STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH & TEACHING EFFECTIVENESS: WEAVING CURRICULUM, PEDAGOGY AND PRAXIS
I have learned that my gift as a teacher is the ability to dance with my students, to co-create with them a context in which all of us teach and learn. -- Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (1998, p. 72)
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Setting the Context
While learning can be challenging at the best of times, few would dispute that effective learning requires effective teaching as a precursor. Karbasi and Ghanizadeh describe teachers as being "the backbone of the educational institutes and [that the] future of our nation lies in their hands" (2017, p. 299). Teachers, however, are not the only facet of effective teaching. They require two additional components: curriculum and pedagogy. Curriculum refers to the planning, design and development of a course, for example, including the definition of all learning outcomes, content, learning activities, and methods of assessment (UNESCO, 2019). Pedagogy refers to the interactions and relationships between teachers, students, curriculum and the learning environment (P. Murphy, 1996).
What happens to teaching and learning effectiveness when the curriculum seems overshadowed by other factors? What happens when a student’s mind becomes so preoccupied with other concerns and worries that they cannot focus attention on academic success? What happens when a student’s resilience erodes to the point that their hope for the future begins to evaporate? Indeed, this is a reality in Canada, as well as other jurisdictions, where research has linked chronic and excessive stress, including that experienced on a student’s academic journey, to an increasing occurrence of mental illness and decreasing academic performance (Baik et al., 2017; Grøtan et al., 2019; Kratt, 2018; Lane et al., 2018; Linden & Stuart, 2019).
“Regardless of jurisdiction, institution, program, status, or any other factor, every learner interacts with curriculum and the pedagogy that was used to [deliver] it” (White, 2019, u.p.). For student experiences increasingly dependant on curriculum (Baik et al., 2017), it may be time to explore in more detail at the intersection of curriculum development and instructional design with student mental health, as I intend to do in my upcoming research project ‘Minding Their Minds: Adapting Universal Design for Learning in Support of Student Mental Health, Resilience and Hope for the Future.’ Engaging in intentional design of curriculum and learning environments that are “psychologically resource-rich for students” (Baik et al., 2017, p. 11) is likely to produce outcomes that are universally beneficial – to students, teachers, schools and communities.
Curriculum supports student well-being when it offers opportunities for self‑motivation, competence, positive relationships, and a sense of belonging (Baik et al., 2017). There are three primary components to curriculum: formal, informal, and hidden. Formal curriculum is delivered directly through courses. Informal learning is acquired through participation in co-curricular activities. The hidden curriculum materializes in the form of indirect messaging rooted in the formal curriculum about “desired values, beliefs, behaviours” (Baik et al., 2017, p. 16) and ways of knowing and being. The latter can have a powerful effect on the levels of motivation and engagement experienced by students.
As I have noted in my practice, student motivation and performance are boosted when students ‘see’ themselves in the curriculum, which must be both academically and culturally relevant. In Canada, where educators are taking to heart the recent recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, considerable work is being done to indigenize and decolonize curricula. A key learning from this that I am weaving into my practice as both educator and researcher is Etuaptmumk, or two-eyed seeing. This is a broadening of personal perspectives in which one learns to “see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all” (Bartlett et al., 2012, p. 335).
In some cases, it may even be beneficial to become more overt with hidden curricula. Citing the successful use of practices such as cognitive behavioural therapy and social emotional learning in supporting students with challenges to their mental health, Hayden (2016) argues that a more explicit teaching of these practices within the context of the formal curriculum would be beneficial for all students in helping them to develop a positive self-concept and in their interactions with others.
Yu (2017) speculates about the importance of the relationships teachers have with their students as having tremendous influence on both the mental health of individual students and the well-being of the school in general. In a study about student perceptions regarding their well-being, Lane et al. (2018) found that relationships, or connections, with both teachers and peers supported their well-being. They also perceive that their well-being is supported when teachers recognize that academics are not the only important component of a student’s life. Moreover, they identified that students felt supported when they participated in engaging learning experiences for which expectations were clearly articulated.
“School personnel are the most common providers of service to [students] who have mental health disorders” (Kratt, 2018, p. 23), but most teachers believe that their effectiveness as teachers is limited due to a lack of training and awareness related to mental health (Kratt, 2018). Embedding mental health awareness and competencies, knowledge about broader support systems, and self-care practices within the training and preparation of teachers, both pre-service and in-service, could lead to teachers becoming and feeling more effective in the classroom (Kratt, 2018). However, as Kratt’s findings indicate, some teachers feel overburdened and lack sufficient time to add the role of mental health provider to their teaching role, and some find it challenging to support others when struggling with issues affecting their own mental well-being. While teachers generally support the concept of additional mental health training, they stress that it must be relevant to their context. For example, they maintain that training regarding legislation and policy frameworks regarding student mental health is outside the purview of a classroom teacher, preferring that any additional training be focused on more meaningful support aspects such as working with people, support systems and communication strategies (Kratt, 2018).
Baik et al. (2017) suggest that teachers can play a significant role in creating learning environments that promote autonomous motivation. This can be achieved by focusing on learning objectives and being prepared for class, by treating students with respect, by setting high expectations and genuinely believing in students, and by creating supportive yet challenging opportunities for students to take control of their education. Referring to this as a “whole-of-curriculum approach to wellbeing,” Brooker et al. (2019, p. 55), offer that any student support initiative should be something that can be maintained within the school context. Failing to do so could diminish well-being.
The concept of praxis is generally attributed to educationalist Paulo Freire (2000). He described it as an iterative practice of action/reflection in such a way that people come together in dialogue, act to transform their world, then reflect before further action.
Weare argues that effective teachers are those who know how to “embody and model” (2018, p. 395) both the formal curriculum as well as hidden curriculum. In a recent study, specific teaching practices that appear to support student mental health were identified (Lane et al., 2018) and work is underway to determine their efficacy with a plan to incorporate them more meaningfully into teacher practice. In their work with undergraduate students in Australia, Brooker et al (2019) suggest that changes made to curriculum and pedagogy that support student well-being, and adopted by teachers, will result in more time available for teachers to focus on other means of effective engagement.
In their study of Iranian English as a Foreign Language instructors, Karbasi & Ghanizadeh (2017) found that there was a significant relationship between teaching effectiveness and a teacher’s intrinsic appreciation for and interest in the subject they taught. Likewise, a similar significant relationship emerged from their work between goal setting and teaching effectiveness. They found that teachers who modelled these behaviours – setting clearly articulated goals and demonstrated an interest in their work – were motivated toward “pedagogical success” (Karbasi & Ghanizadeh, 2017, p. 298). This, in turn, was found to have a positive effect on student performance and accomplishment.
Similarly, adopting and embedding student-centred tools such as The Learning Thermometer (Stallman & King, 2016) can help to improve mental health awareness and teaching effectiveness by integrating mental health support within the curriculum. “The Learning Thermometer is a web-based tool that not only provides grounded, relevant feedback to teaching staff, but also encourages students to proactively reflect on their own learning and wellbeing, and consider implementing changes to be more successful” (Stallman & King, 2016, p. 3). The Learning Thermometer promotes self-sufficiency, self‑efficacy, self-management, and problem-solving. By providing a tool that allows students autonomy over management of their lives, particularly an aspect still subject to intense stigma, they gain and develop personal agency.
Linden & Stuart (2019) also explored use and refinement of a student-centred tool to help students evaluate their exposure to stress. Developed by students for students, participants engaged in the survey/interview component of the Post‑secondary Student Stressors Index (PSSI) to yield the evidence needed for the researchers to refine, test, and validate the tool. The PSSI assesses 46 stressors within a number of post-secondary domains: “academics, the learning environment, campus culture, the interpersonal, and the personal. The tool evaluates each stressor by both severity and frequency” (Linden & Stuart, 2019, p. 9). This allows institutions to identify academic and operational areas creating the highest levels of stress enabling them to focus mitigation efforts.
“Mental health and well-being are at the heart of the effective school” (Weare, 2018, p. 397) which is predicated by an environment that fosters effective learning as result of effective teaching, effective curriculum and effective pedagogy. Learning is integral to life and there is always more to learn and discover. Drawing from the metaphor on the opening page, if life is a dance, we always have more steps to learn. To do so effectively, respectfully and inclusively means that the dance between teacher, curriculum and pedagogy remain one step ahead.
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Brooker, A., McKague, M., & Phillips, L. (2019). Implementing a whole-of-curriculum approach to student wellbeing. Student Success, 10(3), 55–63. https://doi.org/10.5204/ssj.v10i3.1417
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