“As an IB school, we want to understand better how to help students develop meaningfully as happy and healthy people”
Mark Beverley, director of the Institute of Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School, reflects on recent research findings on the concept of student flourishing.
What does it mean to flourish? The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard defines flourishing as ‘complete human wellbeing’: ‘a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good’ (VanderWeele 2017, 8149), including the following five domains:
• happiness and life satisfaction;
• mental and physical health;
• meaning and purpose;
• character and virtue;
• close social relationships.
In 2021 we embarked upon a project with researchers from Research Schools International (RSI) and Harvard to discover to what degree our students are flourishing, which research-based practices we already used to support flourishing, and which practices we might implement more often. We collected survey data from 866 students across school years and analysed this data using a mixed methods approach. Student and teacher research fellows worked alongside RSI to learn about educational research and human flourishing and to develop their research skills, including learning about survey design and analysis.
We found no statistically significant differences in the flourishing results based on socioeconomic status (including bursary status or parents' education levels), boarding status, and racial or ethnic minority. However, in line with existing international OECD research, flourishing was found to decrease as students progressed through school, and female students reported lower levels of flourishing compared to their male counterparts.
Many evidence-based activities compiled by Harvard to enhance flourishing were reported in school. Exercise, use of humour, and volunteering ranked on the higher end, and are regularly encouraged and practised at Sevenoaks. There were also many examples of acts of kindness, inspiring wonder, and healthy sleep and eating being encouraged by teachers. Opportunities to engage with nature, express gratitude, receive social support and practise mindfulness were, however, ranked lowest in terms of how often students are encouraged to engage in these activities at school.
The research findings were shared with our staff, who were invited to reflect on ways that individual teaching practice could attend more explicitly to the above areas for growth. All teachers were asked to propose an activity that would address one of these areas and apply them through their own practice. Some teachers are taking a step further by developing their ideas into action research projects, and with the help of RSI will evaluate the impact of their interventions.
A particular feature of this research has been to involve students as active participants and research fellows. We asked our students to reflect on the process, and their insight into flourishing in schools, and experience of helping to identify areas for growth, was overwhelmingly positive. One student wrote, “To truly flourish is not about the temporary pleasure we tend to label as happiness, but to feel fulfilled in the different aspects of your life. Working on this project has invited me to reflect on what this means in practice, as well as how I can feel fulfilled in my own life.”
This research has inspired consideration at the most fundamental level of what education is for. As an IB school, we want to understand better how to help students develop meaningfully as happy and healthy people, with a greater awareness of themselves and of others, just as much as they achieve success in academic terms. Detailed consideration of human flourishing has already made a significant difference to the way we understand the practical and ideological implications of this aim. We are looking forward to implementing further changes in the future.
More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/