Research: The tortoise of Positive Education 

Dr Georgiana Cameron

Tortoise pushing a box saying Positive Education Research

In a field as exciting as Positive Education, research can seem, at times, a little dull.  Amongst the ambitious goals to raise the wellbeing of the communities we work in, and the transformational nature of engaging with positive psychology skills in our own lives, there sits researching the efficacy and effectiveness of Positive Education.  When introduced to the ideas of Positive Education and its hope for a better world, most of us tend to want to act straight away. In many ways Positive Education represents what education at its best really looks like. “How will we fit it into the curriculum?” “How do we get our staff on board with this?” “Do you think we should run a ‘mindfulness day’?”

In many ways, scientific research is grounded in a philosophy that is at odds with our instinct to act straight away.  Research, by its very nature, is slow.  In order to conduct a research project which is accepted by the scientific community, there needs to a literature review, ethics approval, consent forms, appropriate measures, well-thought-through procedures – and that is before the research has even begun. Whilst its tortoise-speed can be frustrating at times, research has a very important role to play in the long-term sustainability of Positive Education.

Positive Education requires a mirror. Reading books, hearing amazing speakers and engaging in our own personal experiments with Positive Education can be life-changing.  We become aware of how ‘active-constructive responding’ can amplify our friends’ good news, or we experience how mindfulness can focus the mind and prepare us for daily challenges, or we simply begin to appreciate the small things that happen every day. So if someone asks us whether Positive Education works, we might be tempted to say a resounding ‘yes’ based on our experience. Yet we humans are full of personal biases, and we sometimes forget that what works for one person doesn’t always work the same way for another. Our perspectives are inherently limited and so we can never accurately predict how an intervention will affect someone’s life course and their relationships.

There are many examples from psychology which illuminate how first assumptions can be misleading. For a long time, many believed that boosting the self-esteem of children was the way to redress school disengagement and to build competence, however this has been questioned by more recent research. When researchers looked deeper into the nature of self-esteem, they found that how people strive for self-esteem is more important than whether it is high or low (Crocker & Park, 2004).  When people have goals centred on validating their self-worth, this can make them less flexible in dealing with obstacles and can actually undermine learning.  Similarly, Iris Mauss and colleagues (2011) found that chasing feelings of happiness can reduce our likelihood of us feeling happy.  When people valued happiness strongly, they were more likely to be disappointed and were in fact less happy than people who did not value happiness as highly.  Studies like this, teach us to expand our view of what happiness is and to better understand how the pursuit of ideals can have paradoxical effects.  
   
To answer questions about whether Positive Education is achieving its aims, the scientific method represents a validated methodology for checking our assumptions and biases. In the last ten years of Positive Education, Geelong Grammar School has made significant investments into research, reflecting its foundational and philosophical commitment to research. Some of our first appointments in Positive Education at the school were dedicated to understanding and collating the research evidence. From literature reviews to expert opinions, we began to gather knowledge of evidence-based practices to improve wellbeing.  Our next step was to partner with universities to explore questions of ‘what works?’ and ‘for whom?’.  These partnerships took many different forms, from postgraduate student projects to Australian Research Council funded independent evaluations. Each of these projects has helped to improve Positive Education at the school by providing encouraging, insightful and, at times, disappointing results.  We have observed significant strengths in our programme which aims to enhance flourishing for students, staff and parents. Yet we have also learnt the important lesson that, despite good intentions, not everything we do to improve wellbeing at the school is effective for everyone. 
  
As is the way with good quality and thoughtful research, we now have more questions than answers. The evaluation of Positive Education is complex and should not be simplified.  As a whole school approach, it is difficult to evaluate all the moving parts of the system simultaneously.  How do we accurately capture and make sense of all the different, interrelated variables that make up a school? When perspectives between students, parents and staff clash about wellbeing, whose voice is most valid?  Wellbeing encompasses the personal, professional and public spheres of our lives, so how much should Positive Education be expected to encompass? What is the school’s approach to the relationship between mental illness and mental wellness? Most importantly, what does success look like? Whilst we appreciate the importance of measuring self-reported individual wellbeing, this is not the only measure of success.  There are so many other outcomes which are hard to measure with a yardstick approach – cultural changes, shifts of perspective, new initiatives, skills learnt, psychological awareness, the use of wellbeing language, significant changes to people’s lives, conversations, lifelong changes.

These questions bring us back to the purposes of research. Too often in our culture, research and science is seen as the validating force justifying our decisions.  We employ scientific evidence to influence our decisions about everything from the milk we buy to the choices we make about our health. In trying to nurture a deep and sustained interest and investment in Positive Education, its research base can be a powerful argument to leverage. However, we need to be careful.       

Just like when we strive for higher self-esteem as a way to validate ourselves, doing research to prove the effectiveness of Positive Education is likely to lead us into bias and defensiveness as opposed to authentic learning. The aim of Positive Education; to support individuals and communities to flourish, is not reliant on research.  In other words, if a scientific study indicates that a whole-school Positive Education intervention was not effective in enhancing wellbeing, this doesn’t mean we need to abandon the aim of Positive Education; rather it provides us with valuable information as to what works and what doesn’t.  

In its very essence, research is about learning. Research supports and extends the learn, live, teach, embed applied model of Positive Education.  In the words of the writer and poet, Khalil Gibran, “Tortoises can tell you more about the road than hares”.

References

Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological bulletin, 130(3), 392.

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807.

Georgiana Cameron


Dr Georgiana Cameron


Dr Georgiana Cameron is the Research Manager at the Institute of Positive Education. As an educational psychologist and trainer, Georgiana has worked closely with individuals, families and whole school communities in supporting evidence-based approaches to improving wellbeing.