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Not for ourselves alone

Mount Barker High School

Measure, Measure, Measure


Dr Martin Seligman visited our school in February this year. At the end of his visit, our principal asked Martin’s advice on where we should start if we wanted to build a flourishing school. His response was very quick and very clear – on top of making sure all our staff are well trained, we needed to measure, measure and measure, and don’t stop measuring!

This was the start of our positive psychology venture. As we considered Martin’s advice, we realised that he’d issued us with a very big challenge.

After reading his book Flourish, we shouldn’t have been surprised about what Martin said.  In the book he explains the scientific basis for positive psychology, and particularly the scientific basis of PERMA. He writes that each of the five elements qualify as elements of wellbeing because they all:

  • contribute to well being
  • are pursued by people for their own sake
  • are defined and measured independently of other elements.

When Martin mentions the word ‘measurement’, he is referring to a rigorous scientific form of measurement that includes:

  • Tried and true methods accepted by the psychological community
  • Conducting experiments
  • Longitudinal research
  • Random assignment
  • Placebo-controlled outcome studies.

This is why he knows that the strategies he advises work.

He wanted to make sure that we are able to know that what we put into place makes a difference to our school community. He added that by declaring that wellbeing is important to measure, then doing it in a credible way, makes a positive difference because it makes everyone more mindful about the issue.  So we could expect a slight improvement by doing the measurement.

This was excellent advice, but like most other things in this venture, things that might sound simple are actually much harder to achieve!

With what?

The first question we asked ourselves was, “Measure with what?”

 The measurement described by Martin was something beyond anything that we could do ourselves. He talks about there not being a single measure of wellbeing. Instead, he refers to using a ‘dashboard’ of instruments, all of which measure specific aspects of each element of PERMA, all of which need to be appropriate for the particular purpose, all of which need to be analysed, and all of which need to be interpreted. This all requires the expertise of experienced researchers.

We realised that there are surveys available, but felt the need to be cautious.  Martin’s research is very targeted, so if we attempted to generate our own suite of measures we would have needed to make technical choices without the expertise to do so. And who would crunch the numbers, come up with statistically valid results and provide accurate and useful interpretations?

We decided that the best way forward was to frame problems into questions that we could investigate.  This is what we did with our measurement problem:

Measurment Diagram

The answer to our measurement dilemma came relatively early from two directions – each of which were linked to our involvement as the public school selected to be a part of the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence program.