Supporting the Development of the Whole Student in the UAE Education System
The pathway to student academic success is often a tenuous one if educators are not also addressing student well-being, including things like their character and moral development, social-emotional skills, and sense of purpose and meaning. That is, research is repeatedly showing us that students do best academically when they are also supported as a whole person. Around the world, the most common approaches to address student wellbeing have been through social-emotional learning, moral education, positive education, and character education programs. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there have been recent initiatives to integrate both moral education and positive education in schools. Our research team has been working on understanding these two initiatives and their similarities and differences within the UAE education context.
Moral education refers to the idea of integrating structured curricula that supports students to ponder moral questions/dilemmas and use moral decision-making processes in a developmentally appropriate way (Althof & Berkowtiz, 2006). In the UAE, a specific moral education curriculum was developed (in 2016) by the government and recently required at all public and private schools. The moral education program (MEP) aims to provide a cohesive set of values and civic duty to the increasingly diverse student body (five-sixth expatriate; Pring, 2019), with "... four pillars of teaching and learning: character and morality; the individual and the community; civic studies; and cultural studies” (www.moraleducation.ae).
Positive education is a similar but also distinct construct that has been described as the “scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008, n.p.), and it explores constructs related to positive experiences, positive states and traits, and positive institutions (Ackerman, 2018). Positive education focuses on promoting students’ happiness and wellbeing and aims to promote flourishing for an individual (Kern & Wehmeyer, 2021), by building virtues and value strengths. Positive education was first introduced in the UAE in 2009 by the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KDHA), which hoped to integrate happiness and wellbeing lessons into the school curriculum. In 2018, the UAE National Program for Happiness and Well-being was launched, and this “positive schools” network offers “a flexible mechanism that helps the participating schools implement positive education and well-being concepts” (UAE, MOE, 2018, para 2). While this program also offered financial assistance for schools and resources, not enough is known about its accomplishment, whether it was fully implemented or the schools where it was employed.
Through our work, we have learned a number of things about the implementation of these approaches to supporting student well-being in the UAE that we believe are valuable to understand.
First, we conducted a thematic analysis of moral education textbooks issued by the UAE government for the purpose of understanding what positive education concepts were and were not incorporated into the existing required moral education program in the country (Mayworm, et al., in press). Through our analysis we learned that the moral education textbooks address some positive education concepts, even if this is not explicitly stated as a component or goal of the curriculum. There was an evident overlap between the two constructs based on the lessons and structure of the textbooks analyzed. The positive psychology constructs that were the most frequently and consistently identified in the texts were flourishing and well-being. In contrast, the construct that was least frequently identified across all grades was self-efficacy, with positive emotion and growth mindset also being limited in identification. As the students moved up the grade levels, the constructs that were embedded became more complex and nuanced, to fit their developmental level of understanding.
Second, we interviewed a variety of educational leaders, students, and teachers involved with or impacted by positive education efforts in the UAE (jules et al., 2022). Through these interviews and focus groups, we learned that the participants viewed positive education initiatives as something that promoted students’ skills and helped them be resilient and feel supported, and this was especially helpful in the context of the pandemic. It was suggested that perhaps the full value of implementing positive education was not recognized by all stakeholders until the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic hit. Educators and students remarked on their ability to use the strengths and skills learned though positive education to support students’ social-emotional well-being. The interviewees also communicated numerous difficulties with implementing positive education during the time of virtual learning. Many positive education initiatives had just begun prior to the pandemic shutdowns, and thus full implementation was stalled.
Taken together, it is evident that educational leaders are taking the education of the whole child in the UAE seriously. Through simultaneous recent initiatives to implement the MEP and positive education principles in both private and public schools, the focus on academic learning to the exclusion of other critical features of human well-being is beginning to be dismantled. With the incorporation of positive and moral education in students' day-to-day learning, it is more likely that they will have the skills necessary to cope with and problem solve in future stressful experiences, like COVID-19. Although positive and moral education are distinct in some ways, they both integrate acquirement of social-emotional skills, building of character, and promote happiness and flourishing. In tandem, they will likely lead to wonderful outcomes for students in the country.
Ackerman, C. E. (2018, April 20). What is positive psychology & why is it important? Positivepsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-positive-psychology- definition/
Althof, W., & Berkowitz, M. W. (2006). Moral education and character education: Their relationship and roles in citizenship education. Journal of Moral Education, 35(4), 495–518. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240601012204
jules, t., Mayworm, A.M., & Nelson Christensen, A. (2022). Positive education in the United Arab Emirates: Navigating through and beyond the global pandemic. Gulf Education and Social Policy Review (GESPR), 3(2), 168–198
Kern, M. L., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2021). Introduction and overview. In M. L. Kern & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education (pp. 1 – 20). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3
Mayworm, A.M., Hamed, R., jules, t., & Nelson Christensen, A. (in press). Analysis of moral education textbooks in the United Arab Emirates: Implications for positive education implementation. Middle East Journal of Positive Psychology.
Peterson, C. (2008, May 16). What is positive psychology, and what is it not? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology- and-what-is-it-not
Pring, R. (2019). Development of moral education in the UAE: Lessons to be learned. Oxford Review of Education, 45(3), 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2018.1502169
UAE, Moral Education. (2017). What is moral education? https://moraleducation.ae/