We are delighted to be able to share news from the other side of the world via Dr. Lucy Hone, IPEN rep for New Zealand and Director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience. Dr. Hone writes about the second Positive Education New Zealand conference, which sounds like one not to be missed next year…..
A new conference can take several years to grow and cement its place among the not-to-be-missed round of annual professional learning events. Not Positive Education New Zealand (PENZ). In just its second year, PENZ18, the national wellbeing in education conference attracted world-class speakers to Christchurch (both overseas and homegrown authorities in education and wellbeing) and 340 delegates from right across New Zealand. While the majority were teachers and pastoral care staff, 28 principals were also present. Perhaps most tellingly, the percentage of male delegates has risen in a year from less than five per cent at PENZ17 to 25% at PENZ18 – which I can’t help viewing as a reflection of the growing interest in whole-school wellbeing across a broader range of schools here in NZ.
Four of this year’s speakers came from Australia. John Weeks, headmaster at Knox Grammar in Sydney (where he has 3,300 boys and over 400 staff), addressed a packed house for a free open session “Positive Education 101: The What, Why and How of Whole-school Wellbeing”. Walking us through his school’s transition from an outmoded 20th century pastoral care system to one that drew upon the findings of modern wellbeing science to better support and equip staff and students for success in today’s world, he challenged the principals present to question whether their pastoral care system was fit for 21st century learning. He then relayed how the review he and his senior leadership team conducted in 2010 led them to conclude, “We didn’t have much of a pastoral care program”. The review also introduced them to Positive Education – the practical and theoretical application of Positive Psychology (aka wellbeing science) in educational contexts – and so began the genesis of an explicit and implicit focus on wellbeing promotion across the entire school system. Knox has robust empirical data indicating that depression, anxiety and stress are now all on the decline, while their academic results have improved sufficiently to move them up the academic performance rankings of the top 500 Australian schools from 90 to 19.
Over the course of the two-day conference it was frequently emphasised that there are many different ways to bring Positive Education in to our schools. Dr Denise Quinlan, from the University of Otago and New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, recommended schools “go through the open door”. “Find the path of least resistance, look for where there is interest from your staff, both in terms and content and for the people who will lead this work”, she suggested. Among the potential “open doors” covered by the international and local speakers present were cultural responsiveness, taking a strengths-based approach, mindfulness, as well as several different ways for promoting and enabling wellbeing via explicit and implicit instruction.
Associate professor Mat White’s session on Promoting Character Strengths Through Reading and Writing showed us how easy it is to grow students’ awareness of different aspects of character through the English language curriculum. A researcher and lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide, fellow IPEN rep, Mat White, was the founding Director of Wellbeing & Positive Education at St Peter’s College Adelaide, where he also enjoyed teaching Year 12 English. Using several video clips of classic secondary curriculum literature texts, Mat had the audience exploring the protagonists’ key virtues and character strengths, demonstrating how easy it was to instigate rich discussions around character by using the Values in Action Character Strengths framework as conversation scaffolding. Mat spoke of how often such in-class instruction frequently inspires subsequent personal reflections among students as to what it is to be a young man “of good character”.
Fellow IPEN rep, Paula Robinson, had this to say about PENZ:“I was honoured to be an invited speaker and guest at both the Inaugural and 2nd Positive Education New Zealand Conference in Christchurch. During my 10 years of working in Pos Ed I have presented at many education conferences in Australia and internationally so I can honestly say based on my experience PENZ has become my favourite. The main reasons for this are multifaceted. PENZ doesn’t have any biased agendas in how the program is put together, or ties to particular models, organisations or personalities, so it comes across as a truly objective program with scientific best practice at the forefront. The attendees are able to hear a broad range of high quality, speakers, topics and applications from multiple perspectives, but it always puts the attendee in the ‘expert’ seat to enable them to make the best decisions for their own unique context. It isn’t expensive which makes it inclusive. This year opened with a free session featuring an international panel of respected school Principals for those people who couldn’t afford to come to the conference. Finally, this year’s conference had a strong focus on how we can make wellbeing more culturally responsive in our schools – such an important topic that hasn’t been properly addressed at the conferences I have attended.”
While our Australian colleagues may sometimes be further down the track in wellbeing implementation, they were inspired by our educators’ commitment to cultural responsiveness in Aotearoa New Zealand. For the first time in this country, and, as far as we know, globally, the fields of Cultural Responsiveness and Positive Education/Positive Psychology were drawn together in the same room at PENZ18.
We’d love to thank all those who attended or helped with the conference in any way at all. If any other countries are considering running their own national PosEd conference, I’d be more than happy to Skype and share our process and what we’ve learned.
Dr Lucy Hone, IPEN rep, NZ.