Finding joy in the classroom

Is joy in learning an innovation?

joy in the classroomRecently, I was charmed and inspired upon seeing a first grade student’s take on setting goals to improve healthy habits on the Franklin West Supervisory Union blog. I shared this student photo (at left) with a group of teachers during a goal-setting and reflection workshop. They all smiled, especially after I asked them to think about what evidence this student might gather and share to demonstrate she has met this resolution.

Wouldn’t we all love to see that collection of “demonstrated joy” from all of our students? Of course, that would require us to create “joyous” learning opportunities or at the very least honor students’ joyous learning where ever it takes place.

Are we sacrificing joy for productivity?

According to Susan Engel’s article Joy: A Subject Schools Lack: Being Educated Should Not Require Giving up Pleasure, the experience she sees in most schools is akin to being in a Dickens novel. She argues the current education system’s focus on standards and college and career readiness is not geared toward children but rather “toward solving large-scale economic woes and producing future workers.”

Line Dalile, a 14-year old student concurs in his Huffington Post article How Schools Are Killing Creativity:

Remember being a kid and wanting to play around? No one told you how to use your imagination or taught you how to be creative. You played with LEGOS. You pretended you were an astronaut and imagined traveling in space. Being naturally creative, you asked questions like “Why is the grass green?” and “Are we alone?” — questions no wise man could answer.

Then came school, a child’s worst nightmare. You learned to live in a rotten environment. You were bullied, made fun of, and you had this teacher that told you to stop dreaming and live in reality. So what did you learn at school? You learned to stop questioning the world, to go with the flow, and that there’s only one right answer to each question.

Engel suggests we could play this game of school very differently without too much effort:

Building on a child’s ability to feel joy, rather than pushing it aside, wouldn’t be that hard. It would just require a shift in the education world’s mindset. Instead of trying to get children to buckle down, why not focus on getting them to take pleasure in meaningful, productive activity, like making things, working with others, exploring ideas, and solving problems? These focuses are not so different from the things to which they already gravitate and in which they delight.

Agreed. What might this mindset shift look like in action?

Deliberately designing joy

One opportunity might be in adopting design thinking and incorporate it into the way we do school. Aaron Vanderwerff provides a definition and a way forward in his article: Developing Student Agency through Design:

As students become more aware of the design of the world around them, they begin to see themselves as people who can affect that design and are also empowered to actually do the work — to tinker, hack, and improve design. This newfound awareness isn’t limited to objects, but can move into the core curriculum as well, through discussion of the design of governmental systems, cell structure, or a poem.

I would agree that the act of doing, the tinkering, the hacking, the active participation in design thinking for most is a good step toward joyful learning. I was recently given the opportunity to see it in action, not with students, but with adult educators who are tackling the design challenge of shifting schooling toward proficiency-based teaching and learning.

Designing joy in professional development

I had the privilege of attending back-to-back professional development days at two Vermont middle schools, both of which posed design challenges to their faculties.

At Lamoille Union Middle/High School, presenters from Quest2Learn and the Institute of Play led off our session with a simple game to energize us and release some tension, then launched into a design challenge:  Design the perfect wallet.

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Once we experienced the design process, we were tasked with putting our newly earned design thinking chops to the challenge of shifting school as we know it to a proficiency-based system.

joy in the classroomOver at Hazen Union School on the same day, John Craig used the Intro to Design Thinking Nearpod lesson built by folks from Stanford to get his colleagues to tinker, make, and hack as well.

Now I can’t be sure that these professional development experiences led to joy for all, but I am certain it is a step toward providing ways for learners to be playful, gain a sense of agency, and start to think about making school a more joyful place to learn for all.

How do you bring joy to the classroom?

Susan Hennessey

Susan Hennessey is a reformed librarian and current professional development coordinator with a particular interest in digital credentials and scavenger hunts. She's addicted to flavored almonds, salty, crunchy snacks, and Google Hangouts.

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