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


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  • I think to some degree that the enjoyment of school is an age related thing. The children in primary school generally love coming to school. They look forward to it, they enjoy the experience. Puberty kicks in they go off the world. By secondary school many go off the whole idea of school. Now you've got me thinking as well. Do they go off schooling as they get older as the whole structure and nature of schools changes as they mature- more departmentalisation of teaching, broken into chunks by subject, more emphasis on passing the test. Yes I do wonder which came first- the chicken or the egg.

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  • Always a pleasure to drop in here and read something thought-provoking; I think we need to think more critically about the structure of public education and recognize its limitations. It seems that regardless of the logic of our outcomes or goals, dispite the merits of our vision, the inherent characteristics of public education will thwart, reshape and redirect us. Paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's brilliant simplicity; you can sustain joy to all of the people some of the time, sustain joy to some of the people all of the time, but you cannot sustain joy to all of the people all of the time. No child left behind, and its ilk are fantastic examples of utopianism. Five Stanges travelling together in a crowded car five hours to the mountains cannot sustain joyful engagement, let alone my twenty-two students ridgedly attending a proscribed school day for ten months, working toward a mandated curriculum that periodically frustrates or bores them. At the central core of our system is top-down goal setting, uniformity of outcomes and the all-pervasive hand of economy of scale.  Professional learning communities (we more honestly used the phrase total quality management ten years ago acknowledging the industrial roots of the strategy) tweaks the existing system rather than challenges it. Differentiated learning and the need for engagement should challenge the current structure of public education. It should lead to differentiated learning environments and frankly, differentiated student learning outcomes. Instead, we accept it as a priori,independent of experience, that it can be attained within the current design. There will be no Nirvana in school unless somebody brings it in on their MP3 player.

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  • Becky Johnson

    You (and Alfie) have nailed it. Thank you for articulating what I’ve been struggling to express to fellow teachers and administrators over the past few years. Teaching is hard work. It always has been. But what has always made it worth the incredible effort has been the joy in sharing, discovering and laughing (yes, laughing) with students as we forge our way through this thing called learning. Does anybody else besides me cringe when they hear the words “data driven instruction”? How grim. How joyless. I’m sharing this post with everybody I know. I’m going to head into school tomorrow with a renewed mission of sharing the joy in learning.

  • Becky,

    Glad Alfie could inspire you. I agree the whole data driven, accountability movement has done well in sucking the joy out of learning. I know that was not the intent but the problem when you want to focus in on something, you tend to leave something out. Usually these are the "less academic" parts of school, the parts which often bring the most joy. That's not to say that academic learning can't be joyful but again, the focus on achievement leaves little time for exploration, play and inquiry which are linked pretty tightly to joyful learning in my opinion.

    The conversation needs to turn to discovering how we can do both. I think we can, the pendulum has tipped to far the other direction and we need to get it back to the middle. I'm sure you'll do your part. Thank you.

  • Great post–something I have been thinking a lot about.  There seems to be a lot coming out saying this kind of thing–I am thinking Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Some important work on remembering the goals that are bigger than test scores.  Joy is key.

  •  I have a confession to make. I hated school as a kid. I hated reading.  I hated math. I hated being in the Christmas Concert, running laps in the gym and ironing dried leaves between sheets of wax paper.  The only part of school I liked was field trips and recess. (I can still remember every field trip I was on as a student, honest)
    To make a long story short, why I became a teacher is a complex story, but a pivotal moment  in that decision making process came when I was a young adult. I was taking English 220 – Canadian Literature – at the University of Regina, and I found out that books can make you laugh. Yup, first time ever, I laughed while reading. I was 22 years old and reading  Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe and I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe.  The last time I laughed that hard in class I got detention in grade 8 Science because my friend was telling totally innapropriate jokes while the teacher was expecting us to be reading from "the chapter". ( I can remember the two jokes that got us busted, but haven't a sniff what we covered all that year in science… that's data isn't it?)
    Every year I hear the whispers that my class is too loud or too messy.  But that is the way it has to be. I want my students to be happy and enjoy themselves at school. I want to enjoy being there. I want them to be seeing and using the latest technology, I want them to discover places, things, and ideas they normally wouldn't. I want them to laugh well reading. Somebody else can teach them the serious material!
    Thanks to Dean and Alfie, I have a little more confidence that what happens in my classroom is OK.
    And because I have alot more to say about this,  I will turn it into a blog post! Stay tuned….

  • Dottie

    I work with a teacher who refuses to allow joy to disappear.  When I walk into her classroom I never know what I might find.  Last week she was making pancakes as part of a math lesson.  Last year the kids made gingerbread houses.  Kids were covered in frosting and there were little candies everywhere. The principal just sort of shakes his head but he knows that the parents and the kids are happy because they are having fun and still doing well on state tests.  Go figure!

  • I often tell my students that we enjoy subjects and topics when they seem easy to us and we dislike "hard" subjects. Part of school needs to be teaching (or modeling) learning for the sake – or joy – of learning. Unfortunately, I believe that one of the primary reasons teachers do not have joy in their classrooms is because they are not treated professionally. Rather than schools that encourage collaboration and fun, teachers are asked to sit in endless meetings on assessment, and take on more non-teaching duties as budgets tighten. If we want to bring joy in the classroom, we need to create schools that teachers look forward to going to every day. At our academy, one of our rules is that we will only hire people who are fun as lack of joy is one of the primary reasons why we left the classroom. Get more information about it <a href="">website about tutoring and testprep</a>.

  • Dave

    This has really got me thinking about what makes work enjoyable (or not) and how that contributes to working for the sake of accomplishing something worth accomplishing. I'm going to start some philosophical discussions at work, so thanks for that.
    And to bring it back to students, remember that the same things don't bring joy to everyone…like everything involving a group of people, make sure you approach it from a couple different directions. 🙂

  • Kip

    Dean, thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts.  I had read Alfie's piece in the morning and had been pondering it as well. 
    I just wrote a post with some tangential thoughts and questions, if you're interested.

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  • cyn

    As for me, I always love teaching whether they are kids, adult or sr citizens. My motto is if we are into teaching, teach them well and do our best.

  • Hello,
    Cyn is right, I guess teaching is itself a noble task that must be done honestly. Mistakes are valuable because they help you learn more. You have ended up well with the Taylor Caldwell's quote.

  • Without joy Students and Teachers will be having difficulty on having good communication

  • Great post–something I have been thinking a lot about.  There seems to be a lot coming out saying this kind of thing–I am thinking Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Some important work on remembering the goals that are bigger than test scores.  Joy is key.
    <a href="">etiket</a&gt;

  • Wow, this is such an interesting, thought provoking post. I am seeing this problem in my school everyday. Many of my students, not only dislike school, they hate it. In a homeroom class of 21 I get maybe 12 students on a regular basis. I see many of my students walking around the school, yet they never make it into my classroom. What I am doing in the classroom is not the only thing that is leading my students to wander the halls instead of coming to the classroom, but I am very aware that it very well might be part of the problem.
    A few weeks ago I was close to the breaking point. The last two weeks I have been rejuvenated and think that it is about time to start bringing the joy back to learning for my students. But where do I start, how do you do this? There were no classes in my university program that showed us how to do this. Thinking back to my experiences as a student also does not help. I was always a good students, who loved school and was intrinsically motivated to do well. My students are not that type of learner. I have been told to put up an overhead, do notes, questions, etc. That the students will be quiet and do the work. The problem comes though in the fact that there is no joy and absoluely no learning that takes place in those lessons. I absolutely do not want my classroom to look like that. Noise, group work, movement, mess…yes I would love my classroom to have all of these aspects. My question for all of you expereiced teachers out there, how does this happen? How can I make it work? How can I bring joy into my classroom for both me and the students.
    I ask myself almost everyday…am I being the kind of teacher that I want to be? Let's just say that the answer is not where I want it to be.

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  • Amy

    I am studying to be an Early Childhood Education teacher at the moment and after reading some of your posts, I realized that I am not alone in my fears about teaching.  I would like more feedback and would like to hear what everyone has to say about this topic.  So, how do you bring the joy and happiness in your classroom so that neither you nor your students feel like it is a "job" or "work".  How do you keep yourself and your students motivated day after day after day?  Does it take experience?  Passion? What is the answer?

  • Hello,
    I liked your post because teaching should be done joyfully, it will make your students enjoy learning from you. Good thought

  • Susan van Gelder

    What better thing can we help students learn than the joy of learning if we truly want to create lifelong learners. We need to stop going with the flow – just doing what has always been done and help students find their flow – that optimal experience Csikszentmihalhyi talks about. Thanks Dean and Alfie for reminding us.

  • Joy is the key to have the Teacher and a student a good communication or relationship. It should not be taken away.

  • One thing i have found is to create a group and follow as much as people you can, this will make more people to follow you and that will surely create more traffic.

  • Blais

    Joy is certainly something that is missing from schools.  The "teach to the test" and greater teacher accountability movements of recent times has greatly decreased the possibility of students and teachers finding joy in their learning and teaching.  I've never found joy in sitting and listening to a teacher blab about how important the stuff is their teaching about.  I've never found joy in filling in bubbles on a scan-tron form.  I was board out of my mind in school.  So why the heck am I an education major in college?  Because I know what didn't work for me.  I tutor students that struggle in school solely because their board out of their minds.  They're more than capable of understanding the material.  It's just presented in a terribly unexciting way.  So they day dream all day long, or draw pictures in their notebooks.  We need to be engaging students more.  We need to find their passions and use them as an instrument of learning.  Contrary to common belief, school and learning CAN be fun.  That's why I want to be a teacher.

  • There are so many tools that have taken tools out of the classroom, it is important that teachers work to maintain the connection with their students. Automated learning is not better. Teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of students its a  relationship worth its weight in gold!

  • Hello Dean, Joy can be shortlived or non-existent in many classrooms. I am lucky to teach in a prep to year 12 school, where you can see the excitement and happiness on the faces of the younger year levels upon hopping off the school buses and running towards their classrooms. However, I have had excitement, joy and sheer engagement with my older students many times over the last few years, when they receive comments on their blog posts, can add some exciting and interest material online, when they can work in online classrooms and videoconference students from other countries. We need to work on the technology that the students are 'plugged into'.
    My year 11 accounting students were getting extremely bored with the monotonous exercises from their textbooks, but I was helping my year 12 students who were preparing for their final exams. (I taught both the classes at the same time.) Then, my good friend Lorraine Leo (who was mentoring Ally) from Boston, USA, asked if I would like to have one of your students Ally speak to my accounting kids (we are in Australia). She did and the engagement was evident then and the 'nagging' afterwards on 'would she do it again'. They wrote blog posts and commented on Ally's blog post and delighted in exploring what she was up to both at uni and outside.
    This week, I was approached by a country education project coordinator as  to the possibility of being willing to be involved in having my classes taught in virtual worlds by the University of Ballarat. As I teach in a small, rural, isolated school, it is difficult to get student teachers into the school, due to the distance, cost, effort etc and for some rural schools, it is difficult to get graduate teachers at all. So, we will work on developing strategies for this to take place towards the end of the year 2010. I contacted you on twitter and we would love to experiment with you first, if that was at all possible, then start to work with bodies that have little experience in online, virtual and interactive tools. Anyway, please keep us in mind. Our school year finishes in 2 weeks time and we start up again at the end of January. If you do know of anyone doing this already, we would love to know what software they used, tips, hints, the necessary infrastructure, could we use notebooks which all students from years 4 to 9 will have next year etc. Thanks in advance.

  • Hi,
    This is really a nice post, you share good piece of information.

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