Positive Psychology and Education
The goals of positive psychology mirror many of the goals of education. Most professionals enter the field of teaching in order to make a difference in the lives of students. What motivates teachers to continue is the reinforcement of seeing students thrive and perform at optimal levels. Positive psychology seeks to do the same, promoting general well-being and life satisfaction across the broader spectrum of individuals and institutions.
Positive psychology has application in all aspects of teaching and learning, from pre-school level to post graduate, for faculty and students alike. The concept of positive education seeks higher academic achievement, increased character strengths, self awareness and emotional control, self efficacy (which is different from self-esteem), resilience, flexible and accurate thinking skills, strategies for positive relationships and learned optimism.
Researchers from top universities around the world have shown that students with these positive core qualities are academically more motivated, well-rounded and successful- both in and outside of the classroom. Importantly, all of these positive core qualities are malleable and can be fostered. They can be taught and learned through tested, proven approaches being published in the scientific literature. Incorporating the theories of positive psychology in the school curriculum provides an opportunity to expose students to the science of individual achievement and fulfillment, giving them insight into their own lives and making the actual lessons taught more meaningful.
A number of powerful positive psychology theories and techniques can be used to enhance the learning experience for both students and teachers. Successful education today requires:
Focusing on character strengths offers an important step toward greater engagement, greater achievement, and greater well‐being. Just naming the strengths of a teacher or a student is an uplifting experience.
When we are able to use our strengths, we are satisfying our natural urges. We feel good about ourselves—we thrive and we feel invigorated. We perform better. We are more productive. We have greater contentment and satisfaction. There is a sense of accomplishment and meaning in our work and personal life. By contrast, a continual focus on trying to fix weaknesses leaves us frustrated—suppressing our natural tendencies. This can lead to anger and becoming psychologically and physically drained. Overtime, these negative emotions can lead to depression.
A positive school climate predicts teacher and student satisfaction, lower stress levels and better school results. Rational thinking is inhibited when emotions are negative and go unchecked. Conversely, when we are emotionally calm and thinking positively in a safe environment, we are more likely to be curious, creative and better able to problem solve. Seminal work by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina identifies a number of positive emotions, all of which can be promoted in our schools with beneficial results: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love.
Engagement and intrinsic motivation
Research has shown that people pursue an activity if they enjoy doing it and that people tend to enjoy what they can do well. In a 1987 study conducted by B. Eugene Griessman among leading artists, scientists and other accomplished individuals, there was a consensus that “enjoyment of work” is the characteristic most responsible for their success—more important than 32 other traits including creativity, competence, and breadth of knowledge. The implication for schools is whether our educators enjoy teaching and whether our students enjoy learning. It’s the difference between swimming with the current or struggling to swim upstream.
Relationships between constituencies are a critical factor in the positive school environment. The role of teachers in the development of elementary students is of particular importance. Secure childhood relationships provide a safe haven from which children can feel comfortable venturing out into an unknown world. As a result, these children are more likely to explore their surroundings, acquiring greater knowledge and psychological resources along the way. Research demonstrates that these resources end up building a foundation of confidence, trust, and self-efficacy that will serve children over the course of a lifetime. In school, additional studies show that children who feel higher levels of relatedness to parents and teachers tend to perform better academically. Children with secure relationships tend to grow up to be more compassionate, altruistic, and attuned to the needs of others.
More than just the ability to bounce back from adversity, resilience is also the capacity to bounce forward in the presence of opportunity. Research has shown that students need more than good grades, high college entrance exam scores, or even a college education to succeed.
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