Thursday, 11 September 2008

SEEd workshop: Schools' role in promoting pupil's well-being

The Council for Environmental Education has rebranded itself as SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education). Yesterday SEEd held a free workshop to enable those involved in Environmental Education to explore the DCSF's draft guidance on Schools' role in promoting pupil's well-being. The general feeling surrounding the guidance was that it did not adequately promote the benefits of environmental education for pupil's well-being, particularly outdoor education. Of the seven speakers, who made up the morning session, at least four were there to sing the praises of outdoor education and provide anecdotal evidence of its well-being benefits. To me and too many of those in the room, these benefits were obvious. During the afternoon session, the 50 or so delegates split up into smaller groups and provided a wealth of anecdotal evidence from their own experiences as educators about the well-being benefits of outdoor education they had led or over seen. Bell and Dyment (2008) provide a useful review of the evidence supporting the need for good quality outdoor, green, space for school children and there are many other champions of outdoor education. Evidence of the benefits to well-being of outdoor education needs to be strengthened but you won't find many people who argue against its benefits!
For me, however, the issue goes deeper. I would argue that we need to consider well-being in two ways. Firstly school pupil's everyday well-being should be improved, by this I mean that facilities, outdoor space, indoor space and conditions must promote, not hinder pupil's academic life. I recently spoke to a teacher in Gloucestershire who is currently holed up in a small temporary classroom. She told me that in the winter she is glad that there is hardly any room for her classes of up to 35 pupils because their body heat warms the classroom. Even so, she is still not warm enough to take her coat off in there! In the summer her portakabin resembles an oven. When the class comes in her first words are 'ok take your shoes off, take your ties off, roll up your trousers!'
Secondly, and here is where we go a bit deeper, school should prepare pupil's for their future. Well-being and our defintions of it should be a theme underlying everything they do. These formative years are important in helping children not only develop the attributes to live a well-rounded, fulfilled adult life, but also in finding a meaningful and purposeful direction to their lives. School's should help children to find their calling in life. We have to accept that what children learn, outside as well as inside school, shapes their value system. In the current Western world the values young people develop are increasingly hedonistic ones, characterised by strong desires to be famous and popular, materially wealthy and dare I say it individualistic. The impact of this on the short and long term mental well-being of young people, not to mention social and environmental well-being, is worrying
Hallam et al. (2006) highlight the importance of recognising the difference between happiness as feeling and happiness as authenticity. The focus of their paper is on young people and they point out that ‘The need to be happy - and be seen to be so - is an insatiable drive of daily behaviours for most people’ (Hallam, et al., 2006). Their concern is with the philosophical hedonism that underlies modern western cultural values. They go on to explain their concerns:

Without an evolved framework of values, the search to feel good can lead to unhelpful ideas, for example, how the female body should look, what constitutes educational success, what it means to experience intimacy, the role of substance use in having fun, the importance of popularity for personal worth. Furthermore, when hedonic values determine what clothes to buy, what sex to provide, what aspirations to aspire to and what behaviour is appropriate, it can be extremely difficult for young people to know what it means to be true to oneself (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Hallam et al. (2006) argue that when hedonism shapes value systems, the result is a ‘relentless pursuit of good feelings’. They link this pursuit to materialism and the impact of highly materialistic values on well-being, ultimately questioning ‘whether the best values to model and offer to our youth are the competitive social values of hedonic self-interest’ (Hallam, et al., 2006). Usefully they proceed to uncover an alternative. They draw on the writings of Aristotle and state that:

He proposed happiness and well-being (eudaimonia) derive from well-doing, and that well-doing and well-being are inseparable. Aristotle's notion of a happy or meaningful life was an authentic life in which personally owned ethical values (such as generosity, courage, kindness and justice) under-girded and inspired daily behaviours. Aristotelian or eudaimonic ethical values express who one is, and wants to be, and how one wants to act rather than how one wants to feel (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Having critiqued materialism as a route to happiness in much the same way as James (2008) and Hallam et al. (2006), Durning (2008) argues that:

The main determinants of happiness in life are not related to consumption at all - prominent among them are satisfaction with family life, especially marriage, followed by satisfaction with work, leisure to develop talents, and friendships.

Hallam et al. (2006) describe the work of Erikson (1968) as regrettably forgotten, but draw on his conceptions of generative behaviour:

Erikson (1968) was more specific in proposing that human psychological growth was characterised by the development of identity and meaning. The development, through stages, of generative values (dispositions) - including love, care, willpower, purposefulness, fidelity - provided a basis for identity formation and offered an alternative motivational system to hedonic desires. In this way, generative behaviour was seen to foster meaning, maturity and well-being.

Echoing James’ (2008) critique of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Hallam et al. (2006) conclude by suggesting that ‘seeking to gain well-being through the pursuit of happiness may undermine the very happiness we seek.’ They then recommend that:

The challenge is to think of happiness in broader terms than simply feeling good. To be true to ourselves we may need to ensure that generative values supersede hedonic pursuits lest, as a culture, we remain immature, unwell and unhappy (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Environmentalists have begun taking note of the evidence emerging from psychology in regard to the relationship between consumerism, materialism and well-being. The cultural construction of needs and wants by consumerism, the spreading of hedonistic values and the apparent pursuit of the wrong sort of happiness appear to cause a reliance on material goods and services that causes not only environmental problems, but also emotional distress. Is it about time schoolchildren were encouraged to critique current defintions of well-being, happiness and the good life? I would argue that it is.

As mentioned above, we were asked during the afternoon session of the SEEd workshop to recall a time when education had had a positive contribution to ours or someone else’s well-being. The answer to me was simple; it was when I found a calling. I remember being a teenager, not entirely sure about what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was something that frustrated and nagged away at me, I was a worrier. Thanks to an inspirational Geography teacher I gradually realised some of the huge environmental problems facing the world. It may sound cheesy but it was during this time that I began to form ideas about how I should live my life and what I should try and do with my life. I was entirely certain the exact nature of the path that I set out on or where it would lead, but I had found a reason to walk down it and I am still walking down it now, with purpose and well being!

(Please email me for references)

1 comment:

s_j_champion said...

Ive been reading Ken Robinson's book "The Element" recently - ties in with what your claim "Schools should help children to find their calling in life". Ken says schools destory creativity and do the exact opposite of helping children find thir calling... or element


...I imagine you've seen it?