Andrew Monk

Empowering Australia’s Children Today Through Positive Education

Initially based upon the principals of positive psychology, the positive education approach has much in common with a whole child approach to education and is contributing to the paradigm shift that is accentuating the nonacademic variables of children's education for successful student outcomes.

Positive education is an approach of improving the well-being of children in schools through implicit and explicit programs. Although this approach as an idea is not something that many find groundbreaking or contemporary, what it has done is brought into light an opportunity for school leaders to initiate a response to the problems associated with physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being of both staff and students. This response is becoming collaborative amongst like-minded schools, and a wave of interest is moving across schools in Australia to implement programs that attend to the whole child and that are outside of traditional academic circles.

From its more modern conception in 1998, positive psychology had been described by leaders in the field, such as Christopher Peterson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Martin Seligman, as the study of what goes right in life—from birth to death and all in between. Rather than remedying the ills that decrease the opportunity of human flourishing, it is focused upon the good in life and the ways in which we can accentuate them. Psychology as a scientific field has a limited reach to the general population in comparison to a school, which places education systems as one of the most suitable environments to teach students the skills and practices of living a flourishing life. There are quite a few subsections of positive education, such as building resilience, character-strength development, promoting positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, purpose, accomplishments, mindfulness, and promotion of physical health. All of which are beginning to form an approach to education for staff, students, parents, and the connected school community that is attempting to prepare children for the challenges of the "real world." In relation to this, if you haven't yet read Sean Slade's recent blog post, "Improving Schools: The 'Real World' Fallacy," then I encourage you to do so.

Here in Australia, the enlightened approach of psychology began to make significant progress into schools in 2008, with the introduction of positive education at Geelong Grammar School in the state of Victoria. At the time, I was the coordinator of positive education at the school's Timbertop campus, and it was an interesting and exciting time to see a field of psychology make its way into the programming of school education. There have been doubters in the past—and there still are—but many do come around to see that, at a foundational level, teaching students the skills and practices to live a flourishing life is something that we have touched on in education for decades and should continue to do, but we have yet to systematically implement cohesive schoolwide or even community-wide approaches to address this.

After departing Geelong Grammar School, I spent time at Knox Grammar School in Sydney, which has also introduced positive education. Importantly, the school has implemented the approach in a way that facilitates the best out of the environment: an all boys school. Currently, I am the coordinator of positive education at Scotch College Adelaide, which began its positive education journey in 2009. The number of schools currently implementing specific programs to build resilience in children are numerous across the country; however, those that are specifically demonstrating education leadership within this field (through the dedication of both staff and whole-school programming using the positive education approach) is around 50. These schools are customizing the approach to their student and staff needs but are generally focused on

  • Developing a model connecting traditional values of the school with modern needs of children, and then implementing it through teaching and learning practices;
  • Building resilience in staff and children;
  • Teaching and learning with character strengths;
  • Connecting implicit programming to the building of purpose, relationships, meaning, positive emotions, engagement, and accomplishments in the children; and
  • Teaching skills and practices to improve intrinsic motivation, autonomy, and mastery.

Moreover, new position descriptions are being written for staff to identify, measure, and form curricula that have rigorous scope and sequencing for a student well-being program to be effective. This is a fundamental change in school organization and one that takes the responsibility of pastoral care in children from a welfare perspective to a well-being approach, and that investment is being sought to bring accountability of the desired outcomes in student well-being.

Individual schools are not alone in endeavoring to ameliorate student flourishing. The new national curriculum being developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority specifically attends to the needs of student well-being. Likewise, the Australian Council of Educational Research released late last year the National School Improvement Tool, which emphasizes systematic collection of data for student resilience, well-being, and social and emotional development. Furthermore, there are national measures of well-being for children between the ages of 0–5 and up to 18 years, such as the Australian Early Development Index and the Middle Year Development Instrument. Both assessment matrices provide excellent well-being data of the whole child that correlate to school experiences.

Currently, the movement of positive education is traveling into broader pastures than individual schools, individual programs offered to schools, or even at a national level in curriculum and measurement design. As a city, Adelaide and its people are considering the notion of an "Institute of Well-Being" that supports policy and future developments across the community, from the justice system to health and business reform. Schools are major facilitators in providing the community access to the most up-to-date knowledge, skills, and practices of well-being for children, adults, and the elderly. This in itself begins to change the dynamic of the school as a community hub for well-being, rather than as an institution for child education.

In summary, a lot is happening—and quickly—which in itself creates challenges for school leaders. However, there is a desire from schools, parents, and communities to attend to the physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being of students for today and into their future. Teachers are beginning to understand what a flourishing student is and how this creates a more productive learner within the classroom. It has now become a priority to acknowledge and accentuate the good in a child, implement values' education into all that we do, and use the whole child approach to education to prepare this generation for the demands of the modern world. We are working hard at making a change today, and we are hopeful, but we'll have to wait for some time to see if we are making a substantial lifelong change to the world's future in empowering the children of today.

Andrew Monk is the coordinator of positive education at Scotch College Adelaide, an independent, co-educational day and boarding school that offers early learning through year 12 education. Formerly a health and physical education teacher, he has been involved in the development of positive psychology in schools in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia. Connect with Monk by e-mail at amonk@scotch.sa.edu.au.

Comments (1)

Brigitte Venczel

August 16, 2013

It’s wonderful to see programs based on positive education becoming more common in schools. It means that we are becoming pro-active not just on remedying problems but actually building the very qualities we want to see in our children. Let’s hope these programs can eventually be rolled out across many schools so that children from different backgrounds can benefit.

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