This article is the first in a two-part series in which Ross Hall explores the potential for increasing wellbeing by transforming traditional education systems.

A cacophony of purposes

Given the challenges currently facing our planet and us as a species, the need for a fundamental transformation of education is more urgent than ever before.

The changes that are needed are so numerous and so complex, however, that coordination and collaboration are essential. In education systems around the world, people and projects are too often disconnected from one another, which hinders change by impeding the flow of resources, innovation, and good practice.

“The need for a fundamental transformation of education is more urgent than ever before.”

Coordination and collaboration require people to work towards a common purpose. But finding such a purpose is a significant challenge when there are so many different perspectives competing for attention and resources.

For many people, the main purpose of education is to prepare young people for work. In practice, this often translates into a narrow focus on academic attainment, in many cases at the expense of preparing young people to engage in meaningful work that contributes to personal, social, economic, and environmental wellbeing.

Others believe that education systems should focus more explicitly on wellbeing, whether that means environmental wellbeing (tackling the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and pollution); social wellbeing (seeking justice, equity, and peace); economic wellbeing (e.g., creating circular economies), or personal wellbeing (mental, physical, emotional, relational, spiritual health).

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Then there are those whose focus on wellbeing is less obvious, but implicit.  They may, for example, be working to focus education systems on the development of specific learning outcomes (such as creativity, critical thinking, and empathy) or clusters of skills (social and emotional skills, 21st century skills, character strengths, and so on). Or they may want education systems to emphasise specific pedagogical practices (such as project-based learning, nature-based learning, or play-based learning).

With such a cacophony of voices competing for attention and resources, it’s no wonder that those involved in education are often confused and unable to recognise opportunities for critically important collaborations. It is therefore crucial to find a common purpose, one that brings together all those who are working to transform education systems.

A unifying purpose: Learning to thrive together

In ‘weaving’ collaborations among actors in the educational space whose perspectives may differ, as described above, I’ve found it helpful to point out that wellbeing is always central to their work, whether explicitly or implicitly.

I then pose two complementary questions: What is most important to you in life? And what do you want most for the children in your life? The answers typically reflect the same priorities: being healthy and happy; belonging; living in peace; loving and being loved. These answers would seem to suggest that individual wellbeing should be the central concern for education systems. Yet it is clear that each of us is dependent on the wellbeing of other people and of the planet – in other words, personal, societal, and planetary wellbeing are inextricably linked.

“Personal, societal, and planetary wellbeing are inextricably linked.”

When people recognise that wellbeing is at the heart of their work, and that personal, societal, and planetary wellbeing are interdependent, it is possible to bring them together to work towards the shared purpose of learning to thrive together.

Holistic learning

Our wellbeing – the extent to which we thrive – is determined by a variety of factors: our choices, our skills, our knowledge of ourselves and of the world, the quality of our awareness, and our intentions. To thrive together, we need to care about, pay attention to, and choose for our own personal wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of society and the planet.

Learning to thrive together requires not only knowledge, but also gaining – and choosing to use – a wide range of skills and qualities. It requires holistic approaches to human development, which enable people to grow physically, emotionally, cognitively, relationally, and spiritually.

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While such a holistic perspective may pose challenges for education professionals, including finding ways to assess the holistic development of children, it’s essential that we keep the whole child in mind. Competition among those with different priorities – social and emotional learning, 21st-century skills, character strengths and so on – is counterproductive. Development in all these areas is essential to our collective thriving.

“Learning to thrive together requires us to pay attention to the holistic development of children.”

Perhaps most problematic is the idea that literacy, numeracy, and academic attainment precede everything else.  While these skills are certainly important, cognitive development is intertwined with physical, emotional, social, and spiritual development. Moreover, the development of social and emotional skills can boost academic performance. When we focus exclusively on a small set of learning outcomes, we ignore the rest of the human being, and put at risk our collective wellbeing. Learning to thrive together requires us to pay attention to the holistic development of children.

Read part two, on how adapting to children’s unique needs can increase their wellbeing, the challenges of a holistic perspective, and the ways we might overcome these: Adapting to individual needs enables children to thrive together.

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