Home All News from “Down-Under” – What’s Happening at Geelong School?

News from “Down-Under” – What’s Happening at Geelong School?

written by Aren Cohen 19 August 2011

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.

Positive Psychology Australia Style - Toy Koalas

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.

Dr. Karen Reivich

Dr. Karen Reivich

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.

Signs of Positive Psychology

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:

Dr. Shelly Gable

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.

A Positive Minded Kangaroo

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.


Positive Psychology Australia Style – Toy Koalas courtesy of Rainer Ebert
Signs of Positive Psychology courtesy of wollombi
A Positive Minded Kangaroo courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

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wayne 19 August 2011 - 7:37 pm

Aren – The disclaimer is an undertatement. Geelong grammar is the most expensive private school in Australia. Typically they attract the acdemically talented. They also are able to expend considerable dollars on continuing professional development for staff. This money isn’t available in the poublic school system which struggles to fund basic classroom infrastruture. So bluntly it is ludicrous to extrapolate any findings to mainstream education.

However I would have to agree that ACR is one of the more powerful tools in PP. This is one I use in my workshops and I am amazed how difficult people find it. I think this might be partly due to oz culture where we lie to “bag” things.

Sean 20 August 2011 - 2:18 pm

Thanks for the great article Aren! ACR seems to make so much sense, but we just don’t do it often enough. One of my students at NC State shared this success. She said she had never done particularly well in school. In my class I had the students share their work and go out of there way to point out the good stuff in the work of their peers. (It was not 100% positive 100% of the time – the “constructive criticism” took care of itself w/out prompting) After the semester was over, she came to me and told me not only did she get an A in my class, but had gotten straight As for the semester. The positive feedback from her peers helped her realize she really was cable of good work.

oz 28 August 2011 - 3:05 pm

Aren – as a footnote to your disclaimer Geelong Grammar was copping bad press again yesterday – it made more than 10 million dollars profit. The isues isn’t the profit but the subsidies it receives from the government. Geelong Grammar really has no credibility when it comes to trialling PP in education.

Geelong Grammar reinforces a major criticism Ive heard regularly about PP – it’s pop psychology for the middle/upper class

oz 31 August 2011 - 4:09 pm

Aren – just to add to my hobby horse – todays Australian papers discussed a review which suggested making government funding to private schools conditional on accepting students with challenges – elite schools like geelong grammar accept challenging cohorts. In fact they encourage students to move on who aren’t acdemically gifted. Given your line of work you must find this just a little unpalatable.

oz 31 August 2011 - 4:10 pm

Aren – oops a typ – I meant geelong grammar doesn’t accept challenging cohorts

Aren Cohen 31 August 2011 - 4:55 pm

Hi Oz,

Thanks for your comments. They are important and insightful, although I do believe they are also debatable. Indeed, Geelong is a rarified atmosphere that has tremendous resources, that’s true. I did not know that the school made a profit— is that an “operating surplus” as a non-profit entity, or is the school really run as a for-profit venture? It is an important distinction, and certainly one that would color my perception of exactly how PP is being used there.

In other words, if the purpose is for Geelong to “road test” PP and then sell its program for the profit of Geelong, I suppose one could call that dubious. Then again, hasn’t the Positive Psychology Center at UoP essentially “sold” PP to the US military? Arguably, PP being used in the US Military is not a case of it being “pop psychology for the middle/upper class,” (although perhaps MAPP degrees are??). Nonetheless, it opens up a can of worms and a myriad of questions, including is PP “property” for sale, and in what (if any) cases is that ethical?

Also, I am surprised to learn that Geelong receives government subsidies. My understanding is that tends not to be the case in US private schools unless they serve an academically/emotionally challenged (ie “therapeutic”) population that cannot be well-served in the public arena. But that is a whole other topic.

Nonetheless, while I completely respect your opinion, I don’t I agree with you that “it is ludicrous to extrapolate any findings to mainstream education.” Yes, there are REAL problems with mainstream education, both in the US and Australia. In my opinion, the political arena (in the US, where I am more familiar with the situation) under values and under funds education, with a trickle down effect and to the detriment of many. However, that does not mean that if the situation was better and there was an opportunity to employ some of the tools of PP, that they would not be equally efficacious in other populations. I don’t think your are saying a student has to be upper/middle class to benefit from PP scholarship. (A good example to point to here are the KIPP schools, which are charter schools. They are not filled with the wealthiest families, and yet the principles of PP are apparently being put to use successfully.)

Again, thanks for reading.

Jeremy McCarthy 1 September 2011 - 10:05 am

I always think these “PP for profit” criticisms are a bit of a double standard. Our whole global marketplace is based on the idea that people are rewarded financially for contributing to society with their services or products. People with more money get more of everything, not just PP. We seem to accept this system and think it’s OK for companies that are selling cars, computers or ipods, but if someone produces something that is actually meaningful (like spiritual or psychological wellbeing) they are expected to give it away for free or somehow it is unethical.

Isn’t it equally unethical to create a system that allows people who create meaningless products such as TVs or MP3 players to become rich and then demand that people who are doing meaningful work should not do it for a profit? You either need to scrap the whole system (and I think we probably should) or allow PP to live within it.

I’ll be the first to agree that we need to make systemic changes to the incentives in our system. But I don’t buy into the idea that positive psychology is somehow to blame for this. If anything, my hope is that PP engenders discussion that will lead us to make steps in the right direction (for example Robert Biswas Dieners book on PP for Social Change.)

wayne 2 September 2011 - 5:11 am

Aren – just to clarify it was a surplus of 10 million. Given this sort of money GG can afford to play and waste money. In public schools there really needs to be a cost benefit analysis of PP against other priorities such as more teachers, well maintained schools etc. I suspect you have to have the basics in place before you start playing around with the icing.

And yes you are opening up a whole can of worms re profiting from PP.

I tend to be a little old fashioned in the sense that academic research should be kept separate from profit making ventures as it ensures that the dollar doesn’t corrupt the selective interpretation of research (think drug companies)

wayne 2 September 2011 - 5:26 am

Jeremy – the issue is ROI. Where will a person get the biggest bang for the buck.

In the case of schools there are limited resources – should it be spent on more teachers, infrastructure, feeding kids who are hungry, running exercise classes or perhaps PP solves all these problems – from the research I have read on PP I doubt this.

Jeremy McCarthy 2 September 2011 - 8:58 am

I agree with the importance of ROI (as well as opportunity cost as you implied.) Initial reports from GG seem to indicate the ROI is there. But if it isn’t, I’m sure you will see PP quickly fade away.

wayne 2 September 2011 - 3:19 pm

Jeremy – in a perfect world of unlimited resources then PP will probbly make a difference. But the reality is the average school in oz has to contend with limited staff, crowded curriculum, kids who can’t read and write, poor facilities – and I suspect these matter more than PP.

I think this applies to the adult world as well – food, a job, social welfare, healthcare and perhaps some exercise are way more importrant than PP. And most advocates of PP have these in place.

Amanda Horne 4 September 2011 - 6:56 am

Aren – it’s fantastic to see an Australian school profiled in the IPPA review series. Thank you!

With your interest in students and education, you would enjoy a visit Australia for the next Australian Positive Psychology in Education Symposium (not sure when this is, it’s likely to be 2013 I believe). Two conferences have been run already in the past years; the latest was April 2011. The stand-out has been the large number of schools and teachers around Australia who have implemented and applied aspects of positive psychology in their schools, often on a shoe-string (no budget) and therefore they do not gain attention or visibility. These teachers have also not benefited from the direct involvement of USA experts, thus showing their colleagues and peers that applying positive psychology in schools is possible without requiring expensive self education.

It would be good to see a critical mass formed by peers teaching peers so the ‘stuff that works’ is shared widely in the education sector.


jennifer 18 December 2013 - 5:02 pm

Can anyone tell me of another program that serves to provide a boarding school education based on the premise of positive psychology that is successful and somewhat more affordable to the everyday family than Geelong?


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