Gratitude in Education: 
A Radical View
From the introduction

by Kerry Howells

Watch Kerry's TEDx talk: How Thanking Awakens Our Thinking

Where there is no gratitude, there is no meaningful movement; human affairs become rocky, painful, coldly indifferent, unpleasant, and finally break off altogether. The social ‘machinery’ grinds along and soon seizes up.
– Margaret Visser (1)

cover of the book Why gratitude in education?

Many frown upon the use of the words gratitude and education together. It seems like a strange combination. We might perhaps be able to contemplate the place of gratitude in aspirations for wisdom or transformation, but to picture how it relates to learning for information or understanding content may require a greater leap than many are willing to make. At a stretch of the imagination, gratitude may have relevance to lists of values or mission statements rather than a thread that can run through our curricula. Schools such as those based on the Montessori and Steiner traditions or those of a religious denomination often proudly advocate gratitude as one of their core values. Initiatives such as service learning (2) and ‘Tribes’ (3) capture the spirit of giving that is also embraced by gratitude. Recent studies in the field of positive psychology herald the potential of gratitude for enhancing the wellbeing of students.(4) However, it is still difficult and extremely rare for much of mainstream education to make links between gratitude and teaching and learning pedagogy.

I first stumbled upon gratitude as a powerful learning strategy for students nearly two decades ago. I was teaching a philosophy unit called ‘Cultural and Ethical Values’ at a university which had the reputation of being the domain of “privileged” students. Students from all faculties were obliged to take the unit, alongside three other core units. I was filled with appreciation that students so early in their university studies had the opportunity to gain a foundation in ethics and be in touch with the greats of ethical philosophy – Plato, Augustine, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, Confucius, and Buddha. A large number of students, however, wandered into my tutorials full of complaint about being required to study something they did not choose, and which they believed had no links to their other studies or vocation. Other tutors in the same course were reporting similar resistance and low levels of student engagement. After the first two semesters of teaching the course and unsuccessfully trying to whip up enthusiasm, exuding my passion for the subject, using all the best teaching techniques I knew, but receiving the same negative and unmotivated reaction from my students week after week, I decided that something had to shift. We were at a stalemate.


We may think that our students might be making conscious choices not to pay attention, to drift off, to be disengaged, in actual fact they want to be present,
but do not know how to be.

I took a different approach in the following semester. I facetiously informed my students, to their surprise, that I refused to teach them unless they chose to be ‘present’ enough to learn. I spent the first half of the tutorial in the first three weeks trying to understand what it was that was underneath the students’ refusal to learn and be engaged in the unit. I asked them to write non-stop for twenty minutes on topics such as their obstacles to learning and their perceptions of why they found it difficult to engage; and followed this with group discussion. I came to discover a number of incongruences that I believe are as prevalent in today’s university and school students as they were then. Although we may think that our students might be making conscious choices not to pay attention, to drift off, to be disengaged, in actual fact they want to be present, but do not know how to be. Most seem thirsty for answers about how to be more engaged, and look to us as educators to provide these for them.

I also discovered that the majority of students, no matter how privileged, were full of complaint about what they did not have, or about how their expectations were not being met, or that they wanted things to be different and were resentful that someone else was not initiating that change. They wanted to be engaged, and yet did not feel they were actively choosing not to be engaged. They were firmly entrenched as receivers, complaining about not receiving enough and feeling they deserved more. They were not seeing that their complaint and resentment could be undermining their ability to be engaged.
Without much preconceived intention at the time, I suggested that perhaps gratitude could be a valuable alternative paradigm to the one of resentment that predominated. Without much prompting on my part, many students started to approach their studies with more gratitude. They reported that when they practised more gratitude when they studied, they experienced increased engagement, greater connection to the subject and teacher, a deeper understanding of content, and increased motivation.


If students think about what they have been given rather than looking only for what they can receive,
their learning transforms and they are able to be
more present in their learning.


From that point onwards, the educational value of gratitude became my imperative. In this way my aims stand apart from the wellbeing and happiness agenda of most initiatives in the field of positive psychology. I started to embed gratitude as a learning strategy in each of my units, no matter what the subject. I have since taught the relationship between gratitude and student engagement in a number of different contexts and institutions – first-year orientation and transition programs, pre-service teacher education, years 10, 11 and 12 high school studies, and other learning strategy courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Many of these students went on to apply an increased consciousness of gratitude to their learning of subjects traditionally immersed in the objectivist framework. They reported the benefits of applying gratitude even when they were studying information-dense subjects such as tax law, economics, psychology, and business administration. The contexts and age groups may be different but the outcomes were consistent: attention to gratitude serves a very important need for students to attend to their being at the same time as their thinking. If they think about what they have been given rather than looking only for what they can receive, their learning transforms and they are able to be more present in their learning.

painting of hands holding a flower by Meganne ForbesWhile teaching these students, I came to see that the number one condition or teaching strategy for discussing gratitude as a learning strategy is my own practice of gratitude. As I reflected why some groups of students were able to embrace the place of gratitude more than others, or even why some seemed to express more gratitude than others, I discovered that there was an uncanny relationship between my own level of gratitude and that of my students. Before we can expect students to practise gratitude, teachers and school leaders need to be practising. This is my rationale for my approach to this book, and why I have written it about teachers’ gratitude before addressing students’ gratitude.

From this realisation I developed a pedagogy for teaching gratitude to teachers and school leaders, and started to offer this in the form of professional development and action research projects at several schools and universities. Most seemed to embrace gratitude as a powerful way of combating the resentment they themselves were carrying into their classrooms and staffrooms. Instead of blaming the system, they felt empowered to investigate the part they could play and respond proactively. Most were motivated by the inherent wisdom that their students’ sense of entitlement and ensuing complaint affected their learning, and that gratitude presented a positive way forward.

For some, the concept of gratitude, especially the radical one I was proposing, was difficult. They were uncomfortable with connotations of indebtedness, reciprocity and obligation. Unless this proposal is explored within a critical framework and in a way that empowers teachers, it could be seen to be adding to the heavy load of civic debt teachers already feel they carry. Indeed, they might ask, at a time when we have codes of ethics in education telling us that we are to act with ‘dignity’, ‘integrity’, ‘respect’, ‘empathy’, and ‘justice’, was I adding yet another weighty word, another loaded concept, to this ever-growing list? Am I also suggesting “another new technique” to teachers who complain already of an overcrowded and demanding curriculum and the most difficult generation of students they have ever had to teach? Some warned of the inherent dangers of suppressing negative emotions; of the possibilities of abuse of power where teachers expect their students to express gratitude to them; of the irrelevance of gratitude to the main game of teaching content; and of accepting the status quo in situations of inequity where much change is needed.
When educators practise gratitude in the midst of time-poor and stressful conditions – where their self-efficacy, collegiality and resilience are most under threat – gratitude takes on dimensions that are far deeper than those that come out of most other
academic discussions and clinical research.


These teachers’ responses helped me realise that I needed to listen more closely to the underlying difficulties that students may have with the notion that they should be more grateful. If we agree that gratitude has a place in our students’ learning, and if gratitude is something that needs to be directly and consciously nurtured, where and when in the education system does this occur? Is it the place of education to nurture gratitude, or is this stepping over the traditional divide between the objective and subjective domain of the student? Can gratitude be ‘taught’ to another, in the traditional sense of imparting content, or is it so complex, so subjective, and so far away from ‘the main game of teaching and learning’ that all we can hope for is to pass it on through our own example?
Over time, I came to discover it was the dual challenge of the mismatch of the concept of gratitude, and how it plays out when teachers consciously practised it in the classroom or staffroom, which they struggled with. Yet it is this complexity that gives real meaning to the term, and where its potential for enriching our lives is found. When educators practise gratitude in the midst of time-poor and stressful conditions – where their self-efficacy, collegiality and resilience are most under threat – gratitude takes on dimensions that are far deeper than those that come out of most other academic discussions and clinical research.

When I first started to discuss the role of gratitude in education, I received all manner of looks and recriminations – especially in the world of mainstream academia. Now I am invited into faculties such as accounting, optometry, and law – faculties that in the past were dominated by the positivist framework, considering the subjective domain of the student to be irrelevant to higher order thinking. Their interest in the role of gratitude is indicative of a wider phenomenon, a change in consciousness that reflects what thinkers such as Charles Taylor (5), Anthony Giddens (6), and Richard Tarnas (7) discuss as a “radical reflexivity”, or Ronald Barnett (8) calls an “ontological turn”, where we not only reflect on our thinking, but on the interrelationship between our thinking and our being.
My aim is to make the principles underlying this book appealing and accessible to those teachers who may see gratitude as part of their professional identity, but whose feelings of disempowerment and disillusionment often work against this. Gratitude in Education: A Radical View thus directly addresses factors that, I argue, strongly impact on student engagement and teacher presence, efficacy and resilience.

Next in the series: 
Part 2: Why Gratitude?
Part 3: Why Gratitude in Education Now?
Part 4: A Way Forward


Dr. Kerry Howells is a teacher educator and currently teaches in the areas of educational philosophy, ethics and teacher professionalism in the Masters of Teaching program at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Over the past two decades she has shown that when students take greater responsibility for the state of being they bring to their learning, and what they can give back out of gratitude, they are able to become more engaged in their learning process. She has demonstrated that students’ gratitude is influenced by the gratitude expressed and modeled by their teachers and school leaders. She has won nine university teaching awards at both the institutional and national levels.

Gratitude in Education: A Radical View. by Kerry Howells (Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, ©2012) is the first comprehensive text that is solely dedicated to the specific relevance of gratitude to the teaching and learning process.

'Gratitude in education' at Mind & Its Potential 2012
A talk by Dr. Howells about the relevance of gratitude for teachers and students.

How Thanking Awakens Our Thinking - Kerry Howells at TEDx Launceston suggests that the key to creating fully engaged learners is to create an attitude of gratitude.

The above excerpt is posted with the author's kind permission.


References

Footnotes

1. Visser (2009, p. 327).
2. See Lovat, Toomey, Clement, Crotty, & Nielson (2009).
3. See Gibbs (2006).
4. For examples of applications of positive psychology to education, see: Chan (2010); Froh, Miller, & Snyder (2007); Froh,, Kashdan, Ozimkowski, K., & Miller, N. (2009); Froh, J., Yurkewicz, C., & Kashdan, T. (2009); Froh, Bono, & Emmons (2010); McCraty & Childre (2004); Seligman (2009); Seligman 2011; Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins (2009); Unsworth, Turner, Williams, & Houle (2010).
5. Taylor (1989).
6. Giddens (1990, 1991).
7. Tarnas (1991).
8. Barnett (2004).