Social Justice

Playing To Her Strengths

A couple of weeks ago I met with a former student of mine, Genna Radnan, who at only 20 years of age is doing incredible work in Kenya.

She has an interesting story as Genna says, “I was never an academic and only had passes for my work, regardless of how much effort I put in. In the end, my HSC marks were between 70-79 for the exams BUT (because of the subjects she chose) my ATAR was 64.5. That was my ‘fear’ I guess, that no matter how well I went, I’d only get a low mark. The HSC didn’t cover any of my personal strengths where I could excel.”

After finishing Year 12, Genna signed up with a volunteer agency who were due to be based in Ghana. However that didn’t materialise and the group ended up in the village of Karunga in Kenya.

After the allotted volunteering time was up, Genna got on the phone and begged her family to allow to spend more time in Karunga – this time on her own…

Genna decided to raise funds through her contacts in Australia, and subsequently paid for a new kindergarten school to be built (pictured) as well as the schooling of a number of the local families.

As well as helping others Genna has seen a huge change in herself, “What I’ve been doing in Kenya is my passion. I’ve seen my own strengths grow and develop, none of which could be tested at school.”

Seeing this change in herself was a huge confidence boost. From not wanting to go to university for fear of furthering labelling Genna is now in her first year of a Bachelor of Nursing degree. She says, “I’ve been getting credits, distinctions and high distinctions – marks which I barely saw in school.” She says this is because nursing draws on her strengths. It draws on who she is as much as what she can do.

Genna is hoping to defer the second year of her nursing course, should she be successful in being awarded a United Nations $25000 grant to set up a women’s education centre in Karunga. As part of the Project Inspire initiative of United Nations, Genna has beaten hundreds from around the world to be among ten who have been shortlisted for the award.

The winner of the award is announced in Singapore at the end of this month.

You can hear Genna’s story in her own words and vote for her at the Project Inspire website (CLOSING DATE IS TODAY!) by clicking here.

Please do……

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Change Education Wellbeing

Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle

Today I had the privilege of giving a key-note talk at the Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle.

This was a great opportunity for me to engage with some of the leading minds in Australia in the field of mental health, wellbeing and education.

I gave a talk based on my Drowning not Learning blog post from last year. It seemed to go down pretty well with the 400-strong audience.

I’ll have video snippets of it up on my site in the next couple of weeks.

Tomorrow I’ll be keen to attend Steve Biddulph’s workshop on “The Road to Manhood –  How to make pathways to being good men.”

I’m already looking forward to speaking at the Brisbane event where over 700 people will be in attendance…

If you heard me speak (either at Perth, or even earlier this year), I’d be keen to get your feedback… you can tell me what you think on the testimonial page.

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Change Education Engagement & Motivation

Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

Last month the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article that suggested that perhaps students chose university courses based on the prestige associated with such courses, rather than what was most appropriate for the individual.

Personally I don’t think this is so surprising… do you?

After all, since Year 1 they have been categorised as either good, average or below average learners, although in Kindergarten, it was probably, butterflies, caterpillars or bumblebees. In the upper echelons of primary school we have the much sought after “Opportunity Classes”. Is this to say the rest have no opportunity?

Get into high school and the distinction is a little less ambiguous. Streamed classes are portrayed as the answer to engaging students… by pushing the smartest, and giving extra assistance to those who need it. And at the peak of the  schools academic mountain we have the 2 Unit, 3 Unit or 4 Unit courses, each with added power to secure that top ATAR, with which to access the hallowed halls of university.

But here is the flip side… by streaming kids, we give them a status. Anyone who has any understanding of adolescent behaviour will tell you that status is the defining currency in the teenage years. In fact it’s not just teenagers. There is a wealth of evidence that says that a lot of adults would prefer an upgrade in their job title (no change in duties) over a pay rise! It seems the need to retain or improve our status is hardwired into us.

But at this particular time in life, to give a child a status that must be protected at all costs (no-one wants to be moved down into the middle set!) is inherently dangerous. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck suggests that some students who are identified as being smart early on in their school careers develop a fixed mindset and do all they can to avoid failure, and maintain their status in the smart group.

Whilst this may appear harmless, what they are doing is working to avoid failure, rather than working to achieve brilliance – and there is a subtle but important difference. No-one achieved anything great by being right all the time.

The PFR Model of Education

Teachers may see such students as being engaged but in reality many are being subjected to an all to common educational model: what I call the “Pressure – Fear – Relief model.”

Pressure from parents, teacher, peers and themselves to perform (maintain their status)

Fear of failure and losing their spot in the smart group.

Relief when the pass the test and gain the accolades that come with maintaining their status.

I touched on this in a post last year (inspired by the work of Tal Ben Shahar) and will continue to explore this further in 2011.

So is it any wonder that after “succeeding” in this system, students will choose university courses based on the highest entry requirements? Isn’t it just a further reinforcement of their status? Add to that the prospect of a high paying job, and all the trappings that come with that… the house, the car, the latest technological gizmos…

But as Sir Ken Robinson often says, “Being good at something, is not a good enough reason to do it.”

I believe that one of the reasons that the incidence of depression continues to rise is that too many people are doing jobs they do not enjoy… sure they are good at them (and they may well pay extraordinarily well), but fundamentally they do not like what they do. And you spend a hell of a long time at work! They simply got on the conveyor belt in Kindergarten and couldn’t get off…

How much time at school is devoted to students learning about themselves, their passions and strengths? Other than academic strengths of course. If schools are genuine in their claims that they “Prepare our students for life”, then there is a moral imperative to start framing our education system (again paraphrasing Sir Ken) not around the question of “How intelligent are our students?” but “How are our students intelligent?” and work with them to discover ways to truly engage in their passions and strengths without fear or favour of labels such as; academic, vocational, non-academic, arts etc…

I argue that if we got this part of education “right” we would see a decrease in the rates of depression in the next decade, and not the actualisation of the World Health Organisation‘s prediction that our current crop of students will face as greater risk from depression as from any other disease by the time they are in their thirties.


I’ll finish with a thought about engagement. It is a word bandied around in education, often without much thought. Teachers will comment on whether students appear engaged, and will often base their evaluation of a lesson based on the students’ level of engagement. Think about what an engaged student looks like… what are they doing?

And then think why do they look like that, and why are they doing what they are doing? Is it because they are under the influence of the PFR model of education? Or are they doing it because they want to do it? Would they want to do the work, even if they didn’t have to?

Now I’m not naive enough to think that every piece of work a class is set would inspire them as such, but it would be nice if more often than not, it did… wouldn’t it?

Think about your own habits at work… are there things you do even though you don’t have to?   I would hazard a guess that it is these activities you truly engage with, and that engagement carries though into other areas of your work, making you a better employee… or employer!

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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 5 Wrap

So five weeks come to an end. It’s been a remarkable time in the UK, USA and Canada. Just this week I’ve had the opportunity to work with Tayyab Rashid in Toronto, and he is doing some very cool stuff with Signature Strengths in education. He works in a wide range of schools from the affluent to the less well off and looks to engage teachers, students and parents in the work. He is also looking to develop more resources that can be used in schools, and we to be able to collaborate in some way with Tayyab on these in the coming months.

Whilst in Toronto, I also had the chance to sit in a Year 10 English Class at Riverdale School (no connection with the Riverdale school I visited in NYC), where positive psychology had been embedded into the curriculum. This was part of a huge curriculum document that the University of Pennsylvania have designed, and it was being implemented by Tayyab’s wife Afrose. Both Tayyab’s and Afrose’s work is part of a significant research project to measure, in a quantifiable manner, the effect it has on the students.

I also met with Therese Joyce (an Aussie who now lives in Canada) who is the director of the EF School in Toronto. She’s done some great staff development training based on positive psychology which the actual effect on staff wellbeing has also been measured by the University of Melbourne. The results of which the EF school are still waiting on.

From temperatures of -11 (yes, minus eleven) celsius I flew to Phoenix, Arizona to meet with Dr Howard Cutler. Dr Cutler wrote the “Art of Happiness” series with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (The Art of Happiness was on the New York Times best seller list for TWO years!). He is in the process of developing an Art of Happiness educational program, which he plans to pilot in Phoenix. As a psychiatrist, with expertise in Positive Psychology AND years of experience of working with the Dalai Lama, I was hoping for an inspiring and exciting few hours conversation… and I got it! We talked about all manner of things and we challenged each others thinking and agreed on many aspects of our educational philosophy. Again I’m honoured to be able to say that Dr Cutler wants to continue to work with me in the future on in the first instance his Art of Happiness in Education project… very exciting!

To try to sum up what the experience of this tour has been like for me in a few words would prove futile. I believe it will be in the coming months or even years that I truly understand exactly what I’ve gotten from it.

What I can say is that I’ve made partnerships, and dare I say friends that I hope to continue working with in the months and years to come. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and engage with people whose work I have admired for a very long time, and the fact that many of those same people would like to work with me in the future is incredibly exciting and affirming for me.

Thank you to all the people who gave up their time to meet with me and share their work. It was a truly inspirational time.

I’d really like to thank the Anika Foundation who sponsored this trip, and I hope to do them proud with the programs, partnerships and ideas I bring back to Australia.

Where to from here…? To be honest I have so many ideas and projects in mind, that I need to take some time to reflect and prioritise. I know that some of these ideas may well challenge some of the long-held beliefs about education and the role of a teacher, and I know there will be barriers and challenges to overcome.

What I can say is… if you want to come with me… jump on board, the more the merrier!

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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 3 Wrap

“Would you mind if I included some of your work in my new book?”
“I beg your pardon?” I replied.
Again came the question… “Would you mind if I included some of your work in my new book? We’re taking it on a forty city tour of the States in March next year…”

Dr John Yeager and I had been discussing the work that Ray Francis and I have been doing at Emanuel School and he wondered if we’d allow him to include it in a new book he is co-authoring with Dave Shearon and Sherri Fisher. Together the three of them are Positive Psychology Pioneers having studied under Martin Seligman in the inaugural 2006 Masters of Applied Positive Psychology course at University of Pennsylvania. They are also the founders of Flourishing Schools.

Needless to say, Ray and I are very happy to contribute to this book. 🙂

John Yeager hosted my visit to Culver Academy in Indiana. In my preparation for my study tour everyone  I spoke to, particularly in the States, said I had to visit Culver and meet with John. The work Culver does is nationally and internationally renowned. I had the privilege of spending two days with John, and during that time we discussed many aspects of the work he has spent his entire career pioneering, as well as the work I am embarking on. I met with numerous staff who John has trained and saw first hand the positive effect it has on the faculty and the students. Culver host many visitors from all over the world, and my visit was incredibly well facilitated. From the 7.15 breakfast meeting with the Dean of Academics, meeting with the staff  who drive strengths and positive psychology at Culver, as well as the students who benefit from it; my day culminated with a 5.30 meeting with the Mental Health Councillor in which he introduced me to Sand Tray Therapy. The psychologists amongst you will have more of idea about what this is about, but it certainly looked interesting. I saw every facet of Culver’s “strengths-based” approach to education and it has already spawned new ideas in my thinking. It was an inspiring (but cold) time in Indiana, and I’d like to think it won’t be my last visit to Culver, although I may go in Summer next time!

At the time of writing this I’m into my second day in New Orleans.

My time here is proving to be the most profound and moving experience of my professional career. As such, I will be making a separate post devoted to my time in New Orleans in a couple of days… to those who sign up for email updates I apologise for the “double-hit” you’ll get from me this week 🙂

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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 1 Wrap

                                           It has been a wet, cold but brilliant first week of my tour. I started off in Scunthorpe, one of the most socially deprived areas in the UK. I went to visit two primary schools, Henderson Avenue and Frodingham Infants to see first hand Jenny Fox Eades’ Celebrating Strengths program in action. Having a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the program, I was amazed to see just how well it had been embedded into these schools. In the past I have debated with teachers whether primary aged kids would be able to comprehend the language and concepts that make up the program. In the past some teachers have said to me they felt that Year 5s may struggle with it. Well that was blown out of the water as I witnessed Year 1 and 2 children describing each other as persistent, or courageous and speaking confidently about their own strengths. At Frodingham in particular the program was front and centre of what they did right from the first day of Nursery (UKs equivalent of Kindergarten). If this program can work in Scunthorpe, then I believe it has the potential to work anywhere. If I had been teleported into the school, with no idea of its location, I would not have thought I was in an area with one of the highest levels of crime and unemployment in the country. Any primary teacher interested in a strengths based approach in schools should get in contact with Cath Lloyd (Henderson Ave) or Judith Gray (Frodingham Infants).

Another area of social deprivation is Gateshead in the country’s north-east. Here Bede Community Primary School run a “Creative Curriculum” which Headteacher Nick Anderson wrote in order to make the curriculum as relevant as possible to the students under his charge.

Sir Ken Robinson

Today I had the privilege of meeting and listening to Sir Ken Robinson. As well as listening to an inspirational talk, I was able to chat with him for a few minutes. I put to him my belief that; an education system based on children being able to identify, explore and enhance their passions and strengths (regardless of academia) would help address the depression epidemic that the World Health Organisation is predicting will be the biggest threat to the health of our current Year 7s by the time they are 30 years old. Sir Ken agreed with me… “Absolutely, without question.”  The writers of the Australian national curriculum must ensure that there is room to move within its framework so as to meet the needs of this century not the past two! And if they don’t listen to a Knight then who will they listen to?

What’s next?

Tomorrow I will return to the school I graduated from in 1995.  I have been invited to present an assembly to the current Year 11s on how to find and use their strengths. I’ll also use the opportunity to personally thank one of the teachers who had the biggest influence on me during my time at school.

Next week I’m off to the prestigious Wellington College to see their acclaimed wellbeing curriculum,  as well as meeting Jenny Fox Eades and seeing her work with a school in London and I’m going to a school that is run like a town… I’ll tell you more next week !

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Change Education Leadership

When Will We See the Education Revolution?

Recently I posted an entry relating to the Labour Government’s Education Revolution and the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of those writing the new National Curriculum.

Today’s decision by the Independents to side with Labour means that the Revolution will continue for another 3 years at least…

The Macquarie Australian Encyclopaedic Dictionary defines a Revolution as;  “(n) 1. a complete overthrow of an established government or political system. 2. a complete or marked change in something.

So far under the banner of an Educational Revolution; Labour has built new School Halls, Libraries and Covered Outdoor Learning Areas. Nothing about revolutionising education there… same old stuff going on, just in nicer surrounds.

As reported in The Age in August, as part of the second wave of the Education Revolution the Labour government will look to roll our salary bonuses to the top 10% of teachers in Australia. So now we will pay bonuses to teachers who excel at delivering the same old stuff.

The roll out of the National Curriculum has been touted as revolutionising education in Australia. 

But surely it only serves to reinforce the antiquated hierarchy of subjects that were the foundation blocks of education during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Maths and English first; the arts and health/physical education much later. This model of education was developed to meet the needs of Universities about 200 years ago. Does this model of education really suit the needs of the 21st Century Student?

Maybe/Maybe not…

But at the very least can we please agree to stop using the term “Revolution” until we have an education system that;

i) Serves to highlight, reinforce and develop the strengths and passions of students.

ii) Ensures an ATAR/HSC/School Cert result is not the only distillation of a student’s educational experience by which career paths or further study options are open or closed.

iii) Is built around a system that places as much value on an arts student as an academic student.

iv) Rewards creativity rather than restricts it.

Then we may actually see a complete or marked change in education.

Education Engagement & Motivation Wellbeing

Drowning, Not Learning

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar PhD describes one model of motivation that influences the approach a student may take to their learning. He calls it the “Drowning Model”.

“The drowning model shows two things; that the desire to free ourselves from pain can be a strong motivator and that, once freed, we can easily mistake our relief for happiness. A person whose head is forced under water will suffer discomfort and pain and will struggle to escape. If, at the last moment, his head is released, he will gasp for air and experience a sense of intoxicating relief. The situation may be less dramatic for students who do not enjoy school, but the nature of their motivation – the need to avoid a negative consequence – is similar. Throughout the term, drowning in work that they do not enjoy, students are motivated by their fear of failure. At the end of the term, liberated from their books and papers and exams, they feel an overwhelming sense of relief – which, in the moment, can feel a lot like happiness. This pattern of pain followed by relief is the model that is imprinted upon us from Grade School. It is easy to see how, unaware of alternative models, living as a rat racer could seem the most normal and attractive prospect.”

Shahar describes a Rat Racer as someone who subordinates the present for the future, suffering now for the purpose of some perceived gain in the future.

Our culture reinforces this model. At work an employee will  get a salary bonus for reaching an annual sales quota. At the end of a school year, a student may be awarded an A grade, receive a School Prize and be rewarded by their parents. We are rewarded for the result; the end point; the successful completion of the task.

The relief felt at the completion of a task (particular if compounded by material rewards) can be mistaken for happiness – this in turn leads the Rat Racer to accept that the sacrifices he made were worth it. However, how long does this feeling of relief last? How long before the Rat Racer feels the pressure to start the sacrificial process all over again in pursuit of his next bout of relief?

Think of the average student at school. Does your school actively encourage this approach to life?

A quality education must ensure that students enjoy and are rewarded throughout their learning, and not just the sum total of their learning. The  A grade, the School Prize and the reward from Mum and Dad can be pleasant incidentals, but should never be the driving force.

A quality education must encourage students to recognise emotional rewards as being as important as financial or material rewards. In doing this we will discourage the Rat Racer attitude that determines a student will follow a career path because “it pays better”, or “it’s what my parents want me to do”. Hopefully students will follow a path they want to go down, and as such the achievement of their goals will involve less emotional sacrifice. If students are encouraged to pursue their passions and strengths, they will find meaning in the work/study they do. If they find meaning in the work/study they are doing then they will reap great emotional rewards throughout their learning, and not only a sense of relief upon the completion of an assessment task or the HSC.


What’s The New Kid Like?

“What’s the new kid in Year 9 like?” I asked Mr Jones* the Maths teacher.

“He’s terrible at maths,  he’s definitely not too bright,” Jonesy assured me.

Whilst this is purely anecdotal and certainly not a universal approach to describing students, it is fairly common in my experience. I have asked what the child is like, and I’ve been told what the student is like, and even then, it is a huge (and most likely inaccurate) generalisation of a kid’s intellect.

I find a lot of teachers describe the children in their class by their behaviour or ability rather than their character. Clearly this is the nature of the beast. If you are a teacher on a full load timetable, with thirty-odd kids per class, getting to know them is going to take a considerable amount of time if it is left up to individual teachers to each ascertain this insight of all their students. What is needed is a concerted effort by the staff as a whole to engage with the kids identities and passions and then share this amongst the faculty. Imagine the potential for your lessons if you knew what made your students tick; if you knew what they were passionate about and you worked that into your curriculum.

Instead of classes being streamed by “ability”, why not trial streaming your classes by passions, or character strengths? Then classes being taught by teachers with the same interests/passions etc…

I reckon I might get a more satisfying answer to my original question even if we only did this for one day.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty and everyone in between.