Putting happiness at the center of school

The major health crisis we are experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic has revived questions about well-being in education, with many children and adolescents having suffered psychologically from the situation.

Isn’t a certain quality of life at school necessary for learning? Was it not long wrong to resist the effort required to learn and the pleasure of going to school? Wouldn’t well-being be the most fundamental need to form educated, fulfilled and happy citizens?

In most of the definitions given by philosophy, happiness is not a personal good, it is given as a principle that applies to the greatest possible number of individuals, it is a good to build together. It is social and relational. In this is the construction of the public school, during the second XIXe century, is part of the quest for common happiness.

January 2020, demonstrations of high school students against the new baccalaureate exams (E3C).
Damien Meyer/AFP

Read more: Debate: And if we consider young people to be education citizens?

But paradoxically, in France, the institution invokes happiness late, and in a negative way, by taking into account the “school climate” (combating school malaise, bullying and school violence).

In the school of the Republic that wants to be egalitarian and meritocratic, effort and labor are more or less explicitly regarded as the prerequisite for academic success and social advancement.

Change school model

It is only very recently that the institution has introduced in its texts the concept of “well-being” in the “quality of life” of pupils and national education staff. For example, it was in 2015 that the decree defining preschool programs addressed the notion of well-being and the fact that “kindergarten is a caring school”.

To put this reflection on well-being back at the center of attention, the National Higher Institute for Teaching and Education of the Academy of Versailles, supported by researchers from the BONHEURS laboratory of the CY Cergy Paris University, has organized a “day of well-being” indoors and outdoors the class”, which follows the Week of Happiness in School, which is held every year around March 20.

For the last edition of this day, which was held on April 13, 150 teachers from primary, college and secondary schools, school principals, principals, principal education advisors, trainers, from six different masters in initial or secondary education came together. All well-being devices that the participants implemented in their classes or in their establishments were presented. Happiness technique has been implemented in more than a hundred sites throughout France, from Rennes to Cergy, from Réunion to Carpentras and from New Caledonia to Gennevilliers.

Empathy cannot be forced, it requires education.

Read more: Cultivating empathy: Some keys to helping kids open up to otherness

At the theoretical level, the approach consists of thinking about happiness through the relationship with others and is articulated with knowledge, what we call knowledge-relationship.

This approach seems essential when myopic reasoning opposes pleasure and learning, in a structuring imagination that tends to oppose academic knowledge and pedagogy, mind and body, reason and emotion. Indeed, the question of affects and emotions has long been neglected in school, and this, especially in the French public school, focused on the “school form”.

Our school has favored the construction of a rational individual through learning and academic knowledge, leaving alternative, so-called “new” pedagogies from Montessori to Freinet to reflect on the pleasure of learning and fulfillment through knowledge. This perspective is especially important in the French education system, because of a history characterized by a republican model rooted in the vertical transfer of values. This school model is based on the promotion of a rational individual through the ‘transfer’ of school knowledge and through an excessive denial of affects in the school environment.

However, many studies have shown that academic achievement and life satisfaction scores are significantly and positively correlated.

social relations

There is some evidence that students’ academic performance is significantly and positively related to social relationships with family, peers and teachers, psychological health, feelings toward school and sense of belonging to school. In addition to academic achievement, student success (also) depends on their well-being in the school environment.

For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) combines several important indicators of the well-being of children, such as the quality of school life, education and health, in its international country comparison. In the context of the school, well-being is perceived by the school climate, which is not only the accumulation of individual levels of well-being, but which takes into account the relational dimension, as well as learning or safety outcomes.

Documentary: Presentation of the educational game “Terre de joie”, created by Sandra Meunier, art therapist, clown for 15 years (Lea.fr).

For their part, Konu and Rimpelä’s researchers base school well-being on four essential dimensions:

  • the ‘having’ includes the material conditions offered to the learners (in particular the organisation, the environment, the learning spaces);

  • ‘being’ brings together the conditions that enable students to be autonomous, to make proposals, to make decisions, to have self-confidence;

  • ‘loving’ concerns the interaction between the individuals of the establishment: the quality of the relationship between the pupils, between the pupils and the adults; communication between individuals;

  • the health dimension includes students’ physical and mental health (fatigue, stress, etc.);

Field initiatives

During the day of well-being inside and outside the classroom, the well-being measures focused on new ways of supporting students, taking into account the body and emotions in the classroom, improving school spaces and taking into account the collective.

The systems used are built around 5 axes:

  • student support;

  • body and emotions;

  • school life and the community;

  • the spaces ;

  • projects inside and outside the classroom.

For example, taking the body and emotions into account has been worked through a system of micro-naps or even facial yoga. Other devices encouraged relaxation, breathing, nonviolent communication, sophrology, etc. These devices had a common goal: to teach students to identify and manage their emotions and to encourage children and adolescents to work, through concentration and their participation in the classroom.

The “school life and collective” axis was nurtured by institutions that implemented in their establishment School Happiness Week, Diversity Day, team eloquence contests, mechanisms to involve parents in their children’s education.

Read more: Bullying in Schools: Towards Better Awareness?

The axis related to the guidance of the students made it possible to promote the day of the happiness of mathematics. Another example: a device to deconstruct ethnic stereotypes related to academic success. It enabled a meeting between high school and elementary school students from the same district, in academic success and destined for selective studies, with the aim of showing them that it is possible, at a time when school segregation is the most entrenched evil in our system.

It is necessary to design measures in classrooms and in institutions, but it is necessary to measure their effects in the short, medium and long term, for example on the trajectories of pupils or on the school climate. A year ago, a master’s degree on the joy of learning and teaching completely remotely opened its doors to education professionals.

At this price, education, which is regularly recognized as a national priority, can truly become the most important tool for transforming our societies, able to build a fairer, more egalitarian and happier society.

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