Wednesday, 4 September 2019

A Culture of Wellbeing

The existence of education, and its conduit: school, serve a variety of purposes. While these may differ around the world, the sentiments are often similar. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education hopes that places of learning provide those who learn within them have the ability to: “seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies (in order) to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country”. Additionally, “students will continue to develop the values, knowledge, and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives” while being “confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.''

These goals sit alongside a growing body of ambitions that aim to positively impact the entirety of our young people. These ambitions may appear overzealous but their reality is achievable and in order to attain these goals, there’s a concerted effort required from those involved in the learning of our young people. One of the goals at the forefront of education is wellbeing which has seen a rise in positive psychology (dubbed positive education within our sector) initiatives and ideas. 

The current challenge with positive psychology lies within the complexity of educational settings and the factors that contribute to its complex nature. It is these factors which may appear to make it difficult to implement simple interventions. Despite the resonance of this movement with teachers and professional educators, a subtle misconception that these ideas will be easily replicated, effective and implemented neatly add unnecessary frustration to necessary work. It’s important to note that while change is “often messy and disorganised, with growth in unexpected areas, and numerous unintentional consequences”,  the change is not lessened in its impact or need, especially change which is attempting to improve the wellness of our tamariki. The importance and benefit of wellbeing juxtaposed with the complexity of implementation begs the question: “what contributes to this complexity?”

In their article ‘Positive Education: Learning and Teaching for Wellbeing and Academic Mastery’, Matthew White and Margaret L. Kern, suggest that “rhetoric can run ahead of the science” with numerous programs offering silver bullets which lead to confusion around which programs should be selected. White and Kern note that “activity is not the same as impact” so it’s important when identifying and selecting initiatives that they’re not only supported by evidence but their application, and the effort required by educators is considered so that they can be rolled out in the most efficient and practical way.

While empiricism and practicality are worthy of mentioning, one of the biggest determinants to success are which pathway the initiative falls within i.e. taught culture and caught culture. The taught culture is purposeful and planned and could involve clear goals outlined in their documentation or a dedicated team of teachers who respond and adapt to the needs of the school. The caught culture “reflects the overall ... feeling or tone of a school”, appearing in the “language used, how staff and students interact with one another, and implicit norms of the school.” 

Culture, though applicable to the nationality or the ethnicity of an individual can also be quantified as the way in which an individual makes sense of their experiences and situations. By this definition, schools have their own cultures and this is either intentionally created or arises naturally. This culture, whether purposefully crafted or innately found, can be foundational in the development of a student’s lens, empowering them to perceive themselves and their world positively, impacting on every facet of an individual.

In light of this, it’s easy to understand why schools are seen as one of the first lines of defence against languishing wellness and highlights the importance of schools selecting initiatives which align with their naturally caught culture or directly impact their intentionally taught culture. “Positive education has considerable potential, but must be studied, applied and managed in a responsible manner.” As you explore what wellness looks like for your young people and how you can contribute to this, and whether you should focus more on ideas that fit within your caught or taught culture, research suggests that both of these have their place, their role and identifiable pros and cons. However, the greatest path forward involves a combination of approaches that fit within both pathways. 

With this in mind, we see that wellness for each and every person is ambitious but not out of reach. In this world of wellbeing, I hope that your endeavours are both purposeful and successful.

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