I’m fortunate to have been involved in the field of Positive Education (Pos Ed) since its inception, which occurred firstly here in Australia when Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, and Founding Father of Positive Psychology, was engaged by Geelong Grammar School (GGS) to train all staff in the science of wellbeing back in 2008. I worked with the second school to take a whole school approach to Positive Education, being Knox Grammar, back in 2010. Since then, myself and my team at The Positivity Institute, have worked with numerous schools across Australia helping them to make sense of the emerging wellbeing sciences and their application into educational settings.

I often describe my work in Pos Ed as my most meaningful work. Over the 10 years that I’ve been involved in the field I’ve been able to see with my own eyes, together with a growing body of supportive research, just how powerful an effect this type of approach can have on students, staff and whole school communities – from a wellbeing and performance perspective.

Nowadays my work in Pos Ed is a small part of our overall business offerings. It’s not that I’ve lost any motivation for the work, in fact it’s possibly grown stronger. It’s just that our work in the corporate sector has grown substantially as more and more organisations realise the benefits and need to take a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing. COVID-19 has also helped with what seems to be an article a day crossing my desk highlighting the “business case for wellbeing”.

In fact, as my business has grown, I’ve considered, and attempted, moving out of Pos Ed on more than one occasion.  Each time though, I seem to be pulled back to the field. As such, I’ve come to see that perhaps this is a “calling” for me and something I’m meant to be doing while I’m here on the planet. I’ve also realised that I’ve had an incredible opportunity to learn about organisational approaches to the implementation of Positive Psychology and other wellbeing sciences. In fact, when Seligman formally launched the field he highlighted the need and his hope for “Positive Institutions” beyond the cultivation of individual positive emotional states and traits.  That time has arrived!

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to take my learnings from Pos Ed and successfully apply them in organisational settings. Not often have I had the opportunity to work across a whole organisation, like a school. More often than not, it’s at the team or departmental level. Not all programs have been sustained after we’ve left the building or be what you might consider successful, but I know without a doubt that for many people who’ve been offered these types of approaches, their lives (and their families) have been changed – for the better.

I also believe that as key institutions in our society, schools and workplaces, have an incredible opportunity to impact population mental health and wellbeing. In fact, research has told us that treatment alone is not sufficient to address disease or disorder, we need proactive prevention and promotion initiatives (Huppert, 2009).

So what exactly is Positive Education, why is it important and how do we implement it? What are the key lessons I’ve learned from the opportunities to work in schools over the past 10 years, that I believe business can also benefit from?

What is Positive Education?

While there are many definitions of Positive Education (I’ve created a few myself!), I find like many things, that my understanding of the field has evolved over time and I also find myself currently musing on what might be the best definition reflective of the current state of play.

In a forthcoming textbook on Positive Education (in press), myself and my colleagues Clive Leach and Daniela Falecki define it as:

“The strategic and sustainable integration and implementation of the complementary fields of positive psychology, coaching psychology, and other relevant wellbeing science into an educational setting utilising multiple evidence-based initiatives aimed at creating flourishing students, staff, and whole-school communities.”

As you can see from this definition, we believe there is real benefit in incorporating and integrating multiple “wellbeing sciences” not just Positive Psychology – and in particular Coaching Psychology, who my colleagues and I have recently described as the missing ingredient in Positive Psychology Training (Ofer, Smith & Atad, in press).

The Why & How of Positive Education?

As a Clinical Psychologist, Positive Education has for me, always been about the prevention of mental illness, particularly for our young people, who are attending school at a time of the greatest risk to their mental health. In fact, in the early days of Pos Ed, most of the queries I received were concerns regarding youth suicide.  As time progressed though, and the science of wellbeing (Positive Psychology) started to grow, there was a strong rationale as to why schools might take more of a proactive approach to wellbeing – including an academic business case (Adler, 2016).

In the early days of Pos Ed implementation, it primarily involved the explicit teaching of positive psychology to staff (usually by psychologists/external consultants) which was then taught to students (by the school staff). I still believe that this is the first best step as people don’t know what they don’t know and particularly so when it comes to mental health and psychological wellbeing – as I’ve written before, as a society, we are sorely lacking in our psychological capability skillset and wellbeing literacy.

Whilst wellbeing education is a core component of a desire to create flourishing students, staff and whole school communities, it is not sufficient to see cultural and sustained change. I realised early on, with the support of my colleagues who were organisational psychologists, that we needed to take a broader organisational and systemic approach to Positive Education if we wanted “learning to stick” (as my learned colleague Dr William DeJean says) and that we needed to address the “seed” and the “soil” as Positive Organisational Scholars Jane Dutton and Monica Worline suggest with their powerful analogy of the need to provide support at both the individual level and the organisational level.

Our approach to Positive Education, from the beginning, has been a whole of school approach that aimed to not only bring the science of Positive Psychology to life, but also incorporate other “wellbeing sciences” such as Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Organisational Scholarship, Appreciative Inquiry, Neuroscience and of course, my field of expertise, Coaching Psychology.

Similarly, Geelong Grammar recognised the need for a whole school approach (Norrish, 2015) and in their case, it centred on Seligman’s model of wellbeing, PERMA (Seligman, 2011), with an added health (H) dimension (i.e., PERMAH) GGS developed the strategy of ‘learn it, live it, teach it, and embed it’, whereby staff were first encouraged to learn and apply the science of positive psychology to their own lives, then teach it to students, and then increasingly embed it within their everyday practice. Over time, GGS, also added a focus on establishing school-wide policies and processes to create a culture for wellbeing across the school community, embedding wellbeing into areas such as assemblies, sports, music, chapel services, and parent events.

Whilst GGS have been criticised over the years for making such a large investment of money and time on “happiness” (what about academics!?), we have a huge amount to thank them for, together with the many other schools (mainly independent) who had the resources to pioneer in this field in the early days and support its continued uptake.

Lessons from the School-Face

  • We’ve learned that training alone is not sufficient to create long term sustainable change. In fact, that should have come as no surprise, given the existing research on the low rates of transfer of training (Saks, 2002).
  • We’ve learned that you need to take a strategic approach rather than an enthusiastic scattergun approach to implementation. We’ve learned you need to “keep the end in mind”, creating a “compelling narrative” (as one English teacher explained to me).
  • We’ve learned to “hasten slowly”. We’ve found that the zesty “early adopters” have sometimes created the opposite outcomes of what they were intending – with push-back from staff who were not keen to see yet another “program/fad” impact on their precious time, only to experience the fails that previous programs have had.
  • We’ve learned to make education and training invitational rather than mandatory. Again this should have come as no surprise given the significant amount of research supporting this approach based on the science of Self-Determination Theory. Limit the first education/training session to a small number of intrinsically motivated participants, then open the invitation again – build it, they will come! This approach is particularly important if you’re working with a school or organisation who are only at “contemplation stage” (Prochaska & DiClimente 1982, 19860).
  • We’ve learned that building a strong rationale (business case) is crucial with an “academic case” required for many schools who are still cynical of a “wellbeing approach”. I’ve found a similar parallel in organisations, whereby there’s a need to build a strong “business case” to highlight the correlation between wellbeing, engagement, performance, productivity and profit.
  • We’ve learned about the power of a top down, bottom up or “Inside out, Outside in” approach (thanks Paige Williams et al 2016). I’ve also personally experienced the power of a grassroots approach inviting and including staff from all levels of an organisation – and the real surprise of who turns up and wants to be involved! There’s real benefit in identifying “champions” or “wellbeing ambassadors” to work towards creating a positive ripple effect in the workplace. However senior leadership sponsorship is crucial to success.
  • We’ve learned that we need to complement an explicit educational approach with an implicit one. That is, to consider the powerful role that the environment, the context, the culture has on wellbeing. Encourage someone to do a “walk through” of your workplace with “fresh eyes” to see if the environment is priming for wellbeing or undermining wellbeing. Pay particular attention to how you feel when you first arrive in the workplace and the greeting you receive from the reception staff? Energising or de-energising?
  • We’ve learned that when a positive transfer climate is created transferability is more likely.  We’ve drawn heavily on the science of Coaching Psychology and evidence-based coaching in our Pos Ed approach. We’ve argued for the need to create a coaching culture which includes coaching of school leaders, key teams and champions combined with cultivating a culture of quality coaching conversations (Grant, 2017a, 2017b). Studies have found significant gains in productivity of public sector managers and leaders who received coaching alongside training (e.g., Olivero, Bane, & Kopelman, 1997).
  • We’ve also learned that you need to play the long game. That is, when Pos Ed has been successful, it’s involved working with schools over a longer period – a minimum of 1 year but in most cases 3-5 years, to ensure sustainability. Our role as consultants, coaches, and facilitators have enabled the change to be embedded over time, learning as we go and adjusting our approach. This is very much in line with Mroz’s (2009) model of organisational change (see image).
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Final Reflections

There are now hundreds of schools, across the globe, implementing Positive Education and it’s gone way beyond a fad. In fact, I believe, it’s the future and in time all schools will incorporate wellbeing sciences explicitly and implicitly. Whilst the term itself (Pos Ed) may be dropped with the recognition that the “positive” prefix is no longer needed, the realisation of the need to proactively teach and develop our young people (and their teachers) will remain. In time, it is my hope that this science will be taught in pre-service education and all schools will hopefully become “flourishing workplaces” where students, staff and whole school communities can truly flourish.

And as for business, well I do think it’s still very early days in our understanding of strategic and sustainable approaches of the wellbeing sciences, but I also know that much has been and will continue to be learned from smaller organisations such as schools.

If you’d like to learn about our approach to Positive Education or Positive Workplaces for your school or organisation, email us for more information: info@thepositivityinstitute.com.au

Listen to a series of podcast interviews I conducted with schools who have adopted a Pos Ed approach: