Well-being in Schools: How to Get It Right

September 2022

What can be done to address the global education crisis?  Tinkering around the edges won’t work. It’s time to launch a full-out assault on social inequalities, digital addiction, and our societies’ exploitative relationship to nature.

By Dennis Shirley

Dennis Shirley Schule Well-being
Traube 47 / Grundschule An der Haake Hamburg, nominiert für den Deutschen Schulpreis 2019

As recently as a decade ago, education around the world was straightforward for policy makers and much of the public as well.  Tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) promised to give an objective evaluation of what 15-year-old students could and couldn’t do. For critics who argued that the tests missed out on important aspects of human development, the OECD added in measures of child well-being in 2018.  When a given country’s test scores went up, there was cause for celebration; when they want down, suspected culprits were held to account.

Fast-forward to today and that simple arrangement is gone, presumably forever. While some school systems were able to cope with the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years, most struggled, as did their students and teachers. One survey indicated that adolescents were by far the group most seriously damaged by the pandemic, with 65% of youth from 112 countries reporting that they were learning less than before it. Another global study of over 40,000 youth reported increased stress, anxiety, and depression as common responses among teenagers to the pandemic. In Germany, teachers are fleeing the profession, reporting inadequate support for students with severe psychological and social needs, and a general state of exhaustion.  Educators in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. likewise are throwing in the towel, leaving school leaders scrambling to find replacements.

Small changes in class, large-scale policy changes

What is to be done? We need a full roster of solutions. These must span from the smallest interventions that any classroom teacher can make to large-scale transformations that require comprehensive changes in policy within and across nations.

Let’s start by recalling the professional judgment that teachers can and must exercise immediately to address their students’ well-being.  Research I’ve conducted with educators in Germany and the U.S. under the auspices of the Robert Bosch Stiftung over the last three years reveals that there is no shortage of good ideas available for helping our students to grow in confidence and knowledge. Some educators affiliated with the Deutsche Schulakademie have responded to the pandemic not only by teaching students how they can better learn independently but also giving them the skills needed to evaluate their own progress objectively.   Others have developed new skill sets with digital technologies that allow them to identify students’ learning difficulties better than ever before. Still others, who are serving students in challenging circumstances, simply focused on making sure that all of their children had food at home during the long months of lock-down.

That there are many positive approaches to promoting student well-being like these is obvious, but we must be alert to some clearly wrong-headed strategies. Many popular definitions of well-being leave out essential aspects of human development, such as physical health, perhaps because they push up against the testing regimens that became so pervasive in recent decades.  Others overlook the positive side of negative emotions, such as righteous indignation at social injustices that our young people can and should play a role in solving. Well-being is serious business.  We do no favors for a rising generation when we offer them the superficial allure of happiness at the expense of a more enduring, hard-won sense of fulfillment.

Inequality as the biggest obstacle on the path to well-being

Beyond relying upon the creativity and good-will of individual teachers and avoiding misconceptions of well-being, what should be done at the upper level of school systems? My research with Andy Hargreaves on well-being points towards three ways that governments can exercise pivotal leadership.

First, policy makers need to confront head-on their complicity in widening the staggering levels of economic and social inequality that characterize far too many countries. Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett consistently demonstrates that high levels of income inequality are correlated with low well-being as manifested in low life expectancy and high levels of mental illness. These kinds of problems become endemic in schools and cannot be solved by educators alone. Whenever policy makers can reduce social inequalities, they must do so, if they wish to lay claim to the promotion of well-being

Second, as our lives become more and more entwined with new digital technologies, everyone needs to hit the pause button and ask not just what is convenient but also what could be pathological about the magnitude of our dependencies. One recent survey indicated that U.S. Americans are now checking their cell phones once every four minutes, or 344 times a day. Other studies found that the amount of time adolescents spend on their phones is sharply correlated with their rates of depression. Given these kinds of statistics, is it really advisable for schools to equate innovation with technology? There are an infinite number of other ways to innovate, such as by encouraging students to identify topics of their own choosing to study in depth over months with the guidance of skilled teachers and through sustained interaction with their classmates.

We must change our way of life

Third, that there are other ways to motivate students is borne out by the positive research findings on how all of us respond to the restorative power of nature. In Germany the concept of the “outdoor school” or Draußenschule has received renewed attention in the wake of Covid-19, as young people need physical engagement with their local ecosystems now more than ever. This summer’s unprecedented heat wave is teaching us all that the time is long overdue for a change in the lifestyles that have relied far too much on endless consumption as a preferred lifestyle. Well-being isn’t just a psychological orientation, then, but a whole way of being, which should aim to promote environmental sustainability as an essential strand of contemporary education.

Is well-being in schools within our reach? It is, if we can find the right ways to empower educators and students, while confronting the triple perils of social inequality, digital addiction, and alienation from nature. German theologian Dietrich von Bonhoeffer wrote: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.” Will we be able to meet this test?  This is the question we must ask ourselves now.

Dennis Shirley rund


Dennis Shirley is a Professor of Education and Gabelli Faculty Fellow at Boston College in the U.S. and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Germany. His new book is Well-being in Schools, together with Andy Hargreaves.

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