3 talking points from IPEN Festival 2016

Beth Erickson reports from the concluding day of the world’s largest festival of Positive Education in Dallas to find out how educators from Dubai, China and Australia influence staff and students

Positive psychology expert Shawn Achor is certain almost everyone has been measuring happiness inaccurately – and science proves his point.  

The author of The Happiness Advantage was one of many educational luminaries attending the International Festival of Positive Education in Dallas, Texas taking place from July 18-20 to challenge the current paradigm of education that values academic attainment above all other goals.

Speaking to an audience of esteemed psychologists and educators brought together by the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) Achor shared his belief that there is a general attitude in society that: “‘If I get a good grades, then I’ll be happy.’”

These days all this information is at your fingertips (and) we need to also look at our ‘heart’ education

Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, Director General of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA)

He characterised people’s approach to their academic and working careers as delaying happiness. “Then it’s ‘If I graduate and get a good job, then I can be happy.’ And then it’s ‘If I can get a promotion, then I’ll be happy.’”

However, happiness is actually “the joy you feel moving toward your potential,” he said. “Joy is motivating. We can’t wait for success to create happiness.”

IPEN has three purposes to create happiness during school and work. 1. To reform policy to educate children for character and wellbeing alongside rigorous academic study. 2. To change education practice by equipping practitioners with the correct tools. 3. To support collaboration to develop theory and practice with biannual conferences such as this one in Dallas.

Beth Erickson, an education journalist with 20 years of experience, attended the final day of the IPEN Festival to find out how countries around the world are pioneering Positive Education.

China – give sceptical parents scientific proof

Dr. Kaiping Peng, chair of the psychology department and a professor at the Economics and Management College of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, said that although the Chinese educational system delivers highly successful learners, there can be a price to pay for that success – namely in the mental health of the students.

Anticipating and treating stress or even resentment towards intensive studying must go beyond the “traditional manner – which is the heavy handed manner,” he said.

Instead Dr. Peng explores what engages students to love learning and develop empathy and interpersonal skills. Focus is also placed on training teachers on how to talk to students to foster positive exchanges and to convince parents of the science behind positive psychology.

But scientific underpinning isn’t the only allure to parents in China. The fact that so much of positive psychology’s best practice dovetails with eastern philosophy is also attractive.

“We try to combine traditional wisdom and science,” he said, because the science behind positive psychology confirms many teachings in Eastern philosophy.

Dubai – tweak Latin teachings to ‘put in from without’

Dr. Abdulla Al Karam helped establish the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in 2007 and said his understanding of Positive Education has evolved from historical research.

The etymology of the word education or Latin ‘educare’ is ‘to draw out that which lies within’. “Today it’s a huge contradiction of that, we actually want to put in from without,” he said.

It is more necessary than ever to teach children compassion and values, he said. “These days all this information is at your fingertips (and) we need to also look at our ‘heart’ education. We have an abundance of everything. But kids live in a different world now. It’s a stressful world. They see a lot. We want education that goes alongside this genetic desire to learn.”

The change in culture was trialled in the KHDA office first and is hoped to filter through Dubai’s 183 student nationalities, 173 schools, and 17 different curriculums, said Dr. Karam.

“There was more focus on questions like, ‘Are you happy with your job? Is this good for people? Is this good for us?’

“We want people to come to work and come to contribute. By focusing on the well-being of the team, we see incremental growth in the happiness and productivity.”

Australia – collaborate with key influencers

Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, Australia, is thought to be the first school in the world to pick up the drumbeat of positive education. The school’s principal, Stephen Meek and its head of positive education, David Bott led a two-hour workshop at the festival on sustaining positive education after the initial implementation.

“We were interested (in positive education) at the school to help students cope with the usual stressors,” said Meek, touting Martin Seligman, a headline speaker at the festival this year and the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as key to his approach when he trained staff in 2008.

“Really, the first thing you need to have is the whole staff on board. It’s about the culture of the whole school. We wanted to reinforce this virtuous circle.”

Although good teachers teach positively, intuitively, training an entire staff imparts a shared language.

“We wanted to make a program that would enable students and staff to flourish. When we first started it, I didn’t realise the impact it would have.”