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Key considerations essential to developing a curriculum that supports learners’ mental health and wellbeing

9 min read
ALEX MORGAN, HEATHER PENNINGTON AND EMMAJANE MILTON, SCHOOL OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, CARDIFF UNIVERSITY, UK

Introduction

There is an acknowledgment that low levels of wellbeing can impact negatively on learners’ mental health in both the immediate and longer term (HEPI, 2019). The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these concerns around the wellbeing and mental health of learners of all ages (Burns et al., 2020; Viner et al., 2022), alongside concerns about missed school/university experiences and limited engagement with the curriculum (Betthäuser et al., 2023).

From our extensive work with and as educators across all sectors, we have become aware that, rather than reconsidering core practice from the perspective of learners, there is a belief that their wellbeing and mental health can be supported by enhancing the curriculum through providing peripheral innovations/interventions to ameliorate learning loss or stress (Betthäuser et al., 2023). Frequently these solutions are employed to fix a situation, often with limited consideration of whether the core experience is fit for purpose for all learners. Innovations/interventions range in quality and rigour in terms of meeting learners’ needs (Gorard et al., 2020). While some are highly beneficial, pertinent and appropriate, others may make little difference at all, potentially wasting learners’ and educators’ time. Regardless of their value, if innovations/interventions do not improve the central experience of learners, and the central experience fails to meet learners’ needs, they are more likely to become disengaged and develop negative dispositions toward learning. If not addressed, both in the immediate and the longer term, this is likely to impact negatively on learners’ wellbeing and potentially their mental health (HEPI, 2019). Regardless of how beneficial additional innovations/interventions may be – given the large proportion of the day that learners spend in core activities compared to external, additional or peripheral innovations/interventions – it is unlikely that they will do enough to support the wellbeing and mental health of learners who are experiencing a poor central learning experience.

Drawing on the literature and our experiences as educators (with experience across all sectors), we outline below four key features of everyday practice that we assert need to be considered to support learner wellbeing and mental health:

  1. an inclusive culture climate and ethos
  2. the quality of learning interactions
  3. pedagogy is curriculum – ‘the how’ and ‘the what’
  4. formative assessment.

 

Importantly, these key features are not distinct but inextricably linked, intertwined and overlapping. The following discussion of these is based on a broad understanding of the curriculum as including both the subject matter being taught and the pedagogical approaches being used (sometimes termed the hidden curriculum – Meighan and Siraj-Blatchford, 1997).

An inclusive culture climate and ethos

Fundamental to a successful curriculum is establishing and nurturing caring relationships, both in terms of supporting the learner to develop knowledge and skills (subject matter) and for the learner themselves (Noddings, 2012) – a highly complex endeavour requiring a careful balance of these for each individual learner. Noddings (2012) stresses the need for genuine and ongoing listening to the ‘expressed needs’ (p. 773) of learners rather than a type of care that assumes that we already know what is good for them. This highly interactive way of working privileges dialogue that builds trust, demanding consistency, integrity and hard work – it is a deliberate act and commitment to treat others as you would wish to be treated. Modelling working in this way means always practising affective empathy (Hoffman, 2000), alongside the demands of teaching something specific. It requires all teachers to understand their responsibility in terms of inclusive pedagogy and the associated need to be agentic in their daily practice – to meet all learners where they are and also to respond to encountered ‘barriers to learning’ without judgement or stigma (Florian and Black-Hawkins, 2011, p. 826). We think that ultimately this is about seeing teaching as service – adopting a perspective of teaching being fundamentally about the learners and not about you as the teacher. Important to privileging caring relationships and understanding learners’ ‘expressed needs’ (Noddings, 2012, p. 773) should be opportunities for developing shared understandings with learners, jointly developing awareness of alternate perspectives and checking for understanding, ultimately ‘providing rich learning opportunities that are sufficiently made available for everyone so that all learners are able to participate’ (Florian and Black-Hawkins, 2011, p. 826).

The quality of learning interactions

These highly interactive ways of working advocated in the section above align with what is suggested in Mercer and Howe’s (2012) research on quality learning interactions. Their work, underpinned by socio-cultural theory, suggests that teachers should privilege opportunities for collaborative dialogue by:

  • exploring learners’ ideas, making greater use of open questions
  • encouraging learners to rearticulate ideas themselves, supported with a wide range of subject-specific vocabulary
  • encouraging learners’ explanation of views, e.g. ‘How do you know that?’, ‘Why?’ and ‘Tell us a bit more?’
  • ensuring that learners are allowed time and (a safe) space in which to express their thoughts and ideas and to reveal misconceptions
  • pacing carefully how key information/explanations are provided so that they build and draw upon learners’ thinking and prior learning experiences
  • thinking carefully about giving learners enough time to develop thoughtful answers to questions (together or individually) and avoiding moving on too quickly
  • consistently using discussion and/or interaction to help learners to see the point and purpose of what they are learning about
  • creating opportunities for learners’ ideas to shape and change the nature of the discussion
  • demonstrating and making explicit how language is used to develop ideas and build arguments so that this is modelled for learners.

 

These approaches are likely to support learners of any age in terms of their involvement with the curriculum, helping them to develop a more secure grasp of the ideas being shared and enabling further opportunities for formative assessment (Mercer and Howe, 2012). In doing this, learners’ wellbeing and mental health can be supported because learning becomes more transparent, less emotionally challenging and more accessible. However, it should be noted that those learners unfamiliar with working in this way (articulating their ideas and engaging in collaborative discussion) may initially find this a bit odd. They will need encouragement and carefully structured support to become comfortable with this approach (Mercer, 2008). We assert that this makes a strong case for embedding and privileging these practices throughout all levels of education – learners need to develop and refine their ability to work in this way.

When well established and consistently practised, quality interactions, as part of a collaborative, open and honest learning culture, can become feel-good, supporting learners to develop enhanced relationships with their teachers and each other. This way of working can also impact positively on how they view themselves as a learner (Alexander, 2020). These positive impacts on relationships and learners’ self-efficacy can promote wellbeing and mental health.

Pedagogy is curriculum – ‘the how’ and ‘the what’

A poorly understood aspect of educational practice is that the way in which we teach something is as educative and important to our learners as what we are teaching them – the hidden curriculum (Meighan and Siraj-Blatchford, 1997). As Wiliam (2013) states:

A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.

Learners are always carefully scrutinising their teachers, watching what we do and how we treat those around us – this is an often neglected but important aspect of the curriculum. What we model through our own actions and interactions as educators, consciously or unconsciously, informs, shapes and exemplifies what we believe and value in many ways, including: 

  • what we want learners to learn and how it can be applied
  • how expertise in a subject/specific domain is developed
  • the value and nature of critical thinking and adopting a questioning stance
  • how inclusion is understood and enacted
  • how to collaborate and learn from others
  • what constitutes acceptable levels of self-regulation
  • the right to hold alternative viewpoints.

 

The reason why the hidden curriculum (Meighan and Siraj-Blatchford, 1997) is so important in terms of learners’ wellbeing and mental health is that learners need to understand why they are being asked to do something in a particular way (essentially, the educator’s underpinning rationale for their practice). In addition, all learners benefit from classrooms that are centred around them and their needs (rather than around teachers’ needs), where everyone is given the opportunity to lead, manage, help, share, participate, plan and work together (Freiberg, 2002). Freiberg (2002) highlights that this approach leads to significantly higher levels of achievement, motivation and ‘academic self-concept’ (p. 36) – all factors that, we assert, are likely to contribute to positive learner experience and engagement.

Formative assessment 

The approach taken to assessment in any learning context profoundly shapes pedagogical practice. Currently across the UK, assessment and examination policies have led to summative assessments being privileged to such an extent that learners may feel that their experience of the curriculum is simply about learning to regurgitate specific information to pass the test – making learning experiences narrow, instrumental and, at times, highly pressured and stressful (Black, 1998; Titley et al., 2020).

A greater emphasis on meaningful and authentic formative assessment (frequently labelled and understood as assessment ‘for’ learning) can help teachers to adapt their practices to better meet learners’ needs and know how best to support learners’ understanding. This can also bring about large improvements in terms of learner outcomes (Black and Wiliam, 2001). While many settings already implement policies that privilege formative assessment, there continues to be a problem with how it is enacted in practice. In order for formative assessment to be impactful, Wiliam (2018) stresses that understandings from this must be drawn upon and used to modify teaching practices to better meet learners’ needs. When situated within high-trust teacher–learner relationships, formative assessment positions errors as something from which to learn and can enhance both pupils’ attitudes and responses to the curriculum (Wiliam, 2018). This has been noted by Leighton and Bustos Gomez (2018) as contributing positively to learners’ wellbeing and therefore their mental health.

Conclusion

Given the ongoing legacy of the pandemic, we suggest that all educators may find it helpful to reconsider their practice from the perspective of their learners, as we cannot assume that pre-pandemic expectations and assumptions about where learners are or should be hold true. Never has it been more important for teachers to exercise their professional ‘judgement and discretion’ (Biesta, 2015, p. 75) and to have a secure underpinning rationale for their curriculum, the way in which they work and what they ask of their learners. We suggest that critically reflecting on and adjusting day-to-day teaching practices, in terms of the features outlined, may benefit all learners and particularly the most vulnerable. Doing so is likely to better equip learners, as unique individuals, to succeed and to fulfil their potential in society. As Biesta (2015) suggested, ‘the point of education is that students learn something, that they learn it for a reason and that they learn it from someone’ (p. 76). As teachers, we are central to and responsible for the nature of the curriculum, what is learnt (both explicitly and implicitly) and the way in which this is likely to impact the wellbeing, mental health and academic success of both our individual learners and our wider society in the future.

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