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Subjective well-being – the ultimate metric?

It seems reasonable to want to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of public schooling. The problem is that the metrics that are currently used are inadequate and distort practice. Would the subjective well-being of the school community be a better metric and if so how could you measure it?

Is it a good metric?

If you agree that the ultimate aim of schooling should be individual fulfillment and universal well-being then the subjective well-being of the school community looks like it would be a good measure of the quality of schooling because it would require assessing:

  • the subjective well-being of individuals (links with individual fulfillment) and
  • the collective well-being of all the individuals in the community (links with universal well-being).

One of the criticisms of current metrics of the quality of schooling is that they lead to teaching to the test. The problem here is not that teachers teach to the test - if that is how we are assessing students then it seems reasonable that we teach them what will be on the test. The problem is that the tests are too narrow - which leads to the narrowing of the curriculum and impoverishment of pedagogy. However, I suspect that we wouldn't have a problem with teaching to the test if the test was of the subjective well-being of the community.

How could you measure it?

There are well established 'inventories' (quick questionnaires) that provide valid measures of subjective well-being (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008), where subjective well-being is broken down into different elements:

  • Satisfaction with life
  • Emotional well-being
  • Psychological flourishing

My suggestion is that we set up an online tool that members of a school community use on a regular basis (say once per term). This would provide each individual with a subjective well-being profile at each assessment point. It would provide schools with data that could be analysed to compare the subjective well-being of different subsets of their community and the community overall. For example, the school could analyse the data by combinations of such things as role in the school (e.g. student, teacher, parent, admin staff), gender, age group, subjects being studied/taught, social economic status, ethnicity, etc..

Of course there are ethical issues such as ensuring that individuals are able to honestly complete the assessments, and protecting individuals' privacy and personal data - Which school would you choose?whilst making it possible for individuals who are in need of support to be given that support.

If schools' results were published - for example alongside their exam performance - that would provide a useful balance of perspective to enable parents (and others) to make judgements about the quality of provision.

As a parent which of the following schools would you prefer:

School Academic performance Subjective well-being of the school community
School A High Low
School B Medium Medium
School C Low High

It might also be interesting to compare the subjective well-being of the school community with such things as:

  • days absence from school (for staff/students)
  • level of bullying
  • level of vandalism in the local area
  • ...

Conclusion

Assuming one could overcome some of the ethical and practical issues involved in developing this approach I suspect that publishing schools' subjective well-being data alongside other data such as their students' academic performance would change what we value in schooling - and lead to improvements in education as a result.

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