Interview by George Kokolas
Attending Reece’s several webinars on various aspects of positive and general psychology was a real fascination for me. Not only because they contained precious, valid information and research but also because they were given by a speaker with an amazing personality like his. That made me want to have him interviewed and I wasn’t mistaken. Read and be inspired about positive psychology, education, inclusion, learning but most of all the splendour of LIFE!
Reece, I think I would like to start with the basics so our readers can get to know you better and try to set up a context for our discussion. Simply by observing your activity or attending one of your webinars I could see that you have been involved in so many different interesting things and achievements…Would you like to give us a brief introduction about your academic, professional and personal profile?
I didn’t do very well academically at school but whilst I was at school I developed an interest in martial arts and became fairly accomplished. This then led me on to competitive martial arts, specifically kickboxing and I did very well. For a little while I was sponsored as an athlete and I competed. When that career ended I struggled to find other work. Some of that was down to having no qualifications after leaving school, some of it was perhaps down to the work environment being wrong for me as an individual who has autism. So I ended up looking at the possibility of another career and I stumbled across the military. Interestingly I’d grown up in a predominantly military village with an RAF main base so many of my friends growing up had been from Royal Air Force families. I joined the army – initially, the Royal Signals – and then my army career eventually led me to transfer to the Royal Navy and in particular the submarine service. Whilst in the submarine service there was lots of training that was mandatory but also a lot of training opportunities and I think I realised then that I was actually very good at learning in certain environments and that I had developed a love of learning. Upon leaving the military I think that was when my aspirations and my career really started. I ended up getting into a university based on the strength of some of the courses I had done in the military that demonstrated that I could learn at a high level and I ended up doing a couple of Masters degrees, doing Applied Positive Psychology and I also did Psychology as an MSc. Eventually these led me to doctoral study and a PhD within the field of Educational Psychology, specifically oriented towards autism. Off the back of these attainments within that academic space I became an Associate Lecturer at Hallam University, and an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Manchester University. I do regularly speak at Buckinghamshire New University and I’m deeply involved in their Positive Psychology Centre. Other pit stops along the way include Fellow membership of the Royal Society for Public Health and also Fellow membership at the Institute of Leadership and Management where I contribute to organisational psychology and leadership.
There is a lot of noise around “positive psychology” today…Mostly positive but many people I think are curious…Is positive psychology the natural evolution of scientific research in the general field of Psychology? Or maybe it was generated as an “anchor” or “lighthouse” because of the “hard times” we have been going through these last 20 years? (global political crisis, financial crisis, pandemic etc…)
I think actually the origins of Positive Psychology go much further back. If you look at the Eastern and Western philosophies you can certainly find concepts such as meaning and purpose of life, happiness and seeking happiness, suspension of judgement, living a good life in an outward or inwards facing direction and authenticity. All of these things existed way before Positive Psychology.
If you read Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, about his background within mainstream psychology, his term as the president of the APA and his falling out of love and connection with Psychology as a means to identifying and treating sick people, he looks towards the idea that actually the ‘good life’ is there for everybody to access, for everyone to tap into and to understand. I certainly think there is some truth in us evolving and asking the right questions.
There has been a collection of hard times and there has also been a shift. Some of this is situational and some of it has a reason.
You can look at the shift towards equality and equity on many levels. You can look at that coined phrase of ‘woke ideology’ that originated in the United States which is looking at the awareness of prejudice and discrimination, it has become very important. The idea that mental health is important and everybody can experience ill mental health from time to time and that it’s normal and it doesn’t mean that you are sick. It has become validated and we are able to listen and to understand and to use empathy, so I think yes, there is something in our natural societal evolution that is born of hard times but also is born of the need to seek good times, better times from many different levels, from a personal level or from an organisational level as well. Indeed, whether that organisational level points towards companies or governments I think it is all valid.
Most of our readers are teachers and I’m sure the question that crosses their minds is the following: Do you see any value in the application of PP in education and if “yes” how could this be achieved in a massive, organised way ? Should “modern teachers” be trained as psychologists as well?
Yes, certainly, I think teachers these days in all of their forms are trained to a degree in educational psychology. They explore educational paradigms such as constructivism and such like and different methods of learning styles. It’s all in there but the system of education, rather than the philosophy of education which is pretty sound if you look at it.
If you look at the rationale and the reason behind why many people teach, they certainly start off with an open mind and the idea of making a difference. The system can often turn them cynical and wear them away and erode them over time. Then high pressure, position in league tables, all of these things can lead towards measuring individuals and trying to direct the teaching towards people who fall in the ‘norm’ range. These people function fairly well, the system works for them but then of course there are the outliers. I was one of those people on the outside as an autistic individual who learned differently and who had different tolerances to the environment, situationally, geographically, all of that arises from sensory differences and also cognitive differences so I fell on the outside, one of those who were lost in that process. The system then means that the people who perform naturally within that taught environment will do well and continue to do well, some people do exceptionally well, whilst the others are left by the wayside and this is because in education we are measuring performance.
It’s effectively a deficit model where we are compared to others and yet if we were able to treat people in a way that looks at their strengths, that which they love to do, that which they do effortlessly rather than being forced to do that which is effortful, would these individuals flourish in their own way? Is the system able to accommodate that and should it, and why isn’t it?
I think positive psychology as a paradigm can fit beautifully into education when we look at understanding the strengths of individuals and celebrating those strengths whether they are a high performer or not and celebrating their values and virtues whether they lead to high performance or not. Building resilience and building critical thinkers – if you look at the educational establishment it is based on control and conformity and yet some of the greatest achievers we see from history certainly haven’t been conformists and they have been different and they have had idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and that’s why they are great, that different thinking. If we are trying to control children within education only to set them free, why are we so surprised that they are not becoming well-functioning, well adjusted, independent thinkers when of course at school being an independent thinker is not only not required but it can be frowned upon.
Tell us about the value of “inclusion” in education and maybe in life in general. Maybe my question is naive but …do you feel that “inclusion” starts (at least) with being perceived by people as a “natural process” that everyone should practice/think about or is it still just a “mindset” that some people simply choose to adopt and others not?
Inclusivity and diversity are mandated in law now so you have to do it, but of course something that you have to do doesn’t necessarily mean that you do any more than the minimum necessary not to fall foul of the law.
We are in a position where we have to win hearts and minds before people develop truly inclusive methods, policies, procedures and of course a culture within that education setting. We look at equality and diversity but of course there is also the concept of equity which is different. It is linked to equality but arriving at that state of equity requires a little bit more.
To think that we can be inclusive by memorising the protected characteristics is naive and it won’t work without much deeper training. It is not just about being aware of the law and what it says. How do you do it? How do you get individuals to lead you and to advocate for themselves and to claim what they have a right to claim but also to understand what they need in terms of how they want to learn, the subjects and methods of learning that are right for them?
If you look at autism and sensory differences, being in and around many people in a classroom that has a certain lighting, a certain acoustic quality, that could mean that they are hugely disadvantaged. Even if we end up being able to learn in a style that is right for us it’s still not equal because of the effort required to master the sensory experience which can be anything from distracting to debilitating in the extreme. If you were able to round up all of the teachers in the school and ask them what they know about neurodiversity and what they understand about people with dyslexia, OCD, ADHD, ADD, ASD and ASC there is going to be a limit to their knowledge even if they are a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator in the UK). They have mandatory training that they have to undertake within a certain period of being appointed and it is a level 8 qualification NASEN qualification and it really largely covers policy, drivers and levers and that which is mandatory not really how to work with the individuals, the actual knowledge of the comorbidity or the subject condition is just not there. It needs to be there and there needs to be ongoing continuing professional development for all teachers, not just SENCO’s but certainly you would expect the SENCO’s to be very highly trained in all special educational needs. In the value of inclusion in terms of people leaving school with meaningful learning and with ultimately and hopefully qualifications that demonstrate that learning and certainly not being excluded from school because of ‘challenging behaviour’ which ultimately is why there are many children and young people who are excluded from the process. That is ultimately a massive failure from the teachers and it should be seen as a failure. Ofsted as an organisation has made a move now towards saying to schools that no longer can you achieve a good or excellent rating unless your SEND provision is also good and excellent. That’s a good positive move and that now needs to be seen all the way through with the training and education for the educators.
I know very well that you are the founder and leader of the Positive Psychology Network. Tell us more about the activities/services you offer there.
I established the Positive Psychology Network and the Positive Psychology Guild after completing my MAPP at Bucks New University. I realised the power and the meaning of Positive Psychology for me and that it was an emerging discipline, yet there was no regulation, no consolidation of training and expertise for practitioners. On the softer side of things, there is a vacuum after you complete that kind of program, you leave and then it’s almost like a bereavement. You are no longer in touch with your peers within your cohort, and the university itself. To offer that soft networking and the ability to network with these people and the people within your discipline and at the same time create an organisation that could actually contribute towards the controls and the professionalisation around the industry – these were the two big reasons why I initially set up the network and then the Guild which has since started to develop training and qualifications.
There is a big difference between training and qualifications.You can attend a training course and get a certificate but a qualification enables you to be competent and practise within Positive Psychology. Although you are not necessarily dealing with people that are categorised as vulnerable and sick – anybody can be vulnerable when you start to poke around in their lives – and this may start helping them with motivation or to break a habit. It could be that they want to become a more inclusive leader within an organisation or they may want to be a trainer or a coach for others so you have to be really clear about the ethical demands of that in terms of setting boundaries and dealing with issues and dilemmas with a sound ethical base as well as making sure that the knowledge that you have gained is vigorous and evidence based because there aren’t the controls around Positive Psychology in law. The titles ‘Positive Psychologist’ or ‘Positive Psychology Practitioner’ – neither of these titles are protected titles in law and there is no plan to make them so. We realised as the Positive Psychology Guild there was a place for that and that we could lead it and play a part. There is a lot of partnership working with academic institutions and other individuals that are involved in the space so it really is a collaborative process where the stakeholders get involved and we drive and strive towards creating that whole idea of Positive Psychology being professionalised.
Reece is the founder of PPG. A fellow at the Institute of Leadership and Management, and Royal Society of Public Health, he is an experienced trainer, psychologist, and sector expert within the subjects of Positive Psychology, Motivation, Organisational Development & Culture, Neurodiversity & Inclusion, and Business Management. A senior manager within the corporate commercial and not-for-profit sectors, Reece is passionate about learning and development at all levels. He completed his Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at Bucks New University in 2016, where his research focused on hope and fear, and is currently completing a PhD in Education and Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University with a focus on courage, anxiety, and autism. He leads and lectures on the Positive Psychology and Autism Awareness in Practice Programmes. He is an autistic individual who is a passionate advocate for autism and strengths-based approaches. Reece leads PPG’s Autism Centre and is keen to work with stakeholders within the areas of employment, mental health and wellbeing, and neurodiversity and inclusion. He is also an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he is a subject matter expert in the fields of qualitative research, autism, and neurodiversity (theory and practice).