Do they impact on new thinking in 21st Century Education?


The UK is  doing badly, it seems, in terms of helping its young to achieve wellbeing.

 The UK came bottom in a 2008 Unicef survey of life satisfaction among children in 21 developed countries. The Institute of Psychiatry announced in 2007 that the number of children with emotional and behavioural problems in the UK has doubled in the past 25 years. The number of adolescent suicides has quadrupled.

 Geoff Mulgan, the former head of the No10 policy unit and now heading the Young Foundation, has said that ‘Wellbeing’ will be the major focus of government in the 21st century, in the way that economic prowess was in the 20th century and military prowess was in the 19th century.

There are a number of leading thinkers, many in the States, who are promoting ideas on positive thinking, emotional intelligence and happiness under the wider umbrella of ‘well being’.

Martin Seligman, a guru of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 best seller ‘Emotional Intelligence’, Richard Layard, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Howard Gardner of Harvard are all at the forefront of changing the way we approach education and the way we live our lives in the pursuit of well-being . This is against the backdrop of a better understanding of how our brains work and advances in neuro-science. Not everyone agrees with their views. Indeed some challenge the rigour of the science on which their views are based, and also question whether they can ,or should, be applied in the classroom. But even their critics agree that they have started a useful debate on how education should look in the 21st Century, challenging along the way old orthodoxies. Indeed, some in the independent and state sectors in this country have already sought to apply some of this new thinking and knowledge to what happens in the classroom.

Martin Seligman says that ‘ Positive psychology’ is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. According to Seligman (2002), positive psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotion entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of meaning and purpose as well as the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance. Each of these three domains is related to a different meaning of the scientifically unwieldy term “happiness,” and each has its own road to happiness (Seligman, 2002) Positive Thinking encourages young people to alter the way they see problems – as challenges that can help to develop and bring out the best in them, rather than hinder them – and encourage them to turn setbacks into opportunities.

Daniel Goleman believes that the skills that distinguish star performers in every field, from entry level jobs to middle-level to top executive posts have not much to do with IQ, advanced degrees, or technical expertise, but the quality called “Emotional Intelligence.” And the good news is that emotional intelligence can be learned and developed through life. IQ alone explains surprisingly little of achievement at work or in life he says. When IQ test scores are correlated with how well people perform in their careers, the highest estimate of how much difference IQ accounts for is about 25 percent. This means that IQ alone at best leaves 75 percent of job success unexplained. First, emotional intelligence does not mean merely “being nice,” but rather, for example, bluntly confronting someone with an uncomfortable truth they have been avoiding. Second, emotional intelligence does not mean giving free rein to feelings. Rather, it means managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward their common goal. Lastly, levels of emotional intelligence are not fixed genetically, nor does it develop in early childhood. Unlike IQ, which changes little after our teen years, emotional intelligence seems to be largely learned, and it continues to develop through life and learn from our experiences. Emotional Competence is a learned capability based on emotional intelligence. Our emotional intelligence determines our potential for learning the practical skills that are based on its five elements: self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation, empathy, and adeptness in relationships. Our emotional competence, on the other hand, shows how much of that potential we have translated into on-the-job capabilities. So, EI covers a wide range of skills and personality dispositions such as confidence, optimism, adaptability, motivation, peer relations and coping with stress.

 Howard Gardner identifies different types of intelligence, giving us all hope. We are all good at something after all and the chances are that if we are good at something we have a particular intelligence, Intelligence cant simply be measured by a single IQ test . Or rather the IQ test measures a particular type of intelligence. In short, Gardner opposes the idea of a single intelligence, proposing instead that people have several, including linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial and interpersonal intelligences. People vary in all these capacities, and their ability in any of them is not set in stone. Given that the brain is infinitely adaptable if given the right encouragement and environment, children will develop the intelligences that most suit them, rather than the stereotype often forced upon them. Schools can have a role in identifying and developing these intelligences in pupils. Call it personalized learning.

 Professor Layard believes in a new science of happiness. The nub of Layard’s argument is this: once people’s basic economic needs are met additional income and wealth contributes little to an individual’s happiness. What’s more a society which encourages a focus on the self and its wants, and heightened individualism, tends to undermine the very things which psychological research now shows are crucial to feelings of happiness: close personal relationships, trust, and security. On top of this consumerism, advertising and the effects of the mass media heightens human beings’ natural interest in ‘status’ and social comparisons. This means that in contemporary society people’s lives are overly concerned with work, money, and how they are doing in ‘the rat race’. Such a life focus is not intrinsically satisfying and so we have the prosperity paradox that for all the increased wealth in modern society people do not feel happier. After all, an important milestone in children’s lives is the ability to control their impulses for immediate gratification (pleasure or happiness in the moment) for something ultimately more meaningful in the future. But isn’t this all a bit woolly and insubstantial and, even if you agree with most of it, how on earth do you apply it to teaching, the curriculum and what happens in schools? And , here is the rub, how will it help performance?

 Dr Nick Baylis of Cambridge University, who lectures in positive psychology and the science of well-being, and who has just set up the “Well-being Institute” at the University suggests  it does affect performance.

Indeed he has worked with Dr Anthony Seldon at Wellington College to introduce classes in positive thinking. He advises on how to teach well-being skills in the classroom, as a complement to the curriculum, so that pupils can explore for themselves what brings out the best in them. He also feels parents can be enlisted to help engage school’s well-being initiatives. And even advises on the best-proven approaches for effective exam-time revision.

Cambridge Assessment has undertaken some research on Emotional Intelligence-Can emotional and social abilities predict differences in attainment at secondary school?-it found factors such as ability are not the only predictors of educational attainment. According to its study, and also according to previous research (Cassidy and Lynn, 1991; Vidal Rodeiro and Bell, 2007), it is the combination of ability, individual characteristics, home background, the type of school attended and social, behavioral and emotional aspects that is important. The results showed, for instance, that some aspects of (trait) emotional intelligence significantly contributed to attainment in GCSE sciences over and above the contribution made by prior ability (Key Stage 3 scores). Self-motivation and low impulsivity were significant positive predictors of progress from Key Stage 3 in all four science subjects.

It would be wrong though  to think that this focus on well-being is just the preserve of the independent sector.

 Operating under the aegis of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), it has been introduced under the National Strategies, in Primary and Secondary schools. A phased national implementation in secondary schools started in September 2007 following a pilot project in 54 schools.

SEAL incorporates some ideas on wellbeing from both Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and positive psychology, such as the ABC model of emotions, but its emphasis is more on teaching “emotional intelligence” and interpersonal skills. SEAL is certainly a start but for some it  does not  , as the Americans might say, get much beyond first base. 

Lord Layard, told the Times in 2008 that “Nearly all schools have a dedicated hour a week for PSHE that is very often wasted, or is taught by someone who has no training, or even much interest, in wellbeing, even though it’s such an important subject. What’s lacking is richness of content or any seriousness of training for teachers.” To try to take the teaching of wellbeing forward, Layard organized a pilot scheme to teach “resilience” in 22 state schools in South Tyneside, Hertfordshire and Manchester. In July 2007 about 100 teachers and local council officials spent ten days at the University of Pennsylvania, where they trained with some of the most famous psychologists in the world, including Seligman himself and Aaron Beck, the inventor of CBT.

 Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation, a centre for social change, recently told the Sunday Times “We’ve been running classes in wellbeing resilience for about 4,000 pupil’s .But they are in state schools so don’t get any attention.” He continued: “We’ve been doing that in Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire. It’s probably the biggest thing in this area. It’s having a formal evaluation by the LSE to see the impact on exam results, behaviour, and depression. We’ve trained a large number of teachers in a set of methods for helping children handle life and be emotionally robust. The first-year evaluation was very good.”

 There was much sniggering in the back row of the lower sixth when Seldon introduced ‘happiness’ classes at Wellington. Doubtless, some still joke about it, but a fair number of pupils use positive thinking to better organize their thoughts and lives and to help them develop their own approaches to cope better with its challenges, disappointments and to keep their success too, in perspective.

It might also be one of the factors propelling Wellington up the Academic league tables and making it, even in this recession, one of the most oversubscribed schools in southern England.

Critics may well knock and mock the ‘ well-being’ agenda and its advocates, and it clearly has the potential to be hijacked by charlatans but if its focus remains close to its most respected advocates it has the potential to gain  enhanced credibility in this new decade-so watch this space.


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