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:
(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.