Dr Kerry Howells
Dr Kerry Howells

Earlier this year, we had the privilege of hosting Dr Kerry Howells at the LX.lab. Dr Howells is an award-winning academic in the area of learning and teaching, and also a strong advocate for the role of gratitude in higher education. She teaches the subject Gratitude in Education at the University of Tasmania, and also conducts research in this area (more information about Dr Howells’ research is available at her website).

What is the importance of gratitude in your life?

Gratitude is important in my life as a way of reminding me to not take things for granted, to acknowledge what I have received and to give back, and to help build resilience when facing adversity.

How does gratitude relate to education?

Gratitude comprises three dimensions: giver, receiver and gift. In this sense it is distinct from praise or positive acknowledgement which can often be a one-way process, where we are giving praise for example, but not necessarily out of what we have received from another. Consciously practising gratitude in education assists us to awaken this dynamic in education. The educator can awaken more fully to what they receive from their students and the institution where they work, for instance, instead of being orientated only to what they give – which can often be a source of burnout and resentment. The student can orientate themselves not only to what they receive from their education, but what they can give. Both educator and student can shift from an exchange paradigm to a gift paradigm where education itself can be considered a privilege, rather than a commodity that we are employed to transmit or consume.

How can gratitude benefit students?

Gratitude can assist students to be more engaged in their studies and feel a greater sense of connectedness to their subject matter, their peers, their teachers, and all who have contributed to their learning. When a student focuses on gratitude – on a sense of appreciation for what they are receiving from their education – they are able shift from a focus on self to a focus on others who are contributing to their education, and therefore feel this greater connectedness. When they are oriented towards how they can give back in their studies, they are more engaged because they are not just passive recipients and they are feeling more active and creative in the learning process, as co-participants. Gratitude can also bring about a greater sense of physical, emotional and social wellbeing for students because it amplifies the sense of the good in their lives. Research has shown that gratitude has a positive impact on depression and anxiety and can lead to greater optimism. Gratitude is also a powerful antidote to resentment – conceptualised as the opposite of gratitude – because it shifts students from a sense of entitlement to one of privilege.

What are some practical tips for encouraging gratitude in the classroom?

This has to start with the educator. When they approach their teaching with an inner attitude of gratitude, this flows down to their students. My research has shown that one of the most powerful ways in which teachers can express gratitude to their students is through greeting them with a sense of gratitude for coming to their class, for the efforts they have made to get there, for what they are about to learn from them, for the amazing people they are and are becoming. It’s also important that educators are doing this so that they can be more connected to their students and to increase their own gratitude, their own integrity, rather than wanting it to be reciprocated in students.

I think one of the best ways to encourage gratitude in students is to pose this as an invitation, as distinct from prescribing a certain way of being. I often spend the first five minutes of my classes inviting my students to get into what I call “A State of Preparedness” where they reflect on the inner attitude they are bringing to the class and reflecting on what they can be grateful for. This seems to set the tone of the rest of the class (as long as I have also brought this State of Preparedness myself). Students can be invited to reflect on gratitude for aspects of the subject they are studying. For example, if they are studying optometry they can focus on being grateful for their own eyes. If studying business, they can focus on gratitude for the fiscal system or money itself. They can also be invited to brainstorm all the ways they can give back out of gratitude for the opportunity to be learning. This can generate ideas such as assisting overseas students who might be finding it difficult to understand certain aspects of a lecture; or looking out for students who seem to be struggling in some way; or finding ways to thank their teachers; or being proactive in making the institution a better place. The possibilities are enormous and very powerful.

You can learn more about using gratitude in your learning and teaching practice with this handout detailing the six pillars of gratitude.

Feature image by Debby Hudson.

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