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Balancing Wellbeing and Academic Success

By Lim Lai Cheng
Balancing Wellbeing and Academic Success

In 2016, Singapore took first place in core subjects—mathematics, reading, and science—in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), marking its best performance yet in the global benchmarking test in which 72 economies participated. Additionally, Singapore placed high in Boston Consulting Group’s study on wellbeing, as the only non-European country to make the top 10. But can academic success and wellbeing go together in our schools?
It is commonly believed that happiness will come in a distant future when we have accumulated a certain amount of material possessions and secured favorable external circumstances. Educators can get caught up thinking that students should accumulate an inordinate amount of knowledge and learning skills while developing attitudes that will allow them to find a job and good living conditions so that they can, eventually, be happy.
Positive psychologists show that we can attain both academic excellence and happiness. Schools play an important role in promoting individual wellbeing and the drive for academic success, and both goals can work to reinforce one other.
The theory of wellbeing advocated by psychologist Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, posits that five key aspects must be present in order for human beings to achieve wellbeing: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishments (PERMA).
When Seligman’s model is applied to education, the best schooling must develop values and character in children, as well as teach them how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves, and work towards achieving those goals. Positive education, a movement gaining momentum across the world, works to create a school culture that supports caring, trusting relationships. It encourages and supports individuals and the community in flourishing and focuses on specific skills that assist students in building positive emotions, enhancing personal resilience, promoting mindfulness, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
Enhancing positive experiences in schools is not a zero-sum game. Schools high on wellbeing but low on excellence (academic or otherwise) will produce stagnation or students who underperform. Those low on wellbeing and high on the drive for success end up with cynical or burnt-out students and staff. Those low on both produce languishing students who are neither happy nor performing to their full potential. When schools focus on both wellbeing and excellence, they will have thriving and flourishing individuals.
Countries aiming to produce high performers have been tempted to push for academic outcomes by adding more hours of classroom instruction, more homework, and more frequent testing to climb up the rankings list. Countries such as Finland, which prefer to advocate for the holistic and social development of children, are seen to slip from the ranks.
Educators at the Character Lab in New York have summarized the ingredients of academic development and wellbeing as seven key character strengths: grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and zest. If schools are able to integrate the development of these key traits while emphasizing academic attainment, the chances of children achieving success in an increasingly complex and competitive world will be much higher.
Westwood is a new government-run primary school in Jurong, Singapore that has embraced positive education. Its vision is “to inspire our community to lead meaningful and engaged lives.” Staff and leaders of the school have endorsed a framework that emphasizes imparting both skills and competencies and teaching wellbeing, so that students can gain greater insights into how the self can serve as an agent for change and knowledge creation.
Children are taught to thrive through techniques that help them to think mindfully, rely on healthy coping mechanisms, relate well, be in the moment, and to ensure that actions are values-driven and exude positive emotions.
Strategies used by teachers include the traffic light system to teach explicit reflective thinking. Stop-Think-Go is used to guide pupils in reflecting on their actions and thoughts in class. Teachers also hold regular What Went Well (WWW) moments in the classroom to provide students with regular opportunities for reflection. Reward charts are created to provide specific praise for effort, rather than achievement, in tasks and relationships. Teachers also make use of opportunities to offer words of affirmation to the children.
Positive education can lead to positive attitudes among students, regardless of the stage of their academic attainment. It is a means to other desirable ends and contributes to societal end goals such as citizen wellbeing and quality of life, a compassionate and inclusive society, rootedness and commitment, as well as an adaptive and resilient nation. It makes sense to embrace the double helix.

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10/21/2017 - Ted
Thank you, Lai, for this straightforward exposition. I am just amazed that these truths are not embedded universally in schools.



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