Introducing our Researcher in Residence | Parent Wellbeing Blog

As we approach Half Term we can realistically say that we have now settled into this new academic year and a routine that is respectful of SOP’s, blended learning and the many COVID-19 related challenges presented to us. It is also purposeful, enjoyable and full of remarkable achievements and surprises. Although College life is very different from what we expected this time last year, we remain focused on providing all our pupils with a platform for flourishing in life. The strategic direction has not changed but the obstacles and challenges along the way certainly have. At such times it is good to take stock, reflect on where we are and evaluate how we need to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Doing so is often more effective with the assistance of an external critical friend to look around with fresh eyes. I do not mean the classic consultant who ‘charges you a fortune to tell you what you already know”; rather one that can look at the current situation through a fresh, informed and independent perspective. In this case to view all aspects of our educational provision through a positive education lens with a clear understanding of what this is and how it relates to the current global backdrop. 

This academic year we are delighted to have a researcher in residence working with us to do just that. Diane Trif joined us at the start of term after travelling from her home in Miami, Florida. Earlier this year Diane completed a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. This involved particular focus on Positive Education, Positive Intervention Implementation, Positive Institutions, and Digital Wellbeing; with her major research paper on “How Positive Psychology can Transform Your Campus”. We could not have found a better strategic partner and having Diane work with us this year is extremely exciting and has tremendous potential for helping our pupils and our staff. We are determined to transform this potential into reality through refinement of our own ‘flourishing’ model, unique to us so we become a leading light globally in this exciting field.

As previously stated, we believe Flourishing@MCM provides a holistic educational framework which is a ‘fit for the times’. The model is founded on the principles of Positive Psychology as applied to education with the 6 identified domains of Positive Engagement, Emotions, Purpose, Relationships, Accomplishment and Health. 

This approach built on the PERMA model pioneered at University of Pennsylvania by Martin Seligman. Martin Seligman is widely viewed as the founder of Positive Psychology, was a mentor to Diane at the University of Pennsylvania and indeed recommended that she take up the position of Researcher in Residence at Marlborough College Malaysia.

We believe, and current research supports this belief, that the focus on the 6 domains provides a framework to enable our community to flourish. The purpose of the Parent Wellbeing Blog is to provide an insight into what we are doing so we are true to our commitment to Flourish@MCM, whilst also explaining ‘why’. It seems entirely appropriate that an interview with Diane is one such Blog so you know a little more about who she is and why she is here.

 

Questions & Answers

Diane Trif

Where are you from & talk us through your journey to join us here in Malaysia?

Born in Romania but educated in the United States, I always have a hard time answering the ‘where are you from’ question – since I don’t quite identify with either place as authentically my home. I’ve always had this curiosity about cultures and people, which I think was one of the features that excited me about the opportunity to come work in such a diverse country like Malaysia. I first came across the opportunity to do research at MCM during my Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at University of Pennsylvania back in 2019. Dr. Seligman, who is the founding director of the Positive Psychology Centre and the MAPP program at Penn mentioned an opportunity for graduates to work in well-being within the education field and I knew that was the direction I wanted to take my career post-graduation.

My previous professional experience was centered on organizational development, project management, business, and marketing. However, in the last 3 years I’ve transitioned over to education because I became convinced that the science of positive psychology can be absolutely transformative for young people. While completing my master’s degree I spent some time in Washington D.C. working at a higher education focused non-profit organization and learned much about the mental health challenges of US college students and teenagers. It is no surprise that Yale University’s most popular class ever taught has become “Psychology and The Good Life”, focused on teaching students how to lead happier lives. Within a week of opening registration for the course over 1,200 undergraduate students had enrolled – almost one fourth of the entire undergraduate population at Yale! And this is not a new phenomenon. Harvard University was offering a course on positive psychology as far back as 2006 when Dr. Seligman delivered his first TED Talk on “The new era of positive psychology”.

The fact that so many university students are eager to learn about the science of well-being shows there is a real need, as well as opportunity for us to educate not only for academic success, but also for happiness, which research shows is actually a precursor to success (instead of the other way around). This has been my motivation in coming to MCM – a culturally diverse school dedicated to the success of students within all areas of life. The Flourish@MCM model intends to teach pupils skills that will help them respond to life’s stressors, seek meaning and purpose alongside high achievement, and learn to savour and build upon the good experiences of life – skills that will undoubtedly make them more successful in university and beyond. I’m excited to be spending the next year learning best practices alongside the pupils, staff, and the greater MCM community. 

When did ‘well-being’ start to interest you?

‘Well-being’ is a relatively recent word being used in the literature to differentiate it from the word ‘happiness’ as a term that covers more than just feeling good – but also functioning effectively. Personally I first understood positive psychology as the science of happiness, and I was not much older than the 6th form pupils here at the college. In my American high school there was a course that offered certain students the freedom to choose any topic that interested them and spend the entire year researching it independently. I was seventeen and had no idea what I wanted to study in university but I did have one burning curiosity. I was fascinated by the stress and anxieties I saw in some of my classmates and in myself at such a young age and wanted to really understand where they were coming from and what we could do to live better and more balanced lives. Despite this being over a decade ago, the pressures of childhood and adolescence have only increased tenfold for today’s youth. In a way, positive psychology for me has been a journey into the exploration of the human potential to adapt and overcome adversity. I was motivated to understand what caused the distinction between those who succeed even under unwelcoming circumstances, and those who do not despite favourable ones. My research that year culminated into a documentary style video presentation to the school on what it meant to live a full and good life – what it meant to flourish. That is where my passion for the topic was born, though I did not know it at the time. 

What is your understanding of the concept of ‘flourishing’? 

‘Flourishing’ to me is about living a life that is full of the experiences that make us whole and human. This is not about just happiness or feeling pleasant emotions – that is the pleasurable life. A pleasurable life devoid of meaning, interests, or growth does not feel full. We have as humans a capacity for growth and a need for achievement and accomplishment. We have a need for meaningful connection to others, for experiences that we find valuable and purposeful. We need to feel engaged and connected to our work and to each other. 

This is why the PERMA model of well-being is one of the most cited models to date – it encompasses all of these elements that lead to a full and balanced life. When young people are provided with the knowledge and opportunities to grow their character, to experience positive community, to face and grow from challenges and failure, and to recognize and cultivate the capacity for goodness and depth of emotional experience in life – they flourish. The research supports this notion that when we are in a state of flow, fully engaged with these different areas of experience, we are better positioned to recognize opportunities, create connections, and do our best work. To flourish then, is to me the closest resemblance to what Maslow called “striving for self-actualization”, or reaching our full potential as individuals. The best part is that we are now understanding the science behind how to do this – and we all have the capacity for it.

Why did you choose the University of Pennsylvania and what were the most interesting aspects of the course you studied?

I have to admit that when I started looking into places where I could study positive psychology I was considering either the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education’s MAPP program, which has a focus on applications within the field of education, or the more theory focused program at the University of East London. However, the University of Pennsylvania was the first in the world to offer a degree of this kind, and the opportunity to study alongside pioneers like Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth, Ed Diener, and many others was too appealing. The MAPP program at Penn is now in it’s 16th year and boasts a community of over 500 alumni from all over the world (2 are from Malaysia!). Despite us finishing the program fully online due to Covid19, the connections and community that is known fondly as the “MAPP Magic” was hands down the best part of the experience.

In regards to coursework, I think one of the most interesting aspects for me was the realization that the field is still very new, exciting, and developing. Reading the latest research and learning at the forefront of emerging work was inspiring. One particular focus that I connected with was the emergence of the “second wave of positive psychology”, which is focused on looking at the entirety of human experience, both positives and negatives, as an opportunity for flourishing and developing well-being. There is emerging evidence that adversity and trauma are not always detrimental and can actually create and fuel success.

How influential do you believe the work of Martin Seligman has been?

As president of the APA in 1998, Martin Seligman refocused psychology by encouraging colleagues to ask the question “what is right with people” instead of what is wrong. Although there were many psychologists already studying positive human characteristics such as altruism, flow, love, or motivation, his work has been critical to the development of a psychology of human strengths. Together with other leaders in the field like Chris Peterson and Ed Diener, a new classification of values and virtues was developed that gave us the ability to identify and discuss our best traits. The influence of Dr. Seligman’s work can be seen in the emergence of a focus on the “positive” in many other interdisciplinary fields such as business (Positive Org. Scholarship), education (Positive Education), health, popular culture, sports, media, and even in government.

What particularly interested you in working with Marlborough College Malaysia?

The diversity and commitment of MCM to provide a quality, well-rounded education to each pupil was one of the main things that attracted me to the school. The second thing that really stood out for me was the alignment of the school’s interest in incorporating elements of digital well-being with my own interest in this area. One of the points that I made when applying for this position is that the opportunity of using positive psychology research to design online learning experiences that promote positive development is ripe. As technology continues to expand farther into all aspects of life, digital learning will continue to play an increasing part in education. Effective digital learning design can enhance student success, instructor effectiveness, and professional development within institutions. Peer to peer learning and online learning communities are becoming critical components of a successful digital education.

These elements were all true even before Covid19 swept across the entirety of the planet, forcing what might have been years of digital growth into the span of a few months. Educators have had to adapt and solve complex technology challenges as well as manage teaching and learning in new formats. The importance of forwarding a positive digital learning strategy is even more critical now. MCM is aware of and determined to move this work forward. My intention is to continue to develop my interests in digital learning design and the application of positive psychology through this avenue with both students and staff. I believe technology can be very effective as a vehicle through which positive interventions are delivered. Pupils are spending an increasing amount of time online, so the opportunities in this space for impact are truly great. 

What are your first impressions of the College, the pupils and the staff?

 One of my first impactful observations of the College was the warm, welcoming, and inclusive culture that I was walking into. The community at MCM is truly special. There is an appreciation for differences here and a real feeling of “family” that I’ve picked up on. Despite being literally on the other side of the world from my own family, I have yet to feel lonely or alone. There is ample opportunity to engage in many community activities, sport, or just spend time with colleagues at the end of a long day. The pupils are open and happy to share their experiences and there is a general sense of cohesion throughout the boarding houses. This type of social support is likely responsible for a big part of the resilience of the school.

What are you most looking forward to over the course of this year (professionally and personally)? 

At the risk of sounding too cliché, I really look forward to learning with the community. This next year will be challenging as we mitigate the impacts of Covid19 while moving the Flourish@MCM model forward. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be roadblocks and we need to welcome those. But there has also never been a better time to prioritize well-being and the elements that lead to flourishing. Crises really push us to reassess our values – and personally I’m looking forward to this challenge. Professionally, we are also entering the era some are calling the “third wave of positive psychology’, where the impacts of collective well-being are looked at and assessed. I look forward to learning more about this over the next year, and sharing this knowledge with the pupils and staff at MCM.

 

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