MAKES SENSE: Our kids and the schools they attend could do with more joy.
MAKES SENSE: Our kids and the schools they attend could do with more joy. iStock

Education should focus on kids' strengths, not deficits

PROFESSOR Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and author of best-selling books Flourish, Authentic Happiness and The Optimistic Child, is going to be in Sydney next month for the Happiness and Its Causes conference.

The promo for his opening keynote got me thinking.

He is going to share how he came to study "optimism and resilience” at a time when psychology was fixated on "misery and trauma”.

It got me thinking about viewpoints.

For more than 60 years, psychology worked from a "disease and disorder” model.

It focused on what was "wrong” and in doing this it lost sight of the person.

Has what happened to psychology happened to education? It sure feels like education is operating with a deficit lens. What if we learned from Seligman's work and worked harder at understanding what makes our kids engaged, happy, joyful?

What if we were as concerned with children and young people's "strengths and interests” as we are with their "weaknesses” or "knowledge deficits”?

Martin Seligman's work has made a science of what makes life worth living and he has identified the importance of social relationships and friendships, of experiencing "flow” and engaging in meaningful experiences with mindfulness.

I wonder what would happen if schools made decisions based on how they might enhance students' relationships with others.

I wonder what would happen if the pace of learning and teaching slowed right down, so that children had time to sit with ideas and experience positive emotions about their learning?

Or what would happen if learning was tailored to children's interests and curiosities so that they could love what they were learning and doing, and find learning genuinely meaningful?

For me, flipping the focus feels very important.

We need to focus on what will help our children and young people flourish.

I think in all aspects of living and learning right now we need to be feeding positive things.

We need to value kindness and caring and be following joy and optimism.

I recently bought my teenage daughter a book called The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story by Marie Kondo.

I bought it (optimistically) in the hope that she might be inspired to tidy her room (a parent has got to try!). It is a manga-style illustrated story about tidying up.

In the end, I ended up reading it myself. And, I really enjoyed it.

One of the key messages Kondo communicates is to think about what "sparks joy”.

While she is talking about decluttering, Kondo asks us to ask one question when deciding what to keep: "Does it spark joy?” I am finding myself now asking this question about everything. It is a great question. What if we looked at our education system and asked: "Does it spark joy (for teachers, for children, for parents)?”.

The goal with Kondo's decluttering is that if you remove all the things that don't spark joy then sooner or later everything left sparks joy.

Our kids could do with more joy. Schools could do with more joy. Kids are not getting a sense of who they are, or how amazing they are.

Rather, they seem to come through schooling feeling like they are not enough. One of the beautiful things about the "Does it spark joy?” question is that we know instantly and instinctively if something does or doesn't spark joy.

I think our children and young people are ready for some life-changing magic.

Our schools too. Let's start decluttering education. Let's get off the deficit focus. It is time for optimism and joy to lead the way.

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