Excellence is not the only ambition

31st March 2006 at 01:00
What would a curriculum for happiness look like? Ian Smith warns that we have become success junkies

ne of my colleagues told me recently that some teachers are fed up hearing about the "capacities" in A Curriculum for Excellence. I wondered why. I agree with those who have said it's great that, at last, we have a statement on one page of what capacities Scotland's schools should help young people develop. Everyone else seems happy with the capacities. They have taken on the same kind of status as our national priorities. No one wants (or perhaps dares) to debate them. Maybe that's where the problem lies.

The "capacities" page, like A Curriculum for Excellence itself, is a political statement. Every word in it had to be politically correct. Here are a few we all know off by heart: "successful", "standards", "achievement", "numeracy", "literacy", "technology", "enterprising" and, of course, the big word that describes what it is all about - "excellence".

Educators may have come to know these words, but have we come to love them? Do we really, really buy into them? Is that the real problem that these teachers have with them? If so, they won't come off the page and into people's hearts and minds. More important, they will not have the impact in schools and classrooms they need to have.

Of course, we want all young people to be all they can be. But, for me, the biggest problem with the wording of A Curriculum for Excellence is that it feeds into our addiction to success and excellence. From the classroom to the boardroom (The Apprentice) and the football field (Footballers' Wives), the constant pressure on all of us is to want to be successful, to want to keep on winning. We have become success junkies.

The mantra is reach for the stars, be the best or be all you can be, strive for perfection, go for excellence. Pressure to succeed, to be excellent, to raise standards has been pushed down the education system from the top.

Tony Blair is on record as saying there was pressure on him to raise standards so he put pressure on civil servants who put pressure on local authorities, which put pressure on schools which put pressure on teachers who put pressure on pupils who are already under pressure from their parents. It's with young people that the buck stops and they are feeling it the most.

For some advice about curing our addiction to excellence, let's turn to ancient Greece. In a recent book entitled Making Happy People, Paul Martin points out that Aristotle concluded that happiness must be our ultimate goal, because no one seeks happiness as a means to something else.

Everything else we desire can be regarded as a means to some higher end - and, if you keep on asking why we want anything (success, excellence, money, power, material possessions, beauty, fame), you will discover that we want things because, often mistakenly, we believe they will bring us happiness.

Happiness is the word that dare not speak its name in A Curriculum for Excellence. It's there in the subtext. Many of the words on the "capacities" page, such as enthusiasm, motivation, resilience, self-reliance and physical, mental and emotional well-being, are closely linked to happiness as, of course, are success and excellence themselves.

But why can't we mention the thing we all "really, really" want in our national document?

The answer is that happiness is not a politically correct word at the moment. But civil servants beware: the times they may be changing. More and more people are coming to recognise that, as our societies become richer, more successful and more excellent, happiness is diminishing even for the most successful.

The self-help section of bookshops has grown rapidly over the years. There is now a growing interest in happiness from academics, among them economist Richard Layard and educationist Nel Noddings. There is also lots of good sensible advice around about how to be happy and avoid being unhappy.

Apart from Paul Martin's recent book, there is the classic for young people - Andrew Matthew's Being Happy. Perhaps the most influential person in the field is Martin Seligman whose Authenticated Happiness has popularised the term "positive psychology", which is about helping moderately happy people become happier. Seligman has heavily influenced the work of Scotland's own Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, run by Carol Craig and funded by the Scottish Executive - which does show that politicians are getting the message.

Don't wait for politicians to give the lead. The actual curriculum is not what is written down in official documents, but what takes place between teachers and young people in classrooms on a daily basis. So why not use the advice that's around to work towards a "curriculum for happiness"?

Happy reading.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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