In an ever-changing world, many students find it difficult to remain positive when they are confronted with new problems and unfamiliar situations. To help every child attain academic success without compromising their overall well-being, teachers at Westwood Primary School encourage their pupils to cope with setbacks by nurturing resilient and positive mindsets.

A Positive Climate for Healthier Minds

An entire cohort of Primary 4 pupils sits quietly on the floor of the school hall with their eyes closed, some with their palms facing upward. This image which depicts a mindfulness session was shown during Mr Khoo Rong Huang, Mrs Tan Phui Lea and Ms Sophia Tan's presentation at the Teachers' Conference 2016.

Since welcoming its first batch of pupils in 2013, teachers at Westwood Primary School (WWPS) have been imparting the principles of positive education to students, in order to help them develop resilient mindsets and positive attitudes.

In a nutshell, positive education is the incorporation of the science of positive psychology into the life and work of schools (Seligman, Ernst, Gilham, Reivich & Linkins, 2009).

What does a positive school look like? "It should set a positive climate so that every pupil and staff would have a growth mindset," says Ms Sophia Tan. "We believe that everyone has strengths and potential for learning."

To do that, teachers in WWPS conceptualised a framework called 'THRIVE' in 2013 that focuses on positive education. It was implemented in 2014.

What is the THRIVE framework?

'THRIVE' is an acronym for: Thinking Mindfully, Healthy Coping, Relating Well, In the Moment, Values-Driven Actions and Emotions of Positivity. It guides teachers from Westwood Primary School (WWPS) with regard to the design and delivery of all their learning programmes, as well as the development of their pupils. This framework was adapted from the 'PERMA' framework by Professor Martin Seligman, who is widely known as the father of positive psychology.

Seligman believes that there are five essential elements that lead to lasting well-being: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievements. (Seligman, Ernst, Gilham, Reivich & Linkins, 2009)

Like Seligman, WWPS teachers Ms Sophia Tan, Mr Khoo Rong Huang and Mrs Tan Phui Lea aim to develop self-directed learners who are able to reflect on their own character strengths and weaknesses, and collaborate with their peers easily. To do this, they instructed students to participate in various activities to evoke mindful thinking and the development of a resilient mindset.

Once a year, WWPS organises a week-long 'THRIVE' Fiesta for its students. All pupils in WWPS participate in a variety of activities that is centered on the school's character strengths and mindful thinking. Core leadership principles are also introduced through the activities.

The three main strategies of positive education were mentioned as they tie in closely with WWPS's school programmes in encouraging students to have positive mindsets and resilience.

Gratitude Begets Happiness

In the past, students from WWPS often approached their teachers to express their unhappiness about certain events. Things began to change last year for WWPS when students began penning down positive events on a weekly basis, under its 'What Went Well' programme.

This practice promotes positive reflections of their life experiences. While journaling, in cases where students find it difficult to focus on positive events, they are guided to share about the challenges instead and the steps they look to overcome them. Through this process, students learn to identify positive aspects that can arise from a situation that may seem negative.

To nurture a heart of appreciation and gratitude for others, students write gratitude cards for the important people in their life once every term. "Although the notes are very simple, pupils are very happy when they give cards to, and receive cards from, their friends," Ms Sophia Tan shares. The effectiveness of this activity in instilling the importance of gratitude is reflected in this except extracted from a student's journal: "We should not hesitate to show love and express gratitude on a daily basis because a simple act of kindness may just brighten another person's day!"

We should not hesitate to show love and express gratitude on a daily basis because a simple act of kindness may just brighten another person's day!
— A student, about writing gratitude notes.

Focusing the Mind for Better Engagement

Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment and eradicating distracting thoughts, in order to improve one's focus. One way to inculcate mindfulness is via the use of games.

For example, during a game of giant Jenga, specific challenges are presented to the pupils. The pupils then have to discuss and practice mindfulness. Through mindfulness, students have to consider their feelings in event of losing and their learning takeaways. Ms Sophia Tan shares, "It's very hard to tell young children to just 'apply mindful thinking, be focused and be engaged' because they don't see the link." For students to internalise the concept of mindfulness, it is more effective to utilise experiential learning pedagogies as it allows them to experience the process firsthand, reflect on the outcome and draw their own learning points.

Apart from mindful breathing and playing, there are other activities that teachers can incorporate into their lessons, including mindful listening, eating and movement.

Initially, teachers were unsure of the effects of mindful activities. However, they realised that pupils were able to settle down and start work on their tasks more effectively after practicing mindfulness for two to three minutes. This was apparent even after recess, when students were especially rowdy and restless.

Praising the Process, Not the Outcome

It is not uncommon to praise students for being 'smart' or 'clever' when they do well in a subject. However, this practice impedes students' willingness to learn new things as they begin to believe that their intelligence is fixed and cannot be developed further.

As a result, students may give up on subjects which they are not 'good' at leading to extremely poor performances. Many pupils tend to focus only on the outcome, such as results or test scores, rather than the process of learning and overcoming challenges.

Mrs Tan Phui Lea shares that she once had a pupil who believed that he could not solve Mathematics problems. The pupil would also lament that he was not as 'good' as his friends when it came to the subject of Mathematics. To counter his negative thoughts, Mrs Tan used process praise (Haimovitz & Corpus, 2011).

Contrary to person praise, which praises pupils for skills that they are already good at, process praise shows pupils how they can achieve a goal by unpacking the learning methods with them and praising them for taking the right steps.

It is insufficient to provide pupils with generalised instructions such as "draw the model correctly" as they would not know the measures to take in order to achieve that outcome. Instead, teachers should provide specific instructions such as "identify the items and label them". "Pupils will realise that their performance is determined by factors that are within their control," explains Mrs Tan.

Pupils will realise that their performance is determined by factors that are within their control.
— Mrs Tan Phui Lea, Westwood Primary School

Mr Khoo Rong Huang's attention was also drawn to one of his pupils when he saw the words "I hate school" on the pupil's test paper. To avoid focusing from the pupil's inability to do well, Mr Khoo followed the three simple steps of process praise to assist the pupil in realising the value of learning and to instill a growth mindset in him.

First, Mr Khoo identified the learning objectives with the pupil. This included the objective of correcting the pupil's careless mistakes. For example, he noticed that the pupil had done his working steps for a multiplication question correctly. However, the pupil had forgotten to transfer the correct number down to the answer space. As a result, his answer was incorrect.

Next, he unpacked the process with the pupil. Here, Mr Khoo taught the student how to work backwards to check for careless mistakes. Instead of saying "work backwards", which the student might have difficulty understanding, Mr Khoo rephrased his instructions and instructed the student to divide his final answer by one of the multipliers. If his resultant answer was the same as the remaining multiplier, he had gotten the right answer.

They start to reflect on their own rather than wait for us to tell them the next step to take. That is a good change indeed.
—Mr Khoo Rong Huang, Westwood Primary School

Lastly, when the pupil arrived at the correct answer, Mr Khoo praised the student for using the process correctly by saying, "I can see that you have started to work backwards to check your answer!"

"We need to let the pupil see that it is because of the process that he has undertaken that helped him to solve the problem. It has nothing to do with whether he is clever or not," Mr Khoo concludes.

While process praise is the key to a growth mindset, it is not an easy process. A large amount of time and effort is required for the process to take place and for feedback to be obtained from the pupils. However, Ms Sophia Tan, Mrs Tan Phui Lea and Mr Khoo Rong Huang have seen how it has benefitted the students immensely.

Mr Khoo shares, "They start to reflect on their own rather than wait for us to tell them the next step to take. That is a good change indeed."

Having shared their research on process praise with the rest of WWPS's teachers, the team hopes that this practice will become another common strategy that will contribute to WWPS's culture of positive education.

Seligman, M. E., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311.

Haimovitz, K., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: Stability and change in emerging adulthood. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 31(5), 595–609.

Mr Khoo Rong Huang, Mrs Tan Phui Lea and Ms Sophia Tan have been teaching Mathematics and Character & Citizenship Education at Westwood Primary School (WWPS) since 2013. This article is based on their presentation: 'A Journey of Positive Education in Westwood Primary: Changing Pupils' Mindsets' at the Teachers' Conference 2016.

For teachers, creating a learning environment where students become self-motivators requires some thought and time. However, the benefits are manifold — students enjoy the lessons more and are motivated to work harder.

"Teachers, being professionals, will always seek better outcomes for students," says Assistant Professor Eugene Chew of NIE's Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group. For his project on motivation in Physical Education (PE) lessons, Professor Chew is looking at students' perceptions of how their PE teachers relate to them. This has an effect on whether they enjoy PE, and how much effort they are willing to invest into their lessons.

Conditional Regard from Teachers

To Professor Chew, motivation is an intriguing part of human behaviour. This is due to the differences in underlying motivations amongst individuals. In his study, he examines the 'conditional regard' that PE teachers give their students.

Conditional positive regard reflects the approval that a teacher shows to students who meet expectations. For example, demonstrations of heightened warmth and appreciation.

Conditional negative regard is the opposite, when demonstrations of warmth and appreciation and reduced in response to students who do not perform up to standard.

Previous research has shown that parental use of conditional positive regard is associated with negative outcomes. Why is this so?

Professor Chew explains that parental use of conditional positive regard may result in motivation that is highly dependent on controlled, extrinsic factors. In other words, the child may feel that they are carrying out the action because they have been told to do so, and not because they want to.

"If the students feel they are being controlled in terms of what they do, it's not really up to them and they don't see it as important or see the value in it," Professor Chew elaborates. He hypothesised that PE teachers' use of conditional positive regard may also be linked to negative outcomes.

However, his findings indicated that students who perceive conditional positive regard from teachers during PE lessons showed more interest and put in increased effort. What could explain this?

Students did feel that they were being told what to do, and experienced mixed feelings about teachers' use of conditional positive regard. Nevertheless, they felt positive about the approval and attention shown by their teachers, leading to increased interested and investment of effort.

Setting the Right Tone

There are other things teachers can do to motivate their students. To help them become self-motivating learners, teachers must set the right tone for their lessons. "It's about creating a good learning environment where students will be able to be at ease and able to learn," adds Professor Chew.

"We're talking about encouraging learning and engaging students better," he continues. "It's the whole manner in which they communicate with students, including body language and the tone of their voice."

Apart from this, Professor Chew also advises teachers to explain the reasons behind the structure of the lesson to students, to help them understand how they can benefit from it.

Meeting Students' Psychological Needs

When creating lesson plans, teachers often work with the learning outcomes in mind. Professor Chew suggests using student motivation as a goal during the planning process.

Professor Chew explains that according to self-determination theory, everyone has three psychological needs that need to be fulfilled for them to feel motivated — needs for autonomy, competency and relatedness. Teachers can aim to meet these needs as part of the lessons.

Need for autonomy

The need for autonomy is the need to have a sense of volition in one's actions. During a PE lesson, instead of crafting an activity that dictates a single method, create one that provides students with choices. Teachers may also choose to ask students select an activity to participate in, instead of scheduling a single communal activity.

Giving students a choice is a powerful way of allocating them agency in their learning, motivating them to look forward to the next activity of their choice.

Need for competency

The need for competency is the need to experience mastery over one's environment. For students, it may mean being able to master a certain skill or content. Eugene talks about how there are two types of goals that teachers can set for students: mastery and performance goals.

Mastery goals incite learning, while performance goals encourage competition. For example, teachers can get students to better their own timing in running to incite learning, or get them to race to encourage competition.

Becoming competent is a great motivator for students to continuously improve their mastery of a skill or an area of knowledge.

Need for relatedness The need for relatedness is a basic need to belong or to be cared for. To fulfill this need, teachers may choose to strive to promote positive interactions with and among students.

Getting students into groups and asking them to work together for a common goal is one good way to establish relatedness.

Motivating the Unmotivated

In every class, there will always be students who feel unmotivated. How can a teacher help such individuals? "You will look at the next level of engagement," answers Professor Chew, referring to the interactions a teacher may have with them outside of lesson time.

It might be a one-to-one talk after class, during recess or even along the corridor. That is when the teacher can understand more about a student's background.

The simple question of, "How was your game yesterday?" has the potential to go a long way in building teacher-student bonds. There is a lot more that can be done to motivate students. Professor Chew thinks that the work researchers do will be helpful for both policymakers and educators.

"I would love to speak and interact more with educators, especially school leaders," shares Professor Chew. "There are findings that are already there that can be used straight away. If there are more interactions that exist (among the researchers and educators), that'd be great!


'Hard Times' by Charles Dickens is a novel of genius by an outstanding author in a truly fertile century of English fictional literature. The frequently cited beginning of this work depicts the Victorian schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, advocating that we should teach young people nothing but facts: 'Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.

You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.' (Dickens 2003, p. 1). Gradgrind is not himself a cold or heartless man. His great kindness towards others in the story, especially the abandoned circus child Sissy Jupe, proves this beyond question. He is nevertheless in thrall to an emerging modern western rational-empiricist mindset entirely driven by materialist and utilitarian cost-benefit calculation. Gradgrind's education of cold fact-based reason effectively starves his own children of emotion, imagination and moral sense and succeeds only in wrecking their lives. At the end of the novel, Gradgrind confesses that though he had once been told that there is a 'wisdom of the heart' as well as of the head, he had foolishly failed to believe it.

Dickens' novel, along with other nineteenth century 'romantic' literature, mounts a devastating critique of a western post-industrial conception of human knowledge and reason that had already gained ascendance in his day, and which continues to wield much influence in today's world of modern and postmodern free-market capitalism and globalisation. It is an education that prizes the evidence-based knowledge of scientific research and enquiry over sources of insight that cannot be empirically validated or 'proved', as seems evident from widespread global sidelining of literature, arts and humanities in contemporary institutionalised schooling. (On this view, Darwin's 'Origin of Species' would count as a more valid source of knowledge or wisdom than Dickens 'Hard Times'.) It also seems to bean education that, in Oscar Wilde's famous definition of a cynic, 'knows the price of everything and the value of nothing' (Wilde 2000, p.48) and takes life to be primarily concerned, in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, with 'getting and spending' (Nichol-Smith 1921, p 146).

Still, there is reason to be cautious about Gradgrind's late conversion to 'wisdom of the heart'. If the head here signifies reason and the heart means feeling, emotion or passion, then the heart cannot be quite sufficient for wisdom. Socrates and Plato, the great founders of western philosophy, warned of hazards of blindly following our feelings and desires and great tragic poetry from the Greeks to Shakespeare is full of stories of human wreck and suffering when agents are swayed by passion rather than reason. Indeed, the philosophers of Greek antiquity generally agreed that reason or rationality is the defining feature of human nature, and that which distinguishes us from other animals. So the truth seems to be that human agents may fail to flourish by lacking feeling or reason and that for wisdom both of these are needed. The key question seems more that of what kind of reason and feeling are needed for wisdom.

Arguably, the most promising all-time answer to this question was given by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (1941), in his account of virtue and virtues, such as honesty, self-control, and compassion, as the powers required for genuine human, moral and other, flourishing. For Aristotle, the power that governs the cultivation of virtue is the species of reason that he called 'phronesis' and which is usually translated as 'practical wisdom'. However, the defining feature of such reason or wisdom is that it is precisely concerned with the judicious ordering of natural feelings, passions and appetites for the individual and common good. Thus, there can be no practical wisdom in the absence of the feelings and appetites it seeks to order and no wisely ordered passions and feelings in the absence of practical reason. Hereof, Aristotle clearly distinguishes not only the rationally ordered feelings and passions of virtue, moral and other, from the sometimes disordered natural passions, but also the emotionally grounded reason of moral virtue from the clever but cold and self-interested utilitarian calculation of Gradgrindian education. In this regard, it is notable that Aristotle, departing somewhat from Plato, seems to have held that the cultivation of the practical wisdom of virtue could be greatly assisted by attention to the human issues and dilemmas depicted in tragic poetry and other literature: in short, that the reading of, for example, Dickens' 'Hard Times' might be of more value for the development of human wisdom than the reading of, for example, 'Origin of Species'.

At all events, there has been much recent appreciation of the educational significance of Aristotle's practical wisdom for helping young and old to live virtuous and flourishing lives. Concerning this, much pioneering work continues to be done to this end in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues of the University of Birmingham (UK). However, while much of this work has focused on the development of moral virtues and character, it is worth observing before concluding here that not all of the educationally significant virtues that Aristotle identified were moral virtues and that he was far from opposing these to the powers or capacities required for scientific enquiry. On the contrary, Aristotle was himself a distinguished natural scientist who greatly valued scientific or evidence-based knowledge. That being said, the key point is that scientific enquiry for Aristotle was a matter of passionate search for objective truth, rather than self-interestedly calculated Gradgrindian exploitation of cold facts for instrumental purposes.

Thus, Aristotle's 'epistemic' virtues — the capacities required for scientific enquiry, include qualities such as curiosity, enthusiasm, open-mindedness, respect for evidence and intellectual integrity. It is arguable that these are also qualities that have been lately much neglected, or that educationalists have much failed to promote, encourage or cultivate, in a widespread contemporary climate of instrumental exploitation of knowledge for this or that material or economic end. If that is so, Gradgrind and his modern educational heirs would seem to have got matters wrong not just about the cultivation of practical moral wisdom, but about the proper educational pursuit of knowledge as such.


Aristotle (1941) 'Nicomachean Ethics', in R. McKeon (Ed.) The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York: Random House, 1941, pp. 935-111

Dickens, C. (2003) Hard Times, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics

Nichol-Smith, D. (Ed.) (1921) Wordsworth: Poetry and Prose, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Wilde, O. (2000) 'Lady Windermere's Fan', in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics


Once upon a time, Professor John Wang was a teacher's proverbial nightmare. Attending school and doing well in exams were not his priorities. Today, Professor John Wang is a leading researcher in learner motivation and also founded a research lab in NIE. He shares with us how motivation has changed his life.

Q: Why is it your dream to study motivation and set up the Motivation in Educational Research Lab?

I believe motivation is the key to success. I was almost a school dropout. I still remember it was during the first year in Junior College when I did badly in all my subjects. The principal called me to his office, and I thought, "I'm going to be expelled from the school." But he said to me, "John, your results aren't that good. I think you can do much better than that. I'll give you one more year to try and improve on them. I'm sure you'll be able to do it!"

Even though I was the worst of the worst, my principal believed in me and did not give up on me. I was greatly encouraged and that was the turning point of my life. I made a conscious decision then to change my attitude and behaviour. I started to attend lessons regularly and worked hard to overcome my weak foundation in the subjects.

I was educated in the Chinese stream, so I studied Chinese as a first language and English as a second language. I had never read an English book until I was in Secondary Two. That was partly why school had always been a struggle for me.

I eventually earned a place in Loughborough University. I studied hard when I was in England and became the top student of my programme. I then went on to complete my PhD under NIE's Overseas Graduate Scholarship.

My own experience made me realise that motivation is a very powerful driving force. Our beliefs and drive can determine our destiny, perhaps more so than the abilities we were born with. It also made me appreciate the impact a teacher or principal can have on a student. That was why I chose to become a teacher. I wanted to teach and share with student teachers not merely content knowledge on sport psychology, but also motivation: how to motivate and get the best out of a person.

Q: You know what it's like to not feel engaged in school. Have you done any research on low-achieving students and how teachers might help them?

Currently, we're doing a project that looks at low-achieving students, or the bottom 15% of the cohort in Math. The project aims to firstly, examine the cognitive and motivational characteristics of unmotivated students in the Normal stream, and secondly, find ways to increase motivation and academic performance of these students.

The project will identify concrete practices teachers can use to inspire the students. By managing their self-beliefs and achievement goals, teachers can transform the passive and academically disinterested students in the classroom into active, self-directed learners.

I'm a sports psychologist as well. In sports, mental strength is one of the most obvious factors in achieving peak performance. We cannot compete in a competition with only our skills. There's a lot of psychological preparation beforehand. It's about conditioning our mind to perform at our best. We can be well prepared for an exam, but if we panic when we enter the exam hall, we will not perform at our best.

Motivation and mental skills go hand in hand. This is something that can be better emphasised in our schools. We know that concentration is very important. If we want to learn anything, we need to concentrate. But we seldom teach our students how to concentrate.

Likewise, relaxation skills are very important. When we go for an exam or a competition, if we are too anxious and think negative thoughts, that will affect our performance but again we don't teach our students and athletes how to relax! In the same way, having high self-confidence is very important but we seldom teach students how to build self-confidence.

Essentially, if we want to motivate a person, we've got to look at specific skills that we need to build on. I believe mental skills training has a part to play when we are trying to bring out the best in ourselves or our students.

Also, there are skills to help us get rid of negative thoughts. Sometimes, when we get emotionally charged, how do we control ourselves? When we're faced with challenges, how do we find a way out? We can train ourselves and our students in certain thought processes to navigate these situations.

Q: When you were a teacher, did you apply any strategies to motivate your students?

I have to admit what I did as a teacher was based more on intuition. I didn't really know enough about motivation then. I do remember that at the beginning of Math lessons, I would get my students to do some breathing exercises, just to quieten down their thoughts. I used to give them scenarios such as: I'm the captain of the train. I'm going to drive the train and I want all of them to be on board the train, so that even if I'm moving at a high speed, they're following me. I was trying to gain their attention before starting the lesson. I did not know it then but what I was trying to do was to link mental skills training to motivation.

We had to be very creative if we wanted to create an environment where students could concentrate. At that time, we only had an overhead projector in the classroom, and not even computers. I had to deliberately plan a lot of interesting games, such using playing cards to teach Math to keep them engaged. If students are able to focus, they will feel more confident about themselves and that will motivate them.

Q: Do you think our understanding of motivation has improved since the time when you became a teacher?

Yeah, definitely there is more research showing us the way to motivate ourselves and our students. We have learned that human beings have innate psychological needs and we have inner resources to motivate ourselves. As teachers, we must focus on how we can create classroom environments that can fulfil our students' innate needs so that they can harness their own resources to motivate themselves.

If we talk about teacher education in NIE, we really need to imbue in student teachers the belief that every child can learn and instill in them a zest for learning. These values will determine, to a large extent, their commitment and will to constantly seek opportunities to better their teaching practice and to motivate and bring out the best in their students.

This Article was first published on SingTeach Issue 48

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