Debate Magazine

If Kids Do Well in School, Then They’ll Be Happy. Right?

By Stevemiranda

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book The Progress Principle was just released, and I’m about halfway through it. The authors’ research demonstrates that “inner work life”—people’s perceptions, emotions, and motivations—is the most important factor in helping employees be effective on the job.

The one single factor those most influences people’s inner work life: making progress on meaningful projects.

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Here’s an important passage that I read today that has implications for school:

Psychology and neuroscience yield some clues about one aspect of inner work life—emotion. Brain researchers have found that negative and positive emotions are produced by different brain systems; as a result, these emotions have very different effects on the way people think and act.


Psychologist Barbara Frederickson theorized that positive emotions broaden people’s thoughts and the repertoire of actions they pursue, but negative mood does just the opposite. Working with colleagues, Frederickson has tested her theory in a number of ways. In two experiments with 104 college students, she used film clips to induce either positive, negative, or neutral emotions, and then had them complete a task. The task in the first experiment measured scope of attention by testing whether students took in the overall configuration of a geometric pattern or focused narrowly on its details.

Compared with students in the neutral-emotion condition, those experiencing positive emotions were more likely to see the forest rather than focusing narrowly on the trees.

Frederickson’s second experiment used a fill-in-the-blank task to measure how many actions the students would like to engage in while feeling the particular emotion evoked by the film they had just watched. Compared with students who felt neutral, those feeling positive emotions listed many more actions they would like to undertake; those feeling negative emotions listed many fewer actions. Taken together, the two experiments showed that positive emotion can be liberating and negative emotion can be constraining.

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When I first started working at PSCS, Andy Smallman, who founded the school in 1994, said this to me: “The old way of thinking about school is, ‘If kids do well in school, then they’ll be happy.’ So society does all these things—tutoring programs, online support, you name it—to make sure that kids do well in school. Because our belief is that’s how they’ll be happy. At PSCS, we believe the opposite. Our belief is that if kids are happy, then they’ll do well in school. Our focus is on helping kids feel happy.”

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Kids who are in a coercive school environment get tunnel vision. If it doesn’t fall into the category of one of the four major academic subjects, a foreign language, art, music or PE—it’s really hard for kids to find a way to pursue an unconventional interest.

Now scientific research is suggesting something even more insidious: coercive environments, because they elicit negative emotions, limit kids’ ability to even dream up an unconventional interest in the first place.

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For kids who might have an interest in being a sports agent or an urban planner or a venture capitalist, school is not likely to help them find their passion. An environment that is filled with “gottas”—I gotta get to my next class, I gotta finish this chem lab, I gotta get through pre-calculus—blinds them to a world of possibilities that are there, waiting for them, if they can just find a way to break out of the tunnel.

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