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New website gives educators research-based practices for kinder, happier schools

Like many educators, Vicki Zakrzewski entered her profession with passion, but found that her initial excitement was drained by the difficulties she faced during the years she spent as a schoolteacher and administrator. In 2012, having recently completed a Ph.D. in education, Zakrzewski helped to establish the education program at U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, tasked with the mission of helping educators understand and apply research-backed insights into the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being — not only for their students, but also for themselves. “In my experience in the trenches, I came very close to burnout — it’s just an enormously difficult and stressful job. So when I started the education program at Greater Good, I came in knowing that we had to address the adults,” Zakrzewski says. Her Ph.D. research had underscored the ways that organizational psychology — the study of how to create viable, thriving school cultures — was essential to helping students flourish as individuals. “I knew that teachers and school leaders were not getting this training,” she says.

This month Zakrzewski and her colleagues are launching Greater Good in Education (GGIE), an encyclopedic website offering free research-based strategies and practices to aid students’ social, emotional, and ethical development and to create flourishing school-wide cultures. The site pulls together insights from the fields of social emotional learning, character education, and mindfulness, arranging findings and activities by topic and grade level to allow educators to review the basics of a given subject, find specific suggestions for ways to integrate practices into their work, and easily see the research that backs up the suggested approach. 

“We’ve pulled together a number of micro practices that a teacher can weave into a given day in the classroom,” says Amy Eva, GGIE’s associate education director. For example, a science teacher can read a quick overview about what “prosocial science” is and why it might be important before jumping to review related more than a dozen related practices and lesson ideas.

“Instead of having weeks and weeks of prep, a teacher can have more agency with this approach, choosing activities for classroom meetings, academic instruction, and advisories that tap the kind of skills and virtues they want to foster,” Eva says.

A LIVING, BREATHING SPACE

At the highest level, the site organizes its content into four verticals — academic instruction, school relationships, adult well-being and student well-being — giving equal emphasis to practices that will help students, individual staff, and staff teams. “It’s incredibly important that administrators, teachers, and mental health professionals are focused on their own well-being and development,” Eva says. “We want the site to be a community space for education professionals to find information and resources around social, emotional, and character development… a living, breathing space. We want people to be coming to it on a regular basis.” To that end, educators can create their own accounts to allow them to search for, bookmark, rank, and make notes on particular articles that interest them, as well as to share the content with fellow educators or administrators. 

The site’s content was produced both by GGSC’s research and drawn from more than 40 partners, including organizations CASEL, the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, the Committee for Children, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Facing History and Ourselves, and individual researchers including Giacomo Bono, Karen Bluth, and Patricia Jennings, with the GGSC team working to vet and format the information into standardized, bite-size articles.

CLASSROOM AWE

One of Zakrzewski’s favorite sets of practices from the site is a group of activities encouraging students to respond to the “Earthrise” photograph, captured in 1969 by Apollo 8 astronauts in lunar orbit — and to a 30-minute film made by the Global Oneness Project marking the image’s 50th anniversary. The practices — designed to be carried out in between one and three hours of classroom time — use the image and film as a prompt to discuss bearing witness, instilling reverence for the earth, cultivating global citizenship, and fostering a sense of awe. “I love that those practices tap into a side of ourselves that we don’t often get to see in education,” Zakrzewski says.

As the site develops, the GGIE team will build out more sections while also refining the site’s content — keeping in sync with the latest research as well as making the material helpful for students and educators who come to it with a wide range of cultural backgrounds and life experiences.

“One of the things I’m super-excited about is our ability to include moral development,” Zakrzewski says. “In recent years, education in the U.S. has shied away from ethical development since it’s a tricky political topic.” Zakrzewski hopes that the research-based approach will give educators both confidence and practical tips for helping students build their capacity for things like compassion, forgiveness, and ethical development. “I’m excited to see what practices really resonate with people and to hear feedback about how else can we help,” Zakrzewski says.

Eva and Zakrzewski hope that Greater Good in Education will help educators revitalize some of the initial motivations that brought them into teaching in the first place. “We’re really passionate about transforming what educators think about the purpose of education,” Eva says. “Ultimately the grandiose goal is to create a kinder, more compassionate, and equitable world.” 

STILL CURIOUS?

Visit the Greater Good in Education website.