Students flourishing

By Dr Sheila Cunningham, Associate Professor, Health and Education 

The potential to ‘flourish’ as a student has emerged as a topic of debate within higher education over recent years. There are a number of viewpoints to this. Philosophically it relates to realising one’s potential individually (spiritually, economically etc) or succeeding, achieving and so on to ‘collective’ flourishing for social improvement. Furthermore psychologically flourishing concerns the  individual’s happiness or life-satisfaction or total wellbeing.  Mental health perspectives focus on positive mental health aspects or complete optimal functioning of the individual (Gokcen et al 2012).   This is borne out in a number of ways in differing organisations or disciplines. Denovan and Macaskill (2016) interestingly explore resilience and wellbeing as concepts positioning stress and flourishing in opposition to each other claiming that to address the former (i.e. resilience) one will aid flourishing. The University of East London (UEL, 2016) claims to be the first ‘Flourishing University’ in the UK stating it uses practical and evidence based wellbeing and resilience (for staff) to create a positive culture within the institution. This presumably then impacts on students’ ‘flourishing’ however their ‘launch’ does not make this explicit. York University has a project exploring student interaction and experiences of students with a community focusing on international development and human rights (social responsibility) claiming this student engagement leads to a form of flourishing (Brown et al, 2015).  Furthermore US universities address the wider dimensions of higher education and activities linked to civic engagement with some claiming this connects to students’ sense of wellbeing and ‘flourishing’ or achievement and fulfilment (BTP, 2013). How diverse.

Evidently this concept is multidimensional. Seligman’s (2011) PERMA theory of flourishing is well known and includes positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement as facets of flourishing. This is addressed to a point in Gocken et al’s (2013) study. They explored students’ constructions of flourishing which they indicate consist of self-actualisation (personal growth or expansion), success (ambition, doing well, academic success) and a personal or individual phenomenon as well as a positive affect (satisfaction, enjoyment). So can we aid this process/sense? Interestingly they put forward the concept of a ‘non-flourishing student’ as one who is described as behaviourally and academically disengaged with additional characteristics of struggle and social withdrawal. This is something to contend with yet the question is how relevant is this to us. Are there means to spot  ‘non-flourishing’ students and then what actions are appropriate? Many of the activities mentioned above address these to a point.  Interestingly as I write this, echoes of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs conceptual framework comes to mind: physiological needs, safety need, love and belonging, esteem needs and finally self-actualisation, and whether this is still relevant. Thus if university is a place where students are said to flourish what does that mean for us as educators and staff in this area?  What can we learn from this work and research? In higher education extrinsically measured success (assessment performance or prestigious employment routes) continue to form the traditional basis of progress. However the recognition of factors such as self-actualisation and engagement or positive affect calls for a renewed focus on the outcomes of HE.

The theme for this issue is ‘Flourishing’ and a variety of dimensions and reflections. This edition is being ably overseen by the new editors Dr Doirean Wilson and Ms Alex Pitt who have taken over from me (Sheila Cunningham).  They will guide pedagogical news and ideas from now on and all contributions or reflections from any reader are most welcome!  Do write or email please!

References:

Brown, E.J. (2015) Creating Conditions for students to flourish: a Case study of Capabilities developed through a non-formal learning community in a Collegiate university. Kultur: Revista interdisaplinaria sobre la cultura de la cuitat, 2 (3): 215-232. https://www.york.ac.uk/education/research/cresj/researchthemes/higher-education/creatingconditionsforflourishinginhighereducation/  Accessed 16th Nov 2016

Building Theory to Practice Project  (2013)  The WellBeing and Flourishing of Students http://www.bttop.org/sites/default/files/public/BTtoP%20wellbeing%20pub_FINAL.pdf 

Denovan, AM and Macaskill, A (2016) Stress, resilience and leisure coping among university students: applying the broaden-and-build theory. Leisure Studies. ISSN 1466-4496
Gokcen, N.  Hefferon, K. Attree, E. (2013) University Students' Constructions of 'Flourishing' in British Higher Education: An Inductive Content Analysis. International Journal of Wellbeing. 2 (1):   1-21 http://www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/view/84/177   Accessed 16th Nov 2016

University of East London (2016)  The First Flourishing University https://www.uel.ac.uk/News/2015/08/UEL-is-set-to-become-the-UKs-first-Flourishing-University  Accessed 16th Nov 2016 

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