Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #2: Improving Emotional Well-Being

January 17, 2011

In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.

A less traditional aim for schools is what Furedi (2009) described as “the unhappy turn to happiness”. This covers those objectives related to the happiness and emotional well-being of students. Again, nobody can object to the idea that schools should enhance rather than decrease the happiness of students.  However, if explicitly adopted as an aim in education then it creates a situation where anything can potentially get into the curriculum with no more justification than the belief (often on little evidence) that it will make students happier, or at least less unhappy. So, for example, one Scottish school is reported to have introduced yoga to the curriculum.

In 2007 it was reported that Lord Richard Layard, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, had argued that schools need to give lessons in happiness, following a pilot scheme in PSHE lessons at Wellington College (whose headteacher Anthony Seldon can often be seen in the media pushing progressive education in one form or another). This has also been identified as part of the SEAL program. However, teachers do not dictate the emotions of other people and attempts to do so are likely to distract from education and distort the relationship between teachers and students (or just be a ridiculous waste of time like this lesson here).

Efforts to promote emotional well-being do not end with direct efforts to make people more happy, they can also attempt to “treat” psychological difficulties. Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) identify the concept of “therapeutic education”  as “any activity that focuses on personal emotional problems”.  SEAL, circle time, Philosophy For Children and nurture groups are identified as attempts to provide amateur therapy in schools. It is suggested that, as well as being a distraction from academic aims, this is harmful in a number of ways as “therapy culture” where every human being is seen as diminished and suffering, is based on false assumptions about human beings. It labels children and families as problematic. Combined with the “emotional orthodoxy” of correct feelings, therapeutic education can identify certain groups such as boys, and particularly working class boys, as inherently disordered. Victimhood and emotional weakness are celebrated and teachers are encouraged to infantilise themselves by talking about their own feelings. Worst of all the myth (discussed here and here) that “low self esteem” is at the root of most personal problems is promoted and used as an excuse to spoil children.

A number of objections can be raised to attempts to explicitly promote happiness in schools. Furedi (2009) complains that some of these approaches are “not teaching but the programming of children” and are an “intrusive and coercive project”. If the traditional role of teachers as an authority to be obeyed was dictatorial, then the new role of a teacher as a controller and manipulator of emotions is downright totalitarian. Under a system of rules children may have to outwardly conform, but their private thoughts, feelings and opinions are their own. With therapeutic education this territory is now under the supervision of the authorities. The teacher who seeks to manipulate children through control of their emotional life (see Spark (1950) for an inspired novel exploring this idea) is a worse threat to freedom than the teacher who is merely authoritarian.

A further issue is the extent to which the concern with happiness may be used to directly undermine learning. According to Furedi (2009) “supporters of the therapeutic turn often communicate an anti-academic sensibility” and gives a number of historical and contemporary examples of objections made to academic challenge or formal learning based on the idea that it will harm, stress or depress students.  There is no reason to assume that learning will always be a pleasurable experience. As Oakeshott (1975) pointed out, “nobody [goes] to school in order to enjoy the sort of happiness he might get from lying in the sun” and there are a number of good reasons for this.

Firstly, it is not always the case that what students are best advised to learn is interesting to them. Attempts to change the curriculum to make it more interesting are always doomed to undermine learning because what children find interesting is not necessarily worth learning:

“And who in his senses would say that children should go to school to engage in interesting activities (however effortfully undertaken and however well executed eventually) such as hair-pulling, paper-flicking, ink-slinging, bullying, chair-banging teacher baiting … and so on? Again, what about all the trivial sorts of things which children show occasional interest in, such as wiggling their ears, standing on one leg, making themselves go cross-eyed, poking blotting paper into ink bottles or sticks into cracks in floors …? And what about the stereo-typed and boringly derivative occupations which seem to make up the whole impoverished gamut of some children’s interests? ; the apparently endless stream of battle pictures criss-crossed with never-fading tracer bullets and explosions labelled ‘Boom!’ and ‘Pow!’; the continual chatter about football, television, pop records; the comic-reading and gum- chewing; the pushing and shoving and all the pointless, tedious, repetitive, and often blindly stupid or unkind things which children do, apparently, with great interest? Is this what they should go to school for, just for going on to do these ‘with interest’? I remember vividly a boy who, on his first visit to the swimming baths with a class, ran straight up to the deep end, jump in and sank solidly to the bottom. He was chock-full of interest and as a result of ‘following’ it he very nearly drowned.” (Wilson, 1971)

Not only are less interesting subjects often the ones most worth knowing about, but also, as I have argued before, learning is hard work.  Effort is obviously required. As Willingham (2009) explained, with reference to cognitive psychology, thinking is difficult: “unless the cognitive conditions are right we will avoid thinking”.  Not only is there effort involved in learning, but it is not always a boost to self-esteem. The ignorant often have an over inflated opinion of their own expertise. According to Kruger et al (1999) the mere act of increasing one’s competence at an activity can cause one to recognise one’s limitations. Teachers often have to bring home to students how weak they are and how little they know. This is not always pleasant, but it is often necessary. Protecting the self-image of the ignorant and the contentedness of the lazy may well be incompatible with academic progress. The claim that lessons should always be pleasurable is one that implies that entertainment, rather than learning, has been accepted as the expected result of teaching.

There is evidence that goes even further towards suggesting a disconnection between effective learning and happiness. I say this more to be provocative than as a serious suggestion, but there are grounds to think that strong negative emotions can aid memory. Willingham (2007) describes a number of experiments carried out that demonstrate that emotion aids memory, many of which involve negative emotions. In one experiment subjects better remembered the details of a story involving graphic pictures of surgery if they are told the images are real rather than staged. In another experiment, more details were remembered from a slide show when the narration accompanying it told a depressing story rather than a happy one. Most remarkably of all, subjects who were asked to memorise a list of thirty-five words remembered them better if they were immediately followed by a distressing video of oral surgery rather than a tedious video about brushing teeth. While I’m not suggesting that any of this provides the basis of a teaching method in which we terrify and depress our students in order to get them to remember what they have been taught (although frankly I’d still rather do that than groupwork), it certainly suggests that we most certainly do not need to be content to learn effectively and we should be sceptical of anyone who suggests that we do.

Finally, there is a wider ideological issue. Attempts to promote happiness are often based on the ideas of “positive thinking” and “positive psychology”. Ehrenreich (2009) surveyed many examples of “positive thinking” and identified many examples of mysticism, pseudo-science and attempts to blame unfortunate people for their own unhappiness (an animated version of her ideas can be found below). There are concerns in life that are more important than one’s happiness. We shouldn’t learn to live happily with injustice, we are entitled to, and have a duty to, be angry at it. In the long term we may even be happier for having been dissatisfied with the world as it was, rather than cheerfully accepting it as it is. The hedonistic belief that it is better to seek happiness than justice is selfish and should not be encouraged in the next generation.


Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, 2009

Ehrenreich, B. Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, 2009

Furedi, F. Wasted – Why Education isn’t Educating , 2009

Kruger, J. and Dunning D, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 77, No. 6, 1999

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Spark, M. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1950

Willingham, Daniel T., Cognition,  2007

Willingham, Daniel T., Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by VeldaM, Andrew Old. Andrew Old said: Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #2: Improving Emotional Well-Being: In this post I identified a number of a… http://bit.ly/eOPa4d […]

  2. In the spirit of this post, I have just vigorously applied some sandpaper to my face to help the ideas sink in.

  3. You say learning something difficult can make children feel worse because they begin to understand their limitations. That is only the first step – the next one is when they overcome that difficulty and then feel genuine pleasure because they know they have achieved something. Children know when certificates and praise are free and easy that it is lower in value – the best way to help them develop strong characters and be happy is to raise your own and their expectations of themselves. This makes the wishy-washy aims of the curriculum redundant and brings us right back to the real purpose of schools: to educate.

  4. When my son was in Y11 I attended his Parents’ Evening. His Form Tutor said with an air of sadness, “He’s a very self-contained boy, isn’t he. Is he emotional at home?”
    “Not unduly so,” we said with pride.
    “I don’t feel I know him any better now than when I met him five years ago,” she said.
    When we told our son this, he said “Good. Does my psyche have to be an open drawer for any passerby to rummage about in? I hate all this public declaration of feelings crap that we have to do at school or they think you’re autistic.”
    That’s my boy.

    • Great metaphor. I hope he got an A* for English.

  5. I liked this post, as I do all your writing. But I feel that you are in danger of conflating of a lot of things into one very large, very combustible straw man.

    Nurture groups (NGs), for example, are classes used to provide a specialist curriculum and environment for children who exhibit challenging behaviour and/or learning difficulties. I agree that they are used for social and emotional education but NGs, when used properly, are designed for children who lack social skills and emotional stability. Something which the majority of children already have. To an extent, an NG involves removing difficult children from the mainstream classroom, something which I seem to remember you showing some enthusiasm for.

    Your blog is often very germane. However, it sometimes swerves dangerously close to drawing a flimsy caricature of some devious, wishy-washy conspiracy to render us all wrong headed. Ehrenreich is also somewhat guilty of this by allying Positive Psychology (the academic study of positive emotion and attributes) with the cult of positive thinking.

    I do agree that you cannot easily educate happiness. That is because happiness is usually an effect rather than a skill. That said, trying to look on the positive side doesn’t always hurt….

    Also, why is doing Yoga any worse than say cross country? They’re both good for you and both popular with uninteresting skinny people.

    As ever, I look forward to your reliably well constructed, pithy and uncompromising reply.

    Yours sincerely,

    K. Lastimer

  6. I read your comment out to MrA.

    “Bourgeois, middle-class, amateur psycho-babble” was the stern reply. Followed by, “I don’t want to *know* my students, I want to teach them.”

    “What’s there to know?” this continues unabated so I’ll stop now. A cup of tea might settle the grumbling beast.

  7. Furedi’s book is a great read..but only in a kind of…”what every was thinking anyway” sort of way…everybody knows everything he said…I have faith in people’s intelligence…nobody can actually believe liberal educationalist orthodoxy…surely?

    It’s simply that it’s expedient to pretend otherwise…then maintain the deceit.

    Imagine you worked in a garage and a “hotshot” manager arrived insisting oil-changes and new brake-pads were unnecessary…what a car really needed was a good polish and a hug…then kinda hinted there was a promotion in prospect and big pay rise for those who ‘believed’ him. Do you really think there wouldn’t be those breaking out the T-Cut next day and slobbering over every bonnet in sight?…and when the burned-out engines came back and the exponentially increased road-death figures arrived, do you doubt there’d be a number of heads nodding sagely as the new guy blamed the ‘unreconstructed’ mechanics for not making their services ‘interesting’ enough?

    By the way…I only noticed this blog a short time ago..have been reading back…is there anything on the paucity of educational research? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told: “the latest research strongly indicates…”, only to find the speaker can’t actually reference the ‘research’ or if they can it turns out to be a pitifully small unrepresentative sample which didn’t actually manage to produce quite what is claimed.

    Even better is the line “Ofsted inspectors found out that high performing schools tend to….”…only when you look into it..

    a) they don’t

    b) they’re talking about a few schools in leafy suburbs with ‘progressive’ headteachers who’d frankly have to be deluded pathological goat-botherers to possibly manage not to ‘perform’.

    c) you momentarily forget when parsing “Ofsted inspectors found…”, that most of them couldn’t find their own arsehole with a Satnav.

  8. An excellent documentary on the insanity of SEAL can be found here:


  9. Much as I like and respect Willingham, I’m not sure about the link between emotion and memory. It seems to me that it only benefits memories directly connected with the emotion.

    The last time I had a bust-up with my girlfriend, for instance, I was so emotional I left my debit card in Tesco.

  10. […] @oldandrewuk has written a much more lucid and detailed piece on happiness as an aim in education that I’m sure has shaped my thoughts over the last year or so – here. […]

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