A positive education for all?

April 2016


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Within the past decade, a quiet groundswell of interest has contributed to a gradual shift in the way that educators see the world. GABRIELLE MILLS reports on a professional learning experience focused on positive education.

positive educationWhat do you want most for your students?” asked renowned Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman in his 2006 introduction at Geelong Grammar School, Corio, NSW.

In turn, the school’s Director of Positive Education Justin Robinson asked this same question at Pinehurst School in Auckland
last month.

Seligman is one of the seminal, prolific movers of this perspective, to envision a more positive direction in cultivating, nurturing and empowering people to live with optimal states of psychological, emotional, and physical wellbeing: in short, to ‘flourish’ (Seligman, 2011).

Geelong Grammar School (GGS) is one of the world’s leading exponents of how Positive Education can work to effect such change in schools. With the recent establishment of its Institute of Positive Education, Robinson, an impassioned communicator, was keen to explain their best practice, whole school model and to offer a range of professional development, with short and longer term courses, to professional, and more recently, public audiences.

To this end, he had come to introduce the framework in our afternoon seminar, with a
follow-up, three-day, intensive course planned for early October at Kristin School in Auckland later this year.



The emergence of Positive Psychology as a cutting-edge science comes from a realisation that people around the world are happier, healthier and living better when equipped with skills and abilities that enable more invested, positive relationships, along with a more holistic balance of personality attributes, an understanding of approach/avoidance motivations and self-efficacy through learned optimism and resilience training.

While founded in erstwhile humanistic psychologies of growth and human potential across the lifespan, the innovative point of difference lies in the validity and accountability of establishing new, empirically-based research. Studies from the UK and US offer a considerable evidence base for the construction of policy and programming that support Positive Psychology in applications as broad as organisational, public health and educational sectors.

Closer to home, dedicated research by AUT and the University of Melbourne, for example, along with organisations such as the soon-to-be amalgamated New Zealand and Australia Associations of Positive Psychology offer much potential for analysing wellbeing across Australasian target populations and cultural groups. International findings related to mental health and morbidity status indicate significant impact is possible to reduce, rehabilitate, prevent or inoculate against common mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. For example, recent tracking of young GGS alumni, post-Positive Psychology intervention programming of their senior schooling, suggests a longer term protective influence can be measured within the positive development of young people.



In constructing their programme, GGS focused on embedding Positive Psychology principles through the structure of Seligman’s PERMA model, through two to three years of modulated, sequenced introductions and development, from senior management through to ancillary staff levels, before introducing Positive Psychology into selected year levels across the target secondary school student group.

In this way, a ‘learn it, live it, teach it, embed it’ environment scaffolds authentic, supportive Positive Education programming. It works simply because it is part of the construction of the school, its ethos, its vision and its people.

The programme at GGS has evolved over the 10 years since inception to include Positive:

  • Relationships – for example, social intelligence, friendship and empathy
  • Emotions – broaden and build theory, emotional intelligence and gratitude
  • Health– physical as well as resilience –coping, optimism and mindfulness
  • Engagement– flow, motivational theories and character strengths
  • Accomplishment– goal-setting, growth mindsets, persistence, failure, gratification and purpose
  • Meaning– community, ethics and values.

Weaving individual and group activities, workshops and incentives through co- and core-curricula, across vertical and horizontal, day and boarding-school contexts, as well as the broader community, allows all staff to model, nurture and be responsible for creating this positive environment.

GGS is an exceptional school, with resources beyond the scope of many of its local peers; however, the prospect of changing mindsets to be more inclusive or ‘asset‘-based does not require extraordinary funding; rather, the potential for positively ‘auditing’ what we do well in our respective educational roles is more significant for identifying what is possible in each school community.

As members of this audience commented, “This reminded me of what I already do and motivated me to enhance… and consciously make it a consistent part of my planning”. In addition, “this allowed me to reflect on a wider perspective in education, not just about academic achievement, and to embrace the notion of developing the student as a healthy human being”.

Robinson challenged seminar participants to raise possible answers to his question “What do you want most for your students?” and this is something we should all consider. Is it maximising productivity as academic achievement or staff utilisation, protecting potential vulnerabilities by preventing mental illness, preparing people for adaptability in a fluctuating, unpredictable future, or meeting the most fundamental of philosophical ambitions: promoting ‘good’ citizens to become flourishing individuals? And how much influence might a positive environment have on our answers?

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