Home All Work Hard, Be Nice

James O'Shaughnessy is an education entrepreneur. He runs Floreat Education, a primary school provider that aims to deliver excellent character and academic education. James is also leading plans to create a global network that promotes the character + academics approach to education. A leading British policy thinker and adviser, James served as Prime Minister David Cameron's director of policy for four years and specialized in education and family policy. He is chief policy adviser to a leading strategic communications agency.

Emily Larson, MAPP '13 is a researcher, instructor, and practitioner in the fields of education and public policy. She serves as Head of Research for the International Positive Education Network (IPEN). She is also an assistant instructor to Dr. Martin Seligman's course in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her articles with James O'Shaughnessy are here.

Authors’ Note: We are happy to announce that The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) mentioned below launched today. If you are interested in staying up to date on the best research and practice in positive education and being a part of a growing network please sign our manifesto or just check out our website. You can find us on twitter @PosEdNet and on Facebook under Positive Education Network.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in learning more about positive education, there is a new Coursera course starting tomorrow, December 11, 2014, called Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms. Coursera courses are free to anyone in the world that has a computer to access them. While we do not know enough to endorse the course taught by David Levin at the Relay Graduate School of Education, the course goals are excellent, and he has a strong list of recommended readings.

No phrase more succinctly captures the idea behind positive education than the famous motto of the KIPP Foundation, “Work hard, be nice.” Its power comes from expressing something that every teacher and parent wants for young people: academic excellence achieved through outstanding teaching and dogged determination as well as an induction into the world of character, virtue, service to others, and the pursuit of happiness. This academics + character & well-being approach is the essence of positive education, and its deep popularity with parents and practitioners is its greatest strength. As the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues found, nearly 9-in-10 parents want schools to offer this kind of education.

However, as Copernicus showed 500 years ago, it is perfectly possible for popular ideas to be proved wrong. So while widespread support is necessary to the success of the positive education movement, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to be demonstrably right too, philosophically and scientifically. Unless we can show that the arguments for positive education are true in practice as well as in theory, then we will not deserve to change education in the way the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) is proposing.

This article, therefore, tries to answer some of the most burning questions with the strongest evidence currently available to support our proposition. These are the questions we tend to experience when discussing positive education with an interested but skeptical audience.

Question One: What is positive education? What do you mean?

Positive education represents a paradigm shift away from viewing education merely as a route to academic attainment and towards viewing it as a place where students can cultivate their intellectual minds while developing a broad set of character strengths, virtues, and well-being. This in a nutshell is the character & well-being + academics approach to education.

Question Two: I recently read in the news that school test scores are declining. Shouldn’t we be directing our attention to academic success rather than taking time away for building character?

This question represents our tendency to look at character development and academic achievement as two separate entities, but this is a false dichotomy. We wholly support rigorous academic study in school and the achievement of the highest possible standards. Too often these are lacking in schools, usually causing the greatest harm to the poorest.

Positive education rests on the premise that teaching skills that promote positive emotions, relationships, character strengths, and virtues also promotes learning and academic success. So it is important to argue that, aside from its own intrinsic value and the wider benefits it brings, educating for character and well-being can help the quest for academic excellence. School interventions that focus on social emotional learning, character development, or well-being have been shown to increase academic performance as an outcome. A report by Public Health England has shown that an 11% boost in results in standardized achievement tests has been linked to school programs that directly improve social and emotional learning.

Further evidence suggests that positive educational interventions have been found to increase facets of the student experience that contribute to academic success such as:

  • Hope
  • Engagement in school
  • Academic expectations
  • Motivation
  • Perceptions of ability
  • Life satisfaction
  • Self-worth
  • Classroom behavior

If we separate mental health and well-being from academic achievement, we are ignoring the fact that depression has been on the rise since World War II despite increasing national wealth, and even worse, almost one in five will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school.

This is deeply worrying in itself, but it directly impacts academic achievement too. Adolescents who experience poor mental health at ages 16 to 17 have been found to be less likely to obtain higher education degrees than adolescents without such challenges, suggesting that mental health problems during secondary school have lasting implications for achievement later on in life.

Question Three: But isn’t IQ what matters and that really depends on students’ parents, so why waste time on building these other skills?

The raw intelligence of an individual is an important determinant of future success and well-being but it isn’t the only thing that matters. Research by Angela Duckworth has shown that the character trait called ‘grit’, or passion and perseverance for a long-term goal, is a better predictor of some success outcomes than IQ. James Heckman has shown that character traits are malleable or ‘skill-like’ and can be improved with good teaching and practice. In a meta-analysis of positive education interventions, researcher Lea Waters found that interventions targeting students’ characters can indeed lead to development of character strengths.

So even if our characters and IQs are both partially determined by genes and upbringing, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Question Four: Aren’t students meant to get these skills at home?

“Just because character can be taught, doesn’t mean it should be taught in schools.”

At face value this is a valid argument, and it’s undoubtedly the case that parents, families, and even religious organizations can be more important character educators than schools. But not every child is exposed to good influences at home. For those young people that are not, the experience of character education at school is vital. About 50% of students in the US are exposed to violence every year, and 10% witness violence between family members at home. In addition, the 20% of students under 18 who live in poverty are more likely to experience violence, abuse, and neglect at home.

So if not at home, where? Next to home, school is the place students spend most of their time. It has been estimated that youth spend on average more than 30 hours a week at school. Schools and other educational institutions, like colleges and universities, have the unique potential to help disadvantaged students prepare for the tests of life, not just a life of tests.

Question Five: What about the children in poor areas? Don’t they need all the time they can get for traditional academic skills like math and science?

We strongly favor rigorous, stretching academic development as an essential route out of poverty. But on its own it is not enough.

Carol Dweck has popularized a construct called the growth mindset, which is the belief that intelligence is malleable and can be changed through hard work and perseverance. It stands opposed to the fixed mindset, which is the belief that intelligence is inherited and cannot be changed. Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck supported this research in their study, which found during difficult transition periods at school, students who have growth mindsets displayed superior academic performance even though the students entered with equal skills and knowledge. Additional research has found this effect was especially prominent in students who have a stereotype against them, such as being from a minority or being female in the study of math and science.

A note of caution must be sounded, however. Impressive as these results are, Dweck and her fellow authors note that, “believing intelligence to be malleable does not imply that everyone has exactly the same potential in every domain, or will learn everything with equal ease. Rather, it means that for any given individual, intellectual ability can always be further developed.” What this means is that, like academic education, character & well-being education can make us better versions of ourselves, but it cannot change everything about us.

Question Six: Well, this is good in theory but what about in practice? How can we really implement this kind of education? After all, our teachers aren’t trained psychologists!

What does positive education look like in practice? On a national level, schools in Bhutan and Singapore have adopted a positive education model. In Bhutan, students who received positive education increased their standardized test scores compared to the control group. The Singaporean Government has just introduced a new character and citizenship curriculum for all its schools.

The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) was developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and has been one of the most extensively tested programs in positive education. According to the meta-analysis by Brunwasser and Gillham, the results from 19 controlled studies of PRP found that compared to control groups, PRP has the following effects:

  • Reduced and prevented symptoms of depression
  • Reduced feelings of hopelessness and increased optimism
  • Prevented clinical levels of depression and anxiety
  • Reduced and prevented anxiety
  • Reduced behavioral problems

In addition, schools such as St. Peters College and Geelong Grammar School in Australia and Wellington College in the UK have wholly implemented positive education in their schools, and are continuing research on its effects. KIPP, a charter school network in the USA, has integrated character education and seen tremendous success in getting low-income students into college. There are new schools and organizations contributing to the breadth of practice every day. These include Character Lab and the Jubilee Centre, which are dedicated to introducing the best theory, research, and practice into schools and testing the outcomes.


We have attempted to compile the best evidence and support for positive education. If you have more to contribute to this growing movement, please add comments to this post.


For Introduction:

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. (2012). A Framework for Character Education. Jubilee Centre Parents’ survey.

For Question Two:

Adler, A. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (in review). Does teaching well-being improve academic performance?

Austin, D. (2005). The effects of a strengths development intervention program upon the self-perception of students’ academic abilities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 66, 1631A. Abstract.

Bernard, M., & Walton, K. (2011). The effect of You Can Do It! Education in six schools on student perceptions of wellbeing, teaching, learning and relationships. Journal of Student Wellbeing, 5, 22-37. Abstract.

Durlak, J. a, Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x Abstract.

Froh, J., Sefick, W., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessing in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213-233.

Green, S., Anthony, T., & Rynsaardt, J. (2007). Evidence-based life coaching for senior high school students: Building hardiness and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2, 24-32.

Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58(6-7), 466–474. doi:10.1037/0003 066X.58.6-7.466

Jonsson, U., Bohman, H., Hjern, A., von Knorring, L., Olsson, G., & von Knorring, A. L. (2010). Subsequent higher education after adolescent depression: a 15-year follow-up register study. European Psychiatry, 25(7), 396-401. Abstract.

Layard, R. (2003). Has social science a clue?: What is happiness? Are we getting happier? In: Lionel Robbins memorial lecture series, 03-05 Mar 2003, London, UK.

Lewinsohn, P. M., Rohde, P., Seeley, J. R., & Fischer, S. A. (1993). Age-cohort changes in the lifetime occurrence of depression and other mental disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(1), 110. Abstract.

McLeod, J. D., & Fettes, D. L. (2007). Trajectories of failure: The educational careers of children with mental health problems. AJS: American Journal of Sociology, 113(3), 653.

Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, T. (2010). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6, 71-83.

Marques, S., Lopez, S., & Pais-Ribeiro, K. (2011.) Building hope for the future: A program to foster strengths in middle-school students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 139-152. Abstract.

Public Health England. (2014). The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment.

Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311. doi:10.1080/3054980902934563

Waters, L. (2011). A Review of School-Based Positive Psychology Interventions. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 28(02), 75–90. doi:10.1375/aedp.28.2.75

Weber, M., & Ruch, W. (2011). The Role of a Good Character in 12-Year-Old School Children: Do Character
Strengths Matter in the Classroom?
. Child Indicators Research, 5(2), 317–334. doi:10.1007/s12187-011-9128-0.

For Question Three:

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–101. doi:10.1037/0022 3514.92.6.1087

Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2013). Fostering and measuring skills: Interventions that improve character and cognition (No. 19656). Cambridge, MA.

Waters, L. (2011). See Question Two.

For Question Four:

Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311. oi:10.1080/3054980902934563

U.S. Census Bureau. (2009). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2008 (Current Population Reports No. P60-236). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

White, M. A., & Waters, L. E. (2014). A case study of “The Good School:” Examples of the use of Peterson’s strengths-based approach with students. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–8. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.920408

For Question Five:

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113–125. doi:10.1006/jesp.2001.1491

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement
across an adolescent transtion: A longitudinal study and an intervention
. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(6), 645–662. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2003.09.002

Steele, C. (2013). Stereotype threat: A conversation with Claude Steele. Youtube interview.

For Question Six:

Adler, A. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. See Question 2.

Brunwasser, S. M., Gillhman, J. E., & Kim, E. S. (2008). A meta-analytic review of the Penn Resiliency Program. Paper presented at the Society for Prevention Research, San Francisco, May.

Student Development Curriculum Division. (2014). 2014 Syllabus: Character and citizenship education primary (ISBN: 978-981-07-4289-8). Singapore: Ministry of Education.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Positive emotion in the classroom courtesy of horizontal.integration
Classroom practices courtesy of venspired
Concentration courtesy of Renato Ganoza

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Judy Krings 10 December 2014 - 10:19 am

James and Emily, this is TERRIFIC. The Q and A format hits many nails of the much needed character strengths head. I especially appreciated your noting not all kids learn strengths at home or within their families of origin. This is an important article and I will re-post. Kids thank you and so do I.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 10 December 2014 - 11:39 am

This is FABULOUS! As a parent who has encountered some difficulties with schools (who hasn’t?) I’m sending this article and your IPEN website along to every educator that I know. I hope all schools, administrators, teachers, parents, students all around the world get on board. This will make the world a better place!

Judy Krings 10 December 2014 - 12:11 pm

Way to go, Lisa!

Shannon Polly 10 December 2014 - 12:15 pm

Fantastic work! I wonder what you think of Yale’s program (Salvoey, etc.) using EQ – their RULER approach?

Shannon Polly

Shaen Yeo 10 December 2014 - 5:14 pm

Thank you for answering some of the most basic questions about positive education. I get these questions all of the time, and now I can direct them to this Q & A! FABULOUS! 😀 And… thank you for highlighting the good work being done in Singapore schools! 🙂

Amanda Horne 11 December 2014 - 4:37 am

Emily and James – thank you, a great article.

To add to your list, please include the work of Jenny Fox Eades: Celebrating Strengths “Celebrating character strengths and values in education” – http://www.celebratingstrengths.co.uk/

“Working in the field of character education, well-being, inclusion and positive behaviour, since 2003. Our work was developed with schools in the UK and is now used by schools in Australia, Denmark and Sweden. We can also help you embed your SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) education within the curriculum and life of your school and think about the well-being and positive mental health of all of your children…AND your staff.”


Debra 14 December 2014 - 6:46 pm

Amazing article!!! Can’t wait to read more!!

Homaira 25 December 2014 - 4:05 am

Really good article that explains exactly what Positive Education looks like. Thank you!

Clive Leach 12 March 2015 - 7:28 pm

Great article and very helpful in promoting a ‘Positive Education’ approach. I do have two observations. The first is that there needs to be equal focus on the well-being and character development of school leadership, teachers & parents too!If the adults in the lives of young people don’t know what it means or feels like (or have forgotten what it feels like!) to flourish, it’s harder to help students. Also I noticed that you referenced Suzy Green’s study on the outcomes of evidence-based coaching with high school students (and there is another one on teachers) but didn’t specifically refer in your article to the application of coaching, as an applied positive psychology, in schools as a way to support individuals and groups to embed and sustain positive change. I believe that leadership coaching and peer coaching conversations between teachers, parents and student are a powerful way to the build growth mindsets, character strengths development, resilience and well-being that are required to achieve academic, professional and personal goals.


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