First developed in 2012, our Diamond Model (Eichsteller & Holthoff, 2012) has become one of the most powerful concepts in social pedagogy, a values-led approach to relationship-centred practice that aims to support people to flourish and feel socially included. The metaphor of the diamond visualises its central underpinning principle: As human beings we are all precious and possess a wealth of skills, abilities, talents, knowledge and other resources that make us rich in very unique ways. There is a diamond within everyone of us. Not all diamonds are polished and sparkly, but all have the potential to be. Similarly, every person has the potential to shine – and social pedagogy is about how we can support people to uncover and recognise their potential, to draw out their inner richness. This enables them to feel more resourceful and empowered to create meaningful change in their lives. In facilitating these kinds of positive experiences, social pedagogy has four core aims that are closely linked: well-being and happiness, holistic learning, relationship, and empowerment.
Well-being and happiness:
The overarching aim of all social pedagogical practice is to provide well-being and happiness. Nurturing well-being covers a broad spectrum ranging from averting adversity to supporting recovery from trauma and, vitally, enhancing happiness and well-being. In social pedagogical practice, well-being is understood holistically, as an integrative term covering relational, emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual dimensions of wellness.
In nurturing well-being, it is important that we think not just about the here and now but about the long-term implications. This requires that we don’t give in to the temptation to use a needs-focussed approach by doing things for others in order to achieve quick but short-lived gains (the ‘give-a-hungry-man-a-fish’ approach) but instead take a human rights approach, which is more sustainable and enabling (the ‘teach-a-hungry-man-how-to-fish’ approach).
While the terms ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ are often used interchangeably, it is worth differentiating between the two: happiness usually describes a present state whereas well-being describes a long-lasting sense of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social well-being. Not all things that cause happiness will contribute to a person’s well-being, yet experiencing lots of happy moments is essential to one’s subjective well-being. The dual focus on both happiness and well-being, both the here-and-now and the long-term perspective provides a crucial aim in social pedagogical practice that we must never lose sight of. Giving someone a reason to smile can have profound implications that we mustn’t underestimate.
Well-being and happiness are highly individual and subjective, and consequently what causes happiness for one person can be very different to what makes someone else feel well. In social pedagogical practice, we must constantly keep this in mind, question where we might be making assumptions and get into dialogue to explore how the people we support experience happiness and nurture their well-being. This means social pedagogical practice has to be very context-specific and highly responsive to the individual and the situation rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.
Well-being and happiness are inherently connected to learning processes as a person’s physical, cognitive and emotional state affects how the brain processes information, in which parts of the brain it is stored and how easily it can be recalled. At the same time, learning should actually make people feel better about themselves and bring the joy that comes with discovering something new and exciting, satisfying one’s curiosity and gaining greater understanding.
Learning is more than what happens at school, it is a holistic and lifelong process of realizing our own potential for learning and growth, which can take place in every situation that offers a learning opportunity. Research shows that effective learning is a holistic, immersive and active process. Social pedagogical practice therefore aims to initiate learning situations that holistically support people’s cognitive, social, emotional, physical and spiritual development – commonly referred to as educating head, heart and hands. Given that each person has unique potential, individuals learn in unique ways. Therefore, if we want to help people unfold their potential, then learning settings need to take their uniqueness into account.
In facilitating enhanced well-being and learning, relationships play a crucial role, as they offer us unique insights into a person’s inner and outer world. Developing positive, supportive, trusting, authentic relationships with people in which we’re both able to be who we are is central to social pedagogical practice and seen as inherently valuable and purposeful. Social pedagogy therefore encourages us as professionals to bring our personality into the relationship, which is not the same as sharing private matters. Social pedagogical relationships are about being professional and personal at the same time, thus requiring from practitioners to be constantly reflective.
Importantly, social pedagogical relationships enable us to better understand how they experience the world, what meaning and impact these experiences have, and how we can help make a difference. Where we role-model authentic and supportive relationships, we can convey that people matter to us and that we value them for who they are, with everything they bring with them. We also encourage and support them in developing relationships with others in their lives, thus ensuring that they have a strong support network, a ‘relational universe’ consisting of friends, family, professionals and people within the wider community.
The idea of the diamond is reflected in the notion of empowerment and aim to further increase a person’s agency. Empowerment aims to give people a sense of identity and belonging, a sense of who they are. By supporting people’s empowerment, giving them a sense of determination and control over their own lives, we can help them take responsibility for themselves as well as others. We can thus facilitate people’s increasing self-confidence and abilities to cope with the complexities and uncertainties of life.
Empowerment also suggests an educational approach, a gradual process of increasing people’s power. It provides opportunities for individuals to learn and better understand issues of power and how they can form relationships where power is used not as a form of control over others but as responsibility for others. Thus, from a social pedagogical perspective, empowerment has an important role to play and is nurtured through relationships.
In order to realise these core aims, social pedagogy has to be about providing positive experiences. The power of experiencing something positive – something that makes a person happy, something they have achieved, a new skill they have learned, the caring support from someone else – has a double impact: it raises the individual’s self-confidence and feeling of self-worth, thus reinforcing their sense of well-being, of learning, of being able to form a strong relationship, or of feeling empowered; and by strengthening their positives the person can also improve their weak sides, so that negative aspects of their self-image fade away and become less corrosive.
The importance of creating positive experiences is perhaps best illustrated in the Danish concept of the Common Third. It encourages us to engage in shared activities, to find a common interest in order to learn together and develop our relationship with a person, no matter their age. The significant thing is less what we do, but how we do it and with what intention, so that it becomes a purposeful activity in which outwardly we are just two people doing something we enjoy, and more importantly in which we can meet as equal human beings, can be who we are without fear of being judged. A Common Third activity could be anything from baking a cake together, going on a bike ride, flying a kite, taking the dog for a walk, playing a game of chess, painting a wall or growing vegetables – anything we do with the purpose of bringing us together and offering an insight into who we both are, what we are like, what we enjoy doing, what we’re good at, what we can learn from each other.
Dave Kingswood (2015), a foster carer trained in social pedagogy and SPPA Trustee, gives a wonderful example of how the Common Third can be integrated in practice: ‘Our family are fairly high energy, and we generally have as much fun as possible. In our house there is always music and, depending on the volume and the mood, a large amount of dancing that happens in our kitchen. While this happened, our foster daughter would sit and, in absolutely defiance to look as stupid as us, would remain in the chair. What was funny though is that she would always stay in the chair, she would never leave. Whatever I did I could not get her out of that chair to dance, but yet she would not leave. I [then learned about the] Common Third […], about finding a way that we could connect in ways that we would both benefit. I thought creatively around this and came up with the idea of getting her to choose the music one day for us to dance to. She suggested a band, I put it on and my wife, birth children and myself danced around the kitchen to her tune. She smiled and bounced her foot along. It gave her a way in […] because we stopped trying to get her to dance but rather invited her to be herself inside that space. In that moment she was allowed into the activity, she was shown that her choice was valid, and she allowed herself just a little bit of involvement. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is moments like that which are remembered!’
Due to its inter-disciplinary roots, social pedagogy offers a conceptual framework that can help guide holistic practice. As an academic discipline, social pedagogy uses related research, theories and concepts from other sciences to ensure a holistic perspective. This means that in realizing those core aims there is a lot of inspiration to be taken from what research and concepts tell us about related areas. All four aims point at the fact that social pedagogy is about process. Well-being and happiness, holistic learning, relationship, empowerment – none of these are a product that, once achieved, can be forgotten. This is why it is important to perceive them as fundamental human rights that we all constantly need to work on if we want to ensure that nobody’s rights are violated or neglected.
This perspective of social pedagogy means that it is dynamic, creative, and process-orientated rather than mechanical, procedural, and automated. It demands from social pedagogues to be a whole person, not just a pair of hands. It is therefore not surprising that many professionals in the UK and elsewhere have taken a keen interest in social pedagogy and have found it possible to relate both at a personal and professional level to its ethical orientation and ambition to provide children and young people with the best possible life experiences.