Anyone who has taught any of the Health and disease segments of the biology A level will be familiar (ish) with the definition of health from the WHO;
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (WHO, 1948)
It tries to define the thorny issue of health by saying what it is, rather than what it is not. What makes someone unhealthy is intuitively easy to grasp, so it makes sense to think of people not being ill as being healthy.
Which brings me to the related matter of happiness, or more specifically the happiness of students. In recent years people have started to swing their attention to the happiness of young people in schools, or at least the absence of unhappiness. The more obvious symptoms of unhappiness in students might is seen in the increasing number of CAMHS referrals for depression related issues, though I shall by-pass the argument here regarding the existence or not of a ‘mental health’ crisis in schools. The need for better mental health services is a whole other level of discussion that is crying out for more attention, but what has interested me is the response of some commenters to how schools are contributing to rising unhappiness in schools. In short, there is a whiff of the accusation that the way schools are set up is, at least in part, responsible.
Ensuring students are happy is extremely important for schools, and I can’t think of many teachers who would say that this is not something that would be one of the first things they’d print carefully on their big sheet of sugar paper during the CPD session on student’s happiness. The problem is that the happiness will shift and squirm its meaning to fit as needed, and too often becomes a proxy for avoiding unhappiness.
Maths sticks out as one obvious culprit in making children unhappy. It causes genuine anxiety in students (I still remember my sister and dad having shouting matches every thursday night before maths homework was due in due to different interpretations of how to approach maths problems. She would have been twelve or thirteen at the time). It would obviously be much better for students to not have to go through these stress-inducing episodes of mathematical madness, and many would be a lot happier if they never had to do maths again. The same for pupils asked to work to rigid grammatical structures or scientific methods, do prep drawings or draft work when they could be enjoying their learning. Look at young children and simply see the joy they have in learning. Why are schools so intent on knocking the fun out of them?
Would that it were so simple. The teenage students at secondary school are not little children. The maths may not seem relevant to them, or dare I say it fun, but nor should it be. The maths teachers I know go to great lengths to make the process as pain-free as is reasonable, but students have to meet them at least half way. This is not to deny the importance of attitude in learning, but to simplify things down to avoiding being unhappy, or to use an adult’s interpretation of what they think will make a student happy as a starting point are not helpful. It’s as my job help a student become what they want in their life (whether or not I personally agree with them), and that often requires me taking the adult role and leading students through things that they don’t find easy or like at first because getting exam results is a necessary part for most of them at school. Sure, there are many who will carry on through life and not need to use anything they learned at school and live happy succesful lives and contribute to the world around them. But I can’t know who those students are right now. I have to deliver on what will give the most students the best chance on average. Having a job or career prospects are not important to everyone, which is fine, but not giving a student the opportunity to have the qualifications and then choose not to use them is immoral. This is why it can be dangerous to imply that ‘happiness is the most important thing’ for students. What makes them happy now may not be what will make them happy in the future. I could make a whole lot of Year 11 boys much happier at school if I let them out to play football whenever they felt like it.
Self-confessed ‘history fan’ Dan Carlin came up with an interesting take on this on one of his podcasts. He suggested an approach to history teaching where a student would take the skills required (research, referencing and so on) but instead of applying them to a specific curriculum aim would use them on an area of personal interest.such as history of motorbikes or South America or whatever floats your boat. It is initially an enticing idea, but it ignores that there is a value to doing a curricula from outside interests, namely further education and employers. There’s nothing to stop you from applying to University with nothing but a portfolio of self-generated work, a line of sharp patter and a cheeky wink, but for most kids it just won’t be enough to get a look in. The only chance they might get could rely on the handful of grades fill in on the UCAS form. They’re not going to be happy, fulfilled students if they fail at that hurdle. The idea that schools shouldn’t just be exam factories (duh) ignores the potential for future happiness through access to education and yes, even money can bring. The opportunities to fully experience the arts and culture can be seriously curtailed when you are short on a cash.
So what of Steiner Schools? Are children happier with this approach? I can’t speak about them too much, but I suspect that they work very well for particular groups of students. No doubt a little searching could find examples of ex-students of the Waldorf method that would champion both sides of the argument. There are undoubtedly students in mainstream schools who would flourish given the flexibility to study more of the things that make them happy. But avoiding unhappiness is something different.