Marks out of 10 - Cheer up why don't you

19th March 2010 at 00:00

Learning to Ride Elephants: Teaching Happiness and Well-Being in Schools

Ian Morris

Published by Continuum, pound;24.99

His boss, Dr Anthony Seldon, is used to being on the receiving end of media attention, but it is Ian Morris who, behind the scenes, pioneered the now famous "happiness curriculum" at Wellington College, the renowned Berkshire public school.

As the head of well-being, PSHE and religion - the first to put happiness on the curriculum in 2006 - Morris now wants to share his wisdom with fellow teachers seeking to offer a dose of positive psychology in their school.

Teaching Happiness and Well-Being in Schools, unlike some teaching manuals that delve into philosophy and psychology, is written from first-hand experience in classrooms rather than the ivory towers of academe.

The concept of teaching happiness has its roots in positive psychology pioneered by Martin Seligman in the United States during the mid-1990s and taken up by Lord Layard, a London School of Economics academic, in the UK. In a nutshell, Seligman argues that happiness can be learnt and that we can train ourselves to have a positive mindset, leading to a happier life.

The science of happiness may have originated in the US (where else?), but it has been warmly received in Britain. It accords with the current enthusiasm for cognitive behavioural therapy, where patients seek to overcome problems by learning healthy patterns of behaviour.

However, the teaching of happiness has come in for vociferous criticism from parts of the media, and the book opens with an explanation of why well-being lessons were brought to Wellington in the first place.

Morris was unimpressed by the PSHE curriculum at Wellington when he first took it over and criticises the "disaster model" of education that tries to shock pupils with the worst-case scenario on, for example, sex and drugs. He argues that the purpose of education has been lost in recent years and explains why he believes that well-being should be the core focus of any good curriculum.

Side-stepping the debate about whether therapeutic aims have any place in education, the book provides an enlightening introduction to the philosophy of happiness and to key changes in the study of psychology in recent years.

Morris' readable prose is peppered with references to ideas from philosophy, psychology and religion. They range from Buddha's teaching on mindfulness and the analysis of modern society by psychologist and journalist Dr Oliver James (author of Affluenza) to the Quaker practice of stillness and silence.

There are plenty of detailed ideas for lessons, with a focus on pupils' experiences, as well as anecdotes from the author's life and popular films to get the point across. There is even a philosophy toolkit to help teachers to use philosophical reasoning in lessons.

Some of his suggestions are a bit simplistic: his default proposal is simply that pupils keep a journal, either to evaluate sleeping patterns, exercise or their emotions. But Morris also manages to relate broader philosophical and psychological concepts to the classroom, which is no mean feat.

The first chapter lists three stages in pupils' personal learning: awareness, intervention and evaluation. Few teachers with experience of difficult teenagers would argue that they could benefit from exploring their emotions and learning how to cope with them.

However, Morris' premise that pessimistic thinking is the chief cause of pupils' academic failings and emotional problems might fall short for some teachers, especially those working in schools that bear little resemblance to Wellington.

Positive psychologists such as Seligman say that aside from the influence of genetics, once we have a certain level of comfort in our life, happiness depends largely on our attitude to life. But for pupils living below the poverty line or dealing with difficult relationships with family members, this base level of comfort cannot be assumed.

There is a chapter on helping pupils to deal with the trappings of modern life and consumerism - and rightfully so. But this is the only time that external circumstances are properly addressed. But this tends to be a shortcoming of positive psychology in general, and this might not be the book to change that.

Much of the book is common sense, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. For those considering the idea of teaching well-being or even for those interested in beginners' philosophy and psychology, this book finds the right balance between the theoretical and the practical.


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