The Changing Landscape Of Being Well In Canadian Schools

March 2, 2018
Phil McRae

Wellness in Canadian schools is a focal point of conversation for educators working on kindergarten to Grade 12 (K–12) education programming and policy. While these conversations center primarily on social and emotional outcomes, various dimensions of wellness are currently being nuanced, such as financial literacy, healthy eating, physical fitness, technology addiction and vocal hygiene.

Wellness consideration in schools and communities is gaining momentum due to a large body of data that points to a dramatic rise in the reported cases of anxiety and depression in children and youth, including increases in suicidal ideation. This, in turn, is creating even greater stressors and concerns among the teaching profession and for those who care for children and youth on a daily basis. Most recently, there is a renewed focus across Canada to move beyond student wellness to that of understanding and supporting teacher and school leader wellness (see Environmental Scan of activity that accompanies this article).

However, the primary focus for wellness programming and policy is the significant role public education plays in the lives of Canadian children, where our schools are seen as a major influencer and lever of change to improve both individual and societal wellness. The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, one of Canada’s largest philanthropic foundations, is funding the development of a national program called WellAhead with the rationale that “given the amount of time young people spend in school, this setting presents a unique opportunity to support and promote well-being” (www.wellahead.ca).

Yet finding boundaries within the definition of “well-being” has become difficult. “Wellness” in educational discourse appears to be on an evolutionary track similar to that of other usefully ambiguous notions like “21st-century learning,” “personalization” or “inclusion” in that well-being now spans the many interconnected dimensions of social, emotional, mental, physical, cognitive and workplace (e.g. violence) wellness.

As J-C Couture details in the Research Roundup of this edition of the Magazine, “Who Will Own Student Wellness?”, there is a rush to both define and fill this ambiguous space by public and private interests around the world. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which helps governments design and implement strategic policies, has two new initiatives focused on measuring and responding to childhood well-being.

The first is the OECD International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study, which intends to test five-year-olds on tablet computers in order to measure four domains: 1) literacy/language, 2) numeracy/mathematics, 3) self-regulation and 4) social/emotional skills (including trust and empathy). The other is a future-focused competency framework known as OECD 2030 that plans to assess different cultural value orientations around the world in order to support individual and societal well-being.

While both of these initiatives appear on the surface to have laudable goals, careful consideration must be taken before Canadian schools adopt either of these international benchmarking tests.

In terms of OECD 2030, there is concern that this will be making culturally and contextually sensitive comparisons (and perhaps judgments) on different national values as they relate to well-being. Meanwhile, the International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study is being heavily criticized by academic and early learning organizations across many nations. As early childhood professor Helge Wasmuth states, “Don’t even get me started on the collection of child-based data on a global scale without the consent of children, parents, or practitioners. Or with assessing five-year-olds on a tablet. How flawed and meaningless are the results? How do you assess trust and empathy, or the complexities of learning and development?” (Wasmuth 2017).

In the private sector, technology companies have been racing to capture a market for the monitoring, managing and real-time reporting of student behaviour, with a specific goal of altering class well-being through digitally-tracked behaviour modification tools. One particular behaviour management tool, ClassDojo, is now firmly entrenched in 90 per cent of K–8 schools in the United States (https://www.classdojo.com/). This company sells, maintains and monitors software that tracks students’ behaviour in the classroom and allocates negative or positive points (dojos), based on the observed behaviour.

Among the critics of ClassDojo is the renowned blogger and teacher Joe Bower, who points out that, “ClassDojo reduces children to punitive measures where the misbehaviour is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the teacher that needs to be snuffed out. ClassDojo judges and labels students by ranking and sorting them and distracts even well-intentioned adults from providing children with the feedback and the guidance they need to learn” (Bower 2014).

If we are to truly take stock of the wellness of our students, in all its manifest forms, certainly the human dimension of positive teacher–student relationships will become central to the practice, as opposed to the application of a mechanistic or Pavlovian behaviourist software program. This is a cautionary tale for digital assessments writ large, as educational psychologist Gerald W. Bracey, research columnist for the Phi Delta Kappan education journal, points out, “there is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all” (Matthews 2004).

The wellness of children, youth and indeed adults, requires many sustained, resourced, thoughtful and strategic actions if we are to collectively address individual and societal well-being.

References

Bower, J. 2014. “6 Reasons To Reject Classdojo.” For the Love of Learning (blog), November 21, 2014, http://joe-bower.blogspot.ca/2014/11/6-reasons-to-reject-classdojo.html (accessed January 18, 2018).

Matthews, J. 2006. “Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing?” Washington Post, November 14. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/13/AR2006111301007.html (accessed January 18, 2018).

Wasmuth, H. 2017. “Baby PISA Is Just Around The Corner: So Why Is No One Talking About It?” Early Childhood Education (ECE) Policy Works website. http://ecepolicyworks.com/baby-pisa-is-just-around-the-corner-so-why-is-no-one-talking-about-it (accessed January 18, 2018).


Phil McRae, PhD, is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.