Nothing about us without us: Student wellbeing

This post was first published on CORE Education’s blog. Click here to see the original.

Schools cannot simply rely on their positive culture and respectful relationships to promote wellbeing but need to provide opportunities for students to make decisions about their wellbeing and to be active in leading their learning, Education Review Office, 2016, p. 18.

The wellbeing of young people is increasingly an area for focus for schools both here in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as overseas. In the past we have possibly relied too heavily on an implicit approach to the wellbeing of our staff, students, and school community: that teachers and students have a good rapport; that leaders have an ‘open door’ policy whereby any issue can be raised at any time; that the school environment has a positive feeling. While these are indeed all strengths schools can build upon, this isn’t an approach to wellbeing in and of itself. If we see wellbeing as important, then it must be reflected in all areas and aspects of a school. Wellbeing requires an explicit approach, as the Education Review Office (ERO) calls for in the quote above.

Firstly, what is wellbeing? When I asked participants this very question at a recent CORE Breakfast, this is what people said:

wellbeingA synonym I like to use is flourishing (as did one or two others!). That our young people are nurtured to do more than exist; they thrive. They have the right to be who they are without having to leave any aspect of their identity (such as their ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation) at the school gate.

This is all very laudable, but how do schools go about explicitly planning for our young people to flourish and thrive?

Both ERO and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) have produced useful work for schools focusing on the wellbeing of students. When we bring this material together, we can see that both organisations call for:

  • A whole-school approach to wellbeing;
  • Taking a youth development perspective in wellbeing work;
  • Seeing young people as active agents in their lives.

Whole-school really means whole-school: that wellbeing goals are reflected in school policy, curriculum, the physical environment, pastoral care practices, in the staffroom, in the boardroom, and in the classroom. That we monitor the wellbeing of all students and staff, and that we iteratively design and evaluate wellbeing strategies and initiatives.

Taking a youth development perspective requires moving beyond our previous practices of focusing on responding to specific issues as they present themselves (bullying, teen pregnancy, smoking, for example) to promoting wellbeing. It also means that students are actively involved in developing and leading wellbeing programmes. This goes hand-in-hand with treating young people as agents in their lives. Young people are experts in their own lives: they have knowledge that deserves respect and offers learning opportunities for adults.

Last year I had the privilege of being selected for the Lifehack Flourishing Fellowship. Lifehack was a systems-level intervention in youth mental health and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. One of the amazing resources I was introduced to was the ‘Mapping and Mobilising Conditions for Youth Wellbeing and Hauora’. This is a tool primarily designed for youth work teams and organisations to “identify and strengthen their practices and ways of working across areas that are known to promote youth wellbeing, hauora and positive and youth development.” As soon as I saw it, I got excited. I could see its potential to be used in schools as a reflection tool. I tested it with a group of teachers, and we had a think about both its format and its language. Based on their feedback and thoughts, I had a play to create this version for use in schools and Kāhui Ako: Pathways towards student wellbeing.

In it, I pose three key questions:

  1. Agency and Engagement: How are young people involved?
  2. Cohesion and Collaboration: How do we learn and work together to nurture wellbeing systemically?
  3. Environment and Community: Do our environments show that young people are valued and important?

Much of the literature about youth wellbeing places emphasis on what in education we call ‘agency’. That young people are involved in the planning, leading, and implementation of wellbeing programmes and initiatives. We should work towards the consistent involvement of diverse groups of young people, including initiatives and programmes they co-design and lead.

As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to agency and engagement, you may like to consider student leadership.

  • Who are the student leaders in your school?
  • How are they selected?
  • What role(s) do they fulfil? How much agency do these leaders have?
  • Who is not represented in student leadership roles?

And perhaps more broadly:

  • To what extent are young people involved in the design of programmes / initiatives and in decision-making generally?
  • Are there are a variety of opportunities for young people to participate and be involved in meaningful ways?

To grow the capacity of a school to support youth wellbeing, it is important to be a learning community. The principle of ako is crucial here: how do we learn with and from one another, how do we share this learning, how do we curate this learning? The challenge in this space is to have a commitment to innovation and collaboration, and iterative ways of working and learning both internally and externally. To have knowledge shared openly, and learning that is reciprocal, and that young people are active agents in creating and sharing knowledge. Collectively, we build a broad and deep knowledge base that is curated.

As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to cohesion and collaboration, you may like to consider learning as inquiry.

  • Who decides what is taught and how?
  • To what extent is learning through inquiry a basis for learning in classrooms; as professional learning and development; as building capacity for leadership?
  • How do we share the learning from our inquiries with one another?

And perhaps more broadly:

  • To what extent are individuals, groups, teams and / or departments operating in silos or in isolation?
  • How do individuals and teams draw on and contribute to data and a shared knowledge base?

The third aspect to consider is that of environment and community. This is intentionally broad, encompassing all aspects of the environment: the physical, cultural, social and emotional environments of the school. It is important that the input and value of young people is reflected in places, spaces and governance structures.

As a prompt to consider where you might be at in your school with regards to environment and community, you may like to consider what’s on display on the school and classroom walls.

  • Do we display learning in progress, or finished products?
  • Who decides what is displayed?
  • Who decides where material is displayed?
  • How often is material for display changed?
  • What isn’t displayed on walls?

And perhaps more broadly:

  • Do young people feel welcome and included in our spaces and community places?
  • Does the design and management of amenities and spaces specifically incorporate young people’s needs?

These are big issues for schools to grapple with. However, starting by asking young people what is happening for them in their lives, and in your school; auditing wellbeing programmes, initiatives and data; and then considering the strengths the school has to build upon are useful beginning steps. The key theme is that of agency: Nothing about us without us. This is a wero all schools should wrestle with.

Resources:

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Wero

My star sign is Libra. The scales. Justice, fairness, equality. These values are dear to my heart. So I have been enjoying wrestling with the challenge presented to me via amazing educators Ann Milne, principal of Kia Aroha College, and Deanne Thomas, of CORE Education, to think more about social justice and equity with regards to The Treaty of Waitangi and the success our Maori learners experience in New Zealand schools.

  Image Source

The Ministry of Education strategy for increasing Maori achievement in schools is called Ka Hikitia and is now supported by the professional learning development of Kia Eke Panuku. These documents refer to Maori enjoying success “as Maori“. But what does this mean?

The highlight for me at ULearn15 was Ann Milne’s presentation entitled: “Leadership and achievement through culturally responsive, critical, social justice pedagogies”. This was exactly the kind of confronting, crunchy learning I love from ULearn. While I can’t say yet I fully understand all of Ann’s talk, nor can I say I necessarily agree with some of the specifics of her message, I can say, totally in line with my word for the year, that the learning was powerful.

In her presentation, Ann unpacked the concept of “as Maori”. She was superbly supported by the action research of her “warrior scholars” who have dived into this morass. Some of the ideas she raised really had an impact on me and resonated with me. I was particularly struck by the idea that learners shouldn’t have to leave their identity at the door – that Maori (and, I would argue, all learners) have the right to an education that affirms who you are. I wonder what I have done as a teacher to support Maori learners in their identity as Maori, and whether I have positioned Maori identity as an asset and as a key to success. I frankly acknowledge that I have a lot to learn about tikanga Maori and te ao Maori, but this is learning I am excited to engage with.

Ann spoke of Kia Aroha College’s “pedagogy of whanau“, which has been fully unpacked to tangibly define it in all, and I mean all, aspects of school life. The question of ‘where’s the whanau in that?’ is a great tool to keep focused on this central vision. It is powerful in its simplicity and complexity.

I can see connections here to the learning I have been doing this year around relationships, where I have come to (re)discover how crucial manaakitanga and whanaungatanga are to me both professionally and personally. And I wonder, building on the session Deanne Thomas facilitated for us 2015 CORE eFellows, how digital technologies/eLearning/future-focused learning might support and enhance tikanga Maori.

Certainly the ideas of shifting the locus of control away from the teacher, allowing greater equity of access to knowledge (but in Te Reo?), and thus learning moving towards being student-centred and personalised, must allow space for relationships to be fostered and nurtured. How else might schools enable Maori learners’ success as Maori? Where’s the whanau in our mainstream schools at present?

He aha te mea nui o te ao?

He aha te mea nui o te ao? 
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? 
It is people! It is people! It is people!

 Reflecting on my ULearn14 experience, for me the overarching theme of this year’s conference was relationships. Everyone is a learner – teacher and student alike – and all learners should be at the heart of what we do. I could see this message coming through from every speaker I heard:

  • Yoram Harpaz’s keynote argued for three ‘meta-ideologies’ in education. I align myself mostly with ‘individuation’ – the fostering of autonomy and honouring the authenticity of the child.
  • Mark Osbourne’s breakout highlighted to me the learning that teachers can experience in a MLE (Modern Learning Environment) is as powerful as the learning the students can experience.
  • Tom Barrett’s breakout on design thinking: curiosity is the start of everything; it’s about questioning the world
  • Adam Lefstein’s keynote on teacher professional discourse and learning: the kinds of conversations we have as professionals can help or hinder our practice
  • Katie Novak’s UDL keynote: when we host a dinner party, we serve the food we love to eat. In what way do we address others’ dietary needs? We certainly don’t try to fix the diners’ problems; we cater accordingly. This is what UDL asks us to do for our learners.
  • Derek Wenmoth’s breakout: MLP (Modern Learning Practice) requires rethinking content, learners, teaching, learning – we need to be adaptable and flexible
  • Jo Wilson’s breakout: Professional Learning programmes should allow staff to grow into the roles they seek, allow them to be great leaders.
  • Steve Mouldey’s breakout: creativity enables you to create change in the world around you.
  • Quinn Norton’s keynote asked: What’s the MacGuffin of our generation? We probably won’t know until we’re scrambling to catch up, so learning to build relationships is an important future-proofing skill.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to present at ULearn on the staff professional learning I co-lead in my school. Although it was a small (but perfectly formed!) group, it was a satisfying experience. Tuning into myself as we were speaking, I realised how much staff had moved in their skills and that there is a growing appreciation and awareness for the need to embrace future-focused pedagogy. (Presentation here)

Oh, and I got named as a CORE eFellow for 2015. What an amazing, humbling and gratifying moment. I only hope I can do the opportunity justice. I so look forward to the learning to come, and the relationships to be forged with the other eFellows.

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Digital Citizenship

Cue: groan.

This definitely used to be my knee-jerk response to this ‘hot-button’ issue.  In the past few days I have been re-visiting this concept, aided by some really thoughtful blogs which I’ll share further down.

Digital citizenship has been dominated, and almost become entirely synonymous with, cybersafety.  Teachers have thought that essentially we could scare kids into behaving themselves on the Internet.  Hmmm.  That’s worked well.  I would perhaps make an sweeping generalisation and guess that most schools’ Acceptable User Policies (AUPs) have focused primarily on this.  They become akin to a list of ‘do nots’ or commandments, for example: thou shall not take photos without permission; thou shall not use social media on your devices during lesson time; thou shall not bully or harass others online (or off!); thou shall not share passwords or logins with others.

Now, cybersafety is a really important issue and I’m not belittling it at all.  All users of technology and the Internet should follow appropriate codes of practice.  But.  As the video by John Fenaughty below rightly points out, this approach is very much in an ‘old school’ model – lecturing from the top down.  It is a model largely divorced from values/purpose/the ‘why’.

So, just like everything else that I seem to blog about, a shift is needed.  A shift to a broader, more genuine idea of citizenship.  One that not just about laws but about contribution.  Not just about taking but giving.  Not just about obeying but respecting.

This is an idea beautifully explored here by ‘Miss D’.

What often frustrates me with the reading and researching that I do in my quest for future learning is that people are very good about defining and describing, and passionately conveying to me why I should care (and it works – I do!), but not necessarily that good at giving concrete ‘how to’ suggestions.

A ha!  Enter this wonderful blog post by Holly Clark which, I think, offers an excellent, accessible ‘how to’ model.

Ultimately, I agree that we need to adjust the cybersafety lens to incorporate a view of considering our online ‘brand’, our reputation, alongside how to be a positive contributor to the (online) world.  This is a shift that engages in ‘real world’ terms which are accessible and easy to relate to – by learners/ako of all kinds.