Turning Tables On Australian Education by Dr Helen Street


Helen StreetIt is time to turn the tables on the Australian education system.

In 2015 it appears that the majority of Australian schools are keen to acknowledge the important role they can play in nurturing wellbeing and positive mental health. Most schools and colleges boast at least one wellbeing initiative. Many make explicit statements about the importance of social and emotional learning within their school community framework.

On the face of it, these findings suggest that tables are already being positively turned within the Australian education system. It could even be tentatively suggested that Australia is becoming a wellbeing leader for primary and secondary schools. However, many Australian school based practices surrounding the delivery of social and emotional learning remain embedded in a misconceived, deeply ingrained belief system. We may love the new resilience program in year one, but is it really doing anything to constructively support resilience in students? We may think that the year nine’s are learning a lot about social values, but are they motivated to act on this knowledge? We may want the kids to all feel equally important, but do they?

It is vital we spend more time understanding the distinction between ‘wanting to nurture students’ and ‘what we actually do’. It is vital that we don’t drown our growing interest in wellbeing within an outdated system of educational delivery.

In reality, many Australian school based practices and policies remain embedded in misconceived but deeply ingrained beliefs. For example, beliefs about the effectiveness of homework, the benefit of early structured education and reward based systems for reinforcement, all continue to have a strong hold, despite research repeatedly questioning their effectiveness.

As with many ingrained beliefs, those in education are often entrenched to the point of confusion with ‘fact’. They are rarely challenged and very resistant to change. This has resulted in many questionable outcomes for school based wellbeing programs and frequent confusion over program delivery. For example, many schools are keen to encourage positive social behaviour among students and staff (signifying increased wellbeing awareness) but do this with reward systems such as stickers, certificates or prizes (unhelpful ingrained practice). Similarly, many schools now realize that mental health is a primary concern in young people (wellbeing awareness) but still choose to highlight the long term dangers of poor health rather than support the immediate benefits of good health (unhelpful ingrained practice).

The misconceived self-esteem movement of the early 1970s wrongly assumed that self-esteem was paramount for good grades and good social behaviour (inaccurate wellbeing awareness). Moreover, it resulted in teachers everywhere attempting to increase their students’ self-esteem with uncritical praise; to the point where no-one could fail, or possibly succeed (unhelpful practice). We need to learn from the mistakes of this time and ensure that we understand both the ingredients of wellbeing and the best method for creating a positive education recipe.

To ensure that we continue to build an effective platform for social and emotional learning in schools, we need to make sure we ask the ‘gritty questions’ about every idea and initiative we so painstakingly introduce. Otherwise we may well end up laminating the poster but ignoring the contents.

Next time you discuss that great new wellbeing program or initiative happening in your school ask:

What are the key aims of this program/idea?

Does the program actually deliver these aims within our own school community?

What evidence do we have to support anecdotal feedback?

How are we making sure we deliver this idea/program in an effective way?

How does this program or initiative fit in with the rest of our school practices?

And perhaps most importantly…

…Are we all on the same page?
Helen is one of the original creators of The National Australian Positive Schools Initiative (NAPSI), The Positive Schools conferences and The Positive Times; in addition to being the conference chair and a regular host and presenter at the events. She is available for talks to staff and parents on a range of topics.

This Article also appears in the July edition of ‘Western Teacher’magazine

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