Geelong Grammar School’s Institute of Positive Education places wellbeing at the heart of education.
While historically, education has been focused on academic outcomes, student wellbeing is becoming increasingly more salient, relevant, and prioritised. Positive Education – informed by Positive Psychology and the science of wellbeing – places the wellbeing of students at the heart of education. A strengths-based approach to teaching and learning, focusing on what is going well, is an essential tool of the Positive Educator.
There is a wealth of research into the identification and treatment of mental illness, with consistent language around symptoms, diagnosis and behaviours associated with people who are languishing. Conversely, until recently, an agreed-upon set of criteria for describing those who are flourishing has been lacking, as have interventions through which one might nurture this state. A common language with which to describe positive attributes in people has been an area of significant development within the science of wellbeing over the past decade.
Changing the focus
The VIA Classification of Character Strengths was developed over a number of years by Professors Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman. It describes and characterises the positive human qualities that, when actioned, contribute to living the ‘good life’. Peterson and Seligman conducted an extensive literature and cultural review which examined not only scientific texts, but also politics, fables, plays, religious texts, customs, greeting cards, and even video game character profiles. The aim was to identify strengths and virtues that have been universally valued, across the broad expanse of cultures and human history. The resulting list of 24 Character Strengths are grouped into six virtue areas; Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Transcendence, Justice and Temperance. There are more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles which have been published, examining the Character Strengths from diverse angles, such as the strengths most strongly correlated with student engagement, academic achievement, life satisfaction and physical activity.
Everyone in your community – your colleagues, students and their families – has every one of these strengths, albeit to different degrees and expressed in different ways. These are referred to as Values in Action ( VIA) and have been embedded into our culture at Geelong Grammar School (GGS). In allowing students and staff to discover their ‘signature strengths’ – the strengths most essential to who they are – the community can learn to harness and apply these strengths in challenging times as well as everyday situations as they attempt to live a ‘good’ life. A person’s signature strengths have been found to be relatively stable over their lifetime. Research has shown that it is possible to develop strengths through intentional activity and that people who use their signature strengths in new ways experience increased levels of wellbeing. Additionally, recent evidence has demonstrated significant wellbeing benefits from nurturing a balanced strength profile known as a ‘Jack of All Strengths’. Interestingly, the Character Strengths found to be most strongly correlated with wellbeing in adults are ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Love of Learning’. For children, the strengths of ‘Capacity to Love and be Loved’, ‘Zest’, and ‘Hope’ are most closely associated with happiness.
Character strengths at GGS
The knowledge and focus on Character Strengths underpins Geelong Grammar School’s Positive Education programme. By explicitly teaching our students the language of strengths and helping them to identify these positive character attributes in themselves and others, we give them the tools to develop these aspects of their personality. Currently, our Year 6 classes are experimenting with a Character Strengths Twister mat. In playing games like musical chairs and bingo, the students are enjoying and building familiarity with the language of strengths. They spot strengths in other students, talk about how they are using particular strengths themselves and develop an understanding that they all have their own unique capabilities and ways of understanding the world.
Our Year 2 students are drawing self-portraits, with a speech bubble in which they reflect “it’s good to be me because…”. They choose the strengths they think best represent who they are from posters on the classroom walls. Once finished, the self-portraits join the posters on the walls to create a display that celebrate the diversity of the students and their personalities.
By making Character Strengths part of the language of our learning environments, students are given agency to increase self-awareness and social awareness. In using a strengths-based approach to learning about character, our aim is to increase the focus on what is good about each member of our school community.
To gain a deeper understanding of how schools can implement a strengths-based approach, please see the Institute of Positive Education website (instituteofpositiveeducation.com). Educators may also wish to come along to one of our Positive Education training courses including our one-day Embedding Character Strengths workshop.