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Student wellbeing can commence with how you teach

By Sam Di Sano on 5 June 2018NSWstaffroomLeadershipWellbeingUKstaffroom

This article was first published on my LinkedIn on 16 November, 2016 and has been subsequently revised and re-written

Delivering a mode of teaching which focuses on a reflective pedagogy instead of straight content overload may well pay dividends for the young people you teach and their struggle with mental health and welfare. Such a model not only aims to engage students in their learning but at the same time also teaches them to incorporate different modes of reflection and recall to deepen their understanding of a concept. Unsurprisingly, a flipped or student centred approach which allows students the time and space to engage with content at their pace then utilise class time to deepen their understanding and skill development is at the heart of this pedagogical approach. Today more than ever the switch to a more student centred rather than teacher directed teaching style not only offers academic benefits, but can also assist with alleviating mental health issues such as anxiety and stress for many young people.

In a society where 34% of surveyed 15 - 19 year olds nominated mental health as their greatest concern, more than ever we need to ensure we teach the way students learn - meet them where they are at, rather than drag them kicking and screaming to where we expect them to be.

Engaging students where they are at

I am a huge fan of peer to peer learning in many different jurisdictions and see huge benefits in the classroom for both teachers and students when young people are engaged to mentor other young people, again emphasising a student-centred learning experience.

These forms of learning involve and immerse the student in his or her quest for knowledge. Research takes on a deeper focus. So too reflection; posing deeper questions which stimulate inner growth and perhaps a movement to action; be it a sense of conviction about one's future, a significant decision reached after much consideration, or a light-bulb moment when everything about that elusive Maths formula becomes abundantly clear. It is also very possible in many humanities-based subjects which cover social justice issues in the curriculum that such an opportunity for deeper analysis and reflection may encompass an understanding of how their values may move them and work within them, beyond the classroom.

Learning in this way moves beyond the cognitive, one-dimensional transfer of information to a deeper love of learning, savouring the material, yearning for more. Needless to say you can’t get there if you spend all your lesson time learning content.

The Greek writer Plutarch said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”.

Our students are more than a rank

The reality is that while we are able to develop and amass knowledge at school, we cannot necessarily foster wisdom. The latter takes years, sometimes a lifetime, to master. We seem to spend most of our teenage years being sold a myth to where success actually lies, incorrectly or unwisely linking it to a matriculation score. Our children have also been sold a myth that if they get good marks that will set them up for life. Our education system, or more precisely our matriculation processes need a reality check. We need to value diversity in learning more and equate success and mastery to more than the final mark/rank.

Only in the last few years have our school systems begun to deepen their understanding of wellbeing as opposed to success and put processes and systems in place to deal with it. Many schools are indeed successful at fostering competitiveness and notions of best practise, but do they develop positive images and values of wellbeing and happiness among their cohorts? That is, do they produce good people?

What’s this all got to do with wellbeing?

A love of learning can bring many side benefits. A relaxing of the restrictions of the curriculum to pump out content can enrich a deepening of learning as well as heighten a sense of composure, connectedness, contentment and stability, sustained both over time and by others in positive relationships and community. Is there a better definition of wellbeing?

Dr Corey Keyes defines it best as part of a continuum from mental ill-health to wellbeing; a movement from languishing to flourishing in life when we like most things about ourselves. (Journal of Health and Social Research, 2002)

What external factors are required for our mental wellbeing to flourish?

  • Warm and trusting relationships with peers and colleagues
  • A degree of self determination and
  • A desire to shape our own environment

More successful schools will take these factors into the realm of teaching and learning; they will foster an active learning community with engaged students who demonstrate a positive disposition towards their own learning and relationships with others; they are generally focused on a deeper appreciation of the content they learn and develop a key mastery of their subject. Perhaps too they have developed a classroom praxis which puts students front and centre.

The doyen of well-being, Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness (2002) and Flourish, a New Understanding of Happiness (2011) maintains a scaffold of five pillars of happiness:

  1. Positive feelings and attitudes
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning and purpose
  5. Achievement and attainment

If Seligman defines authentic happiness for individuals through these five factors, so too can the following six key elements help define a positive and happy school; one which:

  1. Develops character
  2. Fosters courage
  3. Attains competence
  4. Demonstrates composure
  5. Shows caring
  6. Builds community

Perhaps it is no coincidence that 'wellbeing' begins with 'we'.

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