What do you really want for your children? What do you dream about for their future? It’s probably not fame or even fortune. Instead, parents simply want their children to be happy. “I think that, deep in their hearts, every parent would agree,” says Susan Engel, the founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts.
By happy, Engel doesn’t mean having a party every day. When we’re happy, we are finding both meaning and joy in life. Kids need to learn how to achieve that happy state, but we can give them the tools they need to do it. Engel used her experience as a developmental psychologist to figure out what those tools are—and how schools could be teaching them.
The 7 Dispositions: Making School, and Life, Meaningful
The seven skills, or as Engel calls them, “dispositions,” outline the key things everyone needs to have a shot at a happy life. Her goal was to think big, but also be reasonable. “Happiness is very temperamentally based. School isn’t going to change that. It won’t make a shy kid un-shy, either. So I focused on what school could really play a role in,” Engel says. “School can equip children with skills and attitudes that they can carry forward.”
- Reading. “The ability to read in a test is one thing, but what we want to know is not only can they read, but do they?” Engel says. “Do they use written materials to think about things, make decisions, enjoy themselves, inform themselves?” At school and at home, kids should have ample opportunity to read, and to read what they want to read—without writing it all down in a reading log.
- Inquiry. “There is plenty of evidence that inquiry helps you do well in a job, but it also makes you happy. People who go on learning get more pleasure out of life,” Engel says. So learning is more meaningful for kids if it’s organized around what they want to know. Instead of the specific topic, what’s most important is asking questions.
- Flexible thinking. What’s more meaningful in the long run: knowing a set of facts, or being able to think about something in many different ways? Adults need to be able to see a situation or tackle a problem from multiple perspectives. So we need to help kids develop that skill.
- Conversation. “We know the amount of conversation kids have drops when they get to school,” Engel says. “There’s one teacher and twenty-three kids.” But there are consequences to this. Kids with educated, middle-class parents are exposed to a lot more meaningful discussion. Schools can help close that gap so kids learn valuable conversational skills like not interrupting, adding information, and building on your partner’s ideas. We should allow and encourage kids to talk among themselves, and teach teachers how to facilitate enriching conversations.
- Collaboration. It’s a big buzzword in the work world, but kids are rarely helped to collaborate in a way that’s meaningful, says Engel. Instead, they are told not to “cheat” or help each other, except on the occasional group project. She wants to see collaborative work be the focus, not the exception. It should extend to social interactions, too: Teachers can help kids navigate relationships with their classmates—including making sure that some kids don’t exclude others. We need to find ways to make kindness and teamwork a habit.
- Engagement. Being really absorbed in what they are learning will help kids lead a “meaningful, purposeful, connected life,” Engel says. They need opportunities to immerse themselves in a project or area of study, whether that means reading a book they like or pursuing the answer to a question they’re curious about. Being deeply immersed and focused on a particular task or activity is motivating.
- Well-being. Like adults, kids need a sense of purpose. But “we don’t allow children to develop that in school,” Engel says. “We should be nurturing them and asking: What do you want to do that’s meaningful and useful to others? When we saved kids from industrialization, we somehow got the idea that kids should never do anything that feels useful.” But children need to feel that what they do matters, and that they are part of the community. Instead of writing letters just for the teacher’s eyes, for example, they could be sending them out into the community to ask a question or pursue a policy change. Or they could create memory books for the elderly.
The good news: Much of this is already happening in schools. “But it tends to be around the edges instead of being the core,” Engel says. “I’m not saying we should throw out everything great teachers do!” Instead, we can build on what’s already there by shifting importance to these seven areas. It would mean a lot to our kids, both now and in the future.
To read more about Susan Engel’s seven dispositions, see her book The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness—Not Money—Would Transform Our Schools.
Catherine Holecko is a parenting writer and mother of two school-aged children.