Teaching care and wellbeing

Thomas W. Nielsen, University of Canberra
The Canberra Times, October 4, 2010.

Occasionally, students shed a tear in my office. That is the nature of teaching and looking after students – even at university level. In the last couple of years, however, there have been a few more tears than usual. It has not been because I have been a mean lecturer (I think?), but because of a fairly new dimension added to the classroom management unit I teach all pre-service teachers at the University of Canberra.

This new dimension has, itself, many dimensions to it, and thus it comes under many names: positive psychology, positive education, values education, values clarification – to name a few. What all these dimensions share, however, is an intent to assist learners acquire not only knowledge and facts, but also attributes like emotional wellbeing, resilience, compassion, tolerance and respect.

Research on the experience of implementing notions of values education in Australian schools (see valueseducation.edu.au), as well as world-wide, is consistent: schools that explicitly employ quality teaching tools to engage with and clarify values increase the social cohesion and academic diligence in their students. Academic success, it turns out, is really a by-product of a whole-learner approach – a finding which speaks loudly in the present climate of over-emphasis on testing and school league tables, effectively putting the cart in front of the horses.

Of all the strategies I have observed in the implementation of values education, the single most transformational strategy is when students are allowed opportunities to be something for others – to give. Giving to others makes for meaningful happiness, which is higher and more stable than pleasurable happiness (e.g. eating ice creams or playing video games). Worldwide, there is now a body of evidence showing that service to others is a strong predictor of increased mental and physical health into adulthood and reduced adolescent depression and suicide risk.

To engage my pre-service teachers with these findings, I assign to them tasks that have a giving aspect to them, in the hope that the students will have personalised experiences of what we are studying theoretically. For the past couple of years, I have randomly selected a third of my 300 students to do a random act of giving every day, another third to keep a daily gratitude journal, and the last third to ‘just’ study positive psychology (the control group). The activities of giving and gratitude have been voluntary and not assessed, but I ask all students to take a wellbeing survey (australianunitycorporate.com.au) at three points in the 14-week semester.

Each time I have conducted this learning project, the gratitude and giving groups increase their wellbeing, while the group that only had theoretical learning only maintain their original level of wellbeing. The changes from semester to semester have been consistent, with gratitude and giving producing similar increases every time. As the learning project has produced the same outcome several times now, I have now stopped having the control group, simply telling students about the previous semesters’ control group results in the final analysis. That way, all my students can experience the transformation that the action research element brings to the unit.

In addition to the action research project on giving and gratitude, I also teach my students strategies to deal with negative thoughts and depression, something that they say is really beneficial in their own lives, as well as something they can see as having real significance if taught in schools. It is not so much the strategies themselves that are important, but rather the principle of becoming aware and conscious about oneself, our thoughts and feelings, our motives, as it is hard teaching others about something that we do not embody ourselves.

This is really the key message of all the research on notions of values clarification and wellbeing education in general: that helping students to become more self-aware and self-actualised gives them greater autonomy and makes them more able to make informed decisions about their lives.

So why the extra tears in my office if my students’ wellbeing actually is going up and they are learning strategies with which to increase the wellbeing of their future students? Well, as alluded to, studying and investigating what makes us happier and more self-fulfilled is also bound to make us more reflective and self-aware of our own life – past and present. Almost every semester now, I have students coming up to me saying things like, “I wish somebody had taught me this in primary school… I think I would have done some things differently”. And thus the tears are mostly tears of healing and repair, rather than grief and despair.

This is an interesting realisation, which is also supported by the wider research on positive psychology: positive emotions and wellbeing do not exclude sadness and sorrow, but rather allow a space in which such emotions can be held more consciously and compassionately. Knowledge about oneself can be painful, but it is a vastly different type of pain than the unconscious pain, focused primarily on the pain itself. In such a state, of being more conscious and self-compassionate, pain has significant potential to makes us grow and become wiser.

Perhaps the 13th century poet, Rumi, knew this when he said: “…it is by failures that lovers stay aware of how they are loved”. Paraphrasing these words, we might say that an education which fails to educate about the whole person – even the aspects that have to do with our most inner and problematic nature – will be failing to provide the grounds on which students can acquire wisdom, as opposed to just facts and information. Beyond test and tables, even beyond being happy or sad, is being conscious.

Picture: “Education” by GotCredit © 2015