Kids laughingA new vision for the global education race: Schools in South Korea have pursued high test scores with great success. They are clear leaders in the global-education competition. So, why did they fly me, a California progressive, small-schools founder and advocate, to present the closing speech at the 2013 Annual Seoul International Education Forum to talk about “happiness in education”?

After a generation of devotion to high test scores, South Korea’s educational success had taken schools to a place where few nations have ever been able to go: the serious consideration of how to become happy. I learned that Korean teens get six hours of sleep a night — not enough to develop or nurture qualities like empathy and creativity. This year’s conference theme — International Perspectives on Happiness Education — is a concept that may have been unfathomable only a generation ago.

I began my visit by asking my new friends what their problems were in helping students be happier. Their answer should have been no surprise. It was the same answer I received when I asked similar questions of parents of high-performing Chinese students. It was the answer I got from teachers in Havana, Spain, and Boulder, Colo. It was the same answer I hear from teachers across the country reading my blog postings. I hear this answer from progressive teachers, conservative teachers, teachers who are fresh and starting out, and teachers who are fed up.

In the developed world and often elsewhere, teachers feel victimized by curriculum that they are unable to cover in a year and by the fact that their worth and fate as professionals will be determined by the standardized test scores of their students. So, around the wok, I listened as teachers once again explained this sentiment. There is no question that almost everyone who actually interacts with children every day finds this situation a source of unhappiness. Millennial educators and parents widely view themselves in a “race to nowhere.”

Earlier this very year in Seoul at her swearing in to office, Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s new president, made a revolutionary promise — to make her workaholic, ultra-competitive, stressed-out people happy: “I will usher in a new era of hope, whereby the happiness of each citizen becomes the bedrock of our nation’s strength,” she said. This goal quickly flowed into the national ministries, and so we gathered this year with Seoul Ministry of Education, in the name of happiness. Seoul’s vision and courage to focus on happiness as a real goal is a leadership vision that sees far beyond the stellar standardized test results of its sleep-deprived students. As an emerging science, we now can test for student happiness, almost the same way we can test for knowledge of algebra.

We know from Seoul’s National University’s Happiness Research Center that happy teachers make happy students. Despite all these espoused values, when teachers are evaluated, world over, they are evaluated by how far they have progressed in the race to complete the year’s requirements, along with a small handful of test scores and perhaps grade point averages. These one-dimensional scores make or break teaching careers.

Psychologists have repeatedly associated happiness with all sorts of attributes that would help schools, including a strong immune system and higher work ratings by teachers and supervisors. The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), and the Subjective Happiness Scale (Seoul International Education Forum , 2013) are just a few of the happiness batteries available. Nations, too, are ranked in the same way as teachers. Despite Korea’s rank as one of the top two nations in the world in academic test taking (Pearson, 2013), the nation has been found to rank 63rd among 151 nations tested on the Happy Planet Index (New Economics Foundation, 2013).

It is inspiring to think what South Korea could achieve if its students were not only high achieving, but happy. At lunch, after the conference opening, I suggested, “If we are serious about happiness as an educational outcome for our children, why don’t we measure it and evaluate our teachers on this in addition to the academic scores of their students?” The energy and dedication it takes to achieve South Korea’s current rating is astonishing, and yet high test scores are primarily an indicator of how well students are prepared for what is on those tests, and relatively little else. Just imagine if South Korea, with all its concentration and resolution, were to set its testing sights on something grander: a synthesis of happiness and high achievement.

Worldwide, teachers are measured and paid, advanced and fired, by the test scores of their students. But what if balancing the testing of academic skills with testing of happiness became our educational evaluation strategy? Happiness is at last measurable, and this recognition was perhaps the greatest achievement of this year’s Annual International Education Forum in Seoul. Could we begin to address and value student happiness with the directness of any other educational objective? If any nation were to judge its teachers based upon the results of their students in academic skills and happiness combined—those teachers would have grounds for gratitude and would surely earn the attention of the world.

Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He is the author of “Real Teachers.”

References

2013 Seoul International Education Forum, p. 136. (Seoul Education Research and Information Institute.)

Economist Intelligence Unit, Pearson (2012). The Learning Curve. Retrieved from: http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/the-report

New Economics Foundation (2013). Retrieved from: http://www.happyplanetindex.org/data/

Salmon, Andrew. South China Morning Post, February 26, 2013. http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1158579/new-south-korean-president-park-geun-hye-vows-make-people-happy.

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