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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Why teach Positive Education in schools?

Mathew White
Head of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School

Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School is a whole school approach to teaching and learning from kindergarten to the final years of senior school. It aims to increase the experience of positive emotions in our students and encourage them to engage their strengths for personal and community goals. Previous studies have demonstrated that an optimistic outlook can be taught to schoolchildren (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox and Gillham, 1995).

Positive Education employs implicit and explicit teaching of the Positive Psychology principles pioneered by Dr Martin Seligman. These principles are embedded in the school’s curriculum, co-curriculum and pastoral settings. Our Positive Psychology programs, delivered in Year 7 and Year 10, have been written by prominent psychologists in collaboration with our teachers.

There is widespread concern about the increase in depression and anxiety in young people over the past five years. In Australia, more than a quarter (26%) of people aged 16-24 years and a similar proportion (25%) of people aged 25-34 years have experienced a mental disorder of 12 month’s duration, compared with 5.9% of those aged 75-85 years old (ABS, 2009). Depression and anxiety often have their onset in the teenage years. In the light of this information, Positive Education should not be seen as an indulgence, but as a means to help young people to find meaningful and engaged lives (Reivich, K, Gillham, JE, Chaplin, TM, & Seligman, MEP, 2005)

Positive Psychology and Positive Education

The Positive Psychology movement is a network of research-based scientists with over 50 research pods in 50 universities across the world, including Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Sydney, Monash and Cambridge (Seligman, 2004). The movement focuses on the empirical study of such things as the development of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) and strengths-based character. A strengths-based approach to teaching and building communities means that our students, teachers and parents understand the significance of strategies designed to counter the role negativity bias plays in the development of character. It is from this science that Positive Education as a method emerges.

Geelong Grammar School is constructing a method designed to provide students and teachers with skills crafted into specific lessons captured in the Year 7 Penn Resiliency Program (Reivich and Gillham, 2008) provided by the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Centre, and in the Year 10 Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum (Reivich et al, 2007). Employing the science of Positive Psychology, teachers have explored, discussed and explicitly taught topics including: the movement of Positive Psychology research, the role of negativity bias, the significance of gratitude, Beck and Ellis's ABC Model, the skill of generating alternatives, the role of evidence and real-time resilience. Future lessons will explore strengths in context, developing signature strengths and the role of mindfulness, and creating an enabling institution (Beck, 1979).

The school’s Positive Education program has included Leadership and Strengths Days at which teachers and Year 12 students completed the Values in Action (VIA) questionnaire, which is designed to help students and teachers understand their strengths and begin to develop particular ‘signature’ strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). We discovered that our Year 12 students’ top self-reported signature strengths include gratitude, curiosity, playfulness, creativity, an appreciation of beauty and a desire for excellence. A similar program was coordinated in the Middle School and we found that gratitude, humour/playfulness, zest, citizenship/teamwork, honesty, curiosity and an appreciation of beauty were common strengths. In early years classes, teachers have also encouraged students to identify personal strengths and passions.

We have learnt over the past 18 months that the science of Positive Psychology is providing the school with the language and tools needed to help our students and teachers understand the role of signature strengths to a greater degree in their own lives. We have created a Positive Education Department consisting of 14 inter-disciplinary team members from senior management as well as classroom teachers across all campuses. To monitor the efficacy of the project, the school has commenced a collaborative research project on character values and adolescent wellbeing with Glenn Bowes, Associate Dean (Advancement) and Stevenson Professor and Head of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, Professor John Toumbourou from Deakin University, Dr Craig Olssen from Murdoch Children's Research Institute and PhD candidate Bill Hallam. It is anticipated that the first steps of the research will be published in the next six months.

In the single largest professional development of its type in the school’s 155-year history, the leading world figures in Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania have trained over 160 teachers at Geelong Grammar School, as well as 270 teachers from other schools, spanning the Government, independent and Catholic sectors.


Geelong Grammar School is committed to being the world's pioneering school when it comes to employing the science of Positive Psychology to bolster good teaching practice. We must not let critics trivialise the debate about the power of the pursuit of happiness, nor let others simply dismiss our enterprise as a ‘happy camp’. Rather, we need to transform schools into enabling institutions (Fredrickson, 2001) that cultivate capacities such as empathy, creativity, self-efficacy and resilience. It is only where we see and act with empathy - deploying our strengths, engaging emotion, celebrating creativity, teaching self-efficacy, fostering cultures of resilience and expressing gratitude - that the path to happiness can begin.


Dr Mathew White is Head of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School and a Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He was admitted to the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Adelaide in 2004. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Associate Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, and a Member of the Australian College of Educators.


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Subject Headings

Education philosophy
Thought and thinking