This post is the first in a series exploring happiness and mindfulness in the classroom.
One of the most powerful educators I’ve ever experienced was my Critical Theory professor in university. He was a gifted thinker and orator, and he didn’t give a damn about making us happy. On the first day of class, he told a group of 40 fresh-faced students that only one of us would earn an A by the end of the year. One A! The following class went from 40 students down to 30.
After his brutal and heavily weighted mid-term essay on Plato and Aristotle in October, (for which most of us received D’s,) the class size shrunk even further. The professor wasn’t concerned at all. In fact, he seemed pleased: his class had been vetted down to a small group of curious D-range students who stayed despite the risk of failure. Now we could get down to work.
Teaching for happiness wasn’t part of his objective—just the opposite. He crafted his lectures and assignments to make us all quite uncomfortable, to provoke intellectual and emotional reactions, and to force us to think and write at the edge of our capacity. His class was so intellectually challenging and his grading so discerning that we had to forfeit our attachment to getting high grades and allow our passion for the content to motivate us. After a full year of the hardest writing and thinking I’ve ever done, my capacity for discomfort greatly expanded, and so did my ability. What a gift.
But that was university in a very different time. As a high school teacher in the private system, teaching for happiness is often an implicit expectation from students and the phrase, “I’m not happy with my grade,” is one I hear regularly. I would love this phrase to be the beginning of a reflective conversation about how the student could improve, but most often, “I’m not happy with my grade,” really means, “when can you change it?”
Perhaps what needs to change is the expectation on the part of the student that happiness is a relevant emotion to education at all. Then again, I often take comfort in my favourite fuzzy teaching quotation when I’m feeling discouraged about whether or not what I’m teaching is really sticking. It goes something like this: Students may not remember the content of your class, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Inspired, challenged, frustrated, humbled…happy? Hm.
So what role do happiness and being happy play in education? As a science and an art, happiness has been examined for thousands of years, but happiness as a more conscious practice and buzzword has gained popularity in the west with the success of books like The Happiness Project, among many others, scholarly, philosophical and New Agey. So it’s not surprising that the concept of happiness is appearing more and more in the realm of education and curriculum.
But happiness is a very complex experience to teach and learn, and the question of whether or not it’s even possible to teach happiness is controversial, don’t you think? Back in 2008 The Guardian ran part of a debate between two educators, Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and Frank Furedi, sociology professor at the University of Kent. The question put to them was simple: can we teach people to be happy?
Seldon says yes–we can and we should, as educators, teach children how to be happy, and he suggests three main reasons: “First, if schools do not [teach happiness], children may never learn elsewhere. Second, depression, self-harming and anxiety among students are reaching epidemic proportions. So are drinking and drug-taking. Teaching schoolchildren how to live autonomous lives increases the chances of avoiding depression, mental illness and dependency when they are older. And third, since the development of the positive psychology movement under Martin Seligman and developments in neuroscience, we now know how to teach wellbeing, and have empirical evidence of its effectiveness.”
Furedi disagrees, calling programs focused on improving wellbeing “silly,” suggesting they encourage children to be inward focused rather than engaged with the outside world. He says, “everyday experience suggests that not everything that has to be learned can be taught. How to feel well is not a suitable subject for teaching. Why? Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life. One reason why well-meaning educators cannot teach their pupils to be happy is because feelings are contingent on encounters and relationships.”
Click here to read the full discussion; both educators make compelling arguments.
For me, I think the question of teaching happiness is too subjective and complex to answer definitively. My Critical Theory professor did not teach to make me happy, and yet the transformation I experienced in his class 12 years ago is still in my cells. It still has power for me. When I saw my final grade was an A, I did feel a kind of thrill, but it was weightless and fleeting in comparison to all the heavy work we did that year, the value of which I feel every time I get a new class of students and tell them, as I was told, to release their expectations for high grades and seek instead to increase their capacity for thinking and writing, and ultimately, disappointment. Because this is what builds resiliency, and nothing makes me happier than that.
I’m curious to know what you think: where does happiness fit in to what you teach? Should we be teaching students how to be happy? If so, where do we start?