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Making contextual wellbeing possible in schools

What are the six steps you can take as a School Leader to build Contextual Well-being in your school community?

Schools are the doppelgänger of society, where the members interact, and those interactions eventually shape them. Yet, we have focused far too long on pushing for cognitive development, restricting the school as an instructional unit, undermining its relevance as a social system. What has gone wrong?

We can trace the overuse and misuse of intelligence as the mainstay of student assessment back to the early 20th century. In 1912, German psychologist William Stern from the University of Wroclaw, Poland, defined the idea of the 'Intelligence Quotient.' Sponsored by the US military during World War I, the notion of the Intelligence Quotient profoundly restricted how we perceived intelligence for a long time and propagated the misconception that intelligence is a fixed variable. Later, Daniel Coleman added intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence to the menu to make the idea of intelligence appear a little flexible. Howard Gardener revolutionized the landscape, introducing Multiple Intelligence. Cognitive scientists added neuroplasticity to the construct of intelligence, reducing the influence of Intelligence Quotient in day-to-day schooling. However, while we work hard as schools to cognitively shape the children under our care, we always almost eschew their emotional wellness.

Where should we place Contextual Wellbeing in the discussions about schooling?

Contextual Wellbeing is the state of health, happiness, and positive engagement (in learning) that arises from membership in an equitable, inclusive and cohesive (school) environment as envisaged by Dr. Helen Street. Human beings are social creatures, and their wellbeing is the most inclusive and tangible way to help them flourish if we adopt it as a whole school approach to designing the learning environment.

We try to change the individual by building skills of resilience, adaptability and flexibility. However it has been argued through research that instead of trying to change each individual, why don't we try to build a healthier environment for that individual or rather more than one individual. We flourish if we are able to build a positive engagement and interplay between our individual self and our ecosystem. Lasting happiness occurs when we build connections in harmony with the world around us. We become happy when we have a positive, nurturing and supportive social environment that subsumes our surroundings. We spend so much in our lives in our pursuit of happiness. Yet it remains elusive for most of us.

We can try to build a cohesive, equitable, and inclusive school environment through the contextual well-being model espoused by Helen Street. It provides four main verticals of a school ecosystem: people (Example: staff, students, etc.), policies and practices (Example: behavioural management of students, staff-related policies), norms that connect people ( how to communicate with others, how to treat others) and physical space (classroom, corridors, outer spaces, learning walls, etc.). This is not to be seen as a one-time activity but a continuum. Following are the six steps you can take to design the school ecosystem to reflect contextual wellbeing, changing the context instead of individuals.

Step One
Create the Desire

The first step in this direction could be in collating information through existing school processes to understand the gaps in building a contextually healthy school environment. It allows us to create the desire for change based on AI Model (the Appreciative Inquiry Model), which builds on a positive affirmation that each human system has a positive core of strengths. The expounder of the idea of AI Model David Cooperrider, suggests that if you have a dream for the future which is in contradiction to the present, problems will arise. But to solve the existing problem, you need to focus on creating an ideal outcome of ‘what can be’. This model thus focuses on what is right, what is working, and how to work towards the desired vision. It also encompasses the values, beliefs, and capabilities of an organization when it is at its best and also builds a collective understanding of what makes up the best of us as an organization.

Step Two
Define your subject for change

You may wish to develop Contextual Wellbeing in all the domains or may choose to focus on any one domain of school context. However research has suggested that since foundational year’s children are malleable and adaptable it is desired that they can be the subject for change in terms of all verticals like equity, cohesion or focusing on process rather than only outcome.

Step Three
Determine what is working in your school

It involves the participation of all stakeholders of your school’s context. Perhaps you can set up “Works Well” boards in the staff room and school reception as well as interact frequently on the same by revisiting the ideas, strategies which will help you determine what works well for your school.

Step Four
Visualize the school vision

This requires the participation of all your school members the parents, students, teachers, administrative staff, and paraprofessionals associated with the school in visualizing the future of the school. This vision can originate from a conversation or a written account. e.g. removal of student hierarchies, a walk-in policy into any of the rooms of the school without seeking approval.

Step Five
Design your plan for positive change

This rests on the strengths that you have discovered to create the best possible dream of the school envisioned. A working group can help you to decode the policies and practices in the school and work towards changing them, given the vision for comprehensive contextual wellness. For example, a working group could be engaged in analyzing, reviewing, and reflecting on the capacity-building strategies employed in school for the professional development opportunities extended to the staff or scaffold their ability to engage students in achieving learning outcomes through informed processes.

Step Six
Deliver the plan of action

At this final stage we are looking at the execution of the desired dream as visualized by all stakeholders. As a leader you should ‘walk the talk’ as espoused by John Kotter in the Harvard Business Review and emulate the vision you have envisaged for your organization. Leverage as many possibilities as you can in communicating plans and changes to as many people as you can in your school. As a leader you need to ensure that the change is reflected in all possible domains, no matter from which domain the change is initiated. For example if you want to develop a growth mindset as a part of the dream of your schools contextual wellness, you need to then ensure support for its development. Policies should focus on developing intrinsic motivation rather than rewards.

About the Author

Richa Prakash

Richa Prakash is an educator, learner, and a quester. She believes that we can learn a little each day and grow a little each day. Richa was the Founder-Principal of G. D Goenka Public School in Firozabad and has spent over 18 years in the school education space. She is presently the Principal of Allenhouse Public School, Panki, Kanpur. She believes in leading with empathy and distributive leadership to empower other educators and students to ideate and collaborate at different levels to leverage the possibilities of a better tomorrow. You can connect with Richa here and read more about her work here.

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