What does Joy have to do with Learning?

Full disclosure: This post is written at 3 AM as I wake up with crazy ideas and wonder and then feel compelled to write about it. Forgive any in cohernce, stop reading at any point and move on with your life.

After spending considerable hours investing into Alec’s little gift, I’m still feeling quite energized not only with the response of others but the experience of shared joy a project like that elicits. The fact that 75 of us were able to unite and create something of value and as one commenter put it, “ridiculosly awesome” makes me feel similar to being part of a championship team. Overstated? Maybe. Maybe not. 

My own family is quite aware of the time I invest in all kinds of silly little projects but as I’ve mentioned before about my photo of the day year end videos, they too  appreciate, in many ways share the joy of these efforts with me. 

So as is the case many evenings, I spend a good deal of time kibitizing around with my network on twitter.  Last night I referred to this video  which reminded someone of this video. (side note: I can’t tell you how many times kibitizing and fooling around on twitter leads to learning and in this case awakening me at 3AM to write. I will continue to kibitz. )



I immediately showed my wife and daughters this and said to my wife who teaches middle years students, “you should do this with your kids”. She agreed. My daughters both said, they wanted to try this with their friends as well. Quickly the conversation moved into informal planning and questioning as to how they might do this and how they could do more than simply replicate this performance. 

And as the conversation flowed a little voice in the back of my head asked two questions:

1. What is it about this video and others like it that make people want to participate?

2. “But what does that have to do with improving student learning?

The first question may be easier to answer. I think it’s partly our desire to perform. Music is such a powerful medium and the format of these videos is such that it’s pretty safe for us to simply express ourselves in whatever way we want. We’re not judged as individuals but as a group.  It’s also the desire to participate in team and social events. Anyone who’s played a team sport, been in a band or dance ensemble knows what’s it’s like to excel as a unit. It’s exhilarting. Finally the fact that it’s shared is critical. We’re seeing an explosion of these lip dub videos and flash mobs and people showing off their attempts at buying Rolex with Bitcoin 2023 because of youtube. Experiences like this whether pre-planned or spontaneous are heightened because of the potential and power of sharing. Reliving and sharing these moments is something that makes the time investment pay off. 

The second question is the really hard one. 

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I was working as part of a 40 person design team made of up central office staff, adminstrators, teachers, support staff and parents who’s task it will be to develop a Comprehensive Learning Framework for the entire school division. This Learning Framework, that centers on student learning, will become the driving force of everything we do in our division. Without going into detail, we as a school division recognized that while many great things are happening, we lack the focus, vision and fidelity to insure a consistent, intentional and unyielding focus on helping all students achieve.  During this initial two day meeting many good questions were raised about insuring we maintain autonomy, differientation and balance but ultimately wanted to narrow our focus and tie all the great work of our division in better harmony and direction. It’s good and necessary work that I believe will make us better in the long run. There’s a great deal more that I could add here but hopefully you get the idea. 

As part of that conversation and many others that I’ve had during my time as part of our curriculum team, we often talk about how teachers might offer a great activity for their students but never consider if it relates directly to curriculum or any student learning outcome. Teachers might argue they do this because “it’s fun” or “students like it”.  I know when I was in the classroom, I was guilty of that from time to time.  As part of the two day sessions we also talked about having a rigorous curriculum. I immediately balked at the word rigoruous. If you look up the definition, I don’t think you’ll find one part of that word that is appropriate for learning. We did however, agree that perhaps robust might be a better term. In any event, the idea behind rigor or robust is that a curriculum ought to be centered around challeging content and skills, high standards if you will.  Okay, I can agree with that aim but let’s go back to the silly video above. Why do I still think that things like that ought to be part of learning? Is it robust? I’m not sure. Does it match curricular outcomes? Maybe. Could it be part of the backwards by design process our division advocates? Do joyful learning experiences always have to relate to student learning outcomes? 

When I did my own analysis of the video I created I was considering the implications of it for bigger and better things. But what about the experience of shared joy for its own merits? More from Alfie Khon:



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.

I am convinced that historians will look back at our era of ever-higher standards and increasingly standardized instruction as a dark period in American education. What were we thinking, they will ask, shaking their heads, when we begrudged children the right to spend their days in a place that provides deep satisfactions and occasional giggles? How did we allow this to happen?

So please complete my mulitple choice question in the comments and add any insights you have because I need your help in understanding what to do with joy in schools.

With regards to creating a video like the one above do you:

  1. Do it because it’s not only fun but likely does address some cirriculuar outcomes but you might have to look them up later. Fingers crossed.
  2. Do it and to heck with the outcomes, doing joyful things with students is important. 
  3. Do it but perhaps as an extra-curricular activity because you’re not sure where it fits with a robust curriculum but still think it’s important.
  4. Not do it at all.  

I’m going back to bed now but look forward to your thoughts. 


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


Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

I’ve been opposed to the use of standardized testing as accountability tools for a long time. Not as passionately and strongly as some but in principle, the use of one time testing to determine the fate of schools and students, isn’t the model of education to which I’d ever subscribe. Fortunately for me, I’ve lived in a province that has resisted them and even today would never acknowledge the use of them the way my southern neighbours and even western neighbours have. But that’s starting to change and I don’t like it.

Without going into the specifics and details of our provincial situation, I’m writing out of passion against articles like this that seem to validate an “improve your test score or perish” mentality. The article features Washington’s chancellor of education, Michelle Rhee and her relentless efforts to improve schools. I admire her passion. I’m not all that impressed with her perspectives.

“The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely,” she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn’t respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,'” she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

Rhee has fired a number of teachers and administrators who haven’t improved test scores. I don’t have a problem with firing teachers. I recognize that it’s very difficult in most jurisdictions to the this but the idea of having the best possible teachers is not arguable. What is arguable is how we find those teachers and how we determine who are best teachers are.

I’ve been in a number of schools of late and seen students whose reading scores are the least of their problems. If you’ve been in schools lately you know what I mean.  15 year olds, living on their own, coming to school high, 1st graders so full of anger they threaten classmates lives and the list goes on. These students do not need to see their reading scores meet or exceed grade level by the end of the year, they need “touch-feely” teachers. By “touchy-feely”, I mean teachers that have time, expertise and passion to help them function as human beings, never mind reading. Reading is priority number 236 in their list of needs.  I spent a few hours watching these at risk students building a canoe from scratch. Students who, for a change, were attending school, interacting politely with adults, finding a purpose. No standardized test in the world could measure this. But the gains made by these students because of “touch-feely” teachers is unquestionable. These teachers deserve a raise.

I’ve also been in schools with students who are so far above reading level and ability that the curriculum and classroom activities are laughable. They sit in their desks and hate it when teachers ask them to consider how they learn or what they want to learn, they just want to be told what to do because they’re good at it and have had years of success playing that game and are upset when a teacher wants to change the rules.m They need opportunity to show their creative side. They need to be teaching others.  They might ace a standardized test and the teacher might be seen as successful. I’m not sure the teachers or students have done anything worthwhile.

These two diverse groups of students are the reason standardized tests and Rhee-like one-size-fits-all education isn’t valuable. Again I applaud the efforts to improve but the hard nose, testing attitudes may demonstrate short term gains and look excellent on a spreadsheet but is it really making a difference for kids? Modern education suffers from the simple problem that we are driven by multiple outcomes and agencies. Ask 10 people what schools are for and you’ll get 10 different answers. Maybe not 10 but at least 3, that while may not be diametrically opposed, but certainly require very different approaches. Teaching someone how to read and write, someone else how to create healthy relationships and someone else how to design a well, require vastly different skills and different measuring tools. Currently the same person is often asked to do the same thing and use the same measuring tool for all three.  All three are equally important and while maybe not mutually exclusive, our schools are not currently structured to blend them.

Disrupting Class outlines the future and possibility of customized learning. It involves assessing students as individuals and designing customized learning for every student. Individualized instruction has been talked about for a while but today’s technology is making it more of a reality. Again, this is not just about technology but it is about reforming educations and schools to meet the needs of students, not arbitrary tests on reading and math as if those are the two most important things in the world.   Many have seen the Ken Robinson video and this quote says a lot:

But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.

And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think maths is very important but so is dance.

Is there anyone that disagrees with this? And in today’s world, I’d add character.

So if those like Michelle Rhee had a little broader understanding of education and want to improve schools, I’d be all over it.

  • Find the best teachers. These are teacher that in addition to experts in pedagogy and content, understand how to design customized learning and have the resources to find out who is best able to help every student.  Fire those that can’t or won’t figure this out. Good teachers don’t need accountability because they feel responsibility and would welcome an
  • Customize learning. Stop the assumption that reading and writing and math are the most important things everyone needs to learn.  Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.
  • Measure learning. Not with a ridiculously one time test but with a variety of assessments, over time, that actually measure what each student NEEDS to learn.

As it stands right now, I’m not sure Washington is any further ahead with leadership like this. Is it better than doing nothing? Maybe, but we can do better and from what I see in schools, we need to do better.