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Learning: What’s Joy Got to Do with It?

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 active learning - joyMusic educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) claimed that joy is the most powerful of all mental stimuli.

It’s an interesting contention, especially considering the many non-joyful stories I hear from educators and parents. Stories about children crying over tests. Children with so much homework that there’s little time for anything else, let alone joy, in their lives. Children discouraged by schooling as early as kindergarten. Children stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out. Oh yes, and popping antidepressants at an astonishing and alarming rate. 

Sadly, none of that surprises me anymore. After all, what part of today’s emphasis on accountability and academics screams joy? How much joy comes from prepping for test after test? How much joy do we witness from students bent over desks and filling in bubbles? How much joy is experienced by students whose success, along with their teacher’s, depends on how well they do on those endless tests?

Granted, there isn’t a whole lot of research to back up Dalcroze’s contention – because there aren’t many researchers who would have considered it a worthy topic. But there is some, including a recent study by two Finnish educators, which points to several sources of joy in the classroom. They include:

active, engaged efforts from the children;

desire to master the material – to become “expert” at something;

students allowed to work at their own level and pace;

finishing a task or solving a problem, and the time to do so;

the chance to make choices;

sharing and collaborating with other students; and

the opportunity to play.

We do have a great deal of research detailing the impact of stress on the learning process. Dr. William Stixrud sums it up quite nicely when he writes, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.” Not a whole lot of learning going on when that happens. It’s darn hard to think straight when your system is poised for fight-or-flight.

Despite this evidence the policymakers just keep demanding practices that create more stress -- and sap the joy right out of school.

I might forgive the policymakers for ignoring (or, if I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt: being unaware of) the research on the roles of stress and joy in learning, but Dalcroze clearly didn’t need research to reach his conclusion. During his time, there was no Internet to allow for large-scale surveys or the collection of anecdotal evidence. There were no neuroimaging and brain mapping scans to reveal that more pleasure areas of the brain light up when individuals are undertaking tasks they enjoy.

I imagine he based his opinion on how he felt when learning something new or when engaged in the act of creation. Perhaps he discovered that whenever he was fully engrossed in a project, he experienced what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – that wonderful occurrence when time passes without our noticing. Of being so involved in what we’re doing that we’re aware of nothing else. Each of us has gloried in such experiences on occasion – for example, in the act of writing, painting, cooking, or teaching.

Perhaps Dalcroze based his contention on the observation of children. He may well have observed them in the process of creating and learning. Watch any child involved in self-directed activity – whether it’s trying to write their name for the first time, staging an elaborate production, or experimenting with a chemistry set – and you’ll witness flow. There’s nothing more engaged – or engaging – than children fully absorbed in an undertaking. They direct all of their attention and effort into it. They put their heart and soul into it. And, if required to stop, the upset is profound…because who wants to stop feeling joy?

Wholehearted absorption doesn’t describe much about what kids – or teachers – are required to do in school these days. And that is such a shame.

Imagine the lost potential as students continue to struggle to learn when anxious and unhappy. Imagine the ever-increasing number of students stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out if things don’t turn around, and quickly. If students are kept from discovering the power of joy in the classroom. 

Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis has written,

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen – literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn’t it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?

What’s a Teacher to Do?

Listen to "Five Ways to Make Joy a Part of Learning: Why It Matters: http://www.bamradionetwork.com/student-centric-strategies/2954-five-ways-to-make-joy-a-part-of-learning

Be excited and joyful about the learning that takes place in your classroom. When you’re excited, the children will be excited.

As often as possible, use humor in the classroom to lighten things up. In a BAM Radio discussion, Diana Loomans said that when you have a laughing classroom you have students who are participating more, perform better, and retain more information. In that same segment, Ed Dunkelblau contended that humor, laughter, and play are pleasurable experiences that attract and engage students, making it easier to teach. He said, “Humor is one of the few educational strategies that does as much good for the teacher as it does for the students.”

To the extent possible, make test prep fun, rather than drudgery. For ideas, listen to “Ten Ways to Make Test Prep Fun”.

Employ the excellent suggestions in Steven Wolk’s article, “Joy in School”.

Read The Laughing Classroom: Everyone’s Guide to Teaching with Humor and Play by Diana Loomans and Karen Kolberg.

Read Tony Sinanis’ post, “Spreading Positivity”: http://leadingmotivatedlearners.blogspot.com/2015/04/spreading-positivity.html?m=1.

Susan Engel says:

Children deserve a sense of well-being in school. Luckily, research shows that when children feel engaged, cared for, and interested in what they are doing, they also learn much more, and at a deeper level. It wouldn’t be so hard to make classrooms a place where children could feel engaged, cared for and interested in what they do. But for teachers to make that happen, they have to make such well-being the central goal, rather than a nicety, an after-thought, or something we merely hope will happen.

What if, instead of measuring how many math facts a child could correctly solve, or how many words they knew how to spell, we measured children (and their teachers) by how much time they spent focusing on something that interested them, how curious they were during the day, how playful they were with ideas? These, after all, are the true goals of a good education, so why not build the school day around them? Children would be happier in school, would learn more of real value, and would become adults better equipped to seek a sense of well-being.


Author's note: Much of this post is excerpted/adapted from “The Power of Joy” in my new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development? (Corwin Press, April 2015).


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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Monday, 15 July 2019