Enough is Enough
Why does school often feel bad for kids?
As a student, I often felt I wasn’t good enough: who I was and what the world expected me to be were at odds. As a result, I felt marginalized and alone at school. I felt voiceless. Only later did I learn that feelings of “not being good enough (or smart enough, or good looking enough, or whatever enough)” were too common for school children.
And then I became a teacher. Finally! On the other side of the desk. A dream I had since as long as I could remember. But there, much to my chagrin, I saw many students—and teachers and parents with similar plights: sad, alone, and depressed—rat-racing, getting by—not enough.
What answers can positive psychology offer? What is the #1 action we can take to improve schools?
This is A Crisis
Last week I attended a conference that Yale School of Management put on called Creating Levers of Change in education. NYC School Commissioner Joel Klein gave the keynote address. In it, he made three points:
- We have a crisis in public education.
- We don’t have to have a crisis in public education.
- If we keep having the same dialogue, we won’t change the reality.
The difference between this education crisis and other national crises, like the threat of terrorism or the failing economy, he says, is that we’re not all in this one together. Skin color, popularity, and zip code determine the quality of education kids receive. I love Klein’s points – especially the third one, as it reminds me of the work of David Cooperrider who says that, “Human systems move in the direction of the questions they ask.” What questions do we ask regarding the state of our schools? I have one:
If an alien came from Mars and dropped into a school, what would they report? That kids come, half awake, to watch adults work?
There’s An Evidenced-Based Solution
In leading a bandwagon on Positive Education, Martin Seligman is fond of asking audiences he speaks to the following question: What do you most want for your children? (And if you’re not parents, consider it hypothetically – what would you most want most for your children to have in life?). Happiness? Good health? Fulfillment? Love?
Seligman then juxtaposes it with the following question: What do schools teach? Discipline? Science? Responsibility?
But suppose we can have both? This is what he means by Positive Education. In addition to what we traditionally teach in schools, Positive Education involves the teaching of character and strength, virtue, self-awareness, self-efficacy (not self-esteem), resilience, flexible and accurate thinking, strategies for high quality connections, and optimism wed to reality.
With the advent of Positive Psychology, these constructs are now grounded in theory and science – with evidenced-based interventions to build these capacities and in turn, make life more worth living – more pleasurable, more engaging, and more meaningful.
It has been shown that happier people have better relationships, earn more money, and live longer than unhappier people. If we’re finding ways that make people happier, doesn’t it make sense we teach this in schools?
There Are Three Ways In
In 2007, McKinsey published a report titled How The World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top (pdf here). In the report, McKinsey looks at the top performing schools in the world, and concludes that three things differentiate the best:
- Teacher quality
- Teacher development
- Ensuring that the system can deliver the best possible instruction to every child
What is the #1 Top Action We Can Take?
Knowing these McKinsey results, what is the strongest lever? What is the biggest bang for the buck? There may be evidence that teacher development can change schools with the most impact for the most ease. For example, Geelong Grammar School in Australia has focused on Positive Education, including as part of that the Positive Education Training Conference for teachers.
What if schools running professional development workshops – for teachers and administrators and a learning series for students and parents – could make those strides to grow the beauty of schools and prevent possible pain to individuals? What if these seminars were based on the research findings of positive psychology – and to include the whole system?
What if the alien form Mars could report this:
Children are enjoying some type of information. They are smiling. The adults are smiling. There is a bidirectional construction of knowledge. Everyone is learning. Everyone is eager to return each day.
Author’s Note: If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yes! That’s what we need,” consider contacting me and my colleagues at Flourishing Schools to come and deliver workshops for your local school (or learning organization of any kind). You never know how just one phone call on your part could positively influence an entire system or community . . .