Research Roundup

March 2, 2018

Ranking Up On Student Wellness

A global challenge for the teaching profession

Throughout the existing body of organizational management and behaviour research literature, the terms “health,” “wellness” and “well-being” remain highly contested and ambiguous and have too often been co-opted by commercial interests (Davies 2015). Two widely known experts in the field argue in their controversial book, The Wellness Syndrome, that the current fixation on health and wellness reflects a deeper ideological shift in our culture that is grounded in the problematic neoliberal assumption that the individual is an autonomous agent who through the sheer power of free will can overcome any and all obstacles to happiness (Cederström and Spicer 2015).

For education policymakers and researchers, the alchemy of the terms student health, wellness and well-being have taken multiple meanings driven by a wide-ranging set of imperatives and research approaches ranging from an instrumental focus on improving productivity such as student achievement and test scores to more humanitarian and spiritual impulses driven by an ethic of care for students as intrinsically worthwhile human beings (Graham, Powell, Thomas and Anderson 2016; Clandinin 2007; Michalos 2014).

Here in Canada, as in our other jurisdictions, the growing marketing of data architectures that has spawned “data dashboards” and “data walls” in schools is increasingly mobilized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and corporate players such as Pearson and a growing cadre of consultants and software vendors. Here in Canada this includes the development of instruments to survey student engagement, including social and emotional development, that have been suggested as opportunities for new elements of school performance reporting and/or accountability purposes (People for Education 2013).1

Reflecting on this rising tide across OECD jurisdictions, including Canada, Shanker (2014) has raised cautions regarding efforts to address student wellness through metrics and data architectures while failing to address the all-too-obvious sources of systemic distress for children and youth that include growing precarity, including food insecurity and environmental degradation.

Central to the emerging policy milieu of student wellness is the growing influence of international large-scale assessments (ILSAs) and global learning metrics (GLMs) that are increasingly shaping the reform agendas of governments and elite policy brokers. The growing data architectures of the OECD members are being used to legitimize a variety of often contradictory and paradoxical “educational policy reform agendas” as education ministers attempt to improve their rankings, or “rank up” their jurisdiction’s status globally (Fischman, Topper and Silova 2017, p. 10).

While ILSAs and GLMs such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are taking on more credence in the media and public debates about the comparative quality of education, the irony remains that the flood of data that such tests generate is used to support a myriad of often contradictory policy initiatives here in Canada and abroad (Fischman, Topper and Silova 2017, p. 13). Increasingly, ranking up among OECD education ministries leads to less than rigorous analysis of the metrics, shifting instead to a preoccupation with rankings and competitive comparison (Sorensen 2017).


Whoever gets to name the future, owns the future.
—Hal Niedzviecki2

As with all public policy deliberations, just who gets to define and frame the definitions of student wellness and well-being will shape and determine future strategies both here at home in Alberta schools and across the OECD. Wellness and well-being are at risk of being subsumed under the aegis of the OECD that has occupied the policy space with its growing interest in measuring the cognitive, psychological, social, physical and material well-being of students (Borgonovi and Pál 2016, p. 22). Interventions by the OECD in applying international benchmarking and metrics to well-being are evidence of the globalizing of education policy in the past decade (Fazal and Lingard 2013; Fischman, Topper and Silova 2017).

The OECD’s growing investment in expanding its measures of social capital, including student health and well-being, include measuring trust in people, measuring health inequalities and measuring trust in institutions, all focused on tidy well-being metrics and quick policies fixes. More recently, building on the OECD Framework for Measuring Well-Being and Progress, the OECD will potentially feed the media’s default position of focusing on comparisons and a political impulse for a “ranking up” agenda. For the education sector struggling to keep pace with this measurement imperative, one risk is embracing the marketing of commercial off-the-shelf products used to measure student wellness and social emotional learning, as has been documented in Australia (Hogan, Sellar and Lingard 2015; Lewis and Hogan 2016).

Since 2007, the deployment of the language of competencies as the foundation for policy reform across the OECD has reflected the humanist neo-liberal framing of the student as a competitive global citizen-in-waiting. This trend has given legitimacy to the framing of teaching and learning as a means of infusing “skills, behaviours, attitudes, motivations, values and understandings” (Hipkins, Boyd and Joyce, 2005, p. 1) that “point to a more familiar cognitive and individualist framing” (Hipkins and Boyd 2011, p. 71).

The unfortunate result of the OECD Framework for Measuring Well-Being and Progress is that the focus on individual competencies and attributes of students has given rise to a new generation of data infrastructures that constructs students in a deficit model, potentially lacking the psycho-social qualities needed to succeed, framed by a narrow definition of a productive political economy and civil society. This will give rise to an unarticulated but compelling driver of educational policy and practices: framing and reporting gaps in wellness and well-being as a form of student incompetency. This policy shift is already being mobilized through the inclusion of indicators of “global competence” in the 2018 administration of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) using both cognitive testing measures as well as data collected through self-reporting of “students’ awareness of global issues and cultures, skills (both cognitive and social) and attitudes, as well as information from schools and teachers on activities to promote global competence” (OECD, p. 21). This latest effort reflects the longstanding concerns regarding PISA including methodological challenges and the stringing together of inferences regarding what constitutes literacy and numeracy skills, never mind the emergent and ephemeral construct of the OECD’s Global Competence Framework (Fernandez-Cano, 2016).

As a growing body of researchers is pointing out, paramount among the many difficulties of deploying large-scale metrics based on whole nation and large-scale data sets of various student outcomes—including attributes such as competencies—is that it risks student wellness and well-being, introducing “psychopathological descriptors to locate whatever it is they are describing as deficits exclusively within people” rather than the result of the broader socio-political contexts of the lives of young people as human beings
(Wasson 2015, p. 37).

As well, there are numerous ethical issues around surveying students regarding their psychological states that are increasingly being raised by teacher federation leaders and psychometricians. Furthermore, Ferguson and Power (2014) acknowledge that measures used to assess current wellness programs have been primarily tied to academic outcomes and school engagement. Yet little evidence currently supports that these programs actually translate into healthy adult lifestyles. In their view, all school relationships are central when establishing safe social and physical school environments. Policy and community partnerships should be focused on the broad outcomes of a healthy life not the primary pursuit of academic attainment.

Rose Hipkins (2004), chief researcher with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, concludes from the New Zealand experience that while a focus on key competencies has been helpful for leveraging curriculum change, in a later analysis she sees that wide gaps persist between what students report about their mental health and their sense of confidence and connectedness compared to the focus on key curriculum competencies (Hipkins 2012). Simply overlaying key competencies such as “managing self” and “relating to others” over top of the complex psycho-social issues students face is problematic. In the New Zealand case, not only was there is no connection between the humanistic concern for the well-being of students and the neo-liberal agenda advanced by the OECD’s vision of the purposes of school, the econometric model of schooling driven by that organization was often at odds with the ways school performance metrics are taken up by education ministries across the globe.

The growing risk is that the shoehorning of the OECD competencies curriculum discourse among its members, including Alberta, into student well-being will inevitably shift into another form of deficit thinking about the attributes and capacities of students. For example, it should not be lost on Alberta teachers that the enthusiasm for gathering up yet more data within the constellation of ILSAs and GLMs continues unabated here in Alberta, as made evident with the decision to continue to participate in a growing array of international assessments. These include the OECD’s PISA, Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) and the Alberta Indigenous Student Achievement Gap Study. It also includes IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).


In one of the most comprehensive reviews of pan-Canadian mental health policies and strategies, Ott, Hibbert, Rodger and Leschildet (2017) identify the dominant narratives that currently shape policies and practices and conclude by advising “system leaders to adopt a sociomaterial perspective” (p. 21) in order to advance student well-being initiatives. Drawing on evidence of growing work intensification of Canadian teachers (Froese-Germain and Riel 2012), the authors caution that student mental health should be understood as yet one more imposed priority and policy initiative for schools that are already stretched for time, money and resources, further concluding “schools cannot be settings that promote mental fitness for students if they are not psychologically healthy settings for educators” (p. 14). Here in Alberta the considerable psychological challenges faced by teachers and school leaders has also been well-documented (Duxbury and Higgins 2013).

To support teacher wellness in robust communities of practice the authors offer a policy framework with five categories: cosmopolitanism, compatibility, available resources, access to information and knowledge, and processes (Ott, Hibbert, Rodger and Leschildet 2017, pp. 21–22). For Alberta teachers and the Association’s current research efforts, of these five elements, of particular import is cosmopolitanism: the degree to which organizations are networked externally and promote boundary-spanning roles of their staff. From the Association’s perspective, drawing from this element should encourage policymakers and practitioners to ask questions such as, how are schools connected and networked to organizations and their communities? Do schools promote boundary-spanning roles that bring teachers and students together with the expertise of other communities globally? In what ways does the current focus on narrow definitions of success in school continue to act as barriers to equity and the aspirations of the Association’s roadmap for positive change outlined in A Great School For All (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2012, p. 21).

Of course, addressing these questions also invites us to consider the broader boundary-crossing questions about the role of students in their education and, more importantly, helping them to define their future in society. While many education policy initiatives claim to value student voice and their concerns about their place in the world, seldom are these concerns ever addressed. (Gillet-Swan 2017) Or as Wallin (in press) asks, for young people, what might well-being and being in the world mean in the age of the Anthropocene, where there is “no longer any more room for nature” because up to 50 per cent of all animal species are projected to face extinction by midcentury?

Thomas and Robertson (2012) call for a broader systems view of the complex ecologies that shape student wellness strategies by moving beyond “policies such as surveillance measures” that focus on individual deficits and pathologies of students to “policy efforts to empower students to challenge and change both their own lives and the world in which they live” (p. 138). While bringing teachers together in communities of practice to interrogate the local contexts related to mental health and well-being, teacher organizations need to support school efforts to cross the boundaries beyond the school site to engage the critical influences that shape the psycho-social condition of children and youth.

Taking up a boundary-crossing cosmopolitan approach to educational development is the core of the Association’s international research program that is also shared by other organizations and government agencies. Inspired by the proven benefits of networks of schools as a catalyst for educational development demonstrated by the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, in 2011 the Association embarked on the Finland Alberta (FINAL) partnership and later, the Norway-Alberta-Ontario (NORCAN) and this past two years the New Zealand partnership. By bringing together students, teachers and school leaders, these internationalization efforts continue to be an important step in educational development (Hargreaves and Shirley 2013, p. 13). Students taking co-ownership of their well-being and their place in the larger global society will continue to be a key rationale for supporting schools as the catalyst of change in these partnerships as described a theme issue of the ATA Magazine (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2016).

As with any policy aspiration, the focus on wellness is an expression of all educational policy making to achieve “visions of education and the imaginary futures that nations seek to make reality” (Zhao and Gearin 2018). The pursuit by the OECD and other global policy players to mobilize particular indicators and measures of wellness and well-being to generate data infrastructures will only amplify the culture of competitive comparison. This realization is shared by other teacher organizations in our partnership network, as articulated by R. Grottvik, a political advisor to the Norwegian Union of Education, in a conversation with the author on November 22, 2017:

The current political response to challenges in the education system always seems to be to use more resources to develop more fine grained comparable measurements of “outcomes,” instead of investing more resources to enhance teaching practitioners’ ability to help their students. Why not more comparable measurements of the investments governments make to resolve the challenges?

Teacher organizations will need to continue to help shift policy priorities if the psycho-social condition of youth is to be addressed. As well as our international partnerships that mobilize the voice of youth, there are promising examples in the field that can be part of the work ahead. In Alberta exemplary work is underway in building community-based networks with school jurisdictions and ministries as well as the Association’s Healthy Minds, Bright Futures partnership with the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Ontario is drawing on the expertise of Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves to build a consortium of schools that are focusing on professional collaboration to engage whole-school development around student achievement, student well-being, equity and public confidence.3 Also, community mobilization in organizations such as People for Education (2013), while acknowledging the risks of contributing to the culture of competitive comparison, has undertaken important work in exploring possibilities for measures of social and emotional learning linked to defining broader indicators of school success.

With its international partners, the Association will continue to pursue alternatives to the education ministries’ default focus of ranking up on global metrics of wellness as a substitute for engaging with citizens and communities addressing the systemic influences shaping the psycho-social development of children and youth. The political imperative ahead for teaching organizations globally remains a compelling one that ought to mobilize the moral basis of what the teaching as a profession is about:

It is our privileged and political work in the intimate contexts of young people’s lives that constructs our work as a counter-tool to make visible and speakable so much that is rendered invisible and unspeakable. (Wasson 2014, p. 51).       

Dr. J-C Couture is the associate coordinator of research for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.


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