'Positive education' can improve academic results, experts say

A new holistic approach to teaching focuses on the well-being of students to help them lead happier, more satisfying lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 10:08am

How best to serve the needs of a culturally diverse student body whose abilities and level of motivation vary is a key challenge for schools in Hong Kong.

Studies show that many students lack social-emotional competencies, and become less connected to school as they progress from elementary to middle to high school. That lack of connection can adversely affect their academic performance, behaviour and health.

We need to question our basic understanding of the purpose of a school
Lea waters, associate professor

Chinese International School (CIS) is among a growing number of institutions acknowledging the need to develop students in a more holistic way, with a stronger focus on well-being.

This academic year, CIS has incorporated "positive education" formally into its community, with initiatives involving its entire staff. "We see positive education as a whole school initiative. In fact, the curiosity and the demand of the staff to get on board created the climate for moving ahead with this initiative," says headmaster, Dr Theodore Faunce, who "does not perceive academic excellence as sole evidence of student success".

CIS staff are being trained in the principles and practices of positive education and understanding how to coach students in "meta-thinking": self-identity, self-awareness, and ways in which they can better understand their own emotional landscape.

Brian Mulcahy, head of student life at CIS, says: "We are moving away from the historically defined and tired term of 'pastoral care' and are looking into areas of [student] well-being as a measure of a successful school. The traditional homeroom system will be supplemented by an advisory tutorial system mediated through faculty input.

What, then, is positive education? Much of the interest has stemmed from the work of Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, who developed a whole-school positive education programme for Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, Australia.

Positive education is defined as "education for both traditional skills and for happiness". Seligman's PERMA model of well-being identifies five elements as being essential to human well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

Positive schools are defined as ones in which students experience predominantly high levels of subjective well-being in the form of positive emotions and attitudes towards school.

They engage in the process of helping students acquire core competencies to recognise and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively.

Associate professor Lea Waters from the University of Melbourne, a renowned expert on organisational change and positive psychology, notes: "We need to question our basic understanding of the purpose of a school as an institution.

"Certainly, the purpose of the school is to impart academic knowledge and learning ability to help students achieve in their given areas," Waters says.

"But my view is that schools are also social institutions that help develop a young student's mind. Students have an opportunity to develop character, social learning, emotional literacy and well-being skills. By developing well-being, you are supporting academic knowledge."

Waters cites findings from a meta-analysis of students from 213 American schools ranging from kindergarten through to high school. The 270,000 students who participated in universal social and emotional learning programmes also demonstrated an 11-percentile-point achievement gain in their academic performance.

"It comes down to the basic understanding of what motivates people to achieve. If we are always striving to correct what is wrong with us, it motivates us to perform. But it also makes us feel bad about ourselves, and leads to unhealthy side effects of anxiety, depression and stress," she says.

"However, new science in positive psychology shows that we can achieve equally well, if not better, by identifying our natural strengths. We achieve more when we feel confident - strength-based motivation is more effective than deficit-based motivation."

At government and aided schools, life education is carried out to instil positive values and attitudes in students. Educators also try to enhance students' problem-solving skills and their ability to face adversity, as part of the moral, civic and national education curriculum. Using games, videos, talks and other activities is part of the drive to help students lead happy, satisfying lives.

The Education Bureau provides teaching resources and teacher training workshops. But the notoriously heavy workload in the local education system means teachers may have only limited time for the cause.

Positive education falls within the purview of counsellors at the Hong Kong International School (HKIS), who have been trained in solution-focused methods that build on identifying positive exceptions and working toward solutions, rather than focusing on the problem.

"In the past five years, the high school has developed and implemented a unique counselling seminar programme," says high school counsellor Jeff Steuernagel. The courses are embedded into the timetable of each student every year of high school. The seminars aim to meet the socio-emotional needs of students, in addition to academic, career and university advising.

All eight HKIS high school counsellors work across these domains, to get to know and support students holistically.

The seminars are based on the standards of the International Model for School Counselling Programmes, which also integrate a cultural domain that is sensitive to the needs of international school students,

"In grade nine, the curriculum is focused on an emotional intelligence framework that supports the transition to high school through the development of healthy academic skills and a supportive learning environment.

"The grade 10 seminars address values and character development with the backdrop of career exploration. Grades 11 and 12 focus on the university search and placement process, preparation to transition into university life and making healthy lifestyle decisions in that new environment," explains Steuernagel.

Smaller international schools may not have such explicit programmes with formal curriculums dedicated to the holistic development of the individual student. But a commitment to developing well- rounded individuals is implicit in their ethos.

The French International School is such an example. Small teaching groups, facilitated by experienced and nurturing staff, allow for close communication between students and teachers.

Allocated time allows form tutors to guide students in their academic and social needs while career counselling is undertaken by a dedicated educational counsellor.

Plus, monitoring of students across their various subjects and classes is made possible by regular student concern meetings. This individualised student attention goes a long way in nurturing self-esteem among its students and improving student well-being, while providing a rigorous and intellectual academic environment.

"Overall, I see a growing trend in caring for the whole student at HKIS and at other international schools in Asia. Positive education will likely expand in our programme and throughout the region largely due to its empirical support," says Steuernagel.