Does positive education improve results?

Positive education is being picked up by more and more schools as part of the wellbeing movement, with supporters claiming that the approach improves pupils’ mental health and boosts academic results. But is there any evidence that it works? Helen Amass looks at the research and talks to schools that have already adopted the ‘PosEd’ philosophy
21st February 2020, 12:05am
How Positive Is Positive Education?
Helen Amass


Does positive education improve results?

Stephen Meek takes a deep breath and clicks "send". After months of discussion and weighing up the pros and cons, the announcement finally appears in the inboxes of hundreds of fee-paying parents: academic learning will no longer be the number-one priority at Geelong Grammar School, where he is principal. Instead, the focus will be on wellbeing, under the banner of "positive education".

Meek sits back and waits anxiously for the complaints to roll in. But he is pleasantly surprised: they never do.

"Not a single parent withdrew their child [from the school], even though academic learning was being explicitly deprioritised," reveals David Bott, associate director of the Institute of Positive Education.

Meek has since retired from Geelong Grammar, which is in the Australian state of Victoria and where Bott and his team are based. At the time Meek sent the email above, he was hesitant about the response to introducing positive-education approaches, but such caution has since become rare. Shouting about positive education is ever more on trend. The movement, which started in Australian independent schools, has now spread to schools of every sector in many different countries, including the UK.

But does positive education deliver the wellbeing and knock-on academic benefits it promises? "Positive educators" would argue that the proof is there. Yet the movement is not without its critics, and there are those who claim that the research is not as persuasive as it first appears.

What is positive education?

Positive education aims to help students to become happier, more resilient, more well-rounded individuals while also raising attainment along the way. Touted as an answer to what many see as education's overemphasis on academic achievement and high-stakes testing, the movement has been growing in popularity around the world since Geelong Grammar became the first positive-education school in 2006.

Ask positive-education practitioners what draws them to "PosEd", as it is often called, and there is one answer you will hear time and again: these are educational approaches underpinned by "science".

Adrian Bethune, a primary teacher and education policy co-lead at the Mindfulness Initiative, was initially attracted by the empirical evidence behind PosEd.

"My heart soared because it was everything I wanted to focus on in my classroom," Bethune says. "Here was a teaching approach using research and evidence to support children's wellbeing in a practical way."

Helen O'Connor, clinical counselling psychologist at St Swithun's School in Winchester, was also swayed by the research after attending a course led by Geelong Grammar.

"The Geelong model is evidence-based and sits within the area of positive psychology, which I think makes intuitive sense, despite my being a clinical psychologist and working mainly in a deficit model," O'Connor says.

Positive psychology is the field from which positive education was spawned. It was pioneered in the early 2000s by prominent psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. They argued that, rather than attempting to fix what is "wrong" with a person as psychology had done in the past, it is preferable to take a more preventative, wellbeing-based approach.

"The idea sat very well for me in terms of being more proactive rather than reactive for managing young people's mental health difficulties," says O'Connor.

Positive-psychology interventions might include taking the time each night to write down three things that went well that day and why they went well - the aim is to help individuals to focus on positive events, thus improving life satisfaction over time. Or it might mean paying a "gratitude visit" to somebody who has helped you and your actively expressing your thanks - the aim here being to evoke strong feelings of positivity in both the person expressing gratitude and the person receiving it.

These activities may sound simple, but there is plenty of evidence that positive psychology can work. A 2009 meta-analysis (Sin and Lyubomirsky) of 49 studies on the impact of positive-psychology interventions found that they resulted in lower levels of depression and improved wellbeing. A second meta-analysis from 2013 (Bolier et al) also revealed positive results.

But what about positive education - where does that fit in?

"Positive education was born out of positive psychology with the work Marty Seligman was doing with Geelong Grammar," explains Joanne Alford, principal of Berry Street School in Richmond, Victoria, Australia.

Bott picks up the story: "Marty had this concept of an experiment and the experiment was: could we deeply embed the science of wellbeing into a school? Not just teach it as a subject. Schools had been teaching about mental health and wellbeing for a long time, as in PSHE in the UK, but Seligman said, 'That's not enough, we have to deeply embed this right to the heart of the school.'"

In practice, this meant training all teaching staff in "positive-psychology 101", creating a dedicated curriculum for students, and revising school policies and procedures to make sure they were all "informed by wellbeing science". Bott says that "that was kind of the birth of positive education. It caught fire and people loved it."

To give you an idea of what positive education might look like: meditation and mindfulness practices may be built into the school day; students may learn about empathy techniques and be taught how to respond to another person's victories; the curriculum may include life skills such as decision making, problem solving and critical thinking; and there may be a focus on teaching about positive character strengths (such as resilience) or how to identify, understand and manage your emotions.

It is an approach that has spread quickly: you probably know a school that has embraced it fully and it's likely your own school will incorporate elements of it. Since 2014, the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School has trained teachers in more than a thousand schools in positive-education practices. And in 2018, the second Festival of Positive Education, hosted by the International Positive Education Network (Ipen), attracted more than 800 delegates from over 30 countries

'Be prepared for learning issues'

So the popularity of positive education is hard to ignore. The question is: do the approaches work?

It's not an easy question to answer. There's a lot of variation in approach between schools (variability that is encouraged). Across the UK, there is also a lot of variability in school context. And a further crucial question is: work for what?

The movement claims both wellbeing and academic benefits. Anecdotally, those working in positive-education schools say that both claims prove true.

Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, says that feedback from staff at his school has been very encouraging since it introduced positive-education practices.

"Some teachers spoke about the impact positive psychology had on their emotional wellbeing and the general atmosphere in the school," he says. "Suggestions were made that levels of confidence had increased. Teachers reported that the school seemed generally happier with the children seeming more content, calmer and more thoughtful. In addition, it was reported that there had been an increased awareness of feelings."

Bott has also seen positive effects. "I know, as an educator, it works," he says. "I've seen it. We've got letters from kids. We have this kind of anecdotal experience that positive education can transform a school, but we also now have pretty hardcore independent empirical validation of this work."

James Pawelski, professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, points to 2016 research by Alejandro Adler as an example of this "hardcore" proof. Adler designed an intervention targeting 10 "non-academic wellbeing skills", which was delivered to a randomised selection of schools in Bhutan. Over the course of the intervention and then for a longitudinal study after that, the wellbeing of students improved, as did academic achievement.

"[It] is just extraordinary," says Pawelski. The study was repeated in Mexico and Peru with similar, admittedly smaller, effects.

However, despite studies such as this, some researchers remain sceptical, particularly about the academic benefits of PosEd.

"There is some good evidence that PosEd delivers some small but significant improvements, largely in psychological - not academic - domains," argues Greg Donoghue, a lecturer in science of learning at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. "When taught about strengths, optimism and cognitive-behavioural theory, students have been shown to improve in various psychological scales."

Yet when it comes to raising academic achievement, Donoghue argues that positive education has largely "over-promised" and "under-delivered".

"Despite a plethora of academics and professionals claiming that PosEd improves academic outcomes, the evidence is that it has, at best, a very small effect. Compared with Hattie's [John Hattie, author of Visible Learning] effect-size-based analysis, PosEd programs are no more effective than 'developmental' effects," he says.

But surely a happier child will learn more? Educational neuroscientist and Tes columnist Jared Cooney Horvath says that logic is not necessarily correct.

"Believe it or not, mindset, hope, resilience and the likes do not directly improve learning," he says. "Students can have the best mindset in the world, but if they sit in the corner staring at the wall all year, they'll learn nothing. Conversely, students could have the worst mindset in the world, but if they undertake effective strategies, they'll learn a ton."

"Positive education can impact learning only when it is used as an addition or add-on to effective teaching and learning techniques. When it is used as a substitute or replacement, be prepared for learning issues."

Is anyone claiming it is a solve-all, though? Many schools would argue it is being used as an addition, not a replacement. But Cooney Horvath says making any link at all to learning is unnecessary.

"I don't think positive education needs to be conflated with learning," he says. "Perhaps the purpose of this movement has absolutely nothing to do with student learning; in which case, the purveyors shouldn't market it as such and educators shouldn't use it as such."

A slightly more cautious approach to academic claims is certainly beginning to catch on.

Pawelski, for example, argues that wellbeing skills are valuable, "regardless of how they impact the academic side of things".

"It makes sense to me and to positive-educators around the world that the psychological effects and the life effects of the wellbeing and the character portions of positive education are important in their own right," he says.

Peggy Kern, associate professor at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne's Graduate School of Education, agrees.

"I think when PosEd is done well, young people can develop ways of thinking, skills, mindsets, behaviours that allow them to regulate their emotions well, have good relationships with others, which we know predict a whole bunch of important outcomes, and traverse the challenges of life," she says.

And the wellbeing angle alone should be enough to persuade those working in schools that this is worth doing, argues Clare Erasmus, head of mental health and wellbeing at Brighton Hill Community School in Basingstoke, Hampshire.

"What concerns me is when I hear about schools pushing their students and staff so hard to get the best academic outcomes that it is at the expense of their mental health and wellbeing," she says.

"We need to make sure we have a rich and balanced curriculum, which ensures we are having the conversation about what mental health is, how we must own our wellbeing and take some responsibility for it and how we can be resilient and reach out for support when we need it."

And while academic results still matter, Erasmus points out that schools are increasingly being judged on their ability to provide on the wellbeing front by one group in particular: parents.

"Parents are massively prioritising the culture of wellbeing in a school," Erasmus says. "I have yet to meet a parent who does not prioritise a child's happiness, personal safety and self-worth over excellent academic results.

Ultimately, if school leaders are looking to improve wellbeing for its own sake (and to please parents in the process), then PosEd seems to be a legitimate, evidence-backed option to try. But getting PosEd right can be tricky, so what should best practice look like?

1. Start with adult wellbeing

According to Bott, you have to start with the teachers. This means training them in positive-psychology interventions, and making sure that they have the tools to maintain their own wellbeing.

"Students are absolutely secondary. It starts with upskilling and empowering the teaching staff," he says.

Bethune agrees with this, but takes it one step further to include parents, too. He explains that the wellbeing of "significant role models in children's lives, such as teachers and parents" is crucial because "children mimic the examples they are set".

"So we prioritise staff wellbeing - for example: double PPA, supportive SLT, annual wellbeing survey with follow-up actions, sensible policies that aim to reduce workload and also run half-termly workshops for parents with a wellbeing focus - both sharing what we're doing in school so parents can support at home, and workshops specifically focused on developing parental wellbeing," Bethune explains.

2. Everyone needs to buy into it - particularly the headteacher

Fairclough believes that successful positive education requires a whole-school approach, but points out that it can be difficult to get all teachers to buy into wellbeing practices.

"Some staff members needed convincing that spending time on the introduction of positive psychology would be beneficial to the children," he says.

To overcome such scepticism, he has made it a personal mission, as headteacher, to explain the rationale for the changes to staff and to "discuss findings on a regular basis" as the school implements PosEd approaches.

Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco, a Year 4 class teacher and wellbeing and mental health curriculum leader at Junior School Leidschenveen, British School in the Netherlands, has found it valuable to have a headteacher who wants to "prioritise student mental health by making fundamental changes, rather than paying lip service to it".

"This has ensured support from all staff from the beginning as it was clear that it wasn't a fad that would be forgotten in a few months," she says.

3. Build from what is already there

To further encourage teachers to get on board, Alford recommends pointing out where staff are "already practising PosEd" and then sharing "the science around what they are already doing well", something she "found [to be] very powerful".

She gives the example of a teacher asking students to reflect on something positive that happened to them during the school holidays. This is helping students to practise what positive psychology calls "savouring", she explains - "reliving the event and telling it in detail" to "assist the brain in reaping the benefits of the elicited positive emotions in the retell".

Phillips-Bianco, meanwhile, has had success with a fortnightly "Wellbeing Wednesday" email circulated among staff.

"By sharing tips and ideas in a visual way, staff are reminded and hopefully inspired to continue their focus on wellbeing and mental health," she says.

By picking up elements that are already in place and expanding on them, new approaches seem less intimidating and you get more buy-in.

4. It should be discrete and embedded

Many schools attempt to ring-fence time for teaching positive-education strategies. This approach is fine, says O'Connor, though she admits it can take a while to get it right.

"The main challenges have been in timetabling positive-education sessions into a normal academic week," she says.

To overcome these issues, her school is currently taking a staggered approach to delivery and running a schedule of lesson observations alongside this.

"As the programme becomes bigger, we are aiming for more teachers to teach the lessons but are currently managing this by having these teachers as part of the current lessons and observing what we do," O'Connor says.

Bethune suggests that one way to avoid the pressure of timetabling constraints is to focus on integrating positive education into your existing structures.

"Positive education can be woven into everything you do - your feedback, the level of challenge of the work you set, your behaviour and relationship policies, your PSHE and PE curriculum. Don't make positive education an add-on - it's a philosophy and mindset and should run through everything you do," he argues.

5. No top-down prescription, please

Finally, several teachers stress the need to accept that positive education will not look the same in every school - or even in every classroom within a school.

For instance, O'Connor says that her team follow the "Geelong model" of teaching "six components of positive education" (positive emotions, positive relationships, positive purpose, positive meaning, positive accomplishment and positive health).

However, unlike Geelong, they are taking a "bottom-up approach", giving more lesson time to positive education in the younger years. "We feel that this is important as we are laying a firm foundation as the pupils are younger to try and prevent some difficulties later in adolescence," she explains.

Meanwhile, at Phillips-Bianco's school, there is a focus on just four key areas: emotional intelligence, resilience, coping strategies and positive emotions. For each of these, they have designed resources.

For instance, the school created a "how are you feeling today?" poster, which is displayed prominently in every classroom.

"This is used by teachers in many different ways," Phillips-Bianco explains. "For example, students in Year 5 circle how they feel at the start of the day on their own laminated copy and then change it as the day goes on. This is an effective tool for helping them to understand that all feelings come and go.

"Students also learn the expression 'name it to tame it', which leads them to understand that talking about their feelings helps them to gain some power over them."

Allowing teachers the freedom to use these resources however they see fit has been integral to the success of positive education at her school, she adds.

"While everyone agrees that wellbeing and mental health are important, a concern will also be that there simply aren't enough hours in the day to do everything we are required to do as teachers," she says. "Therefore, setting realistic expectations, getting regular feedback and allowing teachers to choose the strategies that work best for their own classes have all been vital."

If you do all this as a school, it may be that academic results do go up, but the argument of both researchers and PosEd teachers is that this should not be your reason for doing it: not just because we don't have robust enough evidence yet to suggest there is a link, but because improving a child's wellbeing should be reason enough to change what we do in schools.

Helen Amass is Tes' deputy commissioning editor

This article originally appeared in the 21 February 2020 issue under the headline "How positive is positive education?"

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