This applied case study centers on two aspects of Peterson’s research as introduced into a large K-12 school in Australia: (i) creating enabling institutions and (ii) applications of character strengths. The paper describes five character strengths initiatives. Four of the strengths initiatives have been integrated into existing school experiences such as English curriculum, school sport, student leadership, and counseling. The fifth initiative involved a brand new program which introduced a Positive Education Curriculum for years K-10. We describe these five initiatives and then explain how students at the school may experience these in a more holistic and integrated way. We hope that this article will act as a fitting tribute to the legacy of Christopher Peterson.
Keywords: schools, character education moral education, strengths, positive psychology
As one of the founders in the field of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson’s research has contributed to the rapid growth of positive education, defined as the application of positive psychological interventions in educational settings (Green, Oades, & Robinson, 2011). This paper focuses upon two of Peterson’s contributions – as applied to schools – enabling institutions and character strengths. We write from a practitioner lens and present a practical paper that shares some examples of the ways in which the Values-In-Action (VIA) classification system was embedded in various facets of a Kindergarten-12 school such as English curriculum, school sport, student leadership, counseling, and a new Positive Education curriculum.
Schools as enabling institutions
According to Peterson (2006), positive psychological interventions should not only be applied at the individual level but can also be directed at the institutional level to develop what he termed ‘enabling institutions.’ In his conceptualization of an enabling institution, he argued that virtues should be present within individual members of an institution and at the collective level. Peterson (2006) argued that schools need to be enabling institutions. More specifically, he identified ‘The Good School’ (p. 284) as one that fosters academic excellence whilst also contributing to moral fulfillment and he stated that schools must include ‘much more than the teaching of multiplication and verb conjugation’ (p. 284). According to Peterson (2006), schools must have moral goals that guide their members to be caring, responsible and productive people in society. While Peterson acknowledged the importance of ameliorating suffering and negative experiences in schools such as bullying, substance abuse and other unhealthy behaviors, he urged schools to go beyond this ‘police department’ (p. 284) mode to put in place practices that systematically build character and well-being.
Character strengths in schools
How can schools be enabling institutions that build virtue? One approach may be to foster the development of character strengths. Character strengths are defined by Brdar and Kashdan (2010) as ‘pre-existing qualities that arise naturally, feel authentic (and) are intrinsically motivating to use’ (p. 151). Peterson (2006) argued that ‘we should develop and use as many strengths of character as possible’ (p. 157) and he also advocated that schools are ideal institutions to teach character. Character education seeks to insure that a student’s academic abilities are developed in unison with his/her character (Berkowitz & Bier, 2004; Lickona, 1993) which aligns with the positive education movement (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009). Benninga, Berkowitz, Kuehn, and Smith (2006) argue that the experiences that students have at school can build character.
In order for schools to explicitly teach character, a well-planned curriculum is needed and the same level of research and planning that currently goes towards developing curricula for traditional academic subjects is required for developing character education (Waters, 2011; Waters & Scholes, 2013). Yet, Berkowitz and Bier (2004) argue that the field of character education lacks solid theory and research. In support of this claim, Leming’s (1997) review of 12 character education programs concluded that there was a lack of explicit theoretical perspectives for character education.
The school in the current case study turned to Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) classification system of virtues as a guiding framework for a strengths-based approach because of the theoretical development and empirical backing of the classification system. The VIA framework was developed by Peterson and Seligman (2004) with advice from a team of 40 contributors following five years of research development that used diverse research methods in order to find if there were a set of character strengths that are ubiquitous and morally valued across cultures. The development of the classification system included analysis of all major world religions for the virtues written about in scriptures, analysis of classic children stories from various cultures in order to identify the virtues displayed by the positive role models in the story, exploration of accounts of virtue by philosophers such as Aristotle, examination of contemporary virtue inventories (e.g. the Boy Scout codes), and analysis of the empirical research.
Following their analyses of the above sources, Peterson and Seligman (2004) theorized that there are six overarching virtues that are valued by all human beings. Within these six virtues, there are 24 subordinate, empirically measurable, character strengths: Humanity (love, kindness, and social intelligence), Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective), Temperance (forgiveness, self-regulation, prudence, and humility), Transcendence (hope, humur, gratitude, spirituality, and appreciation of beauty and excellence), Justice (leadership, fairness, and citizenship) and Courage (zest, bravery, perseverance, and honesty). 1
Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) theory has been tested empirically and it has been found to be positively related to well-being outcomes in youth samples. For example, in a cross-sectional study conducted with middle school students in the United States of America, Park and Peterson (2008) found that the character strengths of persistence, honesty, prudence, and love were negatively correlated with aggression, anxiety, and depression. Duckworth and Seligman (2005) looked at the specific character strength of self-discipline and its relationship to academic performance in eighth graders in USA. The results of their longitudinal study showed that self-discipline out-predicted IQ on academic performance. In a sample of Croatian university students, Brdar and Kashdan’s (2010) cross-sectional study found significant, positive relationships between the strengths of zest, curiosity, gratitude, and optimism/hope with life satisfaction, subjective vitality and a pleasurable, engaging, and meaningful existence. 2 In a cross-sectional online study of 501 Australian high-school students (aged 15–18 years), temperance, vitality, and transcendence were positively associated with well-being and happiness (Toner, Haslam, Robinson, & Williams, 2012). 3 These studies show a positive relationship between character strengths and well-being. However, the cross-sectional designs mean that causal conclusions cannot be drawn and it is still unclear if character strengths lead to well-being, if well-being fosters character strengths, or if the relationships are influenced by a third, unmeasured, variable.
The use of VIA character strengths framework to foster well-being in school students is relatively new and in addition to the four cross-sectional studies discussed above, three school-based intervention studies have been published. The Strath-Haven Positive Psychology program uses Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) VIA framework and was evaluated by Seligman et al. (2009) with 347 year 9 students in the USA using randomized control trials. Students were randomly allocated to Language Arts classes that contained the character strengths curriculum (intervention group) or the standard Language Arts classes (control group). The strengths program assisted students to identify their signature character strengths and to increase students’ use of these strengths in daily life. Pre-test to post-test between group comparisons revealed that the students in the character strengths curriculum reported greater enjoyment and engagement in school and these results endured through the two years post intervention at the end of the program. But there was no change in their levels of depression and anxiety. Teacher reports suggested that the program improved the strengths in students that related to learning and engagement in school such as curiosity, love of learning, and creativity. This is an important finding because teachers were blind to which students participated in the intervention group.
Proctor et al. (2011) examined the impact of Strengths Gym on life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, and self-esteem in middle school students (Year 8 and Year 9) from two schools in the United Kingdom. The Strengths Gym is a character strengths program that is based on the VIA framework. The researchers tested the effectiveness of the Strengths Gym using a quasi-experimental design which compared changes in satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect, and self-esteem over time between the intervention group (n = 218) and the control group (n = 101). Adolescents who participated in the character strengths-based exercises experienced significant increases in life satisfaction and positive affect from baseline to post-test when holding baseline levels of life satisfaction, age, gender, and grade constant. There were no effects for negative affect.
Madden, Green, and Grant (2011) designed and evaluated a strengths-based coaching program for primary school children (Grade 5; N = 38) in an all-boys, private school in Australia. The program was based upon the VIA character strengths framework and used the VIA-youth survey (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006). A within-subject design was used to evaluate the program whereby students were pre-tested and post-tested on hope and engagement. At post-test, students reported increases in hope and engagement. However, the study did not use a control group and so the authors cannot suggest causal interpretations. It may be that these increases in hope and engagement occurred due to factors other then character strengths.
Caution is required before generalizing the results of these studies given they were conducted within specific school settings, at only a few year levels and only tested in schools that are in Western countries. A greater body of evidence is needed to evaluate the use of VIA strengths framework across junior, middle and senior schools, across different school systems (e.g. public schools and private schools), in different countries, and with students of various cultures. We hope that this body of research will grow over time and a recent bibliometric analysis of the field of positive psychology shows that research in positive education is on the rise (Rusk & Waters, 2013) which suggests that we may see more research on the use of character strengths in schools.
Although it is clear that more substantial research is required into the effectiveness of the VIA framework (Quinlan, Swain, & Vella-Brodrick, 2012), the school presented in the case study below was satisfied with the positive results of the early research, and, thus, became an ‘early change adopter’ of the framework. There is an important tension to acknowledge here between the timelines taken in research to replicate the initial affirmative findings of the VIA Classification system and the desire for schools to employ positive practices. Ideally, implementation of the VIA in schools would happen only after the positive research findings have been replicated over time. However, it is not always feasible for schools to wait for the slow research process to unfold and schools’ do not wish to deprive their students in programs that might boost well-being.
The school in this case study is aware of the need to keep abreast of new research and to adapt the character strengths initiatives as new findings come to light by following a continuous improvement model. The school has a number of staff members who hold PhD’s and Masters Degrees and are trained in research methods, this team have taken on responsibility to keep abreast of ongoing research on character strengths and to use this research to continually adapt and improve the character strengths program.
In this paper, we seek to contribute to the growth of the field from an applied approach by presenting a case study that describes examples of strengths-based school initiatives. The paper describes five character-strengths initiatives. Four of the strengths initiatives have been integrated into existing school experiences such as English curriculum, school sport, student leadership, and counseling. The fifth initiative involved a brand new program which introduced a Positive Education Curriculum. The five initiatives will be described below.
The case: St Peter’s College, Adelaide, Australia
St Peter’s College was established in 1847 and is a K-12 private, boys’ school (enrollment n = 1299) in the city of Adelaide, South Australia. The school hosts both day and boarding students and is a non-selective school founded by the Anglican Church. In 2011, the Headmaster, Simon Murray, and the Senior Leadership Team, in consultation with the Council of Governors, made the decision to adopt positive psychology as a key approach to underpin their new strategic direction. Recognizing that the school had over 160 year history of fostering character development focusing on science of strengths was a key philosophy adopted across the school. In the past three years, character strengths have been woven into five student initiatives at the school. Some of these initiatives include the larger student body (e.g. sport and the Positive Education Curriculum) whereas other programs have been used with smaller, specific samples (e.g. eighth grade English Literature, senior school student leaders, and students who seek counseling).
Character strengths in English literature
In the study of English literature, students are expected to engage with the meanings and themes of literature. Teachers assist this process by applying a variety of interpretative tools in order to understand the authorial intent behind its composition. At St Peter’s College, teachers in eighth grade and eleventh grade have applied the VIA Character Strengths Model as a further tool to explore whether an understanding of character strengths deepens students’ text analysis of characterization in film and fiction writing.
Character strengths lessons were designed based upon Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) model. Students completed the Youth version of the VIA character strengths survey, thereby finding out their five dominant strengths, and well as their rank order profile of all 24 character strengths. The class was given an opportunity to discuss their signature strengths in pairs, encouraged to reflect on whether they would recognize those strengths within themselves. This process was then widened and applied to the whole class. Students were asked to write their names on five stickers and then place their stickers on their top five strengths across a display board that contained the whole 24 strengths. This allowed the students to communicate their strengths in a social and interactive way, as well as giving them an insight into similarities between different boys. The class then examined the group’s strengths profile as a whole.
This class activity was followed by a homework task, which required boys to reflect on an event in their past which saw them display one or more of their signature character strengths. This memory was then to be recounted in writing for homework.
In eighth grade, the students use the VIA framework to analyze Tim Burton’s film ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and Franz Kafka’s novella ‘The Metamorphosis’– two works selected because of their artistic merit and thematic congruency. In eleventh grade, the students explored the characters in Shakespeare’s play ‘King Lear’ using the VIA Classification system. First, the teacher discussed plot, thematic motifs, and characters in order to secure a basic understanding of the text with students. The students were then asked to write analytically (following the Statement – Evidence – Analysis structure) about how the writer/director presented the characters in each work. Specifically, students were asked to explore the characters from a ‘character strength’ perspective.
The teachers observed that study of characterization using the VIA classification framework allowed student to ‘more readily step into the life of the character and to understand how the character feels.’ The teachers’ assessment was that students were more easily able to relate to characters from ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ ‘The Metamorphosis,’ and ‘King Lear’ because they could identify character strengths in the text characters that were also in themselves. Students also drew similar conclusions about the use of the VIA Classification system as a useful learning tool in English Literature. For example, one student commented:
I think that you can relate it to your own life. If you take the test and see what your own character strengths are and then you look at any fictional character like King Lear who is such a big and powerful character; but, you can still see that maybe if he finds it hard to express love. It makes you think, well where do I fit in expressing love and having love for other people.
A strengths-based approach in sport
Sport is a central and high-profile aspect of the culture at St Peter’s College. Sport is used as an activity to form school spirit and to connect positively with teachers outside of the classroom. Every student is required to play at least one school sport, training sessions are held at school, and all teachers are required to coach a sport. Many boys are in multiple sports teams. Research has shown a significant relationship between optimism and sporting performance (Lane, Thelwell, & Devonport, 2009; Norlander & Archer, 2002; Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thorton, & Thorton, 1990), yet some of the coaching of sport at St Peter’s College was occurring from a deficit-based approach with coaches focusing on correcting the weaknesses and errors of the student athletes rather than building up strengths and optimism.
In 2011, the school conducted a systematic review of coaching methods. Following this review, they worked with Mr Mathew Scholes 4 to implement the Positive Sports Coaching © (PSC) program. PSC was introduced as an innovative and positive way to coach sport that was aimed to enhance individual student engagement in sport and aligned with the overall well-being goal of the school. The program is built around the science of character strengths, optimism, and process praise. The program equips teachers, coaches, and players with strengths-based approaches for building sporting skills, team dynamics, and student well-being.
The school invested in training all Directors of Sport, the majority of teacher-coaches, and the key external sports coaches in the first half of 2012. The school also trained all students from year 8 through to year 12. Student sports captains and leaders were given two additional two-hour workshops and a one-hour debrief session with the Director of the PSC program.
The strength-based principles of the PSC program have been in place at St Peter’s for 18 months and the students, teachers, and parents are reporting positive benefits. One theme that has been reported back to the Director of Sport and the Director of Well-being and Positive Education is the use of strength-based praise amongst students on the field with many students now commenting, in the midst of the game, on the strengths that they see in other players such as courage, persistence, and team work. The coaches have infused strength-based language into their written game reports and this has broadened the types of players who now receive mention at the end of the game to include those who showed sporting prowess and those who showed strength of character. One coach commented on his focus of the role of character strength of forgiveness and has reported that the boys now quickly forgive each other for mistakes during the game which then allows them to re-focus more successfully on game strategy. He has also found that because forgiveness has become a major strength of the team’s culture, that boys feel more confident to take risks during the game which has extended their skills.
Students have observed that a strength-based approach has encouraged them to be more resilient following a loss because they draw upon strengths such as hope and persistence. Students made comments such as: ‘I am able to see the strengths of my team more easily;’ ‘We focus more on our strengths and how to use these to win and encourage each other now;’ and ‘Team spirit is much stronger since using the positive wheel.’
Using character strengths with senior students who hold leadership positions
Under the direction of the School Captain and Vice-Captain, the St Peter’s College student leadership group has explored leadership concepts using the VIA character strengths profile (Park et al., 2006). The School Captain and Vice-Captain invited the student leaders from all year levels in the school (n = 37) to participate in a half-day workshop to complete the VIA survey and used this as the starting point to co-create their leadership vision, mission, and goals for the year. The school leaders reflected on their signature strengths and how these can shape their individual leadership and form the collective leadership characteristics of the team. The student leaders were invited to reflect on the following questions: (i) When do you feel that you are able to use your strengths? (ii) Do you think any of your character strengths will inhibit your role as a leader? (iii) How can you use your strengths to spot the strengths in others? We believe that the student leadership strengths model enabled the team to quickly connect with each other and focus on how the dominant strengths of the team could either enhance or inhibit the group achieving their vision, mission, and goals.
Staff working with these students observed that the VIA model encouraged the student leaders to consider their roles from a ‘character’ perspective so that students see the operational/task aspects of their students leadership (e.g. monitoring the junior boys adherence to uniform regulations) and see the need to build character strengths and relationships in junior students (e.g. using wisdom to helping the junior boys with their studies). The student leaders were encouraged to consider how leadership can be improved by incorporating strengths such as forgiveness, humility, love, and temperance.
Strengths-based approach to student counseling
Character strengths can act as protective factors which help to mitigate psychopathology and enable flourishing (Park & Peterson, 2008). The school counselors have adopted a strengths-based approach and have worked hard to ‘re-language’ their counseling practice and expand their vocabulary to highlight student strengths, to frame problems from a strengths perspective as well as helping students to see potential strengths in their weaknesses. For example, a student who sees the counselor for his difficulty in sitting still in class or because he plays too roughly in the school yard can be helped by the counselor to understand these problems from deficit-based explanations (e.g. a lack of patience, lack of self-discipline, and lack of focus). But, the counselor can also facilitate a strengths-based interpretation such as having too much zest. Through this approach the student learns about his problems, but also about his strengths how his zest is a good quality but requires tempering in certain situations.
By adopting a strengths-based approach, the school counselors have now added therapeutic techniques from well-being therapy (WBT) to supplement cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) (Ruini & Fava, 2012). What this means is that the previous focus on assisting students to identify unhelpful and dysfunctional beliefs is now complemented with assisting students to surface adaptive strengths-based thinking. For example, if a student comes for counseling because he is experiencing distress in balancing his homework with his non-school obligations, the counselors will use CBT to help the student identify unhelpful or dysfunctional beliefs such as ‘I can’t cope with all the pressure’; ‘I am not smart enough;’ or ‘I am going to fail.’ By bringing these unhelpful thoughts into the student’s awareness, the counselor is able to help a student identify his automatic negative thoughts patterns such as: over generalizing and over personalizing.
In taking a strength-based approach, the counselors have added to their practice and, after surfacing and disputing unhelpful and dysfunctional beliefs they can use a WBT approach and ask questions that help to surface adaptive strength-based thoughts. For example, they may ask the student to talk about a time where the student did successfully balance their homework with their non-school obligations, ask the student what strengths they used at that time and ask the students to explore what they were thinking at that time. Examples of adaptive thoughts that might be surfaced from these positive examples include: ‘This is really tough, but if I use good time management skills and reach out to my friends, I will cope with this’ and ‘In the past I have achieved balance by using my strengths of self-regulation and hope.’ In this way, the counselors have helped the students to dispute the negative thoughts and have helped to connect the students with their own positive and adaptive thinking. The student can use this adaptive thinking the next time he experiences challenges.
The strengths-based approach has also expanded the diagnostic surveys given to students so that in addition to the standard measures of depression, anxiety symptoms, and stress levels, the school counselors also now administer the character strengths surveys and uses other positive psychological interventions. The interventions undertaken with students are now taken from the positive psychotherapy work of Seligman, Rashid, and Parks (2006) and Rashid (2009). This includes positive introductions, where the student is asked to identify his strengths, gratitude journals, family tree of strengths, savoring assignment, and putting strengths in action plan.
Positive education curriculum: From welfare to well-being
After 18 months planning, internal and external consultation, and staff training, St Peter’s College launched whole-school Positive Education curriculum. After significant professional development in well-being St Peter’s College staff have recognized that the world their students will graduate into will be one with many challenges. It was no longer satisfactory to rely solely on the traditional pastoral model (which was designed over 90 years ago). 5 Instead, the school recognized it could be doing more to systematically teach well-being competencies in order to prepare students to face adversity as well as assisting them to thrive during good times in their lives.
The St Peter’s College Positive Education curriculum is a developmental program that takes place within the School’s Anglican context. Overall, the curricula’s purpose was to enhance existing traditional pastoral approaches at the school with evidence-based approaches demonstrated to have impact. The aim was to boost students’ positive experience of school, engagement with learning, and develop their social-emotional development in an organized way (Noble, McGrath, Wyatt, Carbines, & Robb, 2008).
St Peter’s College Positive Education curriculum is unique in that it adopts a whole school systems approach to well-being and character strengths embedded within the schools strategic direction. Rather than relying on a handful of isolated programs, the curriculum is scoped and sequences and is linked to the School’s overall vision, mission, and operational goals in a coherent theoretical framework. Integration of the Positive Education curriculum was achieved by first educating the staff in the benefits of positive psychology and resilience 6 to de-mystify the program. Next, a collaborative inter-disciplinary team of over 55 staff in Junior and Senior Schools from K – Year 10 designed the Positive Education Curriculum.
The Positive Education curriculum includes one timetabled lesson per week (50 min) that focuses on teaching a systematic set of well-being capabilities employing four well-being programs and is reinforced in traditional pastoral models and student–mentor relationships throughout the school. In designing the curriculum, staff considered existing evidence-based programs that aligned with positive education programs, used contemporary well-being theory, and took a strength-based approach including McGrath and Noble (2003) Bounce Back! For Reception – Year 5, Boniwell and Ryan (2012) Personal Well-Being Lessons for Secondary Schools in Year 7, Gillham, Reivich, and Jaycox (2008) Penn Resilience Program in Year 8 and Reivich et al. (2007) Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum in Year 10.
This curriculum is taught from Kindergarten – Year 10. In each of these year levels, the students are introduced to the VIA framework in ways that are developmentally appropriate. For example, in the Junior School, a number of activities have been devised to connect students with character strengths including: strengths hands where teachers ask students to write their names on a traced version of their own hand and then write their top five strengths on their fingers as well as an example of how they use their strengths in the palm; strengths trains with each caboose representing a student’s strengths; strengths stars showing that students can ‘shine’ when they use their strengths; strengths trees for each class that forms a forest of strengths in the entrance to the Junior School with trees from all classes represented; and strengths shields to represent the strengths students can use when adversity strikes; Australian Rules Football shirts that nominate students strengths and form a visual representation of being part of the ‘class team’ that knows its collective strengths.
In the middle years, strengths activities have included the following: completing the strengths survey, exploring the difference between strengths and talents, spotting individual and class strengths, discussion of signature strengths in context of real-life and hypothetical scenarios (social, sporting and class room) clustering students into groups of ‘virtues’ and inviting them to compare the virtues each students identifies with, reflecting on paragons of strengths and reflecting on the strengths of others.
Bringing it all together
In order to outline the strengths-based changes that have been undertaken at St Peter’s College over the past three years, we have written about each of the initiatives separately so that teachers, school leaders, and administrators can gain ideas for how to infuse character strengths in particular areas across the school. Yet, in practice, the school has adopted the ‘shotgun’ approach to strengths suggested by Fordyce (1977, 1983) in that it has used multiple initiatives rather than one universal program. The students have, therefore, been exposed to character strengths via multiple initiatives across contexts. Over time, what we have observed is that these separate initiatives have combined to create a cultural tipping point where the strengths initiatives across the school are fusing to create a strengths-based culture. In this way, we believe we are moving towards Peterson’s (2006) ideal of an ‘enabling institution’ which fosters strengths within the individual members and also at the collective level.
In considering these new approaches through the eyes of our students, a typical picture may be a boy learning about his own character strengths, the character strengths of his fellow students, and the character strengths of his teachers through the Positive Education curriculum (Kindergarten – Year 10). The student then explores the use of his strengths on the sports field as well as having his strengths identified and valued by the coach after the game. If he is a sports captain (28% of students are sports captains), he will receive additional strengths-based training. If he is a student in a leadership position (23% of students in the school are in leadership positions), he will explore his own strengths and how these can be deployed in his leadership role. In eighth and eleventh grades, he will analyze famous characters in English Literature through the VIA model. If he requires assistance from the school counselors, they will use traditional diagnostic models to make clinical assessments but will also administer the VIA to help him explore how he can use his signature strengths to cope. Given that all staff have been trained in the VIA model, it is hoped that there will be many informal, spontaneous strengths-based conversations in the corridors, study hall, library, school yard, drama class, sporting field, and so forth.
Of course, we do not want to paint a falsely optimistic picture. Creating strength-based change at our school has been a complex and lengthy process. There has been healthy skepticism and some teachers have adopted the strengths-based approach more quickly than others. It has taken three years but we are now at the stage where nearly all students and staff in the school have identified their signature strengths.
Christopher Peterson played a foundational role in the development of positive psychology and positive education. Characteristically humble, in our personal conversations with Chris, he always delighted in hearing our stories of how we used the VIA framework with young people to develop greater virtue, self-efficacy, and well-being. The hope that schools, their staff, and students could reimagine their futures as enabling institutions through a strengths-based approach energized him and reaffirmed his mission to help us appreciate that ‘other people matter.’ We hope that this article is an adequate legacy to Professor Peterson and we know that his legacy lives on in the lives of hundreds of students and staff at St Peters’ College, Australia.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Simon Murray (Headmaster) of St Peter’s College, the Senior Leadership Team, Zoë Alford (St Peter’s College School Psychologist), David McShane (School Counselor), the English Department, all staff, John Vrodos (School Captain) and Tom McNeil (Vice-Captain).
1. For more detailed information about the VIA, including peer reviewed research on its use, visit the VIA website at www.viacharacter.org
2. Brdar and Kashdan’s (2010) factor analysis suggested four overarching virtues, rather than six. The four virtues were defined as Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness. The twenty-four character strengths were all validated in Brdar and Kashdan’s factor analysis.
3. Toner et al. (2012) found a five-factor virtue structure: Temperance, Vitality, Curiosity, Interpersonal Strengths, and Transcendence. The twenty-four character strengths were all validated in the factor analysis.
4. Positive Sports Coaching: www.positivesportscoaching.com.au.
5. Pastoral care is an approach common in many Australian Independent Schools. It refers to systems, processes, and ways teachers nurture students beyond teaching traditional academic lessons. Each student at St Peter’s College will belong to a House and have a mentor who liaises with the Head of House and others. The objective is to insure that students don’t fall between the cracks and communicates regularly with parents. The team includes teaching staff, clergy, and counselors.
6. One hundred and fifty staff were trained in positive psychology and resilience by a team from the University of Pennsylvania.
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The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.
As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study. The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:
- What was I studying? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
- Why was this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
- What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the research problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
- How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.
Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.
II. Literature Review
The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address. This includes synthesizing studies that help to:
- Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated. This would include summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
- Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable. Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to study the research problem and the underlying research questions.
- Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study. If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
- Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies. This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
- Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research. Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
- Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill. Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
- Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!]. Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in the context of explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.
In this section, you explain why you selected a particular subject of analysis to study and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that frames your case study.
If your subject of analysis is an incident or event. In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be of a rare or critical event or focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: when did it take place; what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; what were the consequences of the event
If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experience he or she has had that provides an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of his/her experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using him or her as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem.
If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, cultural, economic, political, etc.], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, why study Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?] and, if applicable, what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [prior research reveals Echo Park has more homeless veterans].
If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks from overseas reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.
NOTE: Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should be linked to the findings from the literature review. Be sure to cite any prior studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for investigating the research problem.
The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is more common to combine a description of the findings with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:
Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings
Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.
Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important
Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.
Relate the Findings to Similar Studies
No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.
Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings
It is important to remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research.
Acknowledge the Study's Limitations
You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here.
Suggest Areas for Further Research
Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.
As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and needs for further research.
The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1) restate the main argument supported by the findings from the analysis of your case; 2) clearly state the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place for you to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.
Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:
- If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
- If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
- Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.
Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in and your professor's preferences, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented applied to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.
Problems to Avoid
One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were on social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.
Failure to Document Limitations
No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study, you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood differently than preserving access to a scarce resource.
Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications
Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your entire analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis.
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