Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Attributes of a Living School

By Patrick Howard & Catherine O'Brien • May 17, 2017

Living Schools

What does education look like when ‘life’ is central to the enterprise?

(O’Brien & Howard, 2016, p 118).

There is a definite and heartening movement afoot in many education circles towards transforming schooling. Discussions about 21st century competencies, new pedagogies, innovation, and creativity are all promising developments. However, there is a risk in squandering the very real potential for substantive education change if schools latch onto just one or two progressive recommendations without considering the very purpose of education and its role in fostering sustainable societies. Charles Hopkins (2013) recommends that we repurpose education with the goal of well-being for all, forever. This vision incorporates 21st century competencies with a clear mandate to consider how existing structures and assumptions about education contribute to, or detract from, individual and collective well-being and indeed the well-being of all life on the planet – now and into the future. Building on Hopkin’s vision, we offer the concept of Living Schools (O’Brien & Howard, 2016).

Living schools are predicated on a deep sense of meaningful contact with others and the larger living world that fundamentally carries our lives forward. In advocating a sense of reverence for life, education in a Living School offers a transformative mode of thinking that cultivates compassion. The curriculum of the Living School is one founded on understanding the vitality of one’s place within the larger living landscape as being inextricable from human well-being (O’Brien & Howard, 2016, p. 123).

We see Living Schools as learning spaces that incorporate sustainability education and new pedagogies such as real-world, project based learning, and inquiry-based learning. “Old” pedagogies have their place too through respect for other ways of knowing, yoga, meditation, and indigenous worldviews.

During a classroom visit to an Ottawa school, the Living School concept was discussed with children in grade 3. They readily understood and identified with the attributes of well-being for all – how their school demonstrates its care for the environment and for other people. Their teacher wrote the words ‘Living Schools’ on the whiteboard and by chance, the dot’s on the ‘i’s’ in Living and the ‘v’ created in the children’s eyes the impression of a happy face. The third graders loved the idea that Living Schools are happy schools. When the teacher asked them if they thought their school is a Living School the children cheered and clapped their affirmation that their school feels like a Living School to them. In a forthcoming article we will share several portraits of schools that exemplify the attributes of Living Schools.

By discussing the Living Schools concept with educators in Canada, the US and elsewhere and by incorporating the many insightful responses, we continue to refine the attributes that reflect a Living School ethos. The chart below outlines these attributes which continue to evolve. We have also created a planning/discussion chart that educators can use to explore how a classroom or school reflects the attributes of a Living School. The tool helps teachers and administrators plan for possible next steps. Feel free to contact us for further information and also visit the Living Schools Facebook Page.


Living Schools Attributes Chart 2017 copy


Hopkins, C. (2013). Educating for sustainability: An emerging purpose of education. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49, 122-125.

O’Brien, C., & P. Howard (2016). The living school: The emergence of a transformative sustainability education paradigm. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development .10 (1). 115 – 131.


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