Featured Image: Gratitude by Lynn Allen, Flickr Commons, Modified by iPub Global Connections.
Credit: Kukulska-Hulme, A., Bossu, C., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Tang, J., Wang, Q., Whitelock, D., Zhang, S. (2021). Innovating Pedagogy 2021: Open University Innovation Report 9. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Reflecting On Attitude to Improve Well Being and Learning
Gratitude, when considered as a pedagogy and not as an emotion, is an approach to learning and teaching that actively involves the acknowledgement of what we have or receive and the conscious action of wanting to give back in some way¹.
Gratitude is typically expressed towards someone or for something. When applied in an academic context, it can help students to improve student–teacher and student–student relationships, it can help them to be more aware of their learning environment and it can increase their understanding and focus on their studies. Research among college students found that practicing gratitude within learning indicated an increase in students’ ability to focus in class and to remain resilient while facing difficulties in learning².
Applying gratitude as a pedagogy in the classroom can also improve the mental health and wellbeing of students and teachers. For example, a study of university teachers found that practicing gratitude as an approach in the classroom led to teachers being better able to deal with stress and find calmness, and it enhanced their wellbeing³. It is possible that this approach to teaching and learning could be even more relevant in times of adversity as we are still grappling with the impact of Covid-19 on students’ learning and on students’ and teachers’ well being and mental health.
Putting it into practice
One practical approach to implementing gratitude in learning and teaching involves creating a ‘state of preparedness’⁴ where teachers and students are asked to prepare and examine their attitude before starting their learning and during learning activities. This state helps individuals to become aware of the kind of attitude that they hold (negative or positive) and the impact this might have on their learning, and on teaching in the case of teachers. By creating a state of preparedness before and during learning activities, students and educators can be encouraged to be more aware of the learning taking place and those involved in the process.
This state can be developed when students and teachers are asked to reflect on a particular learning topic or activity using the following elements: thoughts, words, emotions, self-talk and physical state. They are also prompted to use two different angles: first to look at these elements from the opposite of gratitude, which is often complaint, dissatisfaction and entitlement; and then to look at the elements again from a gratitude point of view. While reflecting, students are asked to take notes or complete a template. This reflection has the potential to bring awareness of predetermined negative attitudes and behaviors towards certain topics or learning activities. The negative attitudes are then analyzed and replaced by elements of gratitude, bringing a state of awareness, presence and appreciation among students and teachers. Students who have engaged in this approach have reported being more focused and less distracted, having great motivation for learning, increased confidence and a deeper understanding of concepts⁴.
Gratitude can also be applied as an assessment task. An Australian study was conducted to enhance the teaching of literacy with pre-service teachers, in ways that valued their relationships with secondary students they were teaching, using notes of gratitude. Teachers asked students to write or draw a gratitude note about a topic or learning activity being assessed. Students were prompted to reflect on the content explored, how much they thought they learned, the improvement in their relationship with secondary school students, what they were grateful for and strategies of how they could give back to others, including to their professions once they graduated⁵. This approach has the potential to improve the teacher–student relationship, appreciation of the learning taking place and future applications of the learning.
When integrated into teaching processes, gratitude can support focus and resilience in learning. A group of 50 US college students were asked to self-reflect on their learning experiences and consider gratitude over three months. Students were sent periodic text reminders three times a week asking them to take time to reflect on their class (prior to learning), and learning practices (at the end of each week), and to think about their educators (in the middle of each week). Participants were invited to either carry out the practice informally or through writing in a journal. These students reported an increase in ability to focus in class and remain resilient while facing difficulties in learning².
Developing a gratitude journal can also help students and teachers to enhance learning and teaching, respectively. After the end of the day or week, teachers can ask students to write in their personal journal three good things related to their learning. Teachers could use the journal in a similar way and take note of three things that happened in their teaching during the day or week that they are grateful for. Dedicating time for the gratitude journal activity is important, as teaching schedules can be tight. This way, students and teachers would value the time and the opportunity to appreciate what was learned and taught and the people involved in the process³.
Implementing gratitude in learning and teaching can be challenging. Here are some key challenges teachers and other practitioners might face when practicing gratitude as identified by Howells¹:
- systemic – when practitioners’ priorities and pressures are to focus on administrative and process-based tasks, leaving very little time to spend on their own professional development and on innovation in teaching
- conceptual – when practitioners see gratitude as a practice that depends on their state or mood. It is important (but hard) to think about gratitude even when things don’t go as planned – for example, in times of adversity. This should not distort the situation but should build resilience
- reciprocity – this refers to a teacher’s lack of motivation to apply gratitude when students or colleagues are not able to give back. While practicing gratitude should mean that there is no expectation of getting anything back in return, this can be difficult to achieve or maintain.
Gratitude, and how it is expressed, might be influenced by cultural and social values, which suggests that gratitude as a pedagogy might be adopted more or less readily in different countries or settings.
Gratitude as a pedagogy brings benefits to students and teachers. It can increase engagement, connectedness, focus and understanding of concepts being learned. It can improve the relationship between teachers and students, increase appreciation of what is being learned, and what and who is involved in the learning process, including people and content. Gratitude as a pedagogy can create a state of preparedness and awareness about learning inside and outside the classroom, including online environments. By expressing gratitude towards someone or something, students and teachers can enhance wellbeing and calm amidst stress.
Gratitude in education has also been used to increase inclusion and diversity in teaching and learning, to improve PhD student–supervisor and mentor–mentee relationships, and to build resilience, confidence and performance of elite athletes. It has been increasingly included in the professional development of school teachers, used in early-childhood education and explored as an additional support for cancer patients. As wellbeing and mental health are considered broadly within education, it is a pedagogy that might be highly relevant in the present and near future. Its applications are wide and varied and the results can be powerful.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy these books from iPub Global Connection: Walls to Bridges: The Global Ethic by Hans Küng and There Must Be YOU: Leonard Swidler’s Journey to Faith and Dialogue by River Adams.
- An exploratory case study that investigates the role of gratitude within a secondary school context:
Howells, K. (2014). An exploration of the role of gratitude in enhancing teacher–student relationships. Teaching and Teacher Education, 42, pp. 58–67. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2014.04.004 (Accessed: 20/11/2020).
- A paper on the impact of gratitude on college students’ ability to focus in class and remain resilient in the face of difficulties while learning: Wilson, J. (2016). Brightening the mind: The Impact of practicing gratitude on focus and resilience in learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(4), pp. 1–13. Available at: https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v16i4.19998 (Accessed: 20/11/20).
- Teachers’ perspectives on the impact of practising gratitude in the classroom environment:
Wilson, J., & Foster, R. (2018). The power, structure, and practice of gratitude in education: a demonstration of epistemology and empirical research working together. International Christian Community of Teacher Educators Journal, 13(1), Article 4. Available at: https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/icctej/ vol13/iss1/4 (Accessed: 20/11/20).
- Insights of adopting the ‘state of preparedness’ model within a university context: Howells, K. (2004). The role of gratitude in higher education. HERDSA (Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, Inc.). Available at: https://www.herdsa.org.au/system/files/howells. pdf (Accessed: 20/11/20).
- The use of gratitude to assess appropriate literacy teaching pedagogies used by pre-service teachers:
Auld, G., Eyers, A., & O’Mara, J. (2020). Assessment of literacy pedagogy using gratitude. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 45(6). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2020v45n6.4 (Accessed: 20/11/2020).