Let me start this blog post by stating: “It is my pleasure to describe the essence of our Model for Positive Education.”
Before I start to unpack each of the four elements in the Model, I would like to strongly emphasise that Positive Education should and must be tailored to each school’s distinctive context - harnessing the hands, hearts and minds of their unique community.
Defining and describing Positive Education
Over the past decade, Geelong Grammar School has continued to refine the way we define and describe Positive Education. In 2011, our definition stated:
“Positive Education brings together the science of positive psychology with best practice teaching and learning to encourage and support schools and individuals within their communities to flourish.”
In 2015, in an attempt to describe the overall spirit of the field, we said that:
“Positive Education teaches skills and knowledge to help prevent illbeing and promote wellbeing within the context of living a good life.”
This description introduces the critical importance of Positive Education aligning with a broader, over-arching, virtuous and moral context. Our most recent description acknowledges the growing research base, stating that:
“Positive Education is implementing and sustaining the science of wellbeing and flourishing through a tailored whole-school approach.”
The rationale to begin and continue with Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School has been largely motivated by sobering stories and statistics about how mental health problems are increasing in Australia and the world at large. When we know that 1 in 4 adolescents experience a mental health problem in Australia (AIHW, 2011) and that suicide is the leading cause of death for 15 to 34 year olds (ABS, 2013), Geelong Grammar School believes that education must place a stronger emphasis on promoting the wellbeing of students and helping prepare students for the inevitable challenges and stresses beyond school.
Our model aims to build a positive culture that places wellbeing at the heart of education. We consider the implementation of Positive Education to be an ongoing journey where continuous learning, applying and reflecting are practised and feedback is always welcomed and encouraged.
Flourishing as a by-product
Our model begins in the centre circle, where it says ‘flourish’. This is the desired outcome we have for our students, staff, parents and wider community. It is not like a goal that we are actively striving to achieve every day, but we view it more as a by-product, or a healthy consequence of living a life in such a way that nurtures one’s individual wellbeing and contributes to the wellbeing of others.
Flourishing refers to the experience of life going well – when we are feeling good and functioning effectively (Huppert & So, 2012; Seligman, 2011). At Geelong Grammar School we summarise this as ‘feeling good and doing good.’ We like this definition because it captures the hedonistic aspect of flourishing, such as enjoying positive experiences and feeling satisfied with life, as well as the eudaimonic aspects of flourishing, such as having a deeper purpose and serving something greater than oneself. ‘Feeling good’ refers to experiencing healthy levels of optimism, vitality, emotional stability and resilience. ‘Doing good’ involves caring for others, nurturing positive relationships and using one’s skills and knowledge to contribute meaningfully to society.
Positive Education is based on the premise that what we do matters – that experiencing positive mental health and wellbeing in adolescence, along with learning skills and knowledge that help maintain this positive mental health and address mental health difficulties, will contribute to becoming a fully engaged young adult in society. This premise was supported empirically through a recent analysis of 1000 participants in the Australian Temperament Project (O’Connor et. al, 2016), one of Australia’s most representative and longest running studies of social and emotional development. In this study, adolescent mental health was comprised of the six wellbeing domains in the GGS Model: relationships, emotions, health, engagement, accomplishment and purpose. O’Connor her colleagues (2016) found that positive mental health in adolescence was associated with indicators of career progression and taking on citizenship responsibilities (volunteering and civic activities) over a decade later, at ages 27-28 years old. In this way, Positive Education is all about ‘learning to flourish’.
Character Strengths underpinning all aspects of a flourishing community
“Character strengths are ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that come naturally and easily to a person and that enable high functioning and performance.” (Linley, 2006)
James Pawelski, founding President of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), discussed in 2011 what Positive Psychology means by the term ‘positive’. He first states that the term does not mean ‘marked by acceptance or approval’ and this is a common misunderstanding that some people have about the field of Positive Education. It is not trying to say in any way that it is the ‘correct’ or ‘right’ form of education and that everything else that has come before has been ‘negative’ or ‘wrong’ education. Pawelski goes on to reference two meanings of the term ‘positive’ that are relevant – firstly, helping people move in a positive direction and into positive levels of wellbeing, and secondly, coming from the Latin ponere meaning ‘to set up’ or ‘to build’. It is this view that we take of the term ‘positive’ in Positive Education. It is a form of education where we build skills and resources in our students and teachers and where we take a strengths-based approach to growth and development.
Hence, from our term ‘flourish’ at the core of the GGS Model, we move outward to Character Strengths. This highlights the importance of schools introducing a common language of what is right, of what works -- a language of the positive human qualities which, when actioned, contribute to living a good life. Developing an understanding of one’s character strengths and utilising them in a variety of different ways builds confidence and competence in individuals.
We remind students, staff and parents, that the 24 VIA (Values in Action) Character Strengths are universally valued, they exist within each of us and that they can be intentionally nurtured. We also ensure that our community is well aware that, whilst our character strengths are relatively stable, they can and do change with our changing life experience and context. As each character strength can be overused, underused or misused, it is important we also explore the ‘shadow-side’ of each of these morally valued human qualities.
The Character Strengths underpin our GGS Model and also provide an access point into the next ring of our Model, which lists the six related domains of wellbeing.
The six related domains of wellbeing
The GGS Model for Positive Education comprises six related domains. Each of these domains contributes meaningfully to overall wellbeing and is supported by science. As Seligman explains in his book, Flourish, wellbeing is a construct and not actually a directly measurable quality. Wellbeing, like the weather, consists of various measurable elements, each contributing to wellbeing, but none defining wellbeing in and of itself. The name and definitions for the six related measurable elements of wellbeing are:
Positive Relationships: Increasing social and emotional skills in order to create and promote strong and nourishing relationships with self and others.
Positive Emotions: Experiencing a broad range of positive emotions and developing skills and knowledge to anticipate, initiate, experience, prolong and build positive emotions.
Positive Health: Practising sustainable habits for optimal physical and psychological health that are developed from a sound knowledge base.
Positive Engagement: Promoting complete immersion in activities through understanding the nature of engagement, the pathways to it and the function it has in individual wellbeing.
Positive Accomplishment: Enabling individual growth through striving for and achieving meaningful outcomes.
Positive Purpose: Understanding, believing in and serving something greater than yourself and deliberately engaging in activities for the benefits of others.
For each of these domains, we continue to learn about the most relevant research, and consider the most effective ways of exploring activities that develop awareness and nurture understanding for humans of all ages.
Using longitudinal data from the Australian Temperament Project, O’Connor and colleagues (2016) confirmed that the six domains of the GGS Model can be accurately modelled as a measure of positive mental health in adolescence and that together the domains show promising long-term predictive validity. This supports the need for Positive Education to adopt comprehensive and multi-faceted approaches to building and protecting mental health in young people.
The four key processes to implementing and sustaining Positive Education
As we move to the outside ring of the GGS Model of Positive Education, we find the repeated processes Learn, Live, Teach and Embed. These four fundamental processes bring our Model to life. We provide opportunities for the staff and the parents in our community to learn the key principles of Positive Education. We then endeavour to live according to and model these principles. We explicitly and implicitly teach related topics of wellbeing to our students. Finally, we then endeavour to embed the principles within our whole school practices and policies.
Learn It: Sharing opportunities as a whole-school community to understand and engage with the science of wellbeing.
Live It: Enacting evidence-based wellbeing practices in our own way in our own lives.
Teach It: Providing students with dedicated time to discover and explore each of the key domains of wellbeing.
Embed It: Adopting long-term, school-wide policies and practices which support and nurture wellbeing within individuals and within the community.
As a school community embarks on implementing Positive Education, pertinent questions to ask could include: What do we want to learn about first? How can we help our parents to learn about it? What are the times when our community is at its best; living the principles of Positive Education? How do we most effectively manage mistakes? Can we find time within the existing timetable to explicitly teach Pos Ed? How can we help our teachers implicitly teach elements of wellbeing within their curriculums? How can we mentor our students on their personal wellbeing journeys? Should wellbeing be formally assessed or measured? What policies could we re-write through a lens of Positive Education? What wellbeing messages are communicated through our physical environment? And on the list goes…
The reason these processes are repeated around the outside ring of the GGS Model, is due to the ongoing iterative process that is an integral part of Positive Education. We all continue to learn about the latest evidence from the science of wellbeing, and in recognition that wellbeing is both ‘caught and taught’ we endeavour for our community to interact with one another in such a way that nurtures wellbeing. We continue to fine tune our explicit and implicit Positive Education lessons, as we trial different activities and approaches and respond to the feedback from our students. We have made many mistakes over the past nine years as we have implemented our Positive Education programme, but each of these mistakes have provided rich insights into assisting individuals within our school community, and the wider community as a whole to flourish.
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013, Causes of Death, Australia. cat. no. 3303.0, ABS, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3303.0
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011, Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011. cat. no. PHE 140, Canberra: AIHW.
Hone, L.C., Jarden, A., Schofield, G.M., & Duncan, S. (2014). Measuring flourishing: The impact of operational definitions on the prevalence of high levels of wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 4(1), 62-90. doi:10.5502/ijw.v4i1.4
Huppert, F., So, T. (2011). Flourishing Across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining wellbeing. Social Indicators Research, 110(3), pp 837-861
Norrish, J. M. (2015). Positive Education: The Geelong Grammar School Journey. Oxford University Press.
Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O'Connor, M., & Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for Positive Education. International Journal of Wellbeing, 3(2), 147-161. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v3i2.2
O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., Toumbourou, J. W., Norrish, J., & Olsson, C. (2016). Does positive mental health in adolescence longitudinally predict healthy transitions in young adulthood? Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-016-9723-3
Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, London, Free Press.
Justin Robinson is the former Director of the Institute of Positive Education. As a passionate leader in the field of student and staff wellbeing, Justin has been invited to write for a number of publications and speak at conferences both in Australia and around the world.