Dr Helen Street

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Positive Schools 481












The movie ‘Bladerunner’ was based on Philip K Dick’s science fiction master piece ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. The book explores our ever-present search for well-being in terms of our ability to empathise with and connect with our environment.

The heart of the book’s story begins when ‘Bladerunner’ Rick’s despondent wife Iran rejects an opportunity to increase her mood with a quick fix ‘Penfield Mood Organ’. This device is a futuristic happiness creating machine. You simply identify the desired state in which you would like to spend your day, dial the allotted number and, hey presto, you can be filled with as much ‘happiness’ as you choose.

Rick embraces the machine as a way to get through his day with what he calls a positive mindset. He routinely chooses to dial ‘481’ which gives him an instant sense of hope and an “awareness of the manifold possibilities open to him in the future.”

Iran is not a fan of her husband’s pleasure-seeking choices, choosing instead to dial numbers that make her feel depressed and despondent. She even chooses to experience ‘despair’ twice a month.

When challenged on her negative choices, Iran explains that she believes it is healthy to experience emotions that fit with the context in which you live. In Iran’s case, a toxic and turbulent future world, rather than demonstrate happiness that is incongruent with the environment.

Certainly, it could be said that our ability to act and react with our environment in a sympathetic way defines the very core of our humanity.

Although Philip does not mention his mood machine beyond the opening of his book, he goes onto to discuss the distinctly human quality of empathy as a distinguishing factor between humans and his artificially intelligent replicants. In so doing, he asks us to consider if it is possible to be truly human unless we can relate to our environment.

Similarly, I ask you to consider if it is possible to truly attain wellbeing without an understanding of and connection to the context in which you live?

Is it a sign of wellbeing, rather than dysfunctionality, if a child is disengaged and demotivated within an unhealthy school context?

Moreover, can we ever expect any child to attain ongoing happiness unless we create a context that supports them more fully and effectively?

Individually focused wellbeing strategies, that do not consider context, appear scarily akin to Phillip Dick’s characters’ dialling a number for happiness. They offer an opportunity to temporarily feel good but with the price tag of possible disconnect and longer-term despondency.

The current popularity of centring our ideas about wellbeing firmly within an individual, means we often attempt to understand young people without any consideration of the context in which they spend their days, every Monday to Friday. For example, if a student is constantly disengaged and disruptive in the classroom, we all too frequently ask “what is wrong with them?”

Perhaps the answer is nothing.

They may be demonstrating a perfectly ‘well’ response to a context that is non-nurturing, unhealthy or unhelpful. For example, they may be struggling with their academic learning, as many disruptive kids do. Or they may feel they have no autonomy because they are always being told what to do, which is often seen as the only way to garner compliance. Alternatively, perhaps they are struggling to belong to a social world from which they are always excluded?

Consider how many teachers choose to send a disruptive child out of the room, rather than bringing them in closer.

If we could expand our definition of wellbeing to the context around us, then we may be more willing to look at supporting a better context in which to educate and bring up our increasingly troubled children.

Positive Schools 481 - A poem by Helen Street

So many children caught in an education system as outliers, outsiders or lost.
Beginning their journey with a hope of thriving, only to finish with relief that their childhood has gone.
Looking to begin again as an adult,
But failing to see that the damage is done.
The science and study of wellbeing brought in to help the kids in the race.
Trying to help them build resilient armour and keep up with the pace.
If only we realised that ingrained methods are not the same as wise ways.
It is time to change to a more intelligent system, one where everyone can embrace their school days.
It is time we realised that effective education gives everyone an equal voice.
Effective education builds cohesion, creativity, freedom and choice.
Imagine such a system.
A system based on equity, opportunity, and trust.
A system where all children are all allowed to be gifted, self-determined and free.
Imagine a system where everyone matters, because the system is just.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela


E: Helen.Street at UWA.edu.au 
T:0011 61 (0) 8 – 9388 8843  F:0011 61 (0) 8 – 9388 8848