What you need to know about UNESCO’s Happy Schools Project

Happy schools project

What is the Happy Schools Project?

Begun in 2014 by UNESCO Bangkok, the Happy Schools Project (HSP)offers an alternative approach to improving learning experiences by prioritizing school happiness. By focusing on well-being, engagement, and sense of belonging at school, the HSP helps foster a lifelong love of learning. The project targets the happiness of the school rather than individual students because schools are sites of holistic, sustainable community development that include teachers, parents, staff and school leaders.

What makes a school ‘happy’?

The Happy Schools Framework (HSF) is a way of thinking about what makes a school a happy place. Published in 2016 by UNESCO Bangkok, the framework’s 22 criteria are divided into three categories that make up the mechanisms driving happy school environments: People, processes, and places. These three categories speak to the importance of supportive school-based relationships, engaging and collaborative learning experiences, and safe, stimulating school environments.

In 2022, a guide and toolkit were developed to give teachers and school leaders in the Asia-Pacific region on-the-ground tools to implement the framework by prioritizing happiness in their daily teaching and learning experiences.

What does a UNESCO ‘Happy School’ look like?

The Happy Schools Project was piloted in 3 countries in the Asia-Pacific region: Japan, Lao PDR and Thailand. Teachers at participating schools felt that the project contributed to improving their positive attitudes and commitment to fostering happy learning environments, growth mindsets in their students, and good relationships with parents and school colleagues. Happy teachers make happy learners, and the project helped teachers focus on positivity and engagement, even throughout the disconnectedness of disrupted learning during COVID-19.

To keep students engaged during school closure, we introduced distance learning via WhatsApp and Zoom for students. As an English teacher, I asked students to share pronunciation audios and videos. The online experience made students more comfortable and confident to speak English in a fun way involving everyone.
Petamole Kongchansavath, English teacher, LAO PDR

The pilot projects proved the importance of a whole-school approach to school happiness. Participating schools increased their engagement with the local community through school-based activities. For example, at Minho Kodomonomori Gakuen School in Japan, teachers, students, and the community gathered to combat the grief of the COVID-19 pandemic by sharing happy hearts and faces to celebrate the International Day of Happiness on 20 March 2020.

Why did we need ‘Happy Schools’ in the Asia-Pacific region?

In the mid-2010’s, high-stakes testing was the driving force behind many education systems around the world. This was especially true in the Asia-Pacific region, where stress around testing created pressure-filled school settings, which negatively impact student health and happiness and position learning as a means to future success, rather than a lifelong practice.

Given that one of UNESCO’s core missions is to support lifelong learning, it is important that students want to learn because they enjoy the people, processes, and places of learning. A happy learner will stay a learner, even after graduating. The Happy Schools Framework aims to help make this happen.

The framework was useful for non-formal educational institutions and tertiary institutions [and] can be utilized in broader contexts and mobilize dialogues among stakeholders in the local community. We will transmit the guide into Japanese, not only the content but the meaning to make it relevant and useful for all of us.
Kiichi Oyasu, Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre (ACCU) for UNESCO

Why do we need ‘Happy Schools’ all over the world, especially now?

Today’s learners, teachers, and school leaders face many challenges: COVID-19 disruptions to learning and behavioral development, a climate crisis, highly visible geopolitical conflicts around the world, massive refugee movement, stark wealth and health inequality, and increasing evidence of the negative impacts of social media on the happiness of young people.

Faced with these challenges, schools around the world and are struggling to determine how to tackle them in tandem. The Happy Schools Framework pushes school systems away from a deficiency narrative and toward a positive growth mindset. Schools can be powerful places to combat the negativity that stunts learning, both cognitive and non-cognitive. By prioritizing happiness at schools with engaging, dynamic, collaborative learning experiences, learning outcomes are likely to improve.

Where is the Happy Schools Project going in the future?

UNESCO organized an event in January 2022 to kick-off a global dialogue on the importance of making the pursuit of happiness a guiding principle of all places of learning. In the short term, the Happy Schools Project is going global with its advocacy for prioritizing well-being and happiness in schools, with renewed focus on bettering learning experiences. 'Better learning' is at the core of the global Happy Schools Project, leveraging well-being and engagement to build the critical foundation of lifelong learning.

The long-term vision for going global is to expand regional implementation projects of the Happy Schools framework with new participating countries and pilot schools. The project aims to receive support from regional UNESCO offices to develop locally relevant tools at the school level, as UNESCO Bangkok did with the Happy Schools Guidebook and Toolkit. The Asia-Pacific pilot projects proved that regional adaptation and ownership of the framework is vital for local relevance and use. Additionally, we are developing a Happy Schools portal for schools to share supportive materials and stories with other schools around the world on UNESCO's Global Learning House.

How can I get involved?

If you are a student, teacher, policy-maker, education expert and/or parent interested to be part of this exciting work, please get in touch and be part of the peer-review group shaping the global framework using the following e-mail:

  • Read and comment on our draft discussion paper on the link between happiness and learning to scale-up the Happy Schools Framework
  • To help build happy school environments around the world, please fill out this survey to share materials, stories, activities and experiences with our team. You can help us strengthen the global happy schools community
  • Read about UNESCO’s work in education policies, planning and financing