New school rules? Swotting up on ‘positive education’

With both youth depression and youth unemployment on the rise, calls are growing for a different kind of learning. Could ‘positive education’ enhance not just wellbeing, but academic performance too?

Not many secondary school pupils would voluntarily join their teacher for an interview with a journalist during the summer holidays. Yet on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, three pupils of True North, a Danish boarding school, Skype in from a summer house where they are on holiday. It is quickly obvious that the teenagers are not just trying to please their teacher and are genuinely happy to talk.

“I know my strengths and values now, and I know how to use them,” says Kristine Fredslund Jacobsen, who enjoys school “a lot more” since transferring to True North last year. Classmate Valentin Marcus Andersen praises its dynamic learning environment: “We do a lot of movement. We might be asked to stand up, go to the other side of the room and find a new partner to work with. The teaching is more interesting and easier for the brain.”

These kinds of insights into the learning process are typical of the school’s approach, says True North director Nicolai Moltke-Leth. The curriculum is built around a module called Unlocking Potential, that staff teach alongside their other subjects and that focuses on personal leadership and social competency, as well as academic ability. This in turn is characteristic of teaching under the broad banner of positive education. The concept amounts to a paradigm shift, away from considering education simply as a route to academic attainment and towards students also cultivating a broad set of character strengths, virtues and wellbeing tools.

A great degree is a foot in the door for an interview. Thereafter they are looking for your qualities as a human being

In the UK, Sir Anthony Seldon has been beating the drum for positive education for decades. Former master of the independent Wellington College and co-founder of the Action for Happiness movement, he is also president of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), launched two years ago. In July, the organisation held the first International Festival for Positive Education in Texas, for more than 800 educators, policy makers and researchers.

“Great work is happening in isolation, but we need to be more joined-up,” Seldon says. He believes the biggest challenge is convincing national governments, who are often driven by the controversial, internationally comparable test scores set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A public letter written by academics from around the world in 2014 warned that the OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risked turning education into drudgery and “killing the joy of learning”.

“We need government ministers to understand that education is about educating the body, emotions and heart, and helping our young people to develop their moral nature, artistic nature and character virtue,” says Seldon. He believes headteachers need to live in this way themselves, to truly ‘walk the talk’. “They should create a mutually reinforcing environment, where teachers are supportive, connected, energetic and outward-looking,” he explains.

21st century workforce

Demand from employers could also help spur change, adds IPEN’s director Emily Larson. “Google is looking for skills such as empathy, teamwork and leadership in those it hires. These are skills that children aren’t really learning at school.”

Taddy Blecher, CEO of the Maharishi Institute in South Africa, reports the same trend in his country. “South Africa has the third highest level of youth unemployment in the world. Our school system doesn’t prepare them to be relevant in our 21st century economy, or to build a stable society from a citizenship point of view. A great degree is a foot in the door for an interview. Thereafter they’re looking for your qualities as a human being: maturity, leadership, passion, empathy, emotional intelligence, and they’re even starting to look at SQ: spiritual intelligence.”

Blecher, a former actuary, conducted one of the first large scale Consciousness-Based Education experiments in government schools in the mid-90s, in which children practised meditation techniques for 20 minutes at the start and end of the school day. The programme was dubbed ‘quiet time in schools’ and ran for four years, involving 9,000 students. It tracked more than 100,000 of their school marks and compared them to the grades of a control group of 12,000 students who did not do the meditation.

“Our students were doing what many thought of as ‘soft fluff’: sitting and closing their eyes and experiencing consciousness from within. School marks went up by an average of 25 per cent across the board, while the students in the control group dropped by one percentage point. This was a revelation.”

Maharishi Institute meditation

The education programme at the Maharishi Institute in Johannesburg includes transcendental meditation

In a bid to tackle the ongoing problem of youth unemployment, Blecher eventually founded the Maharishi Institute in Johannesburg. Its teaching methods include project-based learning and open-book exams (allowing students to refer to notes during exams), as opposed to memorisation tests. “It is about learning how to think, how to fall in love with a subject and engage with it. If the mind can draw a map and see how all the different pieces fit together, then learning becomes so much easier.”

The institute also uses transcendental meditation to boost mental alertness, creativity and intelligence in a bid to better prepare students for adult life. Over 95 per cent of its graduates gain and retain jobs, which Blecher says is virtually unheard of in South Africa.

Positive psychology

Positive education emerged from the discipline of positive psychology and gained momentum in the 90s when researchers started linking academic achievement to student wellbeing. “If we take the cynical approach, that is why policy makers are interested: they see it as a way to increase standardised test scores,” says IPEN’s Larson.

She is quick to add that there are other, perhaps more important, reasons positive education is spreading fast. “Globally, depression is on the rise and the onset age is getting younger. In schools in Asia and Australia in particular, schools are seeing high levels of depression in students who are sometimes as young as 14. They want to combat that by improving wellbeing.”

In Denmark, positive psychology techniques are used to increase students’ social and emotional awareness. Like many positive education schools, True North uses technology to track each student’s learning path. Director Moltke-Leth is all too aware that the same technology offers temptations such as Facebook or Netflix, more than capable of luring students away from their schooling. But rather than prohibiting such distractions, he prefers to make students aware of how their brains make choices.

If the mind can draw a map and see how all the different pieces fit together, then learning becomes so much easier

“We explain that in positive psychology, there are three different levels: the pleasant life, the engaged life and the meaningful life. We know that a lot of teenagers fall back on the pleasant life when they feel lazy, which is very human. We say: it is OK to be in the pleasant life, but if you are always there, you don’t develop as quickly. We challenge them to engage themselves, and give them a taste of what it is to have a meaningful life, to know their strengths and values, how to live with them, and how to overcome failure,” he says.

Gross national happiness

In Bhutan, the conditions for positive education have stemmed from a nationwide approach to happiness. With a population of just over 780,000, implementing national policy is arguably relatively straightforward.

When the Gross National Happiness Centre introduced its positive education programme to all schools in 2009, it only needed to train 580 headteachers, one university and eleven colleges.

“We bring human values into the education system, but not through having exams on it,” says Saamdu Chetri, executive director of the centre which is based in the capital Thimphu. “They must be lived by the teachers and, through that, picked up by students. Current education systems in many countries make us only chase for more and bigger things. Then, when we are old, we finally ask: have I lived my life in a meaningful way? We want to bring this realisation to children from a young age.

“We don’t conduct morning assemblies, but students do it themselves, sharing their problems and values. Then they go out and do some gardening, wash, come to the classroom and meditate. It helps them find themselves. They realise that we can’t all be prime ministers, rich people or engineers, but we all have a role to play. They learn not to be competitive, but rather graduate as mindful human beings who believe in interdependence.”


Sharing a laugh at the International Festival for Positive Education in Texas, US

Main image: Mundium College