Wellbeing & self-actualization – the future of education


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Hello Everyone,

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what September will look like in schools and I am certain you are doing the same. With the help of Micheal Fullan and his book, Nuance,  I have gone a bit deeper in my thinking about the role of education in our society and what that role should be in the future. The world as we know it has changed, and so too will education; this is an inescapable reality, and perhaps it will be a good thing.

This post will discuss some of the key concepts from Nuance and will offer an application of these concepts to student wellbeing next year. Ensuring student wellbeing in our schools will be vital work; I would go so far as to say that student wellbeing will be just as important as the pedagogy we deliver in the 2020/2021 school year.

At first, I was taken aback by Fullan’s thinking about the state of the world. I found it a bit discouraging. He painted a future of humanity as one “fraught with unknowns, complexities, and catastrophic danger signs, and … we can no longer depend on our natural evolutionary forces to save the day” (Fullan, 2019, p. 102). The skeptical optimist in me thought this stance a bit alarmist, but as I finished the book and as COVID hit, it seemed Fullan had a magic ball that allowed him a glimpse into the future, or maybe just years of careful observation and research.

Fullan considers the most important components of education to be:

  1. Helping students understand the context of their lives
  2. empowering students to create social change and solve big problems that will  increase well-being
  3. Teaching students to embrace difference and get along with others
  4. providing skill development, as well as opportunities for joy, beauty, play and playfulness (my favourite)

When I read these goals I was struck by 1.) how bang on they were, and 2.) how an  education should be so much more than just traditional subject learning. The world we will send our student’s into is going to be very complex and they need an education of the whole person if they are to thrive and be successful. This is especially true for reintroducing students into school after almost 6 months away. We would be doing our students a major disservice if we just dove straight back into curriculum without also providing ample opportunities for play, joy, connection and unpacking some of the important social justice issues we are currently faced with.

Fullan’s approach to achieving these important educational goals is deeply rooted in a form of social justice education. With respect to our current educational reality, the magic here is that this approach to pedagogy is one that can be used  to get at citizenship and wellbeing simultaneously. Fullan calls this approach ‘deep learning;’ or that “learning that sticks with you for the rest of your life” (p. 107). It focuses on the 6C’s as learning goals: character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Typically, in small group settings, students are co-creators of knowledge and work together to solve big problems that have “personal meaning for themselves and the world” (p. 107); I would say it has similarities to the Harkness approach with a more specific focus. When this deep learning is actualized, finding one’s niche, being creative, fulfilling oneself, helping humanity, rectifying wrongs and doing something about the future become part of the ‘natural curriculum’ (Fullan, 2019, p. 108).

The Connection to Wellbeing: This deep learning pedagogy gets at student wellbeing on a visceral level – it is something far more nuanced than the commodified wellbeing culture we can often find ourselves (and our students) grappling with today. Monitoring, tracking and buying wellbeing is an easy trap to fall into, but it is far from what our students need, especially next year. So, some important questions to ask ourselves and our schools are:

  • What does wellbeing mean to us?
  • How do we define it? What are the distinguishing features of wellbeing that we want our students to walk away with in the face of an uncertain world?
  • What matters most when it comes to how we guide our students towards riding the waves of a chaotic world next year?

Fullan would probably tell you (and I would agree) that student wellbeing lives in deep learning; in deep connections to citizenship (and being a change agent for injustices), having opportunities to explore and develop one’s character, and a chance to be creative and ignite a light that may otherwise stay dark in some of our students – this light ignites a ‘positive contagion’ in that student who then links up with others, and it spreads (in a good way).

All of this checks out with psychology. If you recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as educators, we have a duty to meet our students physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs. Deep learning gets at that last bit on the pyramid; one’s self-actualization. That magic in a person’s life when they discover who they are, their talents, their potential, their purpose. How great for one’s wellbeing to learn about oneself at this level in school. This is very close to the WHO’s definition; “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  I think we have to sit back and ask ourselves if we are really doing this work, and how we can if we’re not.


Image source: cruxfit.com

The Wellbeing Practice: In addition to all of the health care services, COVID19 education (and de-stigmatizing), and student tracking we will need to do as our duty to students and their wellbeing next year (or those seriously struggling with their mental health), deep learning and connection is really the long term goal. Here are a couple of examples of how it may look.

In the classroom: Fullan posits that “there are few things worse than finishing school at any level and not knowing who you are” (p. 108). At my school, we dive deeply into an exploration of character strengths both inside and outside of the classroom. Most of our students could tell you their top 5 VIA character strengths, though I would say we have work to do at teaching them how to go deeper and apply these strengths to their everyday life, but this takes some time. Every teacher at our school has some training in positive psychology (see a previous post for a background on this approach) and how to embed it in their classrooms; this helps students learn who they are, at their core. It is a great start in their journey of self-exploration, and has potential to be so much more as it continues to evolve. The careers half credit in Ontario is a great place to start this learning on a deeper level in class; I wish it existed when I was in high school!

In the Community: We know from research that having purpose contributes to wellbeing, and is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy in the form of self-actualization. Finding out who you are, and then using this knowledge to become a change agent is a powerful approach to ensuring we feel our life has meaning. I have already thought about the tutoring programs our students might do next year for kids who may not be learning every day if ‘a love of learning’ is one of their top strengths. You can see how this begins to knit together in lovely and powerful ways that can not only contribute to wellbeing, but also help others.

With respect to tackling widespread inequalities, Fullan reminds that the strictures of inequality are deep rooted; it will take years, for example, to unlearn the systemic racism we have been blind to for much of our lives. But, schools are the places to do this work and deep learning is the way forward (p. 108). I find it a serendipitous twist of fate that a global and racial pandemic have collided in the same year and a way forward might be helping our young people be the change agents the world needs and also a tool to protect their wellbeing.

I would love to hear your thoughts about the way forward with student wellbeing in school next year!

Keep well,


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