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Why Joyful Teaching Works



Note: As many students and teachers return to school this week, questions loom about the most effective ways to reform education. One approach is gaining traction and accumulating data that suggest what intuitive and compassionate teachers have always known: start with strengths and make learning a joyful experience. Even if you aren’t an educator, you might find value in the philosophy as it has the potential to transform not just halls of learning, but anyplace where groups of people work together.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
-Albert Einstein

My mom did most of the cooking at our house when I was a kid, but if she was away, my dad wouldn’t just order pizza, he’d open the fridge and go Iron Chef with whatever he found in there. The result was usually some kind of lumpy brown stew that looked like something you might get in a POW camp. But my dad was a salesman and whatever he lacked in culinary skill he would compensate for with marketing. He knew we loved the Cantonese restaurant nearby so when we’d point at the steaming mess on the table and ask, “What’s that?” He’d say, “You like Chinese food don’t you?” After a half dozen such mystery meals, my answer became, “not anymore.” Dad’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t stop tinkering and adding until the result was no longer food. In later years, I’d look over his shoulder while he cooked and warn him, “Dad, you better stop adding things. That’s almost ‘Chinese’.”


Whether you’re cooking or managing or teaching students, simplicity often yields better results than adding more and more layers of complexity.


The endless tinkering with school reform sometimes reminds me of my dad’s cooking. Over the decades since “A Nation at Risk” came out, there has been no shortage of new ideas and requirements from every level of government. Now Common Core, standardized testing, more scrutiny but less support for public education are the latest forces creating a tough environment for teachers and the students they serve. In the well-intentioned efforts to improve education, the simple goal of sparking a joy of learning is overlooked in favor of measurements that command the attention of politicians, the media, and the public. But neglecting this simple goal may be more costly than we realize.


It’s easy to dismiss as “touchy-feely” any discussion of joy in the school setting. After all, the countries with the highest achievement measurements are known for their rigor, not their smiling students. But even some of those countries are beginning to consider the role that a joy of learning has to play in a longer view of education success. That view looks beyond test scores to success in life. In other words, learning and achievement are only preparations for further learning and life in the real world of work and relationships. In that aspect, those who have developed their strengths, their resilience and their abilities to form human bonds not only experience greater personal happiness, they are greater assets to the companies, communities and families with whom they eventually work and live.


According to positive education experts John Yeager, Ed.D.; Sherri Fisher, M. Ed., and David N. Shearon, JD; co-authors of SMART Strengths, positive education means discovering and building on strengths and fostering individual resilience and strong social connections as an engine for academic and life success.


Like traditional education, traditional psychology was long focused on identifying and fixing deficiencies, but studies of successful people suggest that this approach may be flawed. Successful people identify and expand on their strengths. They connect effectively with others and they not only bounce back from adversity, their resilience also makes them great at maximizing opportunity. Out of that model arose the positive psychology movement, led by researchers such as Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and the late Donald O. Clifton of the Gallup organization. Now their work has inspired education thought-leaders who see classroom applications of positive psychology principles driving achievement, engagement and learning for students and providing more meaningful and less stressful work for educators. It’s a win-win.


Some wariness on the part of education leaders to embrace joyfulness in teaching and learning is understandable. It sounds suspiciously to some like more of the same self-esteem inflation that is blamed for academic deficiencies that have led employers and colleges to complain that students come to them over-confident but under-prepared.

Because of these kinds of concerns, a couple of points of clarification are in order. Joyful teaching/learning is not about making kids feel good by pouring undeserved praise on them like an ice-bucket challenge for the psyche. Although unearned praise may be destructive to initiative, identifying and recognizing strengths and rewarding effort over ability is motivating and a critical component of what Stanford University professor and author of MindSet, Carol S. Dweck calls the “growth-model” of intelligence.


This growth-mindset is a view of intelligence which challenges long-held conventional wisdom that intelligence is a fixed value throughout life. Dweck and other experts on the growth model contend (with a growing body of evidence) that intelligence can be improved by learning “smart behaviors” and growing dendritic connections in the brain through the resulting learning. Under this model, we throw out old ideas about how intelligent (or unintelligent) an individual is. Instead of teaching students to resign themselves to their limited capacity if they’re “not very smart” or inadvertently discouraging risk-taking for more academically gifted students who may be reluctant to stretch themselves because failure means risking smart-kid status, the growth-model rewards effort and risk-taking over aptitude. It assumes that all students can learn and all have areas of strengths.


In that model, joyfulness plays an important role as students are encouraged and instructed that they can achieve more. It’s about inspiring beliefs strong enough to move an individual to action.


Joyfulness—i.e. a sense of play, celebrating effort and growth, shared compassionate humor, forging and strengthening social connections—isn’t about making kids feel good (although it does that), it’s a strategic element in encouraging and creating real learning outcomes that have the potential for revolutionizing instruction and making learning what it should be: a more consistently joyful experience of discovery and growth for students and teachers alike.

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