‘Positive Schools’ is NOT ‘Positive Education’ (but it might be one day…)

Positive Schools in 2021 is NOT the same thing as Positive Education in 2022. These two approaches to supporting wellbeing in schools do not understand wellbeing in the same way, nor do they incorporate the same understanding of how wellbeing can best be put into action. These are bold statements, but they need making. Understanding what ‘Positive Schools’ is about in 2022 and beyond, needs discussion, exploration and clarification.

Over the past thirteen years I have spent an increasing amount of time explaining that the Positive Schools conferences are not wholly ‘Positive Education’ conferences, although they have indeed frequently included Positive Education presentations. I have also spent time listening to people tell me they have been to a ‘Positive Schools’ event, when in fact, they have been to a ‘Positive Education’ one.

Positive Schools began in 2008 around the same time that Positive Education was being introduced to Australian schools. As such, it is understandable that these related, but distinct terms have been used interchangeably. They both relate to wellbeing in schools… and of course they both contain the word ‘positive’…

Moreover, both Positive Schools and Positive Education aim to better understand and support the wellbeing of all members of school and college communities, in a solution focused and evidence-based way. Both want to offer ideas grounded in good research. Both aim to instigate change with a focus on building what works, rather than mending what is fractured or broken. With these similarities in mind, the word ‘positive’ symbolises a shared desire to help school communities to thrive, rather than to merely survive.

However, it is here that these two distinct but related approaches part ways:

Wellbeing Responsibility

Positive Education has chosen a pathway that primarily focuses on supporting the individual wellbeing of all members of a school community. In contrast Positive Schools is primarily concerned with supporting the wellbeing of the community as a social system, made up of many unique individuals. This subtle difference is significant in that it speaks volumes about ‘wellbeing responsibility’.

When the spotlight is placed on supporting individuals (as in traditional Positive Education), there is an implicit assumption made that ‘being well’ is an individual responsibility. When the focus becomes more about context (as in Positive Schools), being well becomes more of a contextual responsibility. Positive Schools believes firmly that although each person is in part, responsible for their own wellbeing, they are also, in part, responsible for the wellbeing of everyone else around them. As such, the social context of a school is to a large part, responsible for the wellbeing of everyone within it. When a child is struggling, supporters of Positive Education might ask: ‘how can we help this child build wellbeing knowledge and skills?’ In contrast, supporters of Positive Schools are more likely to ask: ‘How can we ensure the context better meets the needs of this child?’

Teaching and Learning

Positive Education is generally delivered through the explicit teaching of wellbeing theory and practice, often in specific lessons or designated sessions. Certainly, Positive Education is keen to ensure that presented ideas and strategies are embedded into the school context, however they do not generally challenge the context in itself. In complete contrast, Positive Schools firmly believes that wellbeing grows from a healthy connection to a healthy context and is focused on healthy contextual development far more than it is concerned with distinct wellbeing teaching.

The incorporation of wellbeing strategies into a school can certainly offer value to the development of a positive school community. Yet, we at Positive Schools believe that wellbeing strategies are only as effective as they are upheld within the context into which they are embedded. For example, a program that embraces five minutes of mindfulness each day, is going to fail in a school context that is anything but mindful the rest of the time. Similarly, a day spent helping children to create healthy friendships is going to be minimalised in a context that embraces competition and hierarchies, continually pitting the ‘friends’ against each other. At Positive Schools we are keen to ensure that the school context is developed as a key to creating a thriving school community.

Motivation

Positive Education often talks about rewarding children for positive behaviours or handing out prizes and awards for acts considered to be supporting wellbeing. As such, followers of Positive Education accept the common use of extrinsic motivators in schools; and often encourages their use in the promotion of wellbeing. I suggest that this represents a fundamental failure to understand autonomous motivation. One that that has resulted in Positive Education failing to effectively support wellbeing in schools, in a way that it wants to, needs to and could do.

It seems to me, that Positive Education stems from a fundamentally clinical perspective, rather than a social psychological one. This is important to realise, as it explains why Positive Education is built with a deep understanding of the facets of individual positive mental health but conveys far less understanding of how to support these facets in school communities.

The differences between Positive Schools and Positive Education approaches to motivation are at notable odds with each other. In complete opposition to the traditional Positive Education approach, Positive Schools believes that ‘autonomous motivation’ is the key driver of ‘wellbeing in action’ and is diminished by the use of extrinsic rewards and awards. Moreover, The Positive Schools approach considers the ‘carrot – stick’ method to motivation as conducive to illbeing and unhealthy contextual growth.

Positive Schools is built on the science of applied social psychology, which embraces the understanding of wellbeing from a social systems approach. Applied social psychology is also the home of much of our current understanding of human motivation. Social psychological research has repeatedly found that extrinsic rewards and awards can absolutely engender behavioural compliance, but not necessarily with healthy intentions attached. A child might help another child if they think they will receive a gold star, however, their ‘helpful’ behaviour is more likely to be driven by the intention to be noticed, approved of and praised. In contrast, behaviours which truly represent kindness and compassion are built on the intentions of helping and supporting others, no matter who is watching. As many others have argued with much passioni, I believe that the use of extrinsic rewards to garner positive behaviours diminishes wellbeing and also the opportunity to learn how to be well.

Extrinsic rewards and awards minimise the opportunity for an individual to experience autonomy, healthy relationships and a sense of competency. The more we act on the basis of other’s requests (even when they are requests wrapped in the offer of tempting rewards), the less we are acting with agency and ownership over our behaviour. The more we are adhering to other’s requests and demands, the less we are likely to feel cohesion with those who are excerpting power over us and judging us. Finally, every time we fail to ‘win’ the prize or approval we are working to gain, the less competent we feel. Simply put, extrinsic motivation reduces the likelihood we will have our key needs of autonomy, relatedness and competency met. The less our key needs are met, the less ‘well’ we become, and the less engaged in learning we areii. Positive Education advocates may encourage people to behave in ways that appear well, but their repeated use of extrinsic rewards diminishes opportunity for people to actually be well.

Back to the Future

Positive Schools is currently, not Positive Education but perhaps, in the future things will change.

A few years ago, Positive Schools supported the tag line ‘bringing positive education alive’. This stemmed from a belief that Positive Education science has much to contribute to the development of thriving school contexts, and hence, thriving school communities. Sadly, the significant differences described here, between Positive Schools ethos and that of Positive Education, have led to the removal of this line.

i Many world-renowned experts in both education and motivation talk about the dangers of using extrinsic rewards and awards in schools to garner desired behaviours. I suggest looking at the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the worlds foremost leaders in motivation; or the work of Alfie Kohn whose many books talk in detail about the many problems with school context, including that of extrinsic rewards and awards.

You may also find my book ‘Contextual Wellbeing – creating positive schools from the inside out’ of interest

ii Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self-determination theory states that as social beings, we need to have our key needs for autonomy, relatedness and competency met if we are to experience wellbeing, intrinsic motivation and ultimately, self-determination. There is over thirty-five years of research supporting the theory for anyone interested in finding out more!

Perhaps in the future, school contexts will better thrive because both advocates of Positive Schools philosophy and advocates of Positive Education will have learned more and grown more, both in themselves, and in relation to each other. The more that Positive Schools approaches incorporate valuable findings from Positive Education, such as the importance of strength-based feedback; or the power of gratitude in daily life, the better and healthier school context can become.

Similarly, the more that followers of Positive Education can appreciate and acknowledge the importance of context, and the power of autonomous motivation, the more powerful and effective every wellbeing lesson will be. It is already encouraging to see Positive Education starting to embrace a more systems approach to understanding wellbeing; and a better understanding of how to translate great intentions into great actions.

In 2022, Positive Schools is all about creating Positive Schools. Positive Education is all about ensuring that education supports wellbeing as well as academic learning. Both approaches aim to support the ongoing development of thriving school communities. In time, I hope that a synergy will emerge from these two approaches. One that supports a more equitable future for education, and a world filled with more positive school communities. Certainly, individual members of any school community benefit from understanding the ‘ingredients’ of wellbeing, including kindness, trust, honesty and collaboration. In addition, school communities become healthier when they pay attention to the key needs of student voice, strength-based feedback and healthy relationships in an equitable way.

In many ways Positive Schools and Positive Education have grown miles apart from each other, but I hope that, given time and increasingly shared aims and ideals, they will meaningfully grow together.

MAKING YOUR SCHOOL A POSITIVE SCHOOL

Join Dr Helen Street at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Europe Conference, where Helen will deliver a keynote on 'Creating Positive Schools from the Inside Out' on the 8th March 2022. 

Contact Helen Street at helen.street@uwa.edu.au to discuss how she can best work with you, your leadership team, your staff and your parents, to help you develop a sustainable, equitable, thriving school community.