The pursuit of happiness


30 January 2019

Distance is no challenge for a project that brings students across NSW together in a lesson for life.

Questions about happiness are being tackled across a range of subject areas by Year 8 students at Dubbo School of Distance Education.

And they’re ticking many boxes for general capabilities, student engagement and a range of technologies, says Kelly Pfeiffer head teacher, teaching and learning (futures learning), at the school.

Pfeiffer says students working on the Happiness Project collaborate, problem solve and use creative thinking and communications skills via a Google Doc in a Google classroom, despite not working face to face.

“It’s giving them real-world skills for 21st century learning,” she says.

“We found the learners who usually struggle at school were much more engaged and delivered better quality ideas; and those you deem more academic can really struggle with the concept [of happiness] because there’s no definitive answer to the driving question. Those students had to upskill in areas needed in the workforce such as teamwork, compassion and empathy.”

The students tackle the same driving question: How can I determine the “happiness” level in my community and create a realistic plan to increase happiness by the year 2020?

“That’s not something you can Google,” says teacher Michelle Sullivan, stage 4/5
futures coordinator and Pfeiffer’s team member.

Students are paired with others and they do a launch activity, followed by working through learning materials.

For English, they consider that happiness might mean something different to each of us; in science it’s biological – what happens to "our body when we’re happy; and in PDHPE they investigate it from a wellbeing and mental health perspective.

“Once the project is launched, they’re getting into each other’s heads working out their definition of community and what resources they have,” Pfeiffer says.

“Teachers support and scaffold student learning. It’s like tenpin bowling. Teachers are the bumper bars. If we’ve done our job well, learners have a lot of freedom but not enough to go off the track.”

Student work culminates in an infographic poster with an embedded QR code linking to a video presentation. Students also present to youth organisation headspace Dubbo, which gives meaningful industry feedback.

A team of four teachers from Dubbo School of Distance Education took two years to develop the scope and sequence, undertake professional development in project-based learning, and create and learning materials for the project.

“Project-based learning has been around for a long time, but for distance ed, there was no successful model,” she says.

The team looked to one of the founding fathers of project-based learning – Thom Markham, whose online courses helped them get the Happiness Project up and running.

Find out more at and

By Margaret Paton

In short

  • The Happiness Project asks students to work in groups and think about the question of happiness.
  • Less academically inclined students tend to excel.
  • A team of teachers took two years to develop the program.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Summer 2018.