UNESCO: Happy Schools a framework for learner well-being in the Asia Pacific

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All human beings aspire to be happy, and as the philosopher Aristotle is often cited to have said: ‘Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence’ (Crisp, 2000). Indeed, all human endeavours, starting from birth and throughout life, are pursued to this end, and require for happiness to be embedded within them. The schooling experience is perhaps the most influential of these endeavours in terms of shaping the course of our lives. Schools that can promote happiness, referred to in this report as ‘happy schools’, are key to ensuring better well-being, health, and achievement as well as success in future life and work. Education systems must also value the unique strengths and talents of learners by recognizing that there are ‘multiple intelligences’ that each deserve equal importance (Gardner, 1993). As such, promoting learner happiness and well-being in schools does not imply that learning be made easier or require less effort, but rather, that such approaches could help fuel a genuine love of learning in and of itself.

A number of external and internal factors are undermining learner happiness, which influence the way that we view not only the quality of life but also the quality of education. Firstly, external factors such as increasing inequality, growing intolerance and the rise of violent extremism are all creating unhappier societies. As a result, schools are also facing increased cases of bullying from within, while at the same time increasingly becoming a target of violent attacks from outside actors. Our fast-paced world driven by technological advancement has also become rife with competition and ‘information overload’, leading to an endless race where we increasingly focus on ‘the numbers’ – whether in terms of a country’s economic development or in terms of educational outcomes. Secondly, internal factors within school systems such as poor learning environments, insensitivity of educators, obsolete curricula as well as an overemphasis on academic content and test scores, are all contributing to creating unhappier schools. Unfortunately, those elements that are recognized as contributing to enhancing happiness, whether in schools, life or work, are rarely counted as part of the equation.

In recent years, however, happiness has been recognized, both in global agenda-setting as well as in countries’ development and education policies, as an important goal to be pursued. Notable examples include the 2011 United Nations General Assembly Resolution devoted to happiness, and the references to well-being throughout the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Growing efforts to measure happiness have also coincided with increased efforts to measure the quality of education, for instance through global indices and international student assessments. In view of the important relationship between happiness and the quality of education, in June 2014 UNESCO Bangkok launched the Happy Schools Project.

This report presents the Happy Schools Framework and aims to bring these two elements together by calling for education systems to shift away from traditional measures and to instead embrace a diversity of talents and intelligences by recognizing values, strengths and competencies that contribute to enhancing happiness. Or in other words, it calls on the need for education systems to ’measure what we treasure’: ‘If you treasure it, measure it. If schools do not measure the well-being of their children but do measure their intellectual development, the latter will always take precedence’ (Layard and Hagell, 2015). Aimed at influencing policymakers as well as engaging the school level, it is hoped that this report and the Happy Schools Framework therein will provide an integral reference in view of rethinking conceptions of the quality of learning so as to look beyond strictly academic domains.

This report presents the findings of a study based on several research methods, including a desk study, a survey, a seminar and a workshop with school-level stakeholders. It explores the global and regional context in terms of theories of happiness and global initiatives, and how happiness is reflected in the development and education policies of selected countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It then presents the main outcome of the study: the Happy Schools Framework, which consists of 22 criteria for a happy school, as well as examples of strategies for reaching each of the criteria in schools.


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