OPINION

Making children happy

We must redefine the purpose of school education

In 2016, yoga was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Thanks to a unanimous resolution of the UN General Assembly, the International Day of Yoga is also celebrated annually on June 21.

Many schools in India have introduced yoga at early ages. One such school is the Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya in Dwarka, Delhi. The principal says yoga improves students’ mental, emotional, physical and behavioural health: “Yoga is all about balance of mind, body and soul. It improves not only the health of the students but also their concentration.”

Growing scientific evidence suggests that yoga and mindfulness training allow young people to improve “self-regulation” — a psychological construct encompassing competencies such as the ability to control attention and emotions, avoid aggression, and engage in self-directed learning.

Over recent decades, access to education has expanded significantly throughout the world. Countries are increasingly achieving universal basic education, extending their coverage to secondary education. However, at the same time, there is a concern that education systems are becoming too competitive, stress-fuelled and exam-oriented. We are also witnessing rising trends of intolerance and violent extremism as well as increasing levels of anxiety and depression among the youth. Causes of these are many and complex, but there is an increasing consensus that something must be done to redefine the purpose of school education.

UNESCO promotes the notion that schools must provide an environment conducive to learning where children feel physically and mentally safe, encouraged to make and learn from mistakes, and be recognised and respected for their multiple talents apart from academic excellence. But these factors can be easily forgotten in a highly competitive environment.

To tackle this issue, the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, based in Bangkok, has launched the Happy Schools Project, with the aim of promoting happiness in schools through enhanced learner well-being and holistic development. We are in the process of operationalising the Happy Schools framework, with the involvement of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP).

MGIEP is the first UNESCO institute of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region and is generously supported by the Indian government. It has developed a social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum called Libre, which is designed to build four competencies – critical inquiry, mindfulness, empathy and compassion. School pilots of this curriculum start this year in India and Malaysia. We hope that this will pave a way for integrating SEL in school curricula as a vital component of making schools happier places.

The writer is Director and UNESCO Representative of the UNESCO Cluster Office for India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka

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