Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Can learning be joyful?

Those of us who have either witnessed or experienced the beauty of the ideal learning experience may not have known it for what it was. It looks too much like joy.

Perhaps it isn't recognized for what it is because generally it does not take place in the school building. School is where you work and grind and focus; therefore work, grind and focus are what we think of as learning. (Sad, yes.)

Perhaps, also, we think of those joyous experiences as only in the area of art, music, dance, those learning extras. Who ever heard of the joy of the multiplication tables? [Note: I have been rightly corrected here; there are those who love numbers and love to explore what they can do. I have a couple of siblings like that, so I know it's true!]

So because joyous learning is not thought of as existing in school, or at any rate, not in academic classes, it therefore cannot take place in school or in academic classes? Or is it just learning what you most care about that creates that joy? If so, then we need to let students learn what they most care about, in school, out of school, wherever.

I have more questions, and some possible answers, but I want to record something that happened at my daughter's dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker ballet, one week ago today.

The Jesters' dance is mostly done by little kids. Michelle, our director, did that scene first so she could send those kids home. Then we began the dress rehearsal but when we came to it, we played the music from Jesters so that dancers who were changing would know how much time they had.

I was in my usual spot in the green room, ready to cue dancers for their next entrance. In the wings waiting to enter were Flowers, Candies, Arabians, Chinese, and many other dancers, all up in costume. They had one thing in common: they had all done the Jesters dance at one time or another. Suddenly whoops of laughter were coming from the audience and I looked at the monitor TV which was positioned in the green room: all the dancers were onstage, dancing the Jesters dance. The first moments were lost, but the event was recorded here:
Jesters Dance

(I'm so sorry...this video was taken down recently.)

Did you catch Clara at the end, doing some break-dancing moves?

OK, now some of you are thinking I'm crazy, that this kind of horsing around always happens when kids are involved in this kind of thing. But it wasn't just horsing around. It was a celebration of who they were, together, that came from how hard they had worked and how much they had learned.

Nobody made them be there. They chose it out of love, and as much as they each had worked, they knew they were more together than as individuals. That concept doesn't need to be explained to them; they know it already. They are dancers!

My second example isn't quite so exuberant. My daughter is in an orchestra composed of seven young musicians. For all of them, this is the first orchestra they've played in; though some have been doing it longer than others, it is still very new to them all.

Often, before the arrival of the conductor, one or another of the kids will start playing one of their pieces and the rest will join in. In fact, it's not unusual for them to run through a piece several times before rehearsal starts. On one occasion, the conductor came in the room and stood watching, smiling proudly while the kids finished the song. "That crescendo was the best you've ever played it," she said.

The kids were pleased, but they didn't really regard it as anything special. They were there to play music, and that's what they did. They are just learning what happens when lots of people play the same piece of music together, in harmony or counterpoint, resulting in one unified piece of music that sounds terrific.

Adults never would have done it. The sound that results from musicians playing different parts together is not new, and while it is beautiful, it's simply not as exciting when you've done it for years and years. The kids are still fascinated and a little bit awed by it.

Why is it only in the arts or on the playing field that kids get this opportunity? What is joy, anyway, when applied to learning? it is learning what you love with other people who love it too. It's working hard and celebrating the result.

We who, when we were children, did not experience joy as applied to math, or science, or English, have no right to deprive our children of it because we don't recognize its value. This kind of joy never, ever happens when kids are learning something that they don't care about.

The argument is always submitted, at this point, that we often are led to love certain learning experiences or topic areas because they were required to do so and if they were not made to learn it, the door would have remained closed to them; they never would have found out about an important side of themselves.

It's not an experience I've ever had so I can't speak to it. Whenever I learned something I didn't care about, there was payoff that made it desirable. It never, ever happened at school; I dug my heels in and remained ignorant of anything I was made to learn against my will. But once I was on my own, I learned fast and well all those things that added up to being an independent person, getting a paycheck, paying for food and rent. That was my passion at the time, and it did lead me down paths I would never have taken. What payoff to kids have to learn stuff they don't care about?

Well, I think it can work if kids are working on this thing with other kids, and they have a goal that will show how hard they worked and how much they accomplished; something that will be seen and recognized by others.

I also think that if we first open the doors to learning by focusing on areas the kids most enjoy, those doors will lead to other doors and pretty soon you won't have to worry about them having too much fun for them to be experiencing anything of value, because they'll already be learners and will have, most likely, left you behind.

What most disturbs me about finding so much joy in learning OUTSIDE of the school system is that those who can't afford it, don't get it. It's true that learning together with others happens on the playing field, but what if you're not inclined toward sports? What are we losing by continuing to make learning as dry and joyless as possible?

Let's just try it. Traditional education isn't really working for us, is it? So let's try something else. Try what happens when kids move to areas of learning that involve doing something they enjoy, learning something they feel they need to know, producing something together they can be proud of in the end.


  1. "Who ever heard of the joy of multiplication tables?"
    Probably a number of people whose joy was and is mathematics. Certainly my child who found Math fun (despite being "trapped" in a traditional schooling experience.)

  2. Yes, you're absolutely right and I apologize. There are kids for whom math in its pure form is a lot of fun.

  3. I love the spontaneous expression of joy in that dance!

    Now -- how would one enter that data for a longitudinal study of school and teacher performance (wink)?

    I worry that the push to learning results is sucking the life out of the process of discovery.

  4. I do, too. As my district talks more and more about standards -- and I'm not completely opposed to them -- I think about where innovation and discovery comes in. The discussion is always about achieving standards and there's something about that I react against. What about achieving something unknown? Something inside you or something you see differently from other people? Can we teach that?

  5. Great article! It is so important not to suck up the time of teachers with endless data gathering and analysis and to let them have the freedom to explore creative ways to bring their subject to life without fearing for their jobs if they don't get everything perfect the first time around. My kids didn't go into the study of the Civil War last year with a great deal of interest. They were "sick of wars" after covering the Revolutionary war the year before. But through group simulations and teamwork their teacher thoroughly engaged them. They absolutely loved the class and learned a lot. Their math teacher let them collaborate on their homework tonight, and it made all the difference in the world! They helped each other when needed and steamed through their work- it was a thing of beauty. You do not have to suffer to learn! In fact I completely agree with your point that it is practically impossible to learn when you are suffering.

  6. There are teachers who can make anything engaging for kids; not enough, but a lot, and nearly every school district is lucky enough to have a few. Those teachers who need extra support should get it; if they need more support they should get it. If they don't want to improve, they should do something different.

    My first instinct is to say that, if the girls didn't want to learn about wars, then that should be respected. But the teacher added the extra incentive of letting them work together, which when done right can definitely get kids engaged.

    I also wonder what would happen in schools if we allowed students to decide what to learn for themselves every once in awhile. A little innovation, a little creativity, a little open-ended time for exploration?

  7. LIsa,

    This post is so interesting to me. You've got me thinking about a lot here, but I keep coming back to one question (as a public school teacher and father of two young children). How do you reconcile your ideas about allowing kids to pursue their own passions (which I agree with), with that grander idea of a well educated public? Don't we, as a country, need a common foundation to serve us all? How will this exist if we only pursue what we like? I hope I'm not coming across as critical. I'm truly intrigued by your answer.

    1. Hi, Chris, thanks for "throwing me a bone" to chew on. The fastest answer is that right now, by pushing education at kids regardless of their interests, we are NOT getting an educated public. That is my ideal as well. If we do honor and support the interests and passions of children, we WILL reap the benefits of having not only an educated public but an empowered and connected one.

      Big Picture Learning, the secondary school model developed by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, is based on a foundation of following kids' passions. And because they work very hard to develop a respectful culture, it doesn't matter if teachers think that interest is...well...trivial! They help them pursue it. It could be doing nails. It could be a rap group. They make sure and find internships and projects that will help kids develop those interests. But here's the never stops there. Kids who are allowed to open their own doors NEVER stop there. A girl who studied Tupac Shakur went on to be one of a friendship tour to South Africa and is an activist for human rights. The girl who wanted to be a hair stylist went on to be a youth leader and will probably have her own spa someday. These are all examples from the various books about Big Picture.

      Neuroscience, behavior science, metacognition, all these areas of study tell us something we already know: that people learn best when they are interested. Simple. If you are allowed to follow your interest you become connected.

      Also, not to make this into a book or anything, but the curriculum right now, because of NCLB and the Common Core, is morbidly obese. We teach kids a very very little about an awful lot but dig deeply into nothing. Surely we can afford to drop a couple things that individual kids show no interest in, like higher math or Global Studies...when their own interests might lead them their and they'll learn the stuff better that way?

      Thanks for asking such a good question and let's keep the dialogue going!

      Your name is the same as one of my favorite movie stars, BTW!


    2. The Democratic School movement works on the basis that students choose what they will learn and when.
      Their experience is that students will cover all the core curriculum - because actually, that is stuff they need to know. The difference is that they learn it when they are ready, and following their own internal logic about what follows from what else.

      What's more, they tend to learn more, and faster than students who are told they need to study something because the teacher says so, without the student any real conviction about its usefulness or relevance to their lives.

      So in short, Chris, the two things are not mutually exclusive. What messes things up is the ageist power dynamic that insists kids don't know what's good for them.

    3. Thanks, Mary! (I keep looking for the "like" button on Blogger!)