How the Best Schools Teach

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything
that can be counted counts” (Anonymous).

This holiday I read two new books that have really challenged my thinking about how to equip children and teenagers for success. They are: Teach Your Children Well (by Madeline Levine, 2012) and How Children Succeed (by Paul Tough, 2012).

Actually, they’ve confirmed some ideas I’ve had for a while, but haven’t really acted on. So they’ve made me feel a little guilty. I should be doing more to support the non-academic needs of students. We all should.

Here’s what you need to know.

The mistake

A lot of us (teachers, parents and students alike) act as though schools are mostly, if not entirely, there to prepare students academically. Middle schools prepare students for high school and high school is basically there to prepare students for the academic needs of college. Recently, 73% of American students surveyed affirmed this view (Balfanz) and I have taught with a lot of good teachers who would as well.

What’s wrong with that?

There are a few reasons why we need to change peoples’ mind about this. For the sake of concision, let’s look at just two (of many) arguments: why we can do more and why we must do more.

We can do more

Yes, schools do train us to be intellectuals (which is a powerful and good thing), but at their best they also prepare us more broadly to be capable adults:

-to be able to take care of ourselves,
-to work together,
-to handle complex adult social and emotional situations,
-to have healthy habits (so we can live longer, more active lives),
-to have a social-conscience,
-and on and on.

Hard to argue with right?

Few would dispute the importance of these skills and yet, when the pressure is on (when exams are just around the corner), we can overlook these valuable aims. And let’s be honest: exams are ALWAYS just around the corner. So we often (myself included) can get caught up in focusing on the academic priorities (test and exam prep) and keep wellness and soft-skill capability-development perpetually on the back burner.

Why is this?

One of the most powerful maxims in business is: “What gets measured gets done.” If no one ever keeps track of whether you show up for work or not, you probably won’t show up for work. Similarly in schools, we might all agree that eating well and stress-management are important and yet many schools don’t measure whether students are gaining these (wellness-related) skills. As a result, many students graduate without developing them.

We must do more

If you aren’t already convinced, let’s look at a few facts about mental health (just one part of wellness). In an average class of 25 students, 5 show symptoms of a mental disorder, and 2 or 3 (2.5) suffer from “mental illness severe enough to result in significant functional impairment” (NIMH). Similarly, while students have historically “cited either family discord or peer problems as being their greatest source of stress, school is now identified as the number one stressor in their lives” (Kids and Stress). So, mental illness should be something they learn about and develop strategies to cope with.

Where to go from here

I think where we need to start is asserting a broader role for schools. We need to challenge those who will try to claim that schools are not the place for teaching about emotional wellbeing, for example. And we should try to change their mind. And then we can look for small ways to encourage wellness education. For example, teachers can incorporate wellness (theory) in lessons and the development of good habits (practice), for example in what students eat at lunch time. And students can choose presentation topics that include aspects of wellness (i.e on positive psychology, or nutrition) and share insights with their peers.

(For my part, I will be running a club at OFS this semester called Health Leadership, to help students who want to make a difference in this area at our school and/or in Singapore more broadly).


I would like to thank my wife Bettina for buying these books for me and helping me a lot with this article. She is currently completing her Master’s of Education thesis, exploring wellness-related physical education interventions. So she’s teaching me a lot. (As per usual).

Balfanz, Robert. Can the American High School Become an Avenue of Advancement for All? p.1) (Here’s a link)

“Kids and Stress, How Do They Handle It?” KidsHealth KidsPoll, October, 12, 2005. The National Association of Health Education Centers database. From Levine xv.

“The NIMH Blueprint for Change Report,” Research on Child and Adolescent Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 41, no.7 (July 2002) p 760-66. From Levine xv.

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