Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article inspired by the 2nd World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association. The others include one on Edward Deci and Self-Determination Theory, one on Barbara Fredrickson and love, one on awe and elevation at the movies, and one on the opening night addresses by IPPA Fellows.
As an educator, one of the talks I was most eager to hear at the IPPA World Congress was the presentation titled Geelong Grammar School’s Journey with Positive Education. The Geelong Grammar School is Australia’s largest co-educational boarding school, and as its website now says, it is the world leader in Positive Education.
In 2006-2007, when I was a student in the MAPP program at the University of Pennsylvania, the “Geelong Project” was just getting underway, and various members of my class were recruited by Dr. Karen Reivich to go train the staff at Geelong on all aspects of Positive Psychology, including character strengths, resilience, and what is now known as the theory of PERMA.
As it has now been 4 years since the start of the project, I was extremely curious to hear how things were progressing.
First, a disclaimer: Geelong is a private school, and it has significant economic resources allowing it to put in place this extensive positive psychology program. While there are those who are critics of this fact, one must also accept that Geelong and its affluence has provided positive psychology with a venue for experimentation and research that is providing empirical data that will support expanding positive psychology in education to a larger, more diverse school population.
The presentation was impressive. Charles Scudarmore spoke on behalf of Geelong, and Karen Reivich explained in detail how positive psychology has been accepted, implemented, and integrated into the school’s philosophy. In the four years that the Center for Positive Psychology has collaborated with Geelong, they have, of course, found some best practices. The two that stood out to me during the course of the workshop were the importance of continued teacher training and the efficacy of active constructive responding.Teacher Training:
On the whole, positive psychology has not been “force fed” at Geelong, either to students or to faculty. Instead they have found that the best way to deliver the message is: “Live it, teach it, embed it.”
In order to do this with best results, the school and the research team have found that it is essential for the school staff to continually renew their training and investigation of positive psychology. The school carries on training and exposure to new research to their staff, not only with active symposium, but also by encouraging the faculty to keep investigating the field by reading new research in the school’s positive psychology library and watching videos of useful lectures like TED talks.
Once the faculty and staff at Geelong adopted positive psychology and started the process of experiential learning, its concepts were easily accepted. As a result, the staff of the school, by living, teaching, and constantly updating their knowledge of positive psychology become successful ambassadors for embedding it in Geelong’s students.
Because Geelong is a boarding school, I wondered how the students’ positive psychology experience was translated back to the parent population. While the school’s website has an area for positive psychology resources, Charles reported that really it is the students who “bring it home” to their parents, explaining what they have learned and why it works.
Active Constructive Responding:
When asked what has been the most useful tool in the positive psychology toolbox at Geelong, I was amazed to hear Karen Reivich say that Shelly Gable’s work on Active Constructive Responding has had the most meaningful effect on the school community. (For a good explanation of Active Constructive Reponding, see Doug Turner’s May, 2007 article: Active and Constructive Responding -With A Twist.) My surprise stemmed from my understanding that the team sent to Geelong in 2007 believed that its big selling point and what was going to be the glue of the program was the research and training based on the Penn Resiliency Program.
I must admit that finding out that Active Constructive Responding is the “secret sauce” did not really come as a shock. In fact it made good sense. Almost everyone has a story of a teacher or mentor who really noticed him/her and gave him/her the attention and positive feedback needed to grow. In my own practice as a learning specialist, active constructive responding is what I try to do on a daily basis.
However, sometimes it is at cross-purposes with what students are getting in school. Not infrequently do I see students receive comments on papers like: “See criticisms above. Grade: B-.” My students bring me these papers with a sense of defeat, and it makes me really indignant. The teacher who writes that comment is adding nothing constructive to the life of the student.
Even if some of the commentary on the paper had a positive or constructive tone to it, the mere word, “criticism,” paired with the grade, diminishes most students’ ability to recognize any of the good things that may have existed in that test or paper, and often I find I have to help them find the positive that might exist, either in teacher’s comments or in the assignment itself. Granted, it is difficult for anyone to respond actively and constructively all the time, but making it a topic of conversation and goal for teachers is extremely beneficial, not only to the teachers, but also to students and the whole school community.
Geelong’s positive psychology program, now years in the making, is comprehensive and impressive. While there are many elements that make it worthwhile, I enjoyed learning about what the team there feels are two key factors for its success. As more schools learn from this model, positive psychology will continue to have a significant impact in redefining education.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.