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Happy Schools for a Happy Education

The UNESCO-KEDI 2016 Asia-Pacific Regional Policy Seminar, held 11-12 October 2016 in Seoul, Republic of Korea, emphasized the role of happiness and well-being in education systems, highlighted by the work the Republic of Korea government has been doing with its Happy Education policy and Free-Semester Program, as well as UNESCO Bangkok’s recent Happy Schools! publication. 

Learner happiness can be undermined by a number of factors, which in turn influence the way that we view not only the quality of life but also the quality of education. Overemphasis on economic development impacts education by placing pressure on learners to succeed academically. In addition, other factors within school systems, such as poor learning environments, bullying, insensitivity of educators, and obsolete curricula are all contributing to creating unhappier schools. Unfortunately, elements that are recognized as contributing to enhancing happiness, such as building positive relationships and allowing for freedom and creativity, are rarely considered as an important part of a quality education. 

What makes a Happy School?

Read our Happy Schools Criteria:

With the aim of identifying policy measures to include happiness and well-being into education, UNESCO Bangkok and the Korean Education Development Institute (KEDI) invited nine international participants from Australia, Bhutan, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Vanuatu, and Viet Nam to the UNESCO-KEDI 2016 Asia-Pacific Regional Policy Seminar. The two-day seminar provided opportunity for each country representative to share their respective policies or practices for fostering learner happiness and well-being. The seminar also welcomed a presentation from the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) on Global Citizenship Education, and the various initiatives being implemented in that regard. In addition, a school visit was arranged by KEDI to highlight the Happy Education and free-semester program in the Republic of Korea. To conclude, the participants discussed in small groups how exactly UNESCO Bangkok’s Happy Schools Framework could be utilized to create effective policy and address any challenges in meeting the criteria.


Happy Schools Framework and examples

UNESCO’s recent publication Happy Schools! A Framework for Learner Well-being in the Asia-Pacific  calls for education systems to shift away from traditional measures and to embrace a diversity of talents and intelligences by recognizing values, strengths and competencies that contribute to enhancing happiness. The main outcome of the study - the Happy Schools Framework - consists of 22 criteria for a happy school, placed within three categories: people, process, place.

A variety of practices were highlighted from the participants to show the efforts countries and organizations are making to address learner well-being in relation to the Happy Schools Framework. Participants agreed that “people” and relationships were the most important factors underlying happiness and well-being. This was true for teachers and students, and for the relationships that can be built by all school stakeholders. For example, by building positive relations students are encouraged to “engage” in the learning process (Geelong – Australia). And in Bhutan, in order to achieve its policy of Gross National Happiness, values and well-being in education is “built from relationships and connections among peoples”. ”. In terms of the “place” aspect, beyond basic infrastructure schools can enhance learner engagement at schools in a variety of ways. In Kazakhstan, the international school “Dostar” implements many different pilot projects and “laboratories” in order to improve the school environment. For example, the school takes a lead in many environmentally conscious and eco-friendly projects, such as installing solar panels and allowing students to study the impact of renewable energy sources.

In the Republic of Korea, KEDI highlighted the recently introduced Free-Semester program, which aims to relieve students from the burden of exams for one semester in middle school, or in other words: “Free students from the tyranny of high stakes exams”. KEDI noted the past studies and analysis that show that despite the country’s high academic achievement, learner stress and disinterest in learning was causing deeper social issues, such as bullying and depression. “Free” also represents “freedom”, in which teachers and students are free to follow a more holistic learning approach, that allows for collaboration and creativity.

To highlight this, the seminar organizers arranged a visit to Segok Middle School in Seoul during the seminar, where the participants got a firsthand look at the “Free Semester Program”. The participants observed several of the elective thematic classes that are offered every Tuesday afternoon. Students are free to choose the class they wish to join, and subjects range from food experiments, newspaper article writing, “happy English” writing, arts and crafts and computer programming, among others. Students work together and collaborate with hands-on activities in small groups.

This free semester program has shown great initial response. Survey results show increased levels of satisfaction, from students, teachers and parents, with the highest increase from teachers. The program has eased exam pressure and freed up time to be more creative in the classroom. Other positive changes include: increased student confidence, creativity, collaboration, self-expression and enjoyment of studying to name a few.


Way Forward

Much of the work needed to be done to ensure learner well-being is in the hands of teachers. In order for teachers to be effective, a focus on training, retraining and continuous professional development is necessary. One example, the Geelong Grammar School in Australia emboldens their teachers with the motto of “Learn to Live it”, allowing teachers to create the proper environment for well-being and happiness. Ownership and autonomy are also crucial components that allow for a greater degree of engagement and well-being. Schools can provide their teachers more autonomy over how their classes are managed and organized. Students can be given a greater voice in school matters to increase their interest and engagement in learning. And school principals need to have greater autonomy over how their school implements the curriculum.

In support of training and development, the participants highlighted the role that UNESCO, KEDI and other agencies could play in building capacity. The Happy Schools Framework could inform the development of a teacher training toolkit which could be used by education systems and schools to build the capacity of teachers, teacher trainers and professional development programmes.


All participants agreed that further advocacy, policy dialogue and capacity development are needed in order to embed happiness and well-being into education systems and to ensure quality education.