February 17, 2011

What does Joy have to do with Learning?

This post was last updated on September 12th, 2011 at 11:12 pm

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 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.