Gratitude in Education: 
A Radical View
From the introduction

by Kerry Howells

At a time where measurement and economy are our guiding lights, we are neglecting to attend to our ontological domain, our way of being in the world, and the impact this has in our education communities.

cover of the book Why gratitude in Education Now?

Students orientate themselves to where they can feel valued and where there is trust. It is not until they find this safe haven that they can settle and be present enough to learn. Many of our educational environments – be they schools or universities or colleges of advanced education – are breeding grounds for conditions which make it difficult for gratitude and trust to take hold. Conditions that are the antithesis to gratitude – resentment, victim mentality, envy, or a sense of entitlement – are toxins that kill off goodwill. This toxic environment of ensuing complaint culminates in good teachers and leaders walking out wounded by ingratitude, extremely unlikely to return. It is our lack of consciousness of the impact of this malaise that keeps us in the dark, and stops many wonderful education initiatives from taking hold. At a time where measurement and economy are our guiding lights, we are neglecting to attend to our ontological domain, our way of being in the world, and the impact this has in our education communities.

We often condemn students for their disengagement and for their blatant displays of negative complaint and blame. Some say these are characteristics of a typical generation Y student, who is totally absorbed in his or her own needs and interests. Yet it is also the environment we provide that allows such attitudes to prevail. Although Charles Dickens’ satire of where gratitude has no place in Gradgrind school (described in his book Hard Times), was published as long ago as 1854, it bears a scary resemblance to the ethos that predominates today.

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across the counter. And if we didn’t get to heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

As the philosopher Michael Dale notes in his exposition of how the characteristics of Gradgrind philosophy play themselves out in our times, much of our current educational discourse is dominated by language that reflects a bargain across the counter, or by what some call an ‘exchange paradigm’. Genevieve Vaughan and Eila Estola describe the underlying logic and values of this paradigm as being ego-oriented, and something that “requires equal payment for each need-satisfying good”. In education this paradigm is characterised by individualism, instrumentalism and consumerism. For the philosopher Charles Taylor, the result is fragmentation and disenchantment, which has dissolved community and “split reason from self.”

Instead of reflecting on the Socratic question of “How should one live?” we are instead focused on
“How to make a living?”

As Dale notes, our present educational discourse is dominated by words that reflect this ‘bargain across the counter’ mentality – words like ‘client’, ‘service’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘consumers’, and hyphenated words such as ‘performance-referenced’, ‘outcome-oriented’, ‘competency-centred’, as well as unhyphenated ones like ‘cohort groups’, ‘market demand’ and ‘standard variations’. He then goes on to ask what is it that we teachers do at university? “We ‘deliver instruction’.

Teaching in a classroom is an ‘instructional delivery system’, and the latest technology simply an ‘alternative delivery system’.” Instead of reflecting on the Socratic question of “How should one live?” Dale says, we are instead focused on “How to make a living?”

In his address to the House of Lords in August 2011, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of his views on the riots of the youth – as young as seven years old – across Britain. In his impassioned plea, he said:

…I believe one of the most significant questions that we ought to be addressing in the wake of these deplorable events, is what kind of education we are interested in, for what kind of a society? Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens…

The archbishop issues a challenge for Britain to rebuild its education not on an instrumentalist model but one that builds “virtue, character and citizenship”. This echoes a cry from many quarters around the globe, for some time now, for character education to be at the heart of our curricula. Indeed through the ages, it has been at the forefront of debates about the purpose of education.

Next in the series: 
Part 4: A Way Forward
See Also:
Part 1:  Why Gratitude in Education?
Part 2:  Why Gratitude?

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.