Why do we have education? What is the ultimate goal? If the point of education is not to increase the wellbeing of individuals and communities, then what is it? Don't all other purposes for education - creating good citizens, productive workers, informed participants in democracy, creative problem solvers, lifelong learners, healthy partners and parents - serve the purpose of increasing wellbeing in the world?
Are schools really teaching students how to live a balanced and integrated life where body, mind, heart, and purpose all get proper attention? Of course many schools have robust rhetoric that is carved into stonewalls or framed in lofty mission statements. But how many schools truly incorporate practices for wellbeing into the fabric of school life, and how many faculty practice it in their own lives?
If you visited the "best" and the "worst" schools in the United States, there may be a significant difference in terms of facilities, class sizes, and graduation rates, but how different would they appear in terms of student (and teacher) levels of stress and anxiety? How about average hours of sleep per night?
Often it feels that we have fallen so deeply in love with our curricula that we have lost sight of why we developed it in the first place. It increasingly appears that the goal of education is to prepare students for more education. We seem to think that students will learn to practice wellbeing at some mythical point later in life. In modern education wellbeing is commonly sacrificed in the name of standardized test scores, college admissions, and resume building.
Why aren't we teaching students how to practice wellbeing now? If we believe they will learn it at some point in the future, who do we think will teach them? Pursuing the promise of future wellbeing without practicing it in the present is like working on your golf game hoping to get better at the piano.
At this point you may be wondering how I define wellbeing. I am not referring to comfort, pleasure, or happiness in the purely "feel good" sense of the word. I am referring to the notion of a "good life" proposed by Aristotle and highlighted in the United States Declaration of Independence in the phrase "the pursuit of happiness." This form of wellbeing - known as eudaimonic happiness - includes the elements of self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.
We know more about the practices that lead to optimal human functioning than we have at any point in human history. We know that sleep, nutrition, exercise, and healthy relationships are pivotal to quality of life and peak performance. We also know that how we use our attention and how we relate to our emotions and physical sensations are critical to healthy self-regulation. And yet, if these practices are taught at all, they are squeezed in as adjuncts to traditional curriculum - if the schedule allows. Meanwhile, levels of adolescent anxiety and depression continue to rise.
I feel very strongly about this, but it is not my aim to simply point out the problem. One of my favorite education professors once said to me "we made this all up, we can unmake it any time we choose." So here is my proposal:
- We begin with the assumption that students will not go on in school - that every year is their last chance to learn about thriving, connecting, and contributing.
- We incorporate what we know about the brain and human flourishing into schools.
- Practice in mindful breathing, kindness, and gratitude find a place in the day alongside math, science, the arts, athletics, and the humanities all the way through high school.
- Students and teachers are given the time and space to connect with each other in meaningful and authentic ways.
- Sleep and exercise are scheduled first, and then the other stuff is fit in around it.
The word education comes from the Latin that originally meant "to bring up, bring out, or lead forth." Schools have a profound opportunity to positively impact a society that seems to have lost focus on what matters most. Education can close the gap between what we say is most important and what we practice on a daily basis. When shall we begin?
Dave Mochel was a classroom teacher for twenty-five years. He now helps people and schools be happier, healthier, and more productive by integrating the practice of wellbeing into everything they do. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.appliedattention.com