What if schools had to make kids happy?

Photo of Happy child with painted hands

[tweetmeme] Here’s a simple (though perhaps not easy) proposition: Let’s value schools based on their ability to help produce happy adults. Not adults who can pass certain tests, or display mastery of those skills that we (in the U.S.) are worried other countries are trouncing us in, or even adults who possess college degrees, but rather adults who are well-prepared to live fulfilling lives, doing work they care about and contributing in positive ways to the communities to which they are connected.

I’ve probably already lost the cynics and defeatists by the beginning of this second paragraph, but for everyone else, I’m betting the idea sounds at least vaguely attractive. Maybe it’s even what you thought schools were supposed to be doing.  As I have been researching and writing a book on K-12 education this summer, however, I’ve been struck by how little weight is given to fulfillment and happiness as a desired outcome of our educational system – at least in the U.S.  And this in spite of the fact that our children from ages 5 – 18 (and often starting earlier), spend nearly half their waking hours in educational institutions.

It matters greatly what we think the outcome of these many hours should be because how we define the outcomes determines the strategies, tactics, and measurements we will use to get there. If it is all about higher test scores, then guess what, our educational institutions will develop approaches aimed at producing good test takers. There are already plenty of people wailing about how No Child Left Behind has resulted in just such a situation. But most of the “solutions” don’t sound much better.

They are geared towards producing more college graduates – which will inevitably lead to kids excelling at getting into and out of college, but not necessarily significantly better off for having done it.

Or they are geared towards meeting the supposed skill set needs of a vocal set of large business leaders.

Or they are geared toward the mastery of a core set of knowledge – as if that isn’t likely to lead to more rote memorization and assessment for the sake of assessment.

There may be valuable forms of educational attainment contained in all of these solutions, but they have little to do with real achievement, much less fulfillment.

Trying to gauge whether schools have contributed in a meaningful way towards fulfillment, towards the type of happiness associated with “the good life,” as Aristotle put it, may seem messy, but it strikes me as increasingly possible. The research that Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others have done in the field of positive psychology suggest numerous approaches that might be tried if we have the collective will to test and implement them.

A focus on fulfillment also strikes me as increasingly necessary – particularly from the perspective of curing the ills of the U.S. educational system.  If our goals is to reassert ourselves as leaders in educating our children, why are we acting like followers who are doggedly playing catch-up to the test scores and college graduation rates of other nations?  Is it possible that as leaders we need to be thinking differently?

Don’t get me wrong: I value things like a college education and mathematical brilliance. We need people who are educated to a high level; we need people who can understand the intensely complex calculations that underlie so much of our current science. But more importantly, if we expect to achieve new heights, we need the people who do these things to love them, to be passionate about them, to see them as part of a fulfilling, happy, engaged life. We don’t need to be shoving them down the throat of every student who enters our educational system.  That devalues both the outcome and the student.

I’d say we should focus instead on helping people find what will make their lives as fulfilling as possible, and then support them in excelling at it. Let’s figure out the best possible role the schools can play in achieving that outcome.

What do you think? Please comment, or if you have a “What if…” for schools, please Tweet it with the hashtag #whatifschools.


P.S. – If you are interested in transforming education, I encourage you to check out Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education.

P.S.S. – Many thanks to the folks at the following sites for posting about Shift Ed:

Bolton Public Schools
2011-2012:  Evaluating our Vision!

Golden Apple
Stop Arguing and Transform Already!

Winthrop University Opening Address
Academically On Course: How Winthrop Students Earn University Degrees Sustainable for the Times

Creating Our Future
Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education

Promoting Student Engagement
Shift Ed Calls for K-12 Transformation

Interactive Achievement
David Houle Speaks at Roanoke County’s Administrative Retreat: Sponsored by IA!

SEEN Magazine
Why transformation is the only path for K-12 education

6 thoughts on “What if schools had to make kids happy?”

  1. Pingback: What if schools had to make kids happy? by @jtcobb (clipped) | Simbeck Hampson | Social Business

  2. I stumbled across this post doing a bit of research for a paper. I echo your feelings and thing that change is inevitable, even in the face of the unflappable “industrial age” leadership of the current public education system in this nation. Times have changed radically yet the school system still operates in the distant past.

  3. Melissa – I think “as parents” is key. I’ve also found that, while certainly parents are mentioned, their role in improving education does not get nearly the space you might think it would in much of the writing about educational reform.

    Paul – “Perhaps the biggest problem facing education is the education system itself and those who are controlling it.” Yes, indeed! And I agree completely that changing the thoughts of leaders is much easier said than done. Significant change seems inevitable, but it may very well come in spite of rather than because of current thinking and leadership. Also, I feel certain that – as you say – teachers support the idea of helping kids lead fulfilled lives. At the same time, I don’t think much teacher training focuses on what might actually make that possible.

    I need to find out more about the free school movement. Thanks for “amplifying” this post!


  4. Pingback: What if schools had to make kids happy? by @jtcobb (clipped) « Simbeck-Hampson Consultancy

  5. “I’d say we should focus instead on helping people find what will make their lives as fulfilling as possible, and then support them in excelling at it. Let’s figure out the best possible role the schools can play in achieving that outcome.”

    There is a wave of change and it’s being driven by social learning via the internet. How long it takes for institutions to adopt these new concepts is based on many different factors. Perhaps the biggest problem facing education is the education system itself and those who are controlling it.

    Kids are not stupid, they know that once they complete their ‘education’ a job in their chosen interest is not guaranteed, especially in today’s climate. Motivation is therefore dampended and as a direct result happiness and fulfilment are negatively affected .

    Tomorrow’s knowledge workers need to gain new skills. They need to learn from Master learners who can teach them how information can be curated, stored, re-found and shared. It is no longer necessary to memorise everything, it is more important to know where to find the answers and from whom.

    Building communities of practice and allowing those communities to find their own solutions plays a large part in the future of education. If the future of schooling is to be heavily based around the social internet it would make sense for education to adopt as soon as possible.

    “Is it possible that as leaders we need to be thinking differently?”

    For leaders to think differently leaders need to change their thoughts. From a cognitive perspective, this is easier said than done. If leaders are unable to change their thoughts, technology will eventually become disruptive and cause change without choice. This is probably the most likely outcome based on the difficulties of changing core foundational upbringing.

    I don’t there are any teachers whose personal ambition isn’t to ensure kids are fulfilled or happy. I do think teacher’s hands are tied though and from their own professional perspective, ensuring their students hit targets is, in effect, their main priority.

    I’m personally interested in the development of free schools, a government project under-way in the UK. Here lies an opportunity to re-write the script and even though their are many possible pitfalls, I have the hope that through failure innovation, education will change for the better.

    I also clipped this post to my Amplog… thanks for sparking thought 🙂

  6. very good insight on our current educational standards. i completely agree that aside from students trying to attain good grades , as parents, we should also try to make sure they are happy with what they are doing and support them. To be happy and passionate in doing your work yields better results emotionally and professionally.

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