Learning and wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin

Source: @jplenio on pixabay

The crux of the purpose of any educational institution is helping our students to achieve their absolute best, to achieve their individual goals via appropriate pathways, and to be and become their best, healthiest and most fulfilled selves who contribute positively to the world.

One aspect of this is that schools aim to support students to be self-efficacious, empowered lifelong learners who have a nuanced toolkit of knowledge, skills and capabilities. What are the attributes of lifelong learners? In its Education 2030 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), notes the importance of student agency, personalised learning environments, physical health, mental wellbeing, and a solid foundation in literacy, numeracy, digital literacy and data literacy. The UK’s Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory comments that effective learners are those who are self-aware, resilient, curious to make sense of their worlds, know that learning is learnable, and able to learn both with others and independently. The University of Melbourne’s 2020 Future-proofing students report identifies capabilities for learning that include communication, collaboration, imagination, ethical behaviour, economic literacy, persistence, and the capacity to use feedback. The World Economic Forum’s 2015 New Vision for Education defines core competencies for today’s learners and future workers as including collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, curiosity and adaptability.

So, schools need to support students to understand and hone discipline, organisation, attention to detail, independent work habits, self-awareness, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, the capacity to reflect, goal setting, persistence in the face of challenges, and how to productively act on feedback. Add to this citizenship, global competencies and cultural competence. Yet content knowledge, transferrable skills, competencies and capabilities are on their own not sufficient to prepare students to succeed in a future which is likely to be uncertain and complex. As Head of Teaching and Learning at my K-12 school, I am constantly considering not only what and how students and teachers learn, but also the optimal conditions for that learning—made up of environment, relationships, culture, values and wellbeing. (A focus on student wellbeing includes teacher wellbeing which, as Harding et al. found, is associated with student wellbeing and the quality of the teacher-student relationship.)

Wellbeing is about purpose, belonging, sense of self and hope, as well as physical wellness and feelings of happiness, joy, hope and satisfaction. It is physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual. It is the feeling of living well, and of living a life of positive contribution. Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of wellbeing outlines those things that allow each of us to live well: (P) Positive emotions, (E) Engagement in a task, (R) Relationships, (M) Meaning, and (A) Accomplishments.

In his paper ‘The right drivers for whole-system success’ Michael Fullan draws together learning and wellbeing and argues for their seamless integration. The OECD Education 2030 report identities learner wellbeing as key to today’s students being successful in their futures. Learning and wellbeing are reflected in two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 3 (Good health and wellbeing), and Goal 4 (Quality education). Their integration comes into even sharper focus when we see the diminishing wellbeing among our students. The 2020 Headspace Youth Mental Health survey of over 4000 Australian young people revealed that in 2020 34% reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. The 2020 Mission Australia Youth Survey captured responses from over 25000 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 19. 42.6% felt stressed either all of the time or most of the time. Respondents identified their biggest personal concerns as coping with stress (42.5%), mental health (33.9%), body image (33%), and school or study problems (32.4%). COVID-19 was also much-mentioned as causing a raft of concerns including those around education, isolation, financial distress and mental health. Schools are addressing issues of student mental and physical health with intentional structures, supports, resources and programs.

If COVID-19 and remote learning have taught us anything, it is the relational, social and community value of schools and classrooms. As Michael Fullan and Mary Jean Gallagher explain in their 2020 book The Devil is in the Details, powerful learning is interconnected with wellness, resilience, and connection to the world. ‘Being well’ contributes not only to physical, mental, and emotional health, but also to learning, success and fulfilment. And learning well contributes to success and to feelings of curiosity, excitement, purpose, and satisfaction. Although we often talk about our children’s learning and wellbeing separately, they are two sides of the same coin.

Flipping the system – Where are we now?

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating with interstate colleagues Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews in a webinar for the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), in which we explored the notion of flipping the education system.

‘Flip the System’ is part of a movement, as Cameron would say, and of a series of books, including the following.

  • Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016);
  • Flip the System: Förändra Skolan från Grunden (Kornhall, Evers, & Kneyber, 2017);
  • Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018);
  • Our book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019); and most recently
  • Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy (Soskil, 2021).

The books deal with issues around teacher agency, voice and professionalism; and democratising education and addressing inequity.

During the ACSA webinar in February, we editors of the Australian book reflected on how our thinking around flipping the system has changed or stayed the same in the last couple of years, especially in light of recent contextual factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals and how it has changed since 2004.

In my ‘presentation’ piece during the webinar (from minutes 34-43), I reflected on the neoliberal education agenda to which we were responding as we worked on the Australian book in 2017 and 2018. We were writing and editing the book amidst the rise of the idea of ‘teacher quality’ and (often dubious, quantitative and punitive) ways of attempting to measure that nebulous ‘quality’. The education discourse was rife with talk and policy around school effectiveness, improvement, standards, accountabilities, surveillance, competition, and standardised testing. Teachers were teaching and school leaders were leading amidst a culture of audit and measurement, a distrust of teachers and schools, and an obsession with ‘what works’ (usually without any nuance around what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions). Simplistic, seductive ‘silver bullet’ solutions and hierarchical league tables (of teaching strategies or of schools or school systems) were all the rage in education. My chapter in the book was on teacher identity and teacher voice. It argued for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic is disrupting education along with lives, families, societies, economies, and industries. Citizens have submitted to increasing government control. From policymaking to educating, we’ve been building the plane while flying it. Sometimes governments and education leaders have got it right, and sometimes not. Some challenges have arisen in education and some issues have come into sharper relief.

There are also opportunities emerging, such as strengthened global networks of educators working and learning together. Since we edited Flip the System Australia some ideas are becoming more prominent in education, as well as in other fields: identity, wellbeing integrated with learning, and belonging.

Some ideas around the essence of flipping the education system remain the same. We should continue to focus on what matters over what works, on the greater good over individual good, on strengthening teacher voice and agency, and on democracy and equity. We should continue to engage with education as a human endeavour.

You can view my slides above and watch the video via this link.

Staff wellbeing: Time and money

source: @nikkotations at unsplash.com

In 2019 I blogged about the increasing concerns about teacher and school leader wellbeing. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about wellbeing in education. It was brought into stark focus during the pandemic reality of 2020. I wrote in this journal 2020 article in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community that:

At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results and wellbeing before learning.

I discussed wellbeing in this 2020 contribution for the special edition e-book Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Responses from education’s frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, published by the World Innovation Summit for Education, Salzburg Global Seminar and the Diplomatic Courier. In it, I stated the following.

We need to put safety, health, and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy, and especially assessment. Community, connectedness and relationships need to be at the forefront of education decisions and practices. This is a time to focus first on the humanity in education, from a position of seeking to understand and accommodate for the complex circumstances of those in our communities.

Wellbeing continues to become a hotter and hotter topic in education.

Wellbeing is noted as part of a ‘right driver’ in Michael Fullan’s new paper ‘The right drivers for whole system success’ in which he argues that wellbeing and learning are inextricably integrated into a foundation based on equity, knowledge, engagement and connection to the world. The Association of Independent Schools of NSW has just launched a 12-18 month program on navigating whole school wellbeing. This week the Gallop Inquiry released its findings around the complexity and workload intensification of teaching, and the need for teachers to have more time to plan, collaborate, and monitor student learning. Ask any teacher what they need more of and the answer will be: time!

Yesterday, a UK educator tweeted about the use of school funds to send care packages to staff while they are in lockdown and working from home. A long thread of replies ensued, with a range of responses from ‘school leadership do/should pay for gifts and wellbeing initiatives for staff out of their own pockets’ to ‘this is improper use of school funds’ and ‘staff wellbeing is more than buying treats’. Many tweeters invoked the Nolan Principles, suggesting that buying food or paying for things that might be considered wellbeing initiatives for staff constituted unethical or dishonest use of school funds, or that every dollar or pound spent in a school needs to have a direct impact on student outcomes.

In my view (although it is something most of us do or have done), teachers shouldn’t be expected to buy classroom materials out of their wages, nor should school leaders have to provide staff wellbeing initiatives out of their own salaries. Teaching is a caring profession, but the trope of the hero teacher who sacrifices their own needs, money and health for the good of their students is unhelpful. Educators need to give themselves permission to fit their own oxygen masks first, so that they can serve others. Schools should be able to consider ways in which they can take care of their staff, appropriate to their own budget and context. Looking after staff takes time and money. A school leader’s time spent checking in with a staff member; a thank you card; tea and coffee in the staff room; providing relief cover for a teacher’s lesson so they can collaborate with colleagues, attend a course or address a personal matter; a morning tea; the flu (or coronavirus!) vaccine; investing in professional learning. At what point does spending money on staff and on developing the wider culture of a school, become controversial?

Wellbeing is one of the pillars of my school’s new strategic plan, so we are having robust discussions about how to support the wellbeing of all in our community, and about what being well really means. Our discussions are about culture, feel, belonging, workload, teamness, a sense of purpose and togetherness. Wellbeing and learning are the foundation of my school’s framework for our K-12 learners to explicitly engage with those attributes found to be those of people who continue to learn and engage in meaningful work throughout their lives.

Wellbeing (as well as learning and teaching) is at the heart of our new staff development suite, which is based in Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework, as a way to support staff’s (P) positive emotions, (E) engagement in valuable work, (R) rewarding relationships, (M) meaning in their work, and (A) achievement and feeling of accomplishment. The suite of staff development options is based not on evaluation and surveillance, but on a sense of belonging, authentic connectedness, vibrant professional community, purposeful collaboration, central purpose, and meaningful feedback. It is focused on the voice, choice, ownership and agency of staff. It takes time and investment in people. Professional learning, too, costs money, and is part of improving student outcomes and teacher expertise, but also about wellbeing through valuing and growing staff, and supporting them to reach their goals.

When it comes to staff wellbeing, as I noted in the above recent blog post,

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Trust, too, is key to the wellbeing of the teaching profession. Schools need to cultivate cultures of trust. Teachers need to be trusted by parents, the media, and government. Trusting teachers to be the professional experts they are allows teachers to focus on their core business of teaching and supporting the students in their care. Looking after staff is key to retaining them within positive cultures of people working together for the good of their community. Nuanced attention to staff wellbeing takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, a framework for decision making, time, and often money.