Zest is best in schools – even if it grates on our nerves

The concept of grit may get all the attention, but zest is also a vital characteristic to nurture in students

Let's put zest to the test

Nothing ever stands still in the world of education. No sooner have we got to grips with the concept of grit than in springs its bouncier cousin zest.

Part of the positive psychology movement, this is “an approach to life with anticipation, energy and excitement”, feelings that can be harnessed for numerous gains and related to a raft of wellbeing outcomes.

In Northern Europe, we can tend to view enthusiasm, curiosity and excitement – the positive attributes that make up zest – with scepticism and suspicion. Confronted with anyone overly enthusiastic, we tend to back away, shaking our heads and muttering that they’re all too much. Whereas our American cousins would start whooping along, we want to calm them down. Well, after all, it’s just not very British, is it?

And if someone is bursting with excitement, we respond in a similar fashion: either because we worry that hopes will be dashed or, worse, through our own jealousy.

But by far our worst reaction is to curiosity. We often see curiosity as being not about trying to learn but to pry; not to discover but to expose; not to challenge but to disrespect. It’s good to be curious, though. Of course, I would say that: it’s the defining characteristic of a journalist. A good reporter is really nosy, wants to find out lots of things and then wants to tell the world about them.

It’s time we addressed this strange reluctance towards embracing the traits that make up zest. Not just for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, but because there is pretty good evidence that all three of its components make for a better life. And the good news is that each of us can be coaxed to be more zestful.

It is not surprising that the more dour concept of grit has captured teachers’ attention. The notion of battling through life fits the current narrative of teaching: workload, accountability, the anonymity of support services. It all feeds into the feeling that without a stiff upper lip and a make-do attitude, no one can endure it.

And yet, whenever I spend time in a school, it’s all the zesty things that shine through. Schools are exciting places. Teachers, on the whole, do burst with excitement. And I cannot think of a teacher I’ve met who wasn’t curious. Despite all the troubles of teaching today, these things can still be found in abundance.

Where there is a danger, though, is with children. To be a student now can feel relentless. If it’s bad for teachers, children arguably have it much worse. There are numerous pressures, a plethora of tests and exams, overt prescription – we’re not leaving them much to get excited about or any space for curiosity. And it’s asking a lot to expect these conditions to breed unbridled enthusiasm.

An over-reliance on research could be a cause. In our hunt for what works, it is tempting to control a classroom as we would a lab so that we can find the answers we seek – control the variables, and this intervention shall work. But research can also offer us an antidote. And zest is a prime example.

In the end, it’s about perspective: in some places, excitement can be seen as low-level disruption; enthusiasm can be seen as stepping out of line; curiosity as tangential challenge.

So in these cold, dark days, try looking on the bright side and wrap yourself in some warm positive thinking. Never mind that winter vest, let’s have some winter zest.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline “Let’s put zest to the test in schools – even if it grates on our nerves”

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