The Scando Review
The Scando Review
Positive Psychology in Education

Positive Psychology in Education

Researchers have defined ‘Positive Education’ in a number of ways. Martin Seligman, an American psychologist defined positive education as the combination of traditional education principles with the study of happiness and wellbeing of the learner. Researchers Lindsay G. Oades, Paula Robinson, Suzy Green and Gordon B. Spence defined positive education as “the development of educational environments that enable the learner to engage in established curricula, in addition to knowledge and skills, to develop their own and other’s wellbeing.”

Positive education focusses on promoting wellbeing and other positive states and qualities such as happiness, strengths and capabilities. This focus of overall wellbeing is centred on positive psychology. It is important to understand the positive psychology perspective to comprehend how positive education emerged from this perspective and the implications going forward.

Significance of positive education

Most young people spend the majority of their waking hours in schools. Parents expect schools to provide the skills that are needed to be successful in life. Along with healthcare, schools remain one of the most influential institutions in the 21st century.

Research conducted by Martin Seligman, Karen J. Reivich, Randal Ernst, Jane Gilham and Mark Linkins found that most parents simply want their children to be happy, but many societies equate happiness with success.

Schools give emphasis on academic achievements which are measured through grades, examinations and other ‘objective’ indicators. Pedagogies focus on giving specific set of knowledge, disconnected from the broader context of learning. Children will find it hard to identify the purpose behind learning those. While some students fit well in this system and achieve their academic expectations with the support they have, some students struggle within this system.

Positive Psychology as a discipline arose as a reaction against the overemphasis in psychological theory, research, and practice, on pathology.

Research has shown that both students and teachers get affected by this. Ronald C. Kessler and Evelyn J. Bromet write about high levels of student disengagement, disconnection and mental issues. According to a study conducted in Netherlands by Perry den Brok, Theo Wubbels and Jan van Tartwijk, the rate at which teachers leave their profession is alarming. The positive education movement calls for placing academic development and wellbeing as equally valued core priorities. 

Positive Psychology as a discipline and as a perspective 

There is a clear distinction between Positive Psychology as a discipline and as a perspective. As a discipline, research and practice purposely situate themselves within defined boundaries of the scientific field. However, as a perspective, research and practice align with the values and intentions of positive psychology regardless of identification with the field. As a perspective, positive psychology emphasises the pursuit of what is good, virtuous, and possible, with less emphasis on escaping what is bad, immoral and problematic. Here, focus is placed on strengths over weaknesses. 

Positive Psychology as a discipline arose as a reaction against the overemphasis in psychological theory, research, and practice, on pathology. According to Margaret L. Kern, this discipline tried to emphasise the individual person and human agency, with only secondary focus on broader social and contextual aspects that impact on human experience. This field aims to be more scientific and is biased towards naturalism. Positive psychology as a discipline has developed and evolved considerably over the years.

The three waves in Positive Psychology

Tim Lomas, Lee Waters, Paige Williams, Lindsay G. Oades and Margaret L. Kern described this evolution as three distinctive waves. Each wave is not distinct from one another. Instead, each wave flows into one another, with prior waves creating the necessary conditions for the latter waves.

The first wave arose from discontent over traditional psychology. This wave, which focussed on the positive perspective, resulted in a spur in the number of studies focussed on positive phenomena across the next two decades. It also led to the growth and establishment of a wide variety of training and certification programmes, and professional bodies.

However, the first wave was criticised as interventions offered focussed only on creating a temporary feeling of pleasure, instead of broader elements of a well-lived life. The overemphasis on the positive seemed to neglect negative human experiences. Studies conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily N. Garbinsky found that the meaningful life is not necessarily a happy one. In addition, studies by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener found that the greatest experiences of joy arise from times of sorrow and pain. Questions arose around what was actually meant by the word ‘positive’.

The application of positive-psychology perspective within the field of education has undergone a series of evolutions.

In the second wave of Positive Psychology, both positive and negative ideas were examined. This wave focussed on eudaimonic dimensions of wellbeing, valuing all of human experiences. Challenges and questions emerged when the positive-psychology perspective was applied across a growing number of contexts and population. Schools have been a critical part of this evolution. Simple positive-psychology intervention may not work in the complexity of classrooms. While some students and teachers may find it useful, some will feel totally disconnected. As understandings and models about wellbeing and other positive phenomena comes from a relatively privileged Western white perspective, there is less clarity about how it will look like in more diverse backgrounds.

In 2020, Tim Lomas suggested that a third wave is emerging that goes beyond the individual level with a broadening of the discipline and its methodologies

Emergence of Positive Education – The three waves in Positive Education

The application of positive-psychology perspective within the field of education has undergone a series of evolutions. The first wave of positive education is marked by the application of positive psychology as a discipline in schools. In this wave, focus was mainly on students with teachers expected to deliver the materials. Various frameworks and curricula have been developed according to this to create ‘happy’ and engaged learners. The driving force behind positive education thus became mental health crisis and gave rise to the importance of mental wellbeing in the field of education.

According to World Health Organisation, before the Covid-19 pandemic, at least one in four young people reported symptoms of mental illness. According to research conducted by Kelly A. Allen and Vicki L. McKenzie, over 50 per cent of adolescent illnesses have a mental origin. This forced the policymakers and other organisers to prioritise mental health and wellbeing.

Positive education came to the forefront by providing an inspiring image of happy and engaged learners. Programmes and curricula have been developed according to the science of positive psychology. Even though the idea of focussing on student wellbeing and happiness can be beneficial, it was proved insufficient. All these curricula, which put the focus on wellbeing of students, tended to forget the mental wellbeing of teachers.

If teachers are struggling, how can they authentically teach wellbeing skills? This question led to the emergence of the second wave of positive education, with emphasis on supporting the wellbeing of everyone within the school community. Gavin R. Slemp suggested that “Positive education aims to build strengths, capabilities, wellbeing and resilience in educational communities… it is not a single approach, but rather provides an umbrella under which multiple theories, programmes, frameworks, and approaches reside”. However, this definition adds more confusion than clarity. One may get confused with the boundaries and intentions of positive education. What are the boundaries of positive education? What are the intentions? Is it about developing wellbeing, skills and capabilities? Will it be different across various cultures and backgrounds?

These questions led to the emergence of the third-wave positive education. This wave emphasises positive education as a perspective rather than a discipline. Instead of applying positive education directly to education, it highlights the need to embrace the positively oriented programmes, structures and frameworks that already exist within schools, with continued refinement, to bring the best out of it.

Application of Positive Psychology principles in education is much needed in this modern world where people of all ages are having issues related to mental health. The experiments done on this front point to the need to emphasise the pedagogy underlying the content. It also calls us to recognise schools as complex human social systems, but with paying special attention to structural realities.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

How would you explain “Positive Education” to your students?

Can you think of the scope of positive education in the 21st century?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!