The past few years have brought numerous advances in positive education theory, research, and practice. For instance, Waters and Loton (2019) proposed a data-driven meta-framework for evidence-based approaches to the field. O’Brien and Blue (2018) challenged teachers, principals, and administrators to develop a positive pedagogy, designing pedagogical practices that facilitate positivity within the classroom. Oades and Johnston (2017) argued that wellbeing literacy is an important element in positive education. While these developments are encouraging, a critical topic continues to be overlooked—professional practice—which this chapter addresses.

To date, positive education has no agreed conceptual framework or model to guide teachers to theorise and critically self-reflect on what they do and how they have an impact based on existing theories of professional practice (White & Murray, 2015). As such, positive education continues to be a pedagogy in search of a practice (White, 2015). Therefore, if developments such as Oades and Johnston’s (2017) wellbeing literacy, O’Brien and Blue’s (2018) positive pedagogy, or Waters and Loton’s (2019) framework are to achieve deep pedagogical change, I assert that critical teacher self-reflection is an integral starting point building on White and McCallum’s (2020) call to enhance teacher quality through evidence-based wellbeing frameworks. Written from the researcher–practitioner perspective, this chapter proposes a conceptual model for critical self-reflection for teachers of positive education, guided by two questions:

  1. 1.

    Can positive psychology developments enhance the planning, implementation, and self-reflection required for effective learning and teaching?

  2. 2.

    How can character strengths be integrated into reflective practice to enhance effective learning and teaching?

In this chapter, I address these questions by first highlighting how professional practice remains a missing component in positive education theory and practice. Second, I identify the importance of teacher pedagogy. I describe relevant aspects of Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) Values in Action (VIA) strengths classification, surfacing the underlying assumptions of positive education pedagogy, and point to the critical role of reflective practice. Next, I introduce Stephen Brookfield’s (2017) four lenses for critical reflection, which is one of the widest reflection methods used in teaching. Then, illustrating how character strengths can be integrated into reflective practice to enhance effective learning and teaching, I propose a strengths-based model that integrates the VIA across all stages of Brookfield’s four-lens reflective practice model. Finally, I consider the potential applications of this approach. I contend that a strength-based model is a missing piece in the puzzle needed to support reflective practice and will enhance teacher’s professional practice in positive education.

A Need to Focus on Teacher Professional Practice

Over the past decade, positive education has been interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, and Linkins (2009) first defined positive education as an approach to “teach both the skills of wellbeing and the skills of achievement” (p. 294). White (2009, 2015) claimed that it is a blend of evidence-based learning from the science of positive psychology and best practices in learning and teaching, whereas White and Murray (2015) argued that it is “an umbrella term that is used to describe empirically validated interventions and programs from positive psychology that have an impact on student wellbeing” (p. 2). Slemp et al. (2017) asserted that positive education “combines the concepts and scholarship of positive psychology with best practice guidelines from education” (p. 101).

Stemming from these definitions, research has focused on developing frameworks, interventions, and activities to support student wellbeing (e.g., Brunwasser & Garber, 2016; Noble & McGrath, 2016; Waters, 2011). There have been case studies of schools as positive institutions (e.g., Adler & Seligman, 2016; Halliday, Kern, Garrett, & Turnbull, 2019a, 2019b; Seligman & Adler, 2018; White & Murray, 2015). Reviews of positive psychology interventions, programs, and frameworks have been conducted (e.g., Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015; Froh & Bono, 2011; Rusk & Waters, 2013, 2015), the most extensive of which is Waters and Loton’s (2019) bibliometric review of over 18,403 positive psychology studies.

Yet despite all this activity, only a handful of publications have explicitly focused on the role of the teacher. In his critique of the teacher’s role in positive education, Kristjánsson (2017c, p. 188) contends that the “flourishing paradigm of positive education” takes a strength-based approach to student wellbeing; it is all about furthering assets that students already possess in nascent forms and helping them continue developing the character virtues that are intrinsically related to (i.e., constitutive of) eudaimonia. While Kristjánsson (2007, 2012, 2015, 2017b) indicates there are many professional implications for teachers, he calls “for an active political contribution from teachers, in order to make sure that the economic precondition of student flourishing is universally met” (Kristjánsson, 2017c, p. 190).

International research has established that teachers are the most significant in-school factor impacting student outcomes (Allen, Kern, Vella-Brodrick, Hattie, & Waters, 2018; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Dickerson, & Helm-Stevens, 2011; Hattie, 2009, 2015; Sachs et al., 2019). The McKinsey Report (Barber & Mourshed, 2007) argued that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” (p. 19). McCallum and Price (2010, 2012, 2015) advocated that for children and young people to be well, teachers must also be well. Teacher quality, retention, and satisfaction are crucial elements for sustaining the profession, maintaining motivation, and preparing teachers to fulfil aspirational outcomes as leaders (McCallum & Price, 2015). And yet teachers are struggling. Many are leaving the profession early (Heffernan, Longmuir, Bright, & Kim, 2019), reports of burnout and stress are high (Oberle, & Schonert-Reichl, 2016), and numerous mental health issues exist (Bullot Cave, Fildes, Hall, & Plummer, 2017; Carlisle et al., 2018; Vesely, Saklofske, & Nordstokke, 2014). As Brookfield (2017) claimed, “it’s insane for any teacher to imagine he or she can walk into a classroom and overturn centuries of racial, gender and class exploitation” (p. 43).

Over the past decade, the pedagogy—what teachers do, the professional practice of positive education—has remained uncharted territory. Questions abound around teachers’ professional identity (who teachers are), professional practice (what teachers do), and efficacy (how teachers know they are having an impact). For example, McGrath (2018) noted that “character education specialists seem to know it when they see it, but what it means to call something a character education program remains unclear” (p. 23). Overall, there is a dearth of studies focusing on the professional practice of positive education teachers. As White and Kern (2018, p. 2) noted, “the time has come for the discourse on the pedagogy of positive education to become more sophisticated”. That pedagogy necessarily focuses on teacher practice.

Intersections of Strengths and Reflective Practice

Trask-Kerr, Quay, and Slemp, (2019) contend that a significant hurdle for positive education is that it “revolves around issues to do with psychology itself and the capacity of psychology to comprehensively inform the imagined idea of positive education” (p. 2). As Kristjánsson (2019) noted, positive education’s focus on a flourishing paradigm should allay “the fears of traditionalists that the flourishing paradigm is just one more attempt to smuggle a Trojan horse of touchy-feeliness into the classroom in order to undermine standard subjects and processes” (p. 28). Trask-Kerr et al. (2019) further highlight that “teachers have imagined education in positive terms for a very long time” and “it seems that positive psychology’s philosophical roots have been largely assumed” (p. 2). They argue for a “Deweyan positive education” that “incorporates psychological knowledge in the embrace of philosophical thinking” (Trask-Kerr et al., 2019, p. 13). I argue that it is beneficial for the research, discourse, and professional practice of positive education to develop through the integration of Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) VIA character strengths classification and Brookfield’s (2017) theory of reflective practice.

The Values in Action Character Strengths Classification

The VIA advanced by Peterson and Seligman (2004) quickly became one of the earliest adopted developments in positive education (Han, 2018; Niemiec, 2018; White & Waters, 2015). The classification provides a framework enabling teachers to theorise whole-of-class and whole-of-school strength-based approaches (Waters & White, 2015; White & Murray, 2015). Although the VIA has attracted criticism for its philosophical limitations (Kristjánsson, 2007, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2019; Niemiec, 2018; Snow, 2018), the classification remains one of the foundational elements of many positive education approaches across the world.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) determined a set of criteria for the classification of these strengths based on the contribution of over 40 experts from philosophy, theology, and the social sciences. From this review of various disciplines, Peterson and Seligman (2004) created the VIA, which includes six virtues that manifest as 24 strengths. These are: wisdom (creativity, curiosity, judgement, love of learning, perspective), courage (bravery, honesty, perseverance, zest), humanity (kindness, love, social intelligence), justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership), temperance (forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation) and transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality).

Recent findings on strengths over the past five years have implications for teachers’ professional identity, professional practice, and efficacy (Niemiec, 2018; Waters & White, 2015). For example, Bates-Krakoff et al. (2017) found that character could be developed through carefully designed curricula. Having extensively reviewed strength-based studies, McGrath (2018) proposed that character education programs should include seven features: school-based, structure, addresses specific positive psychological attributes, addresses identity, moral growth, holistic growth, and the development of practical wisdom (Kristjánsson, 2017a). Based on eight reviews, Berkowitz, Bier, & McCauley, (2017) identified 42 evidence-based practices to derive lessons on effective practice. They proposed a conceptual framework of six foundational character educational principles to aid the dissemination of evidence-based practices more broadly: prioritisation, relationships, intrinsic motivation (internalisation of character), modelling, empowerment, and developmental pedagogy (PRIMED) (Berkowitz et al., 2017). Reviewing character strength interventions, Lavy (2019) identified how strengths could be linked with the development of twenty-first-century skills, offering an integrative model for strength in schooling. Lottman, Zawaly, and Niemiec (2017) emphasised the importance of incorporating strengths within everyday language.

Across studies and reviews, it becomes clear that strengths underlie much of positive education practice. However, I contend that greater focus should be placed on explicitly incorporating strengths within teacher pedagogy; specifically, through the purposeful use of reflective practice.

The Critical Role of Reflective Practice

I suggest that a missing part of positive education discourse is the incorporation of teachers’ critical self-reflection on professional practice. To be clear, when I discuss professional practice, I do not mean just the classroom programs, worksheets, activities, or interventions teachers undertake with their classes. Rather, professional practice refers to a teacher’s ability to self-reflect and the “repertoire of effective teaching strategies, and use them to implement well-designed teaching programs and lessons” (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2014). While many schools will adopt wellbeing or positive education approaches to shift educational practices, the challenging task of shifting professional practice is often overlooked. Initial enthusiasm gives way to a dominant school culture that leaves wellbeing on the sidelines (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016).

Within education, a widely recognised body of research focuses on the significant role that reflective practice plays a part in transforming teaching (Brookfield, 2003, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017). Indeed, teaching is often referred to as a reflective profession in which teachers are continually evaluating their impact on learning and practice. Reflective practice aims to progress teachers’ knowledge, understanding, and actions throughout various stages of their career, so that they positively impact student outcomes (Brookfield, 2009, 2015). At the heart of reflective practice research is a teacher’s ability to know, understand, and reflect upon professional practice through four lenses. Brookfield (2017) argues that:

Critically reflective teaching happens when we identify and scrutinise the assumptions that undergird how we work. The most effective way to become aware of these assumptions is to view our practice from different perspectives. Seeing how we think and work through different lenses is the core process of reflective practice. (pp. xii–xiii)

Key researchers in reflective practice include Borton (1970), Kolb and Fry (1975), Argyris and Schön (1978), and Brookfield (2017). Studies by these researchers and others have advanced discourse and research in the area and influenced initial teacher education across the world. Indeed, teacher registration authorities are increasingly requiring teachers to provide evidence of critical self-reflection on teaching practice, a step in the teacher registration process. Similarly, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners requires critical self-reflection as part of the renewal of registration (Brookfield, 2017).

While reflection is widely accepted as an integral part of effective teaching (e.g. Molla, & Nolan, 2020; Sato, Ludecke, & Saito, 2020), there are many theories and models showing how to approach this task. First theorised in 1995, Brookfield’s conceptual framework has been widely applied in initial teacher education and other professions, including health and nursing. I suggest that it can also be helpfully applied within positive education, especially when school leaders and teachers have become frustrated after initial training and investment in positive education efforts but have had limited sustainable results. Brookfield (2017) defines reflective practice as “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions” concerning learning (p. 3). Four aspects of Brookfield’s definition of reflective practice provide much-needed clarity for teachers of positive education and respond to White and Kern’s (2018) criticism “that the time has come for the discourse on the pedagogy of positive education to become more sophisticated” (p. 2). Brookfield (2017) claims that reflective practice needs to (1) be sustained, (2) be intentional, (3) seek evidence, and (4) assess teaching assumptions. He asserts that paradigmatic assumptions are widely present in education and “critical reflection is all about hunting the assumptions that frame our judgments and actions as teachers” (Brookfield, 2017, p. 21).

I suggest that with the rapid rise of positive education and enthusiasm surrounding its application, some teachers have jumped the gun, focusing on implementation without undertaking the significant critical self-reflection demanded in professional practice. While various programs and curricula have been developed, there is scant evidence of how this has been integrated into professional practice beyond a series of worksheets or claims that they are based on what works for in-school experience (Waters, 2011; Waters & Loton, 2019). As classrooms and schools are complex ecosystems, professional practices that take that complexity into account are needed. I suggest that Brookfield’s (2017) Four Lenses of Critical Reflection provide a vehicle to allow educators to incorporate positive education in a manner that places professional practice at the centre of the pedagogy.

Brookfield argues there are four lenses of critical reflective practice: (1) our students’ eyes, (2) our colleagues’ perceptions, (3) personal experience, and (4) theory. These are illustrated in Fig. 7.1.

Fig. 7.1
figure 1

Brookfield’s four lenses of critical reflection (Author adaptation from Brookfield, 2017, p. 61)

Lens 1: Our students’ eyes. At the centre of reflective practice is the teachers’ ability to continually reflect on the impact they have on the students in their classrooms. This includes the mode of instruction, types of activities chosen, tasks that are set, and the way learning is set up in the classroom. Brookfield (2017) asserts that this is the basis of “student-centred teaching: knowing how your student experiences learning so you can build bridges that take them from where they are now to a new destination” (p. 62). Brookfield asserts that effective teachers must collect data to confirm their belief that a learning experience, assessment, or task is working well, in addition to seeking areas for improvement. This includes the teacher clearly articulating the classroom process and procedures, why these are taking place, and how they link back to the learning goal originally established. Brookfield stresses the importance of regular anonymous feedback and the teacher discussing this openly and often, and articulating how teachers have changed their professional practice based on this feedback to help establish trust in the group.

Lens 2: Our colleagues’ perceptions. In many education systems, teachers will often be encouraged to provide feedback on effective teaching as a part of an appraisal process. Brookfield asserts that a ‘critical friend’ is one who will challenge our underlying assumptions about education and enable us to undercover new perspectives and revisit challenges or dig deep into why we use an approach. Brookfield asserts that some of the best conversations are about the “nature of resistance to earning” (p. 67). I find that this point resonates with teachers who attempt to teach positive education but are met with resistance from students and/or colleagues, triggered in part by the word ‘positive’. Engaging with the resistance begins to unearth people’s underlying assumptions about the purpose of learning, which often assumes the centrality of ‘academic’ courses, with wellbeing training perceived to be of little relevance. Rather than being a problem, such resistance provides the opportunity to expose such underlying assumptions, and then identify the actions, activities, and approaches that resonate versus those that are ineffective within that context. As Brookfield highlights, some of the resistance to learning in education is “grounded in events that happened before I showed up” (p. 67). Further, the best community of reflective practice is multidisciplinary rather than discipline-specific groups, which may reach conclusions about learning and teaching too rapidly and affirm pre-existing paradigms of teaching (Brookfield, 2017).

Lens 3: Personal experience. Learning by the personal narrative is a powerful lens in reflective practice; that is, who do I engage with the process of learning? Many people will find the individual stories of learners who have benefited from a positive education approach meaningful. This includes teachers who recount the power of gratitude exercises, strength-based learning, and focusing on what works well in class. While these individual stories will move us, and often they are what people in the field will remember long after a detailed dataset, they are also paradoxically some of the first examples to be dismissed. As Brookfield argues, the most effective academic criticisms discuss a view of a proposition as ‘merely anecdotal’. Brookfield extends this argument and suggests that in specific emotional experiences, there are ‘universal elements’ embedded within them. Further, he reminds us that “personal experiences of learning are intertwined with teaching practice” (p. 70). The implications for positive education here are profound. Brookfield contends that “we can trace the impulse of these decisions back to the kinds of situations in which we felt excited or confused as learners. We assume that what worked for us will be similarly galvanizing for our own students” (p. 70). When teaching, or discussing positive education, teachers also report concern that students ‘opt-out’ or are disengaged. Herein, it is an essential point of reflection for teachers of positive education. Brookfield (p. 71) challenges us to consider when we have felt disengaged, and suggests the following examples:

  • “I don’t see the reason why I’m being asked to do a particular activity.”

  • “The instructions provided are unclear.”

  • “The time allowed for it is too short.”

  • “The leaders have not demonstrated any commitment to the activity.”

Brookfield asserts that all teachers and learners have paradigmatic assumptions about the way power is perceived in classroom culture based on personal experiences. He argues that these establish causal assumptions about how different parts of the education world work and the conditions under which they can be changed. Ongoing reflective practice invites teachers to consider these paradigmatic assumptions through the students’ eyes, colleagues’ perceptions, personal experiences, and theory and research.

Lens 4: Theory. Brookfield argues that explaining the importance of theory to practising teachers is one of the most challenging areas. For example, he asserts that teachers will say “they don’t have time to read or that educational theory and research doesn’t have anything to do with the particularities of their classroom” (p. 73). Why does theory matter? Brookfield asserts that it “puts into cogent words something you’ve felt but been unable to articulate” (p. 73). The uptake in positive education research and application in schools can partly be explained in this way. Various aspects of the growing evidence-based approach provide theoretical frameworks for phenomena teachers have observed in the classroom but were unable to describe.

A Strength-Based Reflective Practice Model for Teachers

Brookfield (2017) aptly noted that “methods and practices imported from outside rarely fit snugly into the contours of our classrooms” (p. 54). Indeed, despite the rapid uptake of positive education, schools are also struggling to maintain initial efforts and create sustainable change. In a 2016 paper, I outlined various series of elements of professional practice and educational systems, which I argued were essential for developing comprehensive wellbeing programs in schools (White, 2016). Since then, I have spent more time reflecting on the pedagogical principles behind positive education. I posit that one of the significant hurdles to the sustainable implementation of positive culture within traditional education systems is that many teachers do not undertake the critical self-reflection required to shift professional practice from the way they were taught to the way they think they teach. One of the critical changes needed to develop a professional practice of positive education is for teachers to see their professional training from the four lenses established by Brookfield (2017).

Notably, the research on strengths provides an opportunity for incorporating reflective practice in a manner that aligns with the core values of positive education. Thus, I propose a model that integrates reflective practice and strengths based on the combination of Brookfield’s four lenses and the 24 VIA character strengths. The purpose of this integration is to promote deeper reflection between teachers’ professional practice and what they do in the classroom with the character strengths profile and critical reflection. Figure 7.2 illustrates the underlying theoretical model. The figure demonstrates the process teachers can adopt to integrate Brookfield’s Four Lenses of Critical Reflection with a character strengths approach to create a strength-based reflective practice model.

Fig. 7.2
figure 2

A strength-based reflective practice model for teachers

Supporting this model, Table 7.1 offers a series of questions that arise from the integration of the four lenses across the 24 VIA strengths. The table outlines the strengths linked with each of the six virtues and applies each lens to that strength. For Lens 1 (students’ eyes), questions could be posed to students participating in a critical reflection of professional practice, inviting students to catch circumstances when their teachers demonstrated each strength. Once the student feedback has been collected anonymously, I suggest that teachers use Lens 2 to seek feedback from colleagues who can also respond to similar questions, focusing on the strengths demonstrated by their colleagues. Using Lens 3, teachers are invited to reflect on their own experience, considering when they felt they demonstrated the strength while teaching, how they felt at that time, and what impact it had on their own journey as a learner. Lens 4 encourages teachers to connect with relevant scholarship and theory applicable to the strength, comparing and contrasting their own experiences with the theory, making sense of concepts that have been raised.

Table 7.1 Strategies for incorporating Brookfield’s (2017) four lenses with the 24 VIA character strengths, grouped by Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) proposed six virtues

These questions aim to enable teachers to move from one type of professional practice to a more desired, strength-based approach. These questions have been designed to provoke discussion around the role of the teacher in professional practice, the part of the student in professional practice, the role of theory in professional practice, and also the teachers’ own lived experience and ability to reflect on the decisions they make in learning. The questions encourage teachers to consider their role in learning, how they approach specific tasks, and how this impacts upon the experiences of students and their colleagues.

Throughout, participants are invited to reflect on evidence that supports claims made (by students, colleagues, and their own reflection), consider the impact on learning, and reflect upon their own practices. Many of the strengths are integrated into the positive education programs that teachers may be teaching within their school, so this process allows teachers to critically reflect upon the research, their own experience, and the perceptions of others. Teachers are also encouraged to consider how they demonstrate the strengths in their day-to-day teaching, as well as in the content they are exploring.


In this chapter, I have argued that positive education continues to be pedagogy in search of a practice (White, 2015). I theorised that one of the hurdles for the development of professional practice in the field is that teachers do not critically reflect on their professional practice fully. I argued that Brookfield’s (2017) four lenses provide a robust approach for incorporating reflection into positive education practices. To support this, I introduced a strength-based model and related strategies. I argue that it is possible to achieve this goal over the next decade if researchers systematically investigate the experience of pre-service teachers, practising teachers of positive education, school managers, school leaders, and school governance. As “only then can the field adequately put forward positive education as the heart of a new approach to pedagogy” (White & Kern, 2018, p. 12).