Robbing Students and Teachers of Joy

Reading is FunMaybe I'm just too lazy or unimaginative so I stole the title of my last post to make this one. Whatever.

I'm not sure why but this topic runs pretty deep with me. I found Alfie Kohn's article this morning on twitter (I like the fact that he brings back stuff from the archives, I wish more people would do that. Old is not bad) and thought I'd highlight a few gems found inside it.

While I recognize many peoples opposition to Kohn's highly progressive, Deweyesque slants, I find myself more in agreement with him than opposition. In the case of this article, I find it hard to disagree.

I would begin by defining joy as a clear sense of satisfaction at the work or relationships that surround us. That's the definition, I'll use as I explore this idea. This does not equate with happiness, it's perhaps part of it but I'm talking about a sense of purpose and success. This is directly linked to a passion based learning environment.

Joy has been in short supply in some classrooms for as long as there have been classrooms. But I join Deborah Meier in wondering whether things are worse now, not only because more people are less happy but because this is taken for granted; we don’t even see it as a problem that requires our attention.

I can't remember having "joy" or "student's attitude toward school" on any meeting agenda in 20+ years in education. It's less important than if the school sports teams get new uniforms or if we'll stop allowing students to bring potato chips as snacks.

It’s simply stunning, therefore, that some traditionalists actually complain about an excessive concern with children’s happiness. Earlier this year, I came across an essay by an administrator who attempted to explain the supposed inferiority of U.S. schools by asserting that, whereas parents in other countries ask their children, "What did you learn in school today?," American parents ask, "Did you enjoy school today?"

Would that it were true! The author Frank McCourt, who taught at a prestigious New York City high school for 18 years, told the journalist John Merrow that only once in all that time had a parent ever asked him, "Is my child enjoying school?" Instead, all he—and, presumably, the students themselves—heard from parents were questions about test scores, college applications, and getting the work done.

It bugs me when my own kids, who do very well in school say they don't really like school. I know that it's the right thing to say when you're a kid but even when we get past the surface response, it's clear that learning isn't all that pleasureable. This is not because we have bad teachers, it's because we have schools that place student satisfaction way below everything else. "It doesn't matter if they like it  or not." Really? What are the chances your student's will be proficient in using Mathematics after high school if they hated it? Again, this is about everything we do being akin to spending 6 hours playing HALO, but there has to be an element of joy, don't you think? Those classrooms where joy is the unspoken or spoken default environment, are the ones where good learning happens everyday. I have no data to back that up so you can dismiss that as opinion but I'd stand by the claim. But as I consider what we're doing to teachers in the quest for "higher achievement", I think we could remedy much of their stress but supporting them and encouraging them more strongly to make learning a joyful experience.

Academic excellence, the usual rationale for such decisions, is actually far more likely to flourish when students enjoy what they’re doing. "Children (and adults, too) learn best when they are happy," as Nel Noddings observes in her book Happiness and Education. How they feel—about themselves, about their teachers, about the curriculum and the whole experience of school—is crucially related to the quality of their learning. Richer thinking is more likely to occur in an atmosphere of exuberant discovery, in the kind of place where kids plunge into their projects and can’t wait to pick up where they left off yesterday.

But in pointing this out, I fear that I’m appearing to accept an odious premise—namely, that joy must be justified as a means to the end of better academic performance. Not so: It’s an end in itself. Not the only end, perhaps, but a damned important one. Thus, anyone who has spent time in classrooms that vibrate with enthusiasm needs to keep such memories alive in all their specificity to serve as so many yardsticks against which to measure what we’ve lost: 6-year-olds listening to a story, rapt and breathless; teenagers so immersed in an activity that they forget to worry about appearing cool; those little explosions of delight attendant on figuring something out.

Nobody seeks to snuff out joy intentionally, it just happens. The antidote is to be intentional about including joy in the classroom. We can fall into the same trap as parents. The fact we love our children should make this minimal but we've all been guilty of getting so caught up in accomplishing our various goals that we forget to experience joy and live in world where mistakes are valued, where working together on a project is fulfilling and where we celebrate completing a challenging task. Again, this is not some airy, fairy thing, this is, as Kohn suggests, an end, in and of itself. These not be separate, but seriously, if I had to choose between rigor and joy, I'd pick joy every time. But I don't think we have to choose.

I'll end with this quote from Taylor Caldwell

"Learning should be a joy
and full of excitement.
It is life's greatest adventure;
it is an illustrated excursion into the minds of noble and learned men."

Now there's a mission statement that matters.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by John-Morgan