difference between an egg and a bouncy ball… and unanimously decided that they would prefer to go through life with the capacity to ‘bounce and not break’.
The classroom learning had been so well scaffolded, that when the word ‘resilience’ was finally introduced, the students were able to make meaningful insights into how they could be resilient in their own lives on a daily basis. Students provided examples of times they had overcome disappointments, let go of grudges after conflict with a friend, took on an exciting challenge, or came together to support another student during a family difficulty. Students also shared what they had learnt with their parents and families, and the language of resilience spread beyond the classroom and into the home. Needless to say, students used their new understanding and skills to have a brilliant time together while on camp.
Now, as an academic, I have always been captivated by the concept of knowledge translation. How do we move advances in science into the realm of real life application? How do we translate a growing evidence base in ways that make a meaningful difference to the community? To me, these Year 3 students discussing, exploring, and applying the skills and mindsets for well-being and resilience in such creative and tangible ways is an example of the translation of science at its best. This is how I understand Positive Education — taking the most recent scientific understanding of physical, psychological, emotional, and social health and making it real, applicable, and helpful for children, young people, adults, and communities.
The official definition, used by Geelong Grammar School, is that Positive Education brings together the science of well-being and positive psychology with best practice teaching and learning to encourage and support schools and members of the school community to flourish. Central to the approach is the Model for Positive Education and its six domains of: positive relationships, positive emotions, positive engagement, positive health, positive accomplishment, and positive purpose. Character strengths such as gratitude, curiosity, forgiveness, leadership, and spirituality, provide an underpinning framework for Positive Education and help to bring core learning to life for members of the school community of all ages.
And why does Positive Education matter? The statistics on depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health concerns in adolescents and adults are frighteningly high. It is estimated that one quarter of young people in Australia live with a mental illness. Positive Education is a proactive and preventative approach to building well-being and health in schools and communities and aims to reduce the worrisome prevalence of mental illness across the lifespan. There is also the irrefutable fact that students who are physically and mentally well are better equipped to learn and achieve academically and more effectively manage the transition to further study or employment after secondary school. Furthermore, well-being matters — helping students and staff to nurture strong relationships, develop and maintain healthy lifestyles, be engaged in their studies, and give back to the community are valued outcomes in themselves.
Throughout my time at Geelong Grammar School, I was blown away by the skill and creativity of teachers in making the skills and mindsets of well-being real for their students. I witnessed children as young as three and four practicing mindfulness and meditation, older students discussing the importance of growth mindsets in tackling difficult academic concepts, and students of all ages communicating about their emotions and actively looking to support the well-being of others.
Perhaps the only thing that has struck me more than the innovation of the school staff in teaching well-being was the role of relationships and communities in building mental and physical health. In Positive Education, supporting and nurturing the well-being of others and the community is considered as important as looking after the well-being of the self. Schools are dynamic, complex, ever-changing communities. They are also natural homes for the science of well-being. It is the coming together of the skills and mindsets for flourishing and what schools do best in terms of educating young minds that truly paves the way for flourishing futures.