Gratitude in education

Five years ago I decided to enrol in a graduate diploma as a mature age student. Like many people who return to higher education when they’re older, my experience was very positive. It was also in marked contrast to how I remember my time at university when I did an undergraduate degree. Then I was fresh out of high school wondering why I was there and what on earth I was going to do. Gratitude was the furthest thing from my mind.

I’m reminded of these two very different learning experiences while listening to Dr Kerry Howells present at last year’s Mind & Its Potential conference on the subject of gratitude, specifically how to cultivate it in the classroom and the transformative effect that doing so has.

Howells tells us that since 1999, about 640 papers have been written about gratitude and that the majority conceptualise gratitude as an emotion that leads to other emotions of a positive kind. But Howells is more interested in defining gratitude as “an expression towards another” which in the context of education means encouraging students and teachers to think “about [gratitude] as a practice, as an action.”

By way of illustration, she tells the story of a teacher who put a stop to cyber bullying in his class when he decided one day to tell each of his students what it was he valued in them. The students then took turns to express their own feelings of gratitude.

Howells says bullies generally “don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel connected.” Tellingly, the French word for gratitude is reconnaissance “which contains the meaning of recognition. What [this teacher] was doing for his students was he was recognising them in possibly ways no one else in their lives had.”

Howells is all about finding simple solutions (i.e. the practice of gratitude) to complex problems in education, one being a lack of ‘awakeness’ in the classroom, a state of affairs that seriously impacts on learning. Here she paraphrases philosopher Martin Heidegger who once said we can’t truly think until we learn how to be present.

Gratitude is the perfect antidote to student distractedness because it means “they come into the class with an awareness of what they’ve been given and wanting to give back.” Often mature age students quite naturally embody this attitude of appreciation.

Howells describes the inability to be present as a kind of deadness, which she blames on a user-pays education model that positions students as mere receivers (and teachers as mere givers). “When you want to receive, you’re expecting a lot and when you’re not getting what you expect, you start to complain,” she says.

“Just naming the resentment or taking responsibility for it or recognising it in its form and then taking action to do something about it, is a gratitude practice.” That action can be as simple as educators “greeting their students with the pure intention of expressing gratitude to them. That’s when the classes start to transform.”




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