Getting wellbeing right in education policy

Joel Hernandez
Insights Newsletter
22 November, 2019

If there was one buzzword for 2019, it was “wellbeing”.

This year, our government launched the world’s first Wellbeing Budget, Treasury continued developing its Living Standards Framework measuring wellbeing, and Statistics New Zealand established Indicators Aotearoa also to measure wellbeing.

Targeting wellbeing is most apparent in education policy.

It was even the focus of presentations at the 2019 New Zealand Association for Research in Education’s conference in Christchurch this week.

Presentations covered all aspects of wellbeing in education, from student and teacher wellbeing, wellbeing in modern learning environments, wellbeing in the curriculum, to wellbeing policy.

Broadly, this focus of wellbeing in education is valid. After all, no parent wants their child to achieve academic excellence but have low wellbeing. However, it is difficult to strike the right balance between the two in the classroom.

As many presenters highlighted during the conference, wellbeing is not easy to measure – one presenter even said wellbeing is “fuzzy”. It is almost a catchall term encompassing hundreds of aspects of one’s life from friendships to cultural identity to success and failure in academia, music and sports.

This poses a problem for educators, researchers and policymakers. Without the ability to measure an outcome reliably and consistently, we cannot determine whether a policy such as modern-learning environments works in improving the education and wellbeing outcomes for students.

Standard academic outcomes are already difficult to measure and analyse; wellbeing is orders of magnitude more difficult to measure, let alone target.

This does not mean we should drop the goal of wellbeing; but it is a signal that great care and consideration must be taken when targeting it through policy.

We also need to remember the other pitfalls and unintended consequences in wellbeing policy.

Teachers do not have infinite time in the classroom to teach students English, mathematics, science, and history. Over the past few years, teachers have emphasised the increasing pressures they face in the time they have available to teach.

Fortunately, one presentation discussed what can be realistically achieved in the classroom. Dr Jenny Robertson cited a research paper summarising the results from 45 studies on wellbeing policy in schools, concluding that school interventions targeting a whole-school approach to enhancing social and emotional development did not reduce academic achievement.

In light of this, we need to care and consider that the more traditional and fundamental role of a school is not overshadowed or pushed out by a misguided wellbeing policy in education. 

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