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The ‘PosEd’ approach

| November 15, 2020 | 0 Comments


At the 2019 World Government Summit,1 Martin Seligman presented a paper called ‘The State of Positive Education’,2 which highlighted the growth of ‘PosEd’ around the world.

From small beginnings at Geelong Grammar School (GGS) in Australia,3 the movement is now so widespread that Positive Education’s (PosEd) reach is truly global. The advent of COVID-19 has placed educational practice under the microscope and has once again highlighted the need for schools to be teaching the skills of well-being, resilience and grit. The pandemic has also emphasised the need for social connection – another key element of the PosEd approach to teaching and learning. The paper shared key research findings from several schools and tertiary institutions currently applying the PosEd principles to their daily practice. These findings highlighted, among other things, that students had increased levels of well-being, greater tenacity, elevated levels of growth mindset, improved social connection and reported being much ‘happier’. Little did Seligman know that in a short space of time, these PosEd skills would be in even greater demand, as the world would be flung into the shadow of COVID-19.

PosEd can be defined as ‘an approach that blends academic learning with character and well-being – preparing students for life with skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, growth mindset, engagement and mindfulness, among others’. The underpinning science behind PosEd is known as positive psychology, and is understood as the science of optimal human functioning. GGS explains it as bringing together the science of positive psychology and that of ‘best practice teaching’. The school refers to ‘flourishing’ as a combination of ‘feeling good’ and ‘doing good’. Isn’t this a wonderful concept to strive for, both personally and for those we teach?

Finding one’s ikigai

Craig Carolan’s4 interest in positive psychology began in the ‘midnoughties’, when he taught positive psychology as a module in the International Baccalaureate psychology course5 while working at Whitgift School in the United Kingdom (UK).6 Teaching this excellent course prompted him, as the school’s head of learning development, to research the concepts of self-efficacy and flow in his master’s research, and to gain various accreditations in mindfulness in schools, among participating in other PosEd-related workshops. After returning to South Africa as deputy head and then head of Stanford Lake College, Carolan founded Intrinsic Education in 2019 and the Centre for Positive Education in 2020, providing workshops and accreditations in thinking skills and PosEd for teachers. In this work, Carolan has found his ‘ikigai’ (‘reason for being’).7

Trevor Harbottle was appointed principal of Hermannsburg School at the start of 2018. This is a historic school in many ways. It is the oldest independent co-educational boarding school in KwaZuluNatal (KZN), founded by German missionaries in 1856. Hermannsburg (traditionally known as Deutsche Schule Hermannsburg) battled financially from 2014 to 2019, as support from the German government ended and confidence in the longterm future of the school was affected. As a result, numbers dwindled. At the end of 2019, Zola Mkumla, a Hermannsburg old scholar, invested heavily in upgrades to the school, both in terms of the infrastructure and the academic programme. Harbottle’s passion for education has always stemmed from a desire to see people grow in character and knowledge. He believes that PosEd creates well-being both in school and beyond the school environment.

The Hermannsburg journey

It was at last year’s PosEd Conference at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown that Harbottle and Carolan struck up a conversation about what a potential PosEd whole-school programme might look like. On returning to their respective bases in KZN, they agreed to reconnect and look at ways they could bring this powerful programme into Hermannsburg in 2020. After garnering support from the new board of directors and Mkumla, the new owner, they agreed to build a one-year programme aimed at introducing Seligman’s PERMA model8 into the day-to-day practice of teachers and scholars at the school.

This year-long programme entails staff attending a two-hour workshop on the first Thursday of each month, where the concepts and skills of PosEd are scaffolded within the PERMA-V model of positive psychology. The PERMA model of flourishing and well-being was proposed by Seligman in 2011 and gave teachers a practical framework from which to explicitly apply the tools of positive psychology in a school setting. The acronym stands for the pathways to flourishing, which are: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Vitality was added at a later stage to round off the model (now called PERMA-V). The programme is built around these six pathways, and introduces concepts and the associated skills to develop them, such as Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘broaden and build’ theory of harnessing positive emotions,9 learned optimism, developing resilience, social connection, developing meaning, self-efficacy, understanding and developing personal strengths, mindfulness, flow and mindset, among other skills.

In the nick of time

As timing would have it, the school was blessed to have completed two full workshops before the COVID-19 lockdown, which meant that all the teachers had a sound understanding of the concept of PosEd, as well as an introduction to the PERMA-V framework and how it could apply to them and their teaching. With the onset of the lockdown, the focus shifted slightly to address the disruption it caused, and to support teachers with PosEd tools that they could harness to help themselves and their scholars to deal with remote learning and the stresses related to the pandemic. Once the dates of the return to school became available, they were able to use the PosEd approach to support the school’s ‘re-entry’ process.

Building hope and resilience

As Carolan and Harbottle write this article, they continue their PosEd journey at Hermannsburg, with daily evidence that embedding the PosEd philosophies are reaping encouraging rewards. The programme has enabled the teachers to be even more explicit about Hermannsburg’s values-based approach to education, and has given the teachers a neat, easy-to-use framework from which to develop the critical character traits and skills addressed in this article. Over the remainder of the year, they will continue to scaffold positive psychology skills in their monthly workshops (hopefully not all by Zoom!) and reinforce them in daily practice, as they strive to give both teachers and scholars these lifelong skills. Their goal? That they will enable each and every member of the Hermannsburg community to remain hopeful and resilient in these trying times and, when we emerge from the mists of COVID-19, that they will have built strong foundations from which to flourish in the future.


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Category: Spring 2020

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