Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Happiness: A Key Outcome of Equitable Schools

October 3, 2013
Photo credit: Mario Biondi via Wikipedia
Slogan on a wall in Thimphu's School of Traditional Arts

This year has begun with a lot of discussion about how Common Core will affect instruction, curriculum, and assessment, conversations that usually circle up to the intended outcomes of our K-12 education system. In my district in Oakland, CA, we aim to prepare students to be "college and career ready." Explorations of the achievement gap and structural inequities also point to ways in which some of our students (primarily low income black and Latino students) end up at a disadvantage when competing for jobs after going through our schools.

We have realigned many resources to build our students' skills and knowledge so that ultimately they might be equal contenders in the job market.

While I don't disagree with this realignment or intended outcome, I do think it's limited. I had an epiphany recently when reading an article about structural inequities. The author identified the core of structural inequity as a system that funnels boys of color into prisons and away from viable employment. It made me wonder: are we constructing a vision for an education system in response to existing paradigms, and in particular, are our efforts solely directed towards building our economy? Or, when we envision a future for our children and deconstruct structural inequities, can we design a whole new paradigm that goes far beyond an aspiration to grow a work force?

Articulating a New Paradigm

As I read this article, I thought about my own young son and realized that while, of course, I hope he avoids prison and I do want him to get a job, I want so much more for him as an outcome of his time in school. More than anything, I realized, I want him to be happy -- now and in his future. I want him to be a content, compassionate, thoughtful man who makes good decisions when I'm not around.

I imagine that many mothers want this for their child. For most of us, there's nothing as satisfying as seeing your kid happy. And I realized that when our discussions of equity are limited to the factors that lead to financial gain, we will never really interrupt inequities; we are just building within a dominant paradigm that is inequitable at its core.

The vision that I hold for our schools goes far beyond one in which we develop "college and career ready" children. I hold a vision which includes, "our graduates will be happy, compassionate people" as well as having the skills and knowledge necessary for college or the career of their choice.

Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index

Ruminating on this got me thinking about how other countries organize their education systems and measure their success, which led me to think about the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. The Bhutanese government uses a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index in order to measure its prosperity. Those who developed the GNH suggest that beneficial development of human society takes place when material, social and emotional development occur side by side and reinforce each other.

Reading up on Bhutan got me thinking about two things:

  • First, I wondered how Bhutan's education system aligns to this model of national development. How is happiness cultivated in schools? What does a curriculum aligned to this outcome look like? How is student happiness measured? What does discipline and classroom management look like in a country intent on building happy people? Having a GNH index as a guiding principle could radically alter the experience of kids in schools.
  • Second, I started wondering what it might look like if our schools adopted this kind of an index to measure success. How would our instructional practices change to align to a vision of developing a happy populace? What might assessment look like? How would our conversations about interrupting structural inequities change?

One of the reasons that I became a teacher is because of an insatiable desire to learn; my curiosity has kept me awake for innumerable nights. I've spent the last few weeks pondering these questions and reading about Bhutan and their experiment in happiness. (Also fascinating: Bhutan has banned the sales of all pesticides and herbicides in an attempt to become the first country to use entirely organic agricultural methods.) On this exploration, I've connected with a teacher in Bhutan who is engaging in a lively email exchange with me about these questions. In my next post I'll share some of what he says about Bhutan's education system and their Gross National Happiness index.

And now I'm actively seeking a sponsor for a research trip to the Himalayan kingdom so I can do some fieldwork exploring the connection between an education system and a development model aimed at happiness, and how this knowledge can help us create a more just and equitable world. If you have any ideas of where I could find such a sponsor, let me know.

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  • Education Equity

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