Putting happiness at the center of the Republican school


The major health crisis we are experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic has revived questions around well-being in education, with the observation that many children and adolescents have suffered psychologically from the situation.

Isn’t there a need for a certain quality of life at school to ensure learning? Wasn’t it wrong for a long time to oppose the efforts necessary to learn and the pleasure of going to school? Wouldn’t well-being be the most fundamental need to form educated, fulfilled and happy citizens?

In most of the definitions given by philosophy, happiness is not a personal good, it is given as a principle applicable to the greatest possible number of individuals, it is a good to be built together. It is social and relational. In this, the construction of the public school, during the second 19th  century, participates in the search for a common happiness .

But paradoxically, in France, the institution evokes happiness only belatedly, and in a negative way, by considering the “school climate” (fight against school malaise, bullying and school violence).

In the school of the Republic which wants to be egalitarian and meritocratic, effort and labor are more or less explicitly considered as the condition of academic success and social ascent.

Change school model

It is only very recently that the institution introduced in its texts the notion of “well-being” to the “quality of life” of pupils and national education staff. For example, it was in 2015 that the decree defining nursery school programs addressed the notion of well-being and the fact that “nursery school is a caring school”.

To put this reflection on well-being back at the center, the National Higher Institute for Teaching and Education of the Academy of Versailles, supported by researchers from the BONHEURS laboratory of CY Cergy Paris University, has set up a ” day of well-being inside and outside the classroom”, which follows the week of happiness at school which is held each year around March 20.

For the last edition of this day which was held on April 13, 150 primary school, college and high school teachers, college principals, principals, principal education advisers, trainers, from six different masters in training initial or continuing education met. All the well-being devices that the participants have implemented in their classes or in their establishments were presented. Happiness engineering has been implemented in more than a hundred establishments throughout France, from Rennes to Cergy, from Réunion to Carpentras and from New Caledonia to Gennevilliers.

On the theoretical level, the approach consists in thinking about happiness through the relationship with others and it is articulated with knowledge, what we call knowledge-relationship .

This approach appears essential when short-sighted reasoning opposes pleasure and learning, in a structuring imagination that tends to oppose academic knowledge and pedagogy, mind and body, reason and emotion. Indeed, the question of affects and emotions has long been neglected at school, and this, mainly in the French public school, centered on the “school form” .

Our school has favored the construction of a rational individual through learning and academic knowledge, leaving alternative so-called “new” pedagogies from Montessori to Freinet to think about the joy of learning and fulfillment through knowledge. This perspective is particularly significant in the French education system, due to a history marked by a republican model rooted in the vertical transmission of values. This school model is based on the promotion of a rational individual by the “transmission” of school knowledge and by an excessive denial of affects in the school environment.

However, many research studies have shown that academic achievement scores and life satisfaction are significantly and positively correlated.

Social relations

There is evidence that student academic achievement is significantly and positively related to social relationships with family, peers, and teachers, psychological health, feelings toward school, and sense of belonging to school. school. Beyond academic performance, students’ success is (also) dependent on their well-being within the school setting.

Thus, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in its international comparison of countries, combines several key indicators of child well-being, such as the quality of school life, education and health. In the context of the school, well-being is perceived through the school climate, which is not only the accumulation of individual levels of well-being, but which takes into account the relational dimension, as well as the results in learning or safety.

For their part, the Konu and Rimpelä researchers base well-being at school on four essential dimensions  :

  • the “having” includes the material conditions offered to the pupils (notably the organisation, the environment, the learning spaces);
  • “being” brings together the conditions that allow students to be autonomous, to be able to make proposals, to be able to make decisions, to have self-confidence;
  • the “loving” concerns the interaction between the individuals of the establishment: the quality of the relationship between the pupils, between the pupils and the adults; communication between individuals;
  • the dimension of health includes the physical and mental health of students (fatigue, stress, etc.);

Field initiatives

During the day of well-being inside and outside the classroom , the well-being measures focused on new ways of supporting students, on taking into account the body and emotions in the classroom, on the improvement of school spaces as well as taking into account the collective.

The systems deployed are structured around 5 axes:

  • student support;
  • body and emotions;
  • school life and the community;
  • the spaces ;
  • projects inside and outside the classroom.

Taking into account the body and emotions has, for example, been worked on by a system of micro-naps or even facial yoga. Other devices encouraged relaxation, breathing, non-violent communication, sophrology, etc. These devices had a common objective: to teach students to identify and control their emotions and to encourage children and adolescents to work, by concentration and their participation in class.

The axis “school life and the collective” was nourished by establishments which implemented, in their establishment, the week of happiness at school, the Day of diversity, eloquence competitions by team, mechanisms for involving parents in their children’s schooling.

The axis relating to the accompaniment of the pupils made it possible to promote the day of the happiness of mathematics. Another example: a device to deconstruct ethnic stereotypes relating to academic success. It allowed a meeting between secondary school students and primary school students from the same district, in academic success and destined for selective studies, the objective being to show them that it is possible, at a time when school segregation is the most ingrained evil in our system.

It is necessary to design measures in classes and in establishments, but it is necessary to measure their short, medium and long-term effects, for example on the trajectories of pupils or on the school climate. A master’s degree on the joy of learning and teaching entirely remotely opened its doors a year ago for education professionals.

It is at this price that education, regularly affirmed as a national priority, can really become the major tool for transforming our societies, capable of building a fairer, more egalitarian and happier society.

Author Bios: Beatrice Mabilon-Bonfils is a Sociologist, Director of the BONHEURS laboratory, Francois Durpaire is Co-founder of the BONHEURS laboratory and Severine Colinet is a Lecturer in education sciences all at CY Cergy Paris University