Aiming to please

20th June 2014 at 01:00
Schools' prime concern is education, not happiness, so surely teachers can't be held responsible for students' moods? But as Clare Jarmy discovers, well-being and learning are inextricably linked

In 2008, Jonny Benjamin stood on Waterloo Bridge in London, looking into the Thames, about to take his own life. Then 20, he had recently been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and he couldn't contemplate carrying on. Luckily for him, at the very moment when he had lost all hope, a stranger stepped in and supplied it; another young man on his way to work talked Benjamin down. Then the police arrived and the two parted.

Six years later, in January 2014, Benjamin launched the #FindMike appeal to locate and properly thank the person who had saved his life. It quickly spread across the world. Amazingly, after just over two weeks, Neil Laybourn - the man who had burst Benjamin's bubble of despair - heard about the search, stepped forward and the two were reunited.

Now a mental health campaigner, Benjamin is very critical of schools, specifically his own, for appearing to think that making students happy is neither their business nor their responsibility. If schools recognised that this was part of their core function, he argues, perhaps he would have accepted his mental health problems earlier. Perhaps he would never have ended up on Waterloo Bridge.

But is this even possible? And should it be the job of schools to deal with well-being as well as education?

Martin Seligman's 2011 book, Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being, has helped to kick-start recent debate on this subject. In it, the celebrated academic provides an interesting insight into the disconnect between what parents want for their children and what schools seem to deliver.

He asked parents two questions: "In one or two words, what do you most want for your children?"; and "In one or two words, what do schools teach?"

Of the first, he writes: "If you are like the thousands of parents I've polled, you will respond `Happiness', `Confidence', `Contentment', `Fulfilment', `Balance', `Good stuff', `Kindness', `Health', `Satisfaction', `Love', `Being civilised', `Meaning' and the like. In short, well-being is your topmost priority for your children."

Of his second question, Seligman writes: "If you are like other parents, you will respond `Achievement', `Thinking skills', `Success', `Conformity', `Literacy', `Math', `Work', Test taking', `Discipline' and the like. In short, what schools teach is how to succeed in the workplace."

He continues: "Notice that there is almost no overlap between the two lists."

Despite the fact that well-being ranks highly among parents' priorities for their children, many in education do not consider school to be the place for it to be achieved. Why is this? Are schools capable of teaching happiness? And is it their responsibility to do so?

Keep smiling

Happiness, in its most obvious conception, is something that cannot be taught. If happiness is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain (as many assume it to be), then it is largely down to luck. Nothing that teachers do can have much impact on whether a student's parents split up, whether their grandmother gets a terminal illness or whether they break their leg on holiday.

If a student's well-being can be boiled down to their circumstances, we can contribute to their happiness while they are at school: by defending them against bullies, engaging them and making them feel valued in lessons. But we cannot teach them how to be happy, and nothing we do reaches much beyond the school gates.

However, the idea of happiness being a matter of chance seems somewhat lacking. If it is simply the sum of pleasures in life minus any pain, this is a blunt measure of a person's circumstances. Yet this seems not to be the case: famously, lottery winners are not usually left happier by their windfall once the initial excitement is over. Moreover, psychological surveys suggest that it can take two separate incurable diseases for a person's sense of well-being to be significantly affected. Circumstances alone do not seem to be enough to explain someone's state of mind.

The prevalence of cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment for depression backs up this view. CBT encourages patients to adjust their responses to events, allowing them to react in a balanced rather than a negative way. It trades on the idea that for every action there is a reaction. It does not aim to change the circumstances of a person's life, but it can change the way people interpret the events they are faced with.

Thus, current psychological thinking is that happiness and well-being are about attitude. Increasingly, the prevailing view is that people can be trained to alter their attitudes. Under the aegis of the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman has tested this hypothesis with his colleagues Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham in US schools. In projects led by Reivich and Gillham, specific interventions were designed to develop psychological well-being among students.

One intervention, called the Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum, was employed on half of the 9th-grade classes (aged 14-15) at Strath Haven High School, outside Philadelphia. The programme encouraged students to reflect on good things that had happened, how to make such things happen again, and to recognise and play to what Seligman called their "signature strengths" - character traits specific to them, through which they could flourish.

The results were positive. Students who participated developed higher levels of curiosity in lessons, empathy for others and better self-control. There was even some evidence that it reduced bad behaviour.

Institutionalising values

So where does happiness come into schooling? If Seligman and his colleagues are correct, then perhaps a curriculum for happiness could be successfully developed. But is this the responsibility of teachers? Should schools deliver this kind of programme? Surely education in the purest sense of the word should be our only focus.

It can be argued that school is not the right place, nor teachers the right people, to teach happiness and well-being. To require geographers, mathematicians, artists - any of us - to teach happiness is to ask us to perform beyond our remit and training. The danger is that teachers become jacks of all trades and masters of none. Strategies for happiness could become yet another thing for which we feel (and are held) responsible, with neither the time nor the training to deliver them effectively. We are pedagogic specialists: we are not counsellors, therapists or psychologists.

Ivan Illich, in his 1971 book Deschooling Society, used schools as a case from which to argue that institutionalising values leads to dependence and, ultimately, misery. The danger, he said, is that something of immense value, such as happiness, becomes reduced to something quantified and material. The value is warped to the point of being unrecognisable and responsibility for values is taken away from the community. Communities therefore lose autonomy and freedom, and become dependent on institutions.

We can see this in practice if we look back to the two questions asked of parents by Martin Seligman - "What do you most want for your children?" and "What do schools teach?"

The implicit assumption is that it must be schools' responsibility to deliver the things parents most want for their children. If parents want well-being, it must be provided in schools. The fact that these institutions do something other than achieve what parents most want is a problem. Illich's point about the institutionalisation of values seems to be coming true.

Happiness, confidence, contentment and fulfilment are the kinds of concerns that matter to parents, it's true, but isn't this because those things are inherent to a parent's role? There is a real danger in making happiness the business of schools: namely, a parent's vital role in nurturing their offspring is greatly underestimated.

Illich thinks this is quite sinister, because it involves placing so much authority in the hands of teachers. With institutionalised values, the teacher becomes more than an educator, more of a "teacher-as-therapist.[who] feels authorised to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person". This creates a student utterly captive to the teacher's view, yet dependent on it at the same time.

So perhaps Illich is right and happiness should not be schools' responsibility. Maybe we should just get on with the business we are trained for - teaching and learning - and let parents, families and communities care about happiness. Easy, eh? No, not so easy. This is not a conclusion that we should accept. If we are honest, as teachers we know that the business of teaching is inextricably linked with the humanity of our students.

Most pressingly, given that teaching is all about interactions with people, it seems likely that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to teach a student effectively if they were unhappy. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a useful tool here. This states that people have different levels of needs, and that the most basic ones must be met before higher-level needs can be satisfied.

Most fundamentally, a person needs their physiological needs met: they need to be fed and watered and to have sufficient sleep. The next stage concerns safety. Someone might have enough to eat but still live in constant fear. Beyond this comes the need for love. A person might be in no immediate danger but this is not the same as feeling loved. Fourth is a person's requirement for esteem, a sense that they are valued and worthwhile.

Only once all of these needs are fulfilled can self-actualisation - flourishing as an individual - take place. Education aims to fulfil this top-level requirement by developing skills and abilities. If Maslow is right, the needs that school fulfils are of the highest order; we cannot hope to make progress with our students if more basic needs are not being met.

Philosophy of living

Maslow's theories match what is empirically observed every day in schools throughout the world. A child who has not been given breakfast is unlikely to achieve in the classroom. A student who doesn't feel safe enough to trust adults won't blossom in lessons. And even then, when pupils' most basic needs are met, lack of self-esteem frequently holds them back.

So students' happiness is our business and our responsibility, because happy children are effective learners and teaching them is our job. The positive results of the Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum seem to suggest that focusing on happiness does not undermine the traditional goals of classroom learning; rather it enhances them.

Undoubtedly, this relationship between happiness and academic progress goes against some deeply held Western assumptions. It is common in the West to put up a mental barrier between thinking and feeling; between work and life. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt notes that the idea of a "philosophy of living" largely dropped out of Western consciousness after the Enlightenment. Post-Enlightenment thinking gives us rules for what is right and wrong but it does not provide wisdom about how to flourish.

In Eastern traditions, teaching is inherently linked with well-being. The role of a guru, lama or Zen master is not concerned with parts of life but with all of it - with the flourishing of the whole person. It is perhaps only a Western mind that asks whether a teacher has a role to play in the well-being of students.

Academic progress is not separate from well-being; it is part of it. As teachers, we are not simply preparing students for the workplace, we are also playing a part in their flourishing.

Clare Jarmy is head of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School in Hampshire. She is the author of Arguments for God, published by PushMe Press, and forthcoming education study guides on the miracles and attributes of God

Happy days: resources to explore emotions

Enhance well-being in your own classroom with these resources from TES Connect.


Teach children about values, morals and emotional contentment with this set of short stories. bit.lyValuesThroughStories

Explore the ingredients of healthy and happy friendships with these detailed PowerPoints based around sporting values. bit.lyValuesOfFriendship

Encourage children to express what makes them happy by making their own Mr Men-style booklet. bit.lyMrHappyBooklet

"Feelings" cards that are perfect for helping students to express emotions during circle time. bit.lyExploreFeelings

Boost self-esteem by asking students what they like about each other. bit.lyIAmSpecial


Discuss happiness and mental health with your class and get them to reflect on what makes them truly happy. bit.lyMentalWellbeing

Show students that they are all unique and important in this uplifting assembly. bit.lyYouAreUnique

This short video from BBC Class Clips explores happiness and how we can find it. bit.lyHappinessResource

Take a look at how anxiety and depression affect people's lives and the impact of a positive attitude. bit.lyDepressionPowerpoint

This simple worksheet helps students to analyse what makes them happy and to appreciate their success and surroundings. bit.lyWhatMakesMeHappy

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