Authentic learning can provide a route to happiness

Ed Stevens describes how the values of authentic learning could speak to the notion of happiness in a post-pandemic world.

Ed Stevens is Manager of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London

“Let’s build back better” has become a familiar clarion call of politicians as they dream of post-pandemic times.

It’s a call that pre-existed Covid, used first by the United Nations in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Politicians may holler the call with the hope of an economic bounce back in mind. But with its roots in disaster relief management rather than politics, the call has also been used with other ends in mind – from implementation of the UN’s own Sustainable Development Goals to post-pandemic education recovery.

Building back happier

One recent use of the call has struck a chord with me. Late last year, Professor Lord Richard Layard and Lord Gus O’Donnell argued that ‘building back better’ should constitute people being more satisfied with their lives, feeling more worthwhile and happier. Layard has lifelong form in the field of happiness studies, one of the first economists to work on happiness and authoring influential books such as The Origins of Happiness and Can we be happier?

Through his work, Layard provides convincing evidence of the power of non-income variables on aggregate happiness, of the importance of “wellbeing creation”. He challenges us to consider how we may become more effective creators of happiness as citizens and in our own organisations.

It’s a challenge I’ve been reflecting on recently in relation authentic learning.

Authentic learning values

Authentic learning pedagogies are those where complex, “higher” knowledge comes to life through application – where the learning enables both students and academics to deploy their understanding and capabilities for the benefit of others, usually external partners.

The hallmarks of authentic learning include collaboration, interdisciplinarity, supportive coaching and scaffolding and space for structured critical reflections. Modes of authentic learning stretch from service learning to vertically integrated projects, consultancy projects to living labs, legal clinics to science shops and much more besides.

Alongside my co-authors on a recent book – A Handbook for Authentic Learning in Higher Education – I explored a wide range of authentic learning case studies that challenge contemporary teaching practices in favour of research-informed approaches benefiting real world contexts.

Through a heady mix of academics, students and external partners working together, authentic learning opportunities provide collaborative spaces of possibility. They enable us to think, to be and to do differently.

As you’d expect from such a book, we were keen to articulate the knowledge and skills that students develop in such spaces – critical reflection, teamworking, communication skills to name a few. But we also noted the values-laden nature of authentic learning, values transcending the academics, partners and students involved.

Authentic learning participants frequently go above and beyond, investing huge amounts of time and energy. For many academics, it appeared the pedagogy was much more than just a professional endeavour but also, a personal one. Passion for interdisciplinarity, to make a difference, to be part of something bigger were all common refrains.

Through reflecting on the case studies and on insights from a recent conference and associated Tweet chat on authentic learning, it struck me that authentic learning values could speak to the notion of happiness. But how best to frame this?

The power of GREAT DREAMs

Step up the work of Action for Happiness, a movement co-founded by Layard alongside Sir Anthony Seldon, Dr Mark Williamson and Sir Geoff Mulgan. Action for Happiness aims to support people to commit to building a happier and more caring society, drawing on the latest scientific research.

It posits 10 keys to happier living, captured by the acronym GREAT DREAM:

  1. GIVING – doing things for others
  2. RELATING – connecting with other people
  3. EXERCISING – taking care of yourself
  4. AWARENESS – living life mindfully
  5. TRYING OUT – learning new things
  6. DIRECTION – having goals
  7. RESILIENCE – finding ways to bounce back
  8. EMOTIONS – looking for what’s good
  9. ACCEPTANCE – being comfortable with who you are
  10. MEANING – being part of something bigger

I believe this conceptualisation of happiness can be related to authentic learning opportunities.

Such opportunities involve diverse individuals mobilising around a shared issue, acting as a collective to achieve something bigger than their constituent parts for the benefit of a partner / partners (MEANING, DIRECTION, GIVING, RELATING). Part of the authenticity of authentic learning is the sense of belonging that it may evoke and that the knowledge it generates is put to good use in the real world.

As a pedagogical approach, learning is inherent. The collaborative nature of authentic learning usually means all involved – academics, students, partners – learn through the process. Authentic learning opportunities are shared voyages of discovery (TRYING OUT). The process of learning, of working in, and making a difference through, collaboration leads frequently to joyful and inspirational moments (EMOTIONS).

Structured critical reflection is integral to authentic learning. Through it, students focus on their actions and develop a greater sense of purpose and agency (ACCEPTANCE, AWARENESS). Crucially, they realise their abilities to act in and on the world and so enhance their knowledge of self.

Historically, authentic learning opportunities have been used in response to natural or humanitarian disasters, helping individuals and communities to bounce back (RESILIENCE). Following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 in New Zealand, the University of Canterbury developed a course to provide students with the opportunity to contribute to the recovery whilst thinking critically about their efforts.

In response to Covid, authentic learning opportunities are adding meaningfully to institutional responses. Take, for example, Storying Sheffield from the University of Sheffield, a wide-ranging project focused on enhancing community wellbeing through narrative and storytelling. Through such work, academics and students are empowered to choose how they respond to the pandemic and to gain strength from seeing the impact they make.

That’s nine of the 10 keys to happier living ticked off. Perhaps the most tenuous is EXERCISE although for some, authentic learning may occasionally feel like a marathon! If we think of exercise as taking care of ourselves more generally, of unplugging from technology and getting outside, we can begin to see how authentic learning could even help here. Many approaches provide physical escapes from campus-based education.

Embracing happiness

At the heart of authentic learning are relationships and it’s these, their formation, nurturing and outcomes, that may drive happiness and bring real meaning to our lives. Even if we don’t feel that our own experiences of authentic learning speak to every one of the 10 keys to happier living, speaking to just a handful may still feel enough.

It can be easy to deride happiness as a trite, fluffy concept and indeed, I’ve intentionally written this article from a glass half-full perspective. But Layard’s research has consistently demonstrated how happiness may improve our social and economic lives so there’s steel underneath.

Happiness aside, I’d be a proponent of authentic learning experiences in any case. The creative ways in which they connect capacities in higher education to concerns and communities beyond campus walls, their democratising potential, is enough for me.

But how wonderful, and how motivating, it would be to recognise that our authentic learning work can be an integral part of building happier lives for ourselves and for others.

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