The conceptual and practical separation of learning and wellbeing work in classrooms could be rendering many schools’ mental health programs ineffective, a new White Paper suggests.
The 'Learning & wellbeing in schools: A new perspective on supporting learning and wellbeing in schools' White Paper by Education Horizons, says asking teachers to adopt separate wellbeing practices alongside teaching and learning is “a zero-sum proposition, which risks undermining progress and sustainability in both areas”.
The paper’s authors say schools could be taking a much more unified approach, arguing that effective wellbeing strategies and effective teaching and learning strategies overlap significantly.
This has some big implications for existing student wellbeing programs in schools, which often separate the issue of student wellbeing from learning in the classroom, letting teachers do learning and wellbeing staff do wellbeing.
But the White Paper’s authors – Kim Edwards, Duncan McGauchie, and Rowan Clark – say this conceptual and practical separation of learning and wellbeing work in classrooms could be holding schools back from achieving progress on both student learning and wellbeing.
The White Paper highlights four additional misconceptions that are exacerbating this issue: We have to get wellbeing right first, then we can do learning; When wellbeing issues interfere with learning, students need to be separated from the class; Wellbeing work mostly happens outside the classroom; To do wellbeing in the classroom, teachers need new skills, new resources and extra time.
The best of both worlds
Kim Edwards is the senior teaching and learning specialist at Education Horizons and an internationally respected International Baccalaureate and Visible Learning implementation expert. Edwards was previously the Deputy Principal for Teaching and Learning at Presbyterian Ladies College in Perth, where she also served as Head of Middle School with responsibility for student wellbeing.
“I think these misconceptions are pretty common,” Edwards told The Educator. Many schools are introducing wellbeing programs to try to combat the epidemic of student wellbeing issues they are experiencing.”
As part of this process, schools create leadership structures where some leaders manage wellbeing and others manage teaching and learning, Edwards explained.
“This results in them being seen as discrete areas to be dealt with separately. In reality, the same data is relevant to student learning and wellbeing,” she said. “For example, using student engagement data to drive better learning can end up preventing and minimising wellbeing challenges through a deeper sense of belonging and engagement overall.”
To make their wellbeing programs more effective, Edwards says school leaders need to adopt planned evidenced-based approaches to implementing new strategies or programs – beginning by asking hard questions before gathering, collating and analysing their evidence and then creating an implementation plan they stick to.
“Without these steps, many of the wellbeing programs currently being implemented in schools will be unlikely to succeed as they did not include a ‘great diagnosis of what is actually needed,’ [Visible Learning],” she said.
“Just adding another program that the teachers have to implement on top of a full teaching load is not viable and will be doomed to the innovations and strategies pile that all teachers carry with them.”
The critical role of student voice
The White Paper also points to student voice as a key factor when it comes to improving wellbeing, outcomes and relationships in the classroom.
The Educator asked Duncan McGauchie, global head of product marketing and communications at Education Horizons, how student voice can be integrated into the approach the White Paper is advocating.
“It sounds simple but students answering: ‘Where am I going?’, ‘How am I going?’ and ‘Where to next?’ is probably the most powerful student voice there is – for both learning and wellbeing,” McGauchie said. “Some classrooms adopt learning intentions and success criteria already and teachers are increasingly focused on feedback.”
McGauchie says using these processes better can help teachers measure and improve student engagement in real time.
“Based on our research, this is an example of high-impact teaching and learning work helping improve wellbeing by identifying disengagement [a precursor to wellbeing challenges] – and driving deeper engagement [preventing and minimising wellbeing challenges in the future].”
Edwards says the White Paper’s findings are supported by a growing body of research, including that from globally revered education expert, Professor John Hattie.
Citing Professor Hattie’s work from 2015, which states that “there is a need to include student voice about teacher impact in the learning/teaching debates; that is, to hear the students’ view of how they are cared about and respected as learners, how captivated they are by the lessons, how they can see errors as opportunities for learning, how they can speak up and share their understanding and how they can provide and seek feedback so they know where to go next.”
“Student to teacher feedback about the quality of the teaching and learning has an effect size of 0.53. It is a powerful influence on student learning and wellbeing,” she said.
Student-to-teacher feedback most important
Edwards pointed to Graham Nuthall’s book, the ‘Hidden lives of learners’ (2007), which examined how students learn, and put microphones on secondary students and recorded (over 2,000 hours) what students were saying to one another and about the learning in classes.
“They learned many things about who learners go to for help, and identified three ‘worlds’ that exist in each classroom [the public world of the teacher and the class, the world of the learner and their close peers, and the private world of the learner]. They found that between 40% and 50% of what is taught is already known by the learner,” she said.
“Professor Hattie and Clarke  in their research found that “Student to teacher feedback is more important than teacher to student feedback.”
According to this study, the teaching/learning dynamic becomes synthesised when students can communicate their needs to teachers, and when teachers take account of everything in front of them which constitutes feedback from the student: body language, behaviour, motivation, apparent understanding, misconceptions, avoidance tactics, strategies used and so on.
However, Hattie and Clarke point out that student voice is often sacrificed because of a lack of time.
“So, in practical terms for teachers, it is important they use the tools at their disposal, e.g., SEQTA marks book, which includes the full feedback cycle, student expectations, teacher feedback, and student reflections,” Edwards said.
“Teachers can ask students about their friendships, relationships, attitudes, and engagement and be capturing their responses in their subject marks book, bringing wellbeing and learning together.”
Where to from here?
McGauchie said the White Paper contains some important advice for education policymakers moving forward.
Prior to his role at Education Horizons, McGauchie was a senior advisor to the Minister for Education in Victoria with responsibility for Curriculum, Pedagogy, Assessment, School Improvement, Funding models, Intergovernmental alignment, Languages education, Disability and Inclusion, and Capital works.
Drawing from his experience in this role, and what he has learned since, McGauchie says well-meaning policy interventions can “unwittingly reinforce separation between learning and wellbeing in schools”.
“The General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum are a great example: Schools often respond to additional curriculum demands with separate class-time – like running separate Literacy and English classes,” he said.
“I think the original intent was to help students learn Personal Development within the existing domains – not carve out separate class time. Perhaps if policymakers saw wellbeing as shaped by great teaching and learning practices first, they would be less likely to unconsciously foster separation on the ground.”
Rowan Clark, Business Development Manager for Education Horizons, was formerly the principal of Carey Baptist School in Perth for 12 years.
During this time, Clark also served as a WA Curriculum Council moderator, an executive member of the Associated and Catholic Colleges WA, the Non-Government School Psychology Service, then in the AISWA Psychology Reference Group, the AISWA Education Policy Committee, and on the SCASA Appeals Panel.
On reflection as a former principal, Clarke said investing in teachers and teaching itself should be the biggest focus moving forward.
“Developing pedagogical and unique teaching abilities has the deepest positive impact on well-being in every school community,” Clark told The Educator.
“When teaching is the focus [i.e., every action and decision is pre-empted by ‘what is best for teaching and learning?’], where actions are based on credible evidence, and where systems are aligned to this – that is when we see the best value and educational impact for students, for communities, and for the Nation.”
Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2019). Visible learning: Feedback. Routledge
Hattie, J. (2015). The politics of collaborative expertise. https://www.visiblelearning.com/groups/politicscollaborative-expertise. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.visiblelearning.com/groups/politicscollaborative-expertise
Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. NZCER Press.