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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Once more, with feeling: the latest attempt to teach flourishing in schools

This week I’d like to examine the latest attempt to teach young people how to flourish in schools, via a new randomised controlled trial of a new Personal and Social Health Education curriculum, which is being launched in 30 English schools this autumn. As regular readers know, the attempt to teach people how to flourish is a subject close to my heart- indeed, my book, Philosophy for Life, imagines a ‘dream school’ that does just that.

Teaching flourishing has a long history. We could go back to the 19th century, when private schools tried to teach character through a combination of muscular Christianity and the classics, or all the way back to philosophy schools like Plato’s Acaedemy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. But let’s start more recently than that (I hear you breathe a collective sigh of relief) and begin in the late 1990s, when New Labour became interested in bringing psychotherapy into politics.

The idea of teaching well-being in schools took off in the UK after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. That book inspired a local education authority in Southampton to introduce EI classes in its schools, through a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Other LEAs followed Southampton’s example, and in 2002, Ed Balls, the minister for education, made SEAL a non-statutory component in the national primary curriculum, as one part of a new subject called Personal and Social Health Education, or PSHE (sorry for all these acronyms). In 2007 it was introduced in the national curriculum for secondary schools. Although it was voluntary, around 80% of comprehensives taught SEAL in some form.

Despite the enormous, almost religious enthusiasm of LEAs and New Labour, SEAL rapidly attracted controversy. Some, like Kathryn Ecclestone at the University of Birmingham, criticised the ‘dangerous rise of therapeutic education’, where children were taught that a certain model of emotionality was ‘good’ and other models ‘bad’ or ‘sick’. Indeed, Goleman’s EI argues that the healthy child is socially-skilled and happy to publicly share their emotions – in other words, the healthy child is a girl. Boys or introverts, who may be reluctant to publicly discuss their emotions in circles, are immediately pathologised.

Schools were given a SEAL starter-pack and not much other guidance from Whitehall.

Another problem with SEAL was that schools were given very little guidance in how to teach it beyond a SEAL pack sent out from Whitehall. Only a fifth of teachers have any training in SEAL or PSHE. Many schools made it up as they went along, and SEAL classes included everything from CBT to rainbow rhythms. This, to some extent, reflected the intellectual incoherence of Goleman’s pop psychology book (Goleman wasn’t a trained psychologist, he was a journalist for the New York Times).

The big problem with SEAL, which a team at the University of Manchester discovered and reported in 2010, was that it didn’t do what it was meant to do. It had no impact either on children’s emotional well-being or their academic performance. Somehow, in all the enthusiasm, no one had thought to evaluate it until it had been in our schools and imposed on our children for a decade. I find that cavalier attitude pretty shocking, and a classic example of the policy risks of good intentions without good evidence.

The realisation that SEAL lacked any evidence base seriously undermined the idea of teaching flourishing in schools, and also undermined LEAs in the eyes of the new Coalition government. When Michael Gove became minister for education, he rolled back many of New Labour’s well-being initiatives in schools, abandoning Every Child Matter and insisting that OFSTED no longer try to evaluate the well-being of pupils. Gove also ordered a review of PSHE. That review is on-going – it was supposed to have published its results by now, but apparently the Department of Education has its hands full with its academy and free school programme. The government has at least made clear it doesn’t think much of SEAL.

The Penn Resilience Project

However, there was another attempt to teach young people how to flourish in a more evidence-based way. This was the Penn Resilience Project (PRP), which was designed by Karen Reivich, Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. It was an attempt to introduce the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy into classrooms, with the same evidence-based scrupulosity with which Penn’s Aaron Beck brought CBT into the mainstream of therapy.

In 2007, three local education authorities (Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside) paid to send around 100 teachers to Penn to be trained in the PRP, and then to teach it in 22 schools. The impact on students’ academic results and emotional well-being was then evaluated by a team at the London School of Economics. One of the driving forces behind the PRP was Richard Layard, professor at the LSE and the author of Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, who had also been instrumental in getting government support for the huge expansion of CBT services in the NHS.

The PRP was the great hope of enthusiasts for well-being education, because it was supposed to be carefully scientific and evidence-based compared to SEAL. Unfortunately, when project evaluation was published by the LSE in 2011, the results were not a home-run. Amy Challen, one of the project evaluators at the LSE, tells me:

There was a 0.1 standard deviation for participants on the Beck Depression Index, and that quickly tailed off after the project finished. That’s quite small. There are lots of possible reasons for that. Most young people don’t have depression in the first place. Also children were only taught 18 hours of the course in total – as Richard Layard said, you can’t learn French in 18 hours and it may be the same for well-being. There were problems with recruitment of teachers as well. Twenty of the teachers didn’t teach any PRP workshop, and some only taught one. And some teachers had excessive expectations – they thought you could teach the programme and everyone’s life would be transformed. They would focus on individual cases where they saw transformations, and not understand why that impact didn’t show up in the data. It’s because that was just one child among 30.

During the PRP pilot, Richard Layard and two colleagues decided to be more ambitious, and to try and gather together the best evidence-based programmes from around the world (well, the US, UK and Australia) not just for emotional well-being but for the entire PSHE curriculum, which also includes topics like sexual and physical health, media awareness, and also occasionally citizenship, environmental awareness, and even (shock horror) moral philosophy. Last year, they published a report outlining their new, evidence-based curriculum for PSHE, which brought together around 16 evidence-based programmes, including PRP and other CBT and mindfulness-based programmes. Layard wanted to test this curriculum out over a longer period, to give the children the time to really learn the cognitive and behavioural skills embedded in the course. James O’ Shaughnessy, former head of the Downing Street policy unit under David Cameron, who is a big enthusiast for teaching flourishing, told me: ‘One of the things we know from the evidence is the importance of habit formation. That takes time.’

Emma Judge, one of the two founders of How To Thrive

The new curriculum is now being road-tested in a randomised controlled trial at 30 schools around the South-East of England, starting in autumn of this year. The RCT is being funded through a £687,000 grant from the Education Endowment Fund, and is being evaluated by the LSE. The teaching and teacher-training is being organised by Emma Judge and Lucy Bailey, who helped to run the original PRP pilot for Hertfordshire local education authority, and who subsequently set up a not-for-profit called How To Thrive. Through that, they have trained 700 teachers to teach the resilience programme in 80 schools around the country. Emma Judge says: ‘The initial PRP pilot was just 18 hours. The research suggests that people can learn new habits but it’s hard work and takes practice.’ The new project will teach children an hour a week, over four years, and will cover all the topics of PSHE, including media / advertising awareness, drug awareness and sexual health, bringing together evidence-based programmes like the PRP, Mood Gym from Australia, and the Parents Under Construction programme from Houston.

Lucy Bailey says: ‘An important idea is that this is a proper subject, which is valued in schools, which teachers can talk about, which students see as valued by the school. In the initial project, some schools felt ‘don’t go into that classroom, they talk about feelings there’.’ Emma adds: ‘We used to get a lot of nervousness from teachers with the original PRP, who were worried they would be opening up a can of worms by venturing into the emotions. But that’s reduced now, because teachers realize it’s not about that. Some experiences would not be suitable for the classroom and would be handled differently, through the school’s counseling services.’

The tricky question of values

I ask Lucy and Emma if the new curriculum is trying to teach young people values. This seems to me the thorny question for both PSHE and Positive Psychology in schools. On the one hand, they are attempts to help young people to flourish. On the other hand, there is an understandable nervousness about state schools promoting a particular ethical vision of the good life (there’s much less nervousness about this in private schools, perhaps because they’re less multicultural in their pupil demographics, and because parents know what sort of ethical culture they’re paying for).

Emma says: ‘Positive Psychology does face that value question, and we’re involved in the designing of a Positive Psychology whole-school approach for Wellington College. But this PSHE curriculum is much more about skills and awareness than values. Of course, we don’t want kids to take drugs, or get drunk, or have unprotected sex, but there’s nothing more invasive than that.’ Lucy adds: ‘We want to strengthen young people’s capacity to make their own decisions. Of course at year 7 or 8 we say ‘it’s better not to take drugs’, but at year 9 or 10 we say ‘what’s your view?’ We want to help people develop their own value system. A Catholic school might have a very particular set of ideas about sex, for example, while we’re not trying to influence young people in any one way on that topic. We’re not saying how they should be.’

This is, of course, a tricky area. It’s one I grapple with in my book too. You can leave out values from the curriculum altogether and say you’re just teaching ‘life-skills’, but that risks leaving children in a moral vacuum, where you sacrifice children on the altar of your own liberal tolerance (wow, quite a melodramatic metaphor there). Or you can opt to include explicit values in the curriculum, but then you risk indoctrinating young people in your own unexamined dogma, drilled into them Madrasah-style, rather than enabling people to develop an autonomous and sceptical mind-set. The challenge is balancing indoctrination with skepticism, balancing inherited wisdom with a freedom to choose one’s own path. This is not an easy trick to pull off, and requires a great deal of skill, wisdom and humanity from the teacher.

I would still love to see more ethical discussion in PSHE, perhaps to combine it with Religious Education and moral philosophy, or at least to introduce more Socratic discussions about different models of the good life into the classroom – particularly in year 11, year 12, and at university. Life-skills are the means, but it’s useful also to think about the ends. I wish the new project the best of luck over the next four years. I’m not sure what the government plans to do with PSHE in the meantime.


Here is a new brief collection of brief articles by Tory MPs on mental health. It’s interesting as an example of how mainstream mental health policy has now become. The MPs argue for new policies including greater provision of mental health services for soldiers and veterans, and greater choice of therapies for people besides CBT on the NHS.

Here is a new report from the World Economic Forum on creating a more evidence-based and quantifiable approach to well-being in the workplace.

Action for Happiness has published an interesting new report on the role of values in happiness and well-being.

A great article in Nature magazine on ritual and its role in societies.

The New York Times notes a new genre, the self-help memoire. The Guardian thinks that Sheila Heti’s new bestseller work of 20-something funny angst could be described as a self-help mash-up. And of course, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO series Girls, is writing a sort of self-help mash-up too. Self-help is gradually becoming hip, mark my words…

I just read Jaron Lanier’s brilliant You Are Not A Gadget, which is a wonderful meditation on how the internet is not necessarily making us more free and authentic, and may be making us more conformist and enslaved to ‘Lords of the Cloud’ like Google and Facebook. In that somewhat dystopian vein, check out this interesting Aeon magazine long-read from Claire Evans about how the internet haunts us with the ghosts of past relationships.

Can autism be outgrown, asks Time Magazine.

My brother and another friend are both involved in the complex attempt to come up with new UN Millennium Development Goals. Not an easy task, as this Guardian editorial notes.

This week I have been mainly listening to new albums by Toro Y Moi (weird indie R&B) and Matthew E. White (sort of intelligent and quiet soul); I have been mainly reading Elijah Wald’s excellent book on the history of rock and roll; and mainly watching this wonderful documentary, also about the history of rock ‘n roll. Can’t wait to see Zero Dark Thirty this weekend.

See you next week,


‘Show me the compassionate atheist communities’

Do you know any good poo and wee stories? This is the question that confronts me as I arrive at Windsor Hill Wood, an open-door community run by the writer Tobias Jones and his wife Francesca, in Somerset. They live there with their three children – Benedetta is eight, Grace is five, and Leo is three – and there are five beds for guests. In the open-door tradition of Christian communities like Pilsdon and Little Gidding, those beds are available to anyone who turns up looking for shelter. For £10 a night, you get food and board, as long as you obey the three rules: no drink, no drugs, no physical or verbal violence. As a bonus, you get to field unusual questions from the children.

Tobias Jones

Windsor Hill Wood is a refuge for the wounded (particularly those suffering from substance addiction) and an experiment in communal living. It’s also a family home. The Jones children are full of life and mischief. Benedetta is at the age where she is amused by poo and wee, so, in an attempt to limit her dinner-time interjections, Toby has suggested setting aside a brief period after-dinner for ‘poo and wee stories’. Benedetta informs me of this as soon as I arrive, and says I have an hour or so to think up some good poo and wee stories. After dinner, she turns to me expectantly and says, ‘Here’s my story: when I was younger I peed in the bath. Now what’s your story?’ Grace, on my right, is amused by my name. ‘Jules? Like crown jewels?’ And she immediately sets to work making me a crown from some cardboard and feathers. I feel honoured.

Toby says he was inspired to set up the community by the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning and afternoon, he goes to prayers in the  wig-wam chapel on the edge of the wood. The prayers are 15 minutes of silent contemplation, and are completely voluntary. Guests are expected to take part in woodland work in the mornings – feeding the chickens and pigs, chopping wood, making furniture in the workshop, tending to the vegetable patch, fixing stuff. Every meal is taken together.

I first came across Toby last year, at the Hay-On-Wye book festival. He was there to talk about the detective novels he writes, the profits from which he uses to subsidize Windsor Hill Wood. In the festival bookshop, I picked up his book Utopian Dreams, a brilliant account of his travels with his wife and the one-year-old Benedetta to visit various spiritual and religious communities – a Quaker retirement village, a new age commune, a Catholic village without money or TV, and finally the Pilsdon open-door community in Dorset.  Their stay in Pilsdon inspired the Joneses to set up Windsor Hill Wood. The book is also a meditation on community and faith. Toby tells me: “We used to live under one shared sacred canopy – Christianity. Now faith has been privatized, and turned into a lot of little personal umbrellas.” ‘Cocktail umbrellas?’ I suggest. “Yeah, right!” And the price of that privatisation, Toby thinks, is that we have become alienated and lonely.

It’s not all bad, though, is it? I point out that the ‘shared canopy’ that existed before the Enlightenment involved the ruthless extermination of those who didn’t accept the dominant umbrella, whether that be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gnostics, pagans or free thinkers. And community isn’t all good: I’m quite glad I don’t live in a village where the vicar checks to see if I’m behaving myself. I like the freedom to choose my own beliefs, my own path.

Still, Toby offers a serious challenge to secular humanism, one which leaves me pondering as I drive back up the A303 to London. In Utopian Dreams, he wondered why faith seemed so important an inspiration to community. Someone in the book asks of the charitable and voluntary sector: “Where are the humanists and Fabians and socialists?” I ask Toby to explore that point further. He says:

Some friends sometimes say ‘you could do this without the religious element’, and I always reply ‘show me the atheist communities that do it. Where are the humanist communities that have an open-door policy, that genuinely look after all the people in need?’ And I’m afraid they don’t exist, or I haven’t discovered them. Even those iconic charities that are now secular in the way they run, like Save the Children or Emmaus or Amnesty International, their inspiration was religious. I’ve yet to discover the agnostic or atheist community that shows that degree of compassion. In theory, love of humanity is a sufficient motive for compassionate communities. But show it to me in practice. I’m more interested in the fruits than the roots.

If that’s the case, I ask, why would that be? Toby replies:

What does it say about religion? That it’s true. You can’t re-package religion for a secular age and say ‘the sacred is really useful,  because it helps us build community and makes us compassionate, ethical people. So let’s take the Sermon on the Mount and forget about God’. That’s not going to work. The core of religion is true, not just the fringe benefits. All the other stuff is a consequence of God. I know I’m in a tiny minority, but I don’t think you can put the cart before the horse. Religion gives humanity an extra gear for cruelty and stupidity and witch-hunting and all the stupid things religions have done for millennia. But it also gives humanity an extra gear for fellowship and compassion. Religion should in theory entirely remove the focus from the self, so that the paramount thing is no longer me and what I’m going through, but something external. That works on the personal level and at the community level, because the community has something outside of itself that is sacred and paramount. We can get together to be reciprocal and compassionate to each other, but that doesn’t suffice. You need something external that gives devout purpose to a bunch of human beings.

The fruit, not the roots

Albert Ellis. Good man. Atheist.

This got me thinking. Certainly there are many noble charities and organisations which were inspired by religion, from the Red Cross to Alcoholics Anonymous. But there are also many worthwhile institutions that weren’t inspired by religion, such as the entire United Nations and all its works, including UNICEF and UNDP. I can also think of many humanists and atheists who have done a great deal to relieve human suffering (if we’re talking about the fruits and not the roots). Albert Ellis, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was a fervent atheist, and quite an egotist, but the therapy he developed has helped millions of people out of suffering. Not to mention all the scientific advances that have relieved human suffering, from penicillin to the household toilet. Some of the scientists who helped build the modern age were religious, but many were not. Some might not even have been that kind or sociable. But their inventions have dramatically improved the conditions of our life.

The secret of the modern age compared to the religious age is that it’s not about the saintly charismatic individual – the Mother Theresa or the Jean Vanier. It’s about effective laws, effective technologies and effective institutions. That might not sound very soulful but, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out, a good pragmatic reform like the minimum wage is more important to relieving human suffering than any number of saints or Salvation Armies. And sometimes good inventions and good laws are made by not very saintly people, like the philanderer Lloyd George. As Adam Smith pointed out, sometimes not very moral behaviour (like status-seeking) has pro-social benefits (like higher economic growth).

There is a big evangelical revival in western Christianity at the moment, a revival in the belief in miracles. That revival is often fuelled by westerners traveling to the Third World, particularly Africa, and witnessing miracles there. Some of my Christian friends are very inspired by this revival and the power of faith and charisma to heal sickness. In some ways, I think this revival is a flight from modernity. Look at child mortality rates or life expectancy in countries with a low level of faith and a high level of scientific expertise, like the UK, and compare it to life expectancy in African countries, which have high levels of faith and low levels of scientific expertise. Faith may sometimes work wonders, but chemotherapy cures more people of cancer. Post-religious societies like the UK are also, on the whole, less violent than intensely religious societies like, say, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. I know it’s simplistic to lay those countries’ problems entirely at the door of religion, but religions seem to me to get in the way of solving those problems, rather than helping people arrive at pragmatic and effective solutions.

But of course, secular liberalism has its downsides. As I put it in Philosophy For Life, we have won our privacy, but at the cost of terrible loneliness. We have relied heavily on the scientific, the instrumental, the technocratic. We have relied on scientific expertise divorced from human feeling. And that has sometimes led to vast bureaucratic institutions like the welfare state or the NHS, which can sometimes feel impersonal, un-compassionate, soulless even.  They are contractual rather than transcendental. We meet in them as service-users and service-providers, rather than humans.

We still hunger for loving communities, we long to be joined together in a common sense of the sacred and transcendent. In the last few months, several humanists have suggested the need for ‘humanist churches’ in recent months, from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the School of Life, to the humanist chaplains of Harvard, to the new atheist church in Islington, set up this month and run by two comedians. I’ve taught classes at the School of Life, and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It offers ideas, stimulation and community to people without faith in God. It is a platform for some of our best thinkers and writers – this week it hosted Richard Sennett. The School means something to people. It helps them think about their values. And yet Toby’s challenge is a good one to consider.

The problems with humanist communities

One of the wonders of the universe: Brian Cox’s ego

Firstly, do humanist communities have good moral leaders? Do they offer us worthwhile moral patterns we can embody in our own life? Many of the most prominent humanists are prominent not because of their emotional or moral qualities, but because of their scientific skill. But not everyone can be a world-class scientist like Richard Dawkins, so that sort of leader is of limited use as a pattern to imitate. And in many humanist leaders, I see an egotism which is not present in the best religious leaders like, say, Jean Vanier. I follow one of Harvard’s young humanist chaplains on Twitter. Every other tweet of his is a retweet of a compliment someone has paid him. He seems to be motivated by the desire for publicity and approval. Nothing wrong with that. Me too, and I’m older than him and should know better. But I want my spiritual leader to be better than that. I want them to be above the desperate desire for fame and publicity that affects most of us (particularly me). I think of that line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.’ Thine is the glory. Without God, I think we can easily end up glorying in our own images. Watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, I was amazed how often Cox’s own grinning face fills the cosmos. Again, nothing wrong with that, why shouldn’t media personalities have big egos? I’m just saying, we hope our spiritual leaders are better than that.

Secondly, do humanist communities have the emotional depth of religious communities? How low do they go? Are they capable of facing the depths to which the human spirit can sink? Are they open not just to the educated and well-heeled, but to the broken and wounded, and to human suffering in all its ugliness and awkwardness and blood and poo and wee? Much as I love the School of Life, I think it caters essentially to the middle – the middle-class, and the middle-suffering. I don’t think it would be much help to the truly broken, to the sick, to the dying. I think Roger Scruton is right that secular humanism struggles to find appropriate emotional reactions to major life events, like death. It often becomes mawkish and sentimental, or simply bathetic. Life isn’t all ha-ha hee-hee. The atheist writer Alom Shaha visited Islington’s atheist church recently, which is run by two comedians, and wrote:

The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).

Yes, it does. But fellowship isn’t just about learning facts, nor is it about TED-like solutions for better living. It’s also about facing failure, suffering and death together.

Is it possible, then, that Toby is right, and that having something in common outside of us – God – allow us to open up and be vulnerable to each other and to share our imperfection and woundedness? Does it enable us to take off our masks and meet each other? One thing that strikes me about my Christian friends is the central importance they give to friendship and meeting. They listen to each other, honour each other. They take their relationship with God very seriously, and they also take their relationships with other humans seriously. I admire that.

Finally, does humanism place too much emphasis on the rational autonomous self? I’ve met some addicts who enjoyed reading Philosophy for Life, and who commented on the parallels between Stoicism and the various Twelve Steps programmes like AA or NA. Both, for example, emphasise knowing the wisdom of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But AA goes deeper than that. It says that we’re not in control, we can’t do it on our own. We need God and other people to help us.

Well, this is a complex area. Let me end by telling you my poo and wee story. I had broken my leg skiing in Norway, and was flown back to the UK and picked up from the airport in an ambulance. We were driving down the M4 to London, and I needed to pee. So the medic next to me gave me a urine sample bottle to pee into. But I really needed to pee, and it became rapidly clear to me that I was going to pee more than the capacity of the bottle. ‘I’m going to fill it!’ I said. ‘Is there another bottle?’ There wasn’t. As we sped down the M4, the medic and I looked around desperately for another container. Then a voice came back from the driving seat. ‘Use this’. And the driver passed back his lunch box. Sighing with relief, I peed into that. Was the ambulance driver a theist or a humanist? I don’t know, but I was grateful for his help.

I interviewed Tobias for a podcast for Aeon Magazine, which will be released shortly. 


In other news:

Here’s former LPC speaker Peter Kinderman on why grief and anxiety aren’t illnesses, with reference to DSM V.

Next Tuesday, come and hear Jacqui Dillon, director of the Hearing Voices Network in England, talk at the LPC about her experience hearing voices, why the experience can be meaningful, and how the Network helps voice-hearers to help themselves.

On February 6th, come to the School of Life and hear me talk to philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy helped her when she faced a potentially terminal illness.

I’m launching a six-part evening course on Philosophy For Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, starting Tuesday 5th February. It’s free. Details here.

The OUP has published a new Handbook on Happiness, with contributions from leading UK positive psychologists like Ilona Boniwell and Felicia Huppert, and well-being policy pioneers like Nic Marks and Geoff Mulgan. Looks great, if expensive.

Struggling to get PhD funding? Head for Asia.

Get ready for Slavoj Zizek, the opera. And three Oxford undergrads are launching John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: The Musical. I like this new trend.

Here’s an article in the Daily Mail (sorry) about the Liverpool reading project and its latest neuroscience research into what complex poetry does to our brain.

Here’s an article about Drake’s philosophy of YOLO (you only live once).

This week’s newsletter is sponsored by NIETZSCHE BARS.