• Oli de Botton

A curriculum of the heart: a disciplinary approach

What is well-being? An aporetic question with many follow-ups. Can we teach it or is it experienced? Is it about character? Is it happiness? Is the former too Victorian? The latter too pop-psychology? And on and on.

As a concept, well-being suffers from being sufficiently important to merit deep thought but so broad it escapes precision. Like all catch-all terms it has the habit of...catching all.

Meanwhile the worries about ‘unwell’ children grow. In our context - a 4-18 school in Stratford, East London - the social factors worsen as government support recedes. Poverty, knife crime, insecure housing and uncertain employment collide with anxiety, stress and fear. Everything seems to be making it harder for young people to thrive.

Is this our job?

The first thing to decide is whether this is a domain for you. After all, a focus on well-being is time consuming and hard to measure. Successful schools see other routes to progress. For us, it has always been important. Partly because of the personal philosophies of our staff and parents but more because of what we want to achieve as a school.

Our mission - to empower young people to take on the world - acknowledges that schools have a social and academic mission. (Incidentally this is age-old and uncontroversial - teachers like Socrates were certainly encouraging living and learning well). It follows that if we want children to be be empowered, have agency, make a difference to the world (however you phrase it), surely they need to know who they are, what they stand for and where they are going? They need to be able to manage their emotions and those around them so their voice has power. Being and feeling well are the shoulders you stand on to succeed in the world.

The power of the circle

Over the past seven years we have prioritised pupil well-being without real certainty about what it is and where we can develop it. There has been some great practice but it is not sustainable because it is not fully codified (a common start-up problem) and the teacher toolkit is not fully developed. Our first reflection now is that clarity beats perfection. The latter is unattainable and the former is the best bet for a large, complex school. Our second reflection is that it is better to narrow the focus to the places where teachers as teachers can have the most impact. In a school full of curriculum designers that means making the most of coaching time - our two 2-3 hours a week dedicated to well-being. Across the school we have invested in smaller coaching circles - 14/15 in secondary - designed as places where every child is seen, heard and known. We now need to add power, rigour and support to these circles.

Why start with the curriculum?

Schools really only have three tools in their armoury to support pupil well-being.

  1. Specific services: Nurses, parent support workers, counsellors, educational psychologist, breakfast clubs, bursaries for uniforms. Multi-disciplinary services that cater for basic needs and often the very vulnerable. These can be brilliant and I am sure most Headteachers would want more of them onsite and on hand (or else delivered well locally). The problem here is funding and in the absence of that it’s hard to do much more.

  2. Whole school ethos: A school culture - the sum of the relationships, conversations and dynamics in a community - is a powerful force to support children. A dialogic culture (more about that in another post) has the potential to open up feelings and fears and make vulnerability a strength. However a school culture builds over time and often expands to fit a broad agenda

  3. Curriculum and pedagogy: School culture is built from the classroom up and so the best way to develop well-being across the school is to get the interactions in the classroom right. In addition to brilliant curriculum opportunities - music, drama, art, sport etc. - that support well-being indirectly and should always be maximised, a carefully designed, brilliantly implemented well-being curriculum is the teacher response.

A curriculum of the heart: a disciplinary framework

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. On review of our well-being curriculum - coaching time - it was clear that our practice was borrowing from subject domains. There was psychology - teachers working with children to understand how they are feeling and how they relate to others. There was philosophy - students reflecting on values and ‘goods’. There was sociology and history - children exploring societal trends and their own histories and circumstances within them. The curriculum was holding in (creative) tension the subject, the objective and the contextual.

Some of our practice was clearly in one circle. The culture of recognition or restoration in coaching circles was largely about subjective experience and feelings (Examples from elsewhere here). Spark speeches in Year 4 were about reflecting on personal difficulties in context. The philosophy for children techniques where children discuss important issues were in the objective realm. But there was real power where practice touched on a number of areas. Exploring the book Liccle Bit in Year 9 allowed children to explore their context whilst also reflecting on the wider values. The book charts issues around gangs and drug dealing. The Sixth Form Forum that saw students debate the issues about religious beliefs and LGBT was in the realm of the objective and the contextual. (See slides here for more on how we are reviewing this area.)

So far so categorised. The next step was to clarify to a degree of detail that allowed for replication and practice development. In this regard the Ofsted three ‘Is’ - intent, implementation, impact - proved useful.

A first draft is below (with links beneath)

* Trauma informed pedagogy

Social emotional learning

Based on our reflections it’s clear where we need to go next. More support for our staff in approaches that support students managing their emotions. More understanding of contextual factors our students face. More reflection on how we can judge the impact of this support. Quite an agenda - but at least now we have a pathway to getting better at helping our students feeling better.

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