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The conceptualisation of well-being in education

Updated: Dec 23, 2022


Summer reading examined how well-being in schools has been conceptualised in different ways across disciplinary areas including psychology, sociology and economics, and relate findings back into my chosen context of maker education.  The reference of “optimal functioning and experience” from Ryan and Deci (2001) is one example of a broad and ambiguous definition of well-being where the nature and exact meaning is unclear. These differing conceptions of well-being highlight the complexity and potential pitfalls of measuring and reporting on the well-being of children in school settings, taking another example with Robin Alexander’s definition of well-being as “a precondition and an outcome of successful education” from the Towards a New Primary Curriculum review in 2009.  Whilst he acknowledged ministerial attention to pupil well-being and personal and social development, Alexander proposed that measuring attainment at eleven years purely on literacy and numeracy was in no way a measure of well-being and should not be taken as a solution towards reporting on a successful primary education. 

Whilst the inclusion of well-being as a phrase in our every-day living has increased over recent years, it’s interpretation can span a range of contexts and include happiness, good mental health, high life satisfaction, joy, sense of meaning or purpose. Well-being has become a growing area of research with Dodge et al (2012) arguing that many attempts at expressing its nature have focused purely on dimensions of well-being rather than a definition. In their ‘challenge of defining well-being’ work the team took a multi-disciplinary review to explore past attempts at well-being statements and concluded with a diagrammatic representation of well-being alongside this new definition, centering on well-being as a state of equilibrium that is affected by life events: “the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced.''

The epistemological considerations of well-being in this investigation will be taken to inform my EdD research questions and methodologies.

Philosophical underpinning

The use of the phrase well-being across society as a whole has proliferated over recent years, yet there is still no universal definition for the concept. As a construct, well-being can be traced back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s account of the good life shared through Nicomachean Ethics. He suggested that humans are social, rational animals that seek to ‘live well’ and designed a system of ethics to help people reach eudaimonia through self-actualisation. Aristotle provided the foundation to link together concepts of happiness and moral character over a person’s lifetime in what he called “complete virtue” (Woods, 1992), with the language of ‘living well’ or flourishing still relevant in today’s contemporary world (Seligman, M.E., 2011). In education, happiness itself is an interesting state to conceptualise, with its connotations of positivity and emotional state, and has become a taught component on some school timetables, notably the first ‘Wellbeing Curriculum’ at Wellington College. With contention of this implementation discussed later, the notion of teaching happiness or well-being is relevant to my own work and it should be recognised that “happiness is not something that just happens” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).

This eudaimonic perspective conceptualises well-being in terms of the culmination of personal strengths and contribution to the greater good (McMahan, E.A. and Estes, D., 2011) with everything we do towards making us happy, in contrast to the hedonic philosophical perspective of well-being based on the notion of subjective well-being and thought of as a scientific term used to express a ‘happy or good life’. Hedonic well-being combines affective and cognitive components to measure individual happiness when both levels are high (Carruthers and Hood, 2014) and could be useful when thinking about individual factors, learning and life events to balance or affect a well-being scale in school settings. Thinking about well-being as an equilibrium measure, both now and in preparation for children in their futures, needs to be deconstructed into discrete factors related to learning.

Whilst contention exists between both perspectives, most contemporary psychologists now agree that hedonic and eudaimonic approaches each denote important aspects of well-being. (Henderson and Knight, 2012). Educational research into the impact of subjective well-being (SWB) within the hedonic perspective, alongside academic achievement in children’s lives, has been a recent phenomenon (Steinmayr, 2018) and one which brings contention through concerns about distortions or capabilities of self-reporting by children. Fundamentally, subjective well-being (SWB) can be described as maximising pleasure and avoiding pain, with “a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgement of life satisfaction” (Diener et al, 1999). It is recognised that children themselves should provide the best information about their well-being (Ben-Arieh, 2005) but in reality research has sometimes shown limitations from their own perspective. This has led to research studies such as Ben-Arieh and Shimon (2014), where subjective well-being of over two thousand children aged between ten and twelve years was measured from an expert adult or parental perspective. Understanding subjective well-being of children should not be confused with adult opinions of child well-being, and a factor that must be recognised through my own educational research in schools if I decide to take into account and include teacher professional judgments.

Conceptual Points of View

The term positive psychology was first referenced in 1999 during Martin Seligman’s inaugural presentation as president of the American Psychological Association, and became synonymous with the change in focus of psychological preoccupation “only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities” and the increased acknowledgement of well-being in our lives (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Within an educational context, a review of school-based positive psychology interventions was undertaken in Australia and examined evidence from twelve school-based programmes designed to teach students how to cultivate their own positive emotions, character and resilience (Waters, 2011). The paper reported that twenty five percent of young people in Australia, aged fifteen to nineteen years, have a mental disorder and one in three experience moderate to high levels of psychological distress (Australian Government Office for Youth, 2009), highlighting the importance placed on schools to play an increasingly role to assist students to develop cognitive, social and emotional skills. Findings from the study showed that positive psychology programs were significantly related to student well-being, relationships and academic performance with suggestions to further develop and embed positive psychology interventions in Australian schools.

In a wider context, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD, 2017) reported that school is an important source of subjective well-being for secondary-aged students and recognised the recent emphasis on “optimal learning conditions”, but was not explicit in those individual factors attributed to increasing subjective well-being in young people or whether strategies could be taught. Conversely, an American study by Lewis et al (2011) examined the relationship between students’ global life satisfaction and used three indicators of student engagement: emotional, behavioural and cognitive measures. The longitudinal study found that, contrary to previous research, life satisfaction was not found to be a significant indicator of future academic performance. Additionally, academic achievement was only a determinant factor for a number of students, supporting earlier work conceptualising subjective well-being and showing that individual factors are independent, yet related constructs (Andrew and Withey, 1976).

To add to earlier complexities reported around definitions of well-being, it is often argued that subjective well-being indicators are useful complements to objective indicators precisely because there is a difference between what people (reportedly) experience and with what is captured in the objective indicators (Diener and Seligman, 2004). Together, insights can be taken from both papers cited above to highlight the difficulties of embarking on an educational research project to measure subjective well-being of children in schools. The need for an individual and isolated element of well-being as the construct will have to be identified in the first instance.

In his book ‘Flourish’, Seligman (2011) went on to define subjective well-being as “a multidimensional construct” and described it with titles across the five areas of positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishments or achievements. Often referenced by the acronym PERMA, this notion of well-being as a construct is a move away from Seligman’s previously titled work around Authentic Happiness (2004), and acknowledges well-being as removed from Aristotle’s monism because happiness is defined by life satisfaction. PERMA theory has been used in a limited number of educational research papers as positive psychology has gained traction in schools, with more of a focus on students’ strengths, emotional skills, resilience and well-being (Fox Eades, Proctor, & Ashley, 2014). Of interest to my own work is a study in Finland when a research team looked at how to increase levels of joy at school for children and utilised the PERMA model and PROSPER framework (Noble and McGrath, 2016). The latter adds two additional elements of strengths and resilience into PERMA, offering a new framework and flexibility for schools to test and utilise a selection of classroom practices and approaches from both the positive and educational psychology fields. This wider range of elements within the framework can be further examined with a maker education focus to determine any relevant fields. The qualitative study in a northern-Finnish school, during the academic year 2013-2014, examined how post-16 students could name factors that contributed to their joy at school (Leskisenoja and Uusiautti, 2017). Analysis found four categories that students described joy at school and in order of importance, as stated by the students themselves were: relationships with peers and teachers, study-related factors, experience of successes, and surrounding circumstances. Findings reported that the teacher and associated pedagogies had the key role in increasing students’ thriving and well-being at school, leading me to consider the place of maker education in the curriculum, school settings and associated pedagogies with the same priority as measurement of well-being. However, limitations in evaluating the research findings were acknowledged with the relative infancy of PERMA theory in schools and the shortfall in empirical studies with which to compare this study, giving weight to further investigation of PERMA towards my own research methodologies.

In contrast to the field of positive psychology, Furedi (2010) suggests that school interventions that focus on well-being, emotional literacy and self esteem, serve “to distract pupils and teachers alike from getting on with the job of gaining a real education”. In his book ‘Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating’, he argues that we need to change the way that we educate children and reintroduce values that have declined over the years, notable courage and risk taking. Furedi insists that the notion of a strong focus on building the self-esteem and well-being of children in schools, under the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL), is a distraction to the teaching going on in the classroom. What he calls ‘the dangerous rise of therapeutic education’ has the capacity to infantilize students, leaving them unable to cope with life on their own and the opposite of the intended intervention.

Conversely and from a philosophical perspective, John White explored well-being in schools and looked to firstly define what education is for, offering this description which he recognised would be viewed as utopian by critics: “Equipping everyone with the wherewithal for a flourishing personal and civic life will become their clear, unmuddied purpose” (White, 2011). He argues that one of the factors affecting well-being in schools is the ministerial controls and curricula driven from political prescription, and calls for time to rewind on the 1988 national curriculum when teachers designed the curriculum to meet their own children’s needs. This reference to curriculum and external decision makers as a barrier to well-being in school is an important factor to consider in my own research design, particularly if looking at specific programmes and interventions that could explicitly incorporate social and emotional skills, attitudes and values.

In recent decades, well-being has been cumulatively added to gross domestic product data as indicators included in state of the nation reports, giving more significance and awareness about the importance placed on well-being as a construct. Researchers have found that economic indicators in isolation can not be relied upon to reflect societal levels of satisfaction, reporting that personal wealth does not equate with well-being. Taking the USA as an example, Myers (2000) evidenced that although personal income grew in real terms between 1955 and 1998, the percentage of citizens indicating happiness had remained constant. Likewise, the correlation between income and happiness is “surprisingly weak,” observed by Inglehart (2008) in one sixteen-nation study of one hundred and seventy thousand people.

Having previously highlighted inadequacies in using the monistic and one dimensional description of happiness in this study, for practical purposes the term is often used as a measure of well-being in nationwide studies about life satisfaction. In the UK, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports through the ‘Measuring National Wellbeing’ programme to publish annual measures about quality of life. Indicators such as a happiness index and published equation to calculate an optimum work-life balance emerge from the ONS annual headline summaries and cover areas including health, natural environment, education and skills, crime and personal finances.

Whilst the scale of measurement, reporting and focus on well-being has developed rapidly over recent years, there is also a greater awareness of scepticism and irregularities from within the data. Subjective well-being (SWB) measures are built and reported from data analysis but are liable to inappropriate interpretations as they are not linked to SWB scales, cited in the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee - Well-being findings (2014). Inconsistencies across geographical regions and extreme points for categories, for example very old age, make comparisons difficult and the need to address inaccuracies and the importance for policy implications.

Economist Richard Layard (2005) has individually published work about happiness and called on governments to include subjective well-being measures alongside gross domestic product (GDP) in the UK to focus on a wider set of factors that affect the well-being of a nation. Collectively with Dolan and Metcalfe (2011), Layard has also set out methods to implement subject well-being measures for public policy, but it is his advisory capacity to government education departments that holds most interest to my own research and recognising how a child’s well-being can influence cognitive development and learning. As Minister for Education, Ed Balls launched the voluntary ‘Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning’ (SEAL) curriculum in schools during 2007, with Layard critical over the lack of teacher training to ensure successful implementation of positive psychology techniques and pedagogies to increase children’s well-being in the classroom. The principal from Wellington College, an independent public school, adopted Layard’s thinking to teach a series of happiness lessons with an aim to ensure young people fulfilled their potential, and this was met with debate and criticism during 2008. One critic was once again sociologist Frank Furedi, who voiced concern about distractions away from the real purpose of education of academic achievement in the curriculum, and becoming influential in my current research design plans.


My reading has examined educational research reporting on the epistemological considerations of children’s well-being and has consequently acknowledged the complexity of the construct with arguments including that it leads to distractions away from academic achievement. I have been reminded of the importance placed on identifying and comparing empirical studies with children and young people, as the implication of using adult-focused well-being research will not translate directly to school settings (James et al, 1998).

In order to support my understanding of well-being in the school context, next intentions are to link these conceptual view points and continue to identify discrete elements from Seligman’s PERMA model that could shape my own methodologies with maker education.


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Gallery photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash


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