The Shipley Magazine

Meeting of the Minds: Positive Education

Melissa Tassoni
Shipley is the first school in the country to adopt a school-wide approach to Positive Education, which aims to strengthen academic and personal achievement through wellbeing using evidence-based techniques. What is wellbeing? Can you teach it? How do you incorporate a successful Positive Education practice in schools? Should you? Our panel explores these questions and more.
Our Panel

Alejandro Adler, PHD
Director of International Education, Positive Psychology Center,
University of Pennsylvania
Adler’s research focuses on well-being, education, skills, and public policy. He is working with the governments of various countries to infuse curricula across schools with Positive Psychology skills and to measure the impact on youth wellbeing.

Steve Piltch, EDD
Head of School, The Shipley School
As Head of School since 1992, Piltch has always been committed to putting student wellbeing at the heart of everything he does at Shipley. He has served the School and its constituents in an era full of change and growth, and he continues to look toward the future with students’ holistic success in mind.

Justin Robinson, M. Ed. MACE
Director of the Institute of Positive Education, Geelong Grammar School
Robinson leads a team dedicated to promoting the theory and practice of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School, the first school in Australia to adopt a school-wide approach to Positive Education.

Sharron Russell, PsyD
Director of Positive Education & Student Support, The Shipley School
Russell joined Shipley in 1995 as an Upper School health teacher. In 2005 she left to pursue a degree in school psychology and work in a public school setting. She returned to Shipley in 2011 to oversee PreK-Grade 12 Student Support Services and now also oversees the School’s Positive Education work.
Q: In a nutshell, what is Positive Education?
Adler: It’s an evidence-based approach to education that simultaneously advances academic excellence together with wellbeing and character development, because vast evidence shows that wellbeing is skills-based and learnable. Why should wellbeing be taught? Because it has intrinsic value. It’s universally desirable, and it also has instrumental value in that it contributes to all kinds of desired life outcomes, including improved academic performance.

Q: What is wellbeing?
Adler: Here in the West, we often confuse wellbeing with happiness and feeling good—positive emotions. And of course, that’s part of the equation, but it’s a lot deeper than that. Positive emotions are ephemeral, and happiness oscillates a lot. There are deeper components to wellbeing, like engagement, flow, the quality of our relationships, the amount of love and belongingness that we have in our life, meaning, purpose, a sense of achievement, self-efficacy, mastery, physical and mental health, and vitality. That’s what we talk about when we talk about wellbeing.

Q: How is Positive Education consistent with Shipley’s approach to education?
Piltch: Positive Education is all about the whole child. It’s about understanding the importance of not just what happens in the classroom, but outside of the classroom, too. It’s about celebrating students’ strengths, finding ways to enhance those strengths, and equipping students to constructively and effectively deal with the challenges that they’re going to face. When you think about things like resilience, grit, and character development, they’ve defined a Shipley education since long before I’ve had the privilege to be Head of School. It’s the essence of what the School has been about for a long time.

Q: Why did Shipley choose to formally adopt Positive Education?
Piltch: We’ve long believed that the combination of rigor and support, along with character development and resilience, are going to result in the greatest success that kids can have, both in terms of their personal development and what they can accomplish in the classroom and elsewhere. Deciding to do it formally is just putting our stake in the ground and saying, ‘We’re proud of who we are. We believe it makes a difference in every area of life, and we’re committed to it.’

Q: Can wellbeing be taught? Should it be taught in schools?
Adler: The empirical answer throughout more than two decades of rigorous research is, yes. There are skills that, when practiced, become cognitive, emotional, and behavioral habits that increase your wellbeing in a sustained way. And, luckily, we can now not only define, but we can also pretty reliably measure wellbeing using everything from self-report surveys, to big data techniques. By combing through tweets, Facebook, and the phrases and words people use, we can get a psycho-social window into their wellbeing, and it coincides pretty well with both their self-reported wellbeing and data from neuroscientific techniques like putting people in fMRI machines. When we practice these skills, there are real changes in the brain.
What happens when we increase wellbeing? First and foremost, wellbeing is a universal aspiration for health in human beings—so that, in and of itself, needs no further justification. But we also see that increased wellbeing leads to all kinds of beneficial life outcomes, including improved academic performance. We’ve seen over and over again that when you enhance wellbeing in educators and in students, it’s not that education becomes better, it’s that you create better educators. And it’s not that learning becomes better, it’s that you create better learners.

So, when you walk into a classroom where the psycho-social fiber is healthy and conducive for wellbeing, the learning and teaching thrive. There is also higher engagement, which translates into better grades and standardized exam scores, and eventually to better performance in college. We’ve seen, through cohort studies, that people eventually do better in the workplace, too. The core message here is that people with higher wellbeing have better performance in life—academically, eventually professionally, and in the quality of their relationships, civic engagement, and pro-social behavior. There are all kinds of beneficial outcomes.

Q: What are the critical steps for incorporating Positive Education in a school?
Adler: There are three key steps. The first one, and this is something that schools often miss, is training every single adult in the school so there’s a common language, a common set of behavioral norms, and a shared culture—a sense of, “this is how we do things around here.” That normally begins with an immersive, retreat-like training, like the one we had at the Shawnee Institute last August for every Shipley colleague.

Step number two is teaching the skills of wellbeing in an explicit way. That means teaching a class where students learn and practice the skills of wellbeing—mindfulness, emotional regulation, effective communication, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, intrinsic motivation, and so on. Here at Shipley, it’s through the Social, Emotional, and Ethical Development program (SEED).

Then, the third and most crucial step to really ensure the long term sustainability of Positive Education, is embedding wellbeing skills through a pedagogical lens in other academic subjects. It’s not changing what is taught, it’s changing how traditional academic subjects are taught. That is the final step of embedding, when it becomes part of the core identity of the school.

Q: How is Shipley currently integrating Positive Education into the existing program?
Russell: It’s important to start with the point that Positive Education is a practice, not a program. Our SEED curriculum is our program. Our whole-school, transformative approach to Positive Education is based on the Geelong Grammar School’s pioneering, evidence-based model, which they have followed for 10 years. During this time they have seen significant improvements in wellbeing and academic results. At the heart of this model is the idea of people flourishing, with a focus on using one’s character strengths to achieve optimal wellbeing. This is done through an ongoing process of Learning, Living, Teaching, and Embedding the concepts and skills of a Positive Education practice throughout the School.

Our journey started with the colleague retreats we held in August 2017, where we all learned the skills that promote different domains of the PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment) model of wellbeing. The Community Launch that we hosted in October extended that learning to parents and alumni.

Next, we will be focused on teaching our students. We’re a step ahead in the teaching area of implementation because of our long-term commitment to our SEED program. This summer, a group of teachers and department chairs from all of the academic disciplines will come together to brainstorm how we will integrate Positive Education practices into all subject areas. We’ll continue to explicitly teach these skills and strategies in the SEED classes, but we’ll also be piloting some additional ways that teachers can incorporate the practices in other subject areas while maintaining the strength of our existing, rigorous curriculum.

As we live and embed Positive Education, we will integrate it into our policies and day-to-day practices (e.g., student and colleague manuals), as well as find ways to naturally embed Positive Education into existing community and parent events.

Q; What has been the reaction to Positive Education at Shipley?
Piltch: The feedback to me has been only positive. People like the concept of Positive Education, but perception is probably best right now among colleagues, who participated in the Positive Education retreat last summer. For many people in the community, there’s still some question about what Positive Education really is, and what it’s going to accomplish. I think that the next two to three years are going to be really important. We believe it’s going to have a positive impact everywhere—including in the academic performance of our kids over time.

Q: What benefits have you seen at Geelong Grammar School from Positive Education?
Robinson: Three major benefits come to mind when reflecting upon the successes of our 10 years of implementing Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School. First, there is a stronger sense of connection experienced amongst staff, particularly between teaching and non-teaching staff members who now have a common language of wellbeing and who have enjoyed the ongoing experiences of participating in Positive Education training sessions together. In many ways, staff are more connected with one another and the specific relationship skills explored in Positive Education (including Active Constructive Responding, Forgiveness, and Spotting Character Strengths, to name a few) have assisted in nurturing close relationships with colleagues.

Second, there is an overwhelming recognition that there is far less recidivism within the student body. Students do, and will always, make mistakes; it is a crucial part of learning. However, due to our Positive Education-informed relationship management policies, where all mistakes are dealt with carefully and responsibly through a lens of kindness and forgiveness, we have found a significant reduction in repeat offenses. The important conversations which occur and the respect shown by our school leaders and students in managing and repairing mistakes have resulted in significant improvement in student behavior.
The third major benefit which comes to mind is the increased awareness and priority placed on individual and community wellbeing, which has enabled powerful conversations to occur, policies to be changed, activities to be introduced, and decisions to be made which intentionally enhance wellbeing within the community.

Q: Ten years in, what are the three most important lessons you have learned about implementing a Positive Education program at Geelong Grammar School?
Robinson: It is not surprising that implementing Positive Education, a whole-school approach to wellbeing, with the goal of enhancing individual and community wellbeing, will be challenging. We have piloted, trialed, and experimented in many, many ways over the past 10 years, endeavoring to support our community to the best of our ability. Three key messages, which are almost three key mantras that we use to guide our current actions, and which have resulted from the many mistakes we have made over the past 10 years are:

One: Ensure we are doing wellbeing WITH the students, not TO the students—it is so important that we invite and embrace student agency and student voice in developing a relevant and dynamic Positive Education program.

Two: As wellbeing teachers and leaders, it is not our job to PRESCRIBE wellbeing, but simply to DESCRIBE wellbeing—we are not trying to tell our students how to live their lives; instead, we are simply inviting them to explore the skills and knowledge which have been scientifically shown, on average, to enhance wellbeing. However, we acknowledge that none of us is average, and that it will be an ongoing journey for each individual to consider when and how best to apply the skills and knowledge most relevant to their context in their unique life.

Three: Wellbeing is both CAUGHT and TAUGHT. Whilst it is exciting to introduce a fully scoped and sequenced Positive Education curriculum for our students, they will learn many lifelong wellbeing skills from the actions of staff, from the way teachers interact and behave during the good times, and, also importantly, during the difficult times. The best way to nurture flourishing students is to have flourishing teachers, and it is also vitally important for the teachers to learn how to flourish under fire, to abide by their core values even under difficult circumstances.

Q: What are three highlights of Positive Education at Shipley from this past year?
Russell: The colleague retreat at Shawnee was probably the biggest highlight. Getting over 200 people off campus to a retreat in the summer was huge. And to have people feel better when they left, to have people who were initially skeptical say, ‘I will go back and do that again’—and that 92% of our colleagues came away with a positive view of the training—that was a highlight. The Community Launch in October was another highlight for me. Meeting regularly with 25 colleagues who received extra training and working with people from all areas of the School—an eclectic group of people with varied backgrounds—on the learn, live, teach, and embed implementations has also been exciting.

Q: What excites you most about Positive Education?
Robinson: Seeing that we are making a difference (not always and not necessarily for each individual), provides great excitement for our team. It is this sense of hope, that Positive Education can help students and schools to flourish, that excites me most as we think and dream about the continued growth and development of the field of Positive Education. There is still so much to learn and we are still very much ‘Learning to Flourish.’
Q: What excites you most about Positive Education at Shipley?
Adler: What excites me most? Shipley is the first school in the U.S. to adopt a whole-school Positive Education approach. We’ve worked, at this point, in 12 different countries, where there is always one pioneering school that trailblazes. In Australia, for example, there are now over 800 schools that have done this whole-school transformation, to different degrees. Geelong Grammar School was the trailblazer there.
It’s incredibly exciting to be working with the first school in the U.S. to adopt the best evidence-based education model and the best education practices out there. The ripple effects are going to be amazing—and the differentiation that Shipley will have moving forward is incredibly exciting. But, really, it’s seeing the change within Shipley for students, for colleagues, and seeing Shipley as a catalyst for educational change in the U.S. that is most exciting.

Piltch: The thought of coming back to Shipley in 10 years and being able to see a difference in both the quality of life of our students and colleagues, and in their academic performance is really exciting to me.

Russell: Being a pioneer. Incorporating the day-to-day practices and seeing people being well and flourishing is really the goal—that is most exciting. If we can see people feeling better, doing better, that would be fantastic.

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.