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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A Call to Arms!

On Thursday, I attended my very first eduignite session and, actually, delivered a talk.

Here are my slides:

Thanks to Rebbecca Sweeney for her help, encouragement support with this.

The story behind the talk is simply this: I was privileged enough to be on the steering committee of the #edchatNZ conference, held in August at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Attending the conference itself was an amazing experience, which I’ve written about here and here. And then I came home.

I feel amazing support from my PLN. I am so lucky to connect with like-minded educators up and down the country and even overseas. Some of those like-minded educators are in my school. But I felt – I feel – that there should be a way to experience more support within my own physical community.

I expressed this view on Twitter in early October, and have spoken to a few educators that my ‘real’ aim for enabling #educampwelly to be hosted at Marsden, my school, was to start to build this very community of Wellington educators. When Rebbecca tweeted this to me:

IMG_0176

I felt so validated and understood.

Those of us in the Twitter conversation quickly realised we needed a Connected Educators group in Wellington. We met up briefly at ULearn and agreed this was the case. With the support of others, such as Nathaniel Louwrens, Tara Fagan and Leanne, a decision was made to use the eduignite evening to pitch the idea. Rebbecca put together a Google Doc so educators could register their interest.

The evening of talk I went straight from the offices of CORE Education, our eduignite hosts for the evening, home to participate (of course!) in the #edchatNZ Twitter chat (side note: real doozy – on collaboration with #aussieED). With “encouragement” from the ever-visionary Matt Nicoll, the founder of #edchatNZ, Danielle Myburgh, allowed me to ‘make a special announcement’ – that #WellyED, the Connected Wellington Educators’ Group had been born.

And it has – my Twitter notifications went off! To date, nearly 20 local educators have registered on our Google Doc. Tomorrow, a bunch of us are meeting at a local watering hole to plan #educampwelly – and, no doubt, discuss our burgeoning community. Exciting to say the least!

So, where to next? I have a few ideas, as do others … We’re definitely inspired by the Connected Christchurch group’s blog, and the VLN group of the Connected Rotorua educators. There’s a Wellington Teachers’ Network on Facebook, and Amesbury School kickstarted a Wellington Professional Learning Group. Hopefully, by bringing all these fantastic ideas and people together, we can build a supportive community which will showcase the innovative practice I know is happening in Wellington, and provide warm and demanding critique for educators wanting to be stretched in their thinking.

In my talk I kind of had a ‘cloud’ theme running through it. And you know what? The sky’s the limit!

Reflections on a professional reading – Take 2

Ok, so I’ve found it challenging to find the time (or, perhaps, more truthfully, prioritise the time…) to continue to read NZCER’s report “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”.  But!  I’m nearly through, so I thought I’d take the time to reflect on the five further themes which the report links to “contemporary views of learning for the 21st century: (p. 9).  And as a reminder, the full six are:

  1. Personalising learning
  2. New views of equity, diversity and inclusivity
  3. A curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity
  4. ‘Changing the script’: Rethinking learners’ and teachers’ roles
  5. A culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders
  6. New kinds of partnerships and relationships: Schools no longer siloed from the community (pp. 9-10)

I’m intrigued by the idea of ‘diversity’, which, as the report rightly captures, has been dominated in New Zealand schools by definitions of equity, or reducing disparity between different ethnic, in particular, groups.  The report doesn’t downplay this approach, but rather, I think, shifts the focus from a negative to a positive perspective, calling for ways in which differences are seen as valued as they allow for ideas and problems to be seen in different lights, from different points of view.  Overall, the concept of educating for diversity, I think is key.  We must be able to engage with “people from cultural, religious and/or linguistic backgrounds or world views that are very different” from our own (p. 25), and we must be able to engage with a diversity of ideas (p. 25).  I love this, and find it sits comfortably with my personal values and beliefs.

Theme 3 is centred around shifting the concept of knowledge from one of knowledge as “content or ‘stuff'” to “something that does stuff” (p. 31).  I think this is a huge challenge for secondary school teachers, in particular, whose core business has been imparting knowledge – filling the empty vessel analogy.  The idea of knowledge as a verb, or that “knowledge is about creating knowledge and using knowledge” (p. 32) may be comfortable in theory, but to put into practice is less straight-forward and clear-cut.  This is where inquiry-based learning, learning how to learn, and learning how to work with ideas and people, seems to me to come into play.  Working in a cross-curricula fashion in order to learn transferable skills will become important.

The fourth theme, focused on the shifting or rethinking of teacher and student roles, I’m gratified to see, is something I’ve considered already on this blog here.  I actually really like that this entire report seems only to use the word ‘learner’.  I think we should remember that this applies equally to ‘students’ and ‘teachers’ as we all seek to embrace learning about, in, and through a ‘future-oriented’ lens.

Indeed, this feeds well into the fifth theme of continuous learning.  The NZC speaks of creating ‘life-long learners’, and many schools have adopted this into their vision for their students.  However, equally, teachers must see themselves as ‘life-long learners’ – and not just in terms of their specific knowledge, or learning, area, but of pedagogy as well.  “21st century teachers need to be able to think about knowledge as a tool to do things with” (p. 46).  This strikes me as being akin to the extended abstract end of the SOLO taxonomy that Marsden has been working with for a number of years.  Teachers, with their subject-specific expertise need themselves to be able to think in a meta-cognitive kind of way about their subject and the ways in which the knowledge can be accessed, categorised, and linked.

Finally (for now ;)) is the sixth theme of forging community partnerships.  I like the two-fold rationale here –  firstly around providing authentic learning contexts, but also because these school-community connections will help to stimulate “real community understanding of and support for future-oriented ideas” which will be needed “if schools are to achieve the required shift in focus” (p. 49)

This (along with the previous blog post) form my reflection on the six themes outlined.  There’s still a wee bit more to go, so bear with me as I explore the final ten pages…!