How To Bring the Joy Back Into Learning

July 26th, 2015 No Comments Features


Last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was publicly accused of “killing students’ joy for learning.” The OECD publishes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is an assessment that allows educational performances to be examined on a common measure across 34 countries.

A letter signed by 120 leading academics and teachers from 12 countries – including Britain, the US and Germany – argues that the current PISA tests distort the curriculum, reduce teachers’ autonomy, and increase student’s stress levels.

The results of the PISA tests, which the signatories say are “widely known to be imperfect” because they focus narrowly on the economic goals of education, are anxiously awaited in the 66 countries that take part.

When their students’ results fall down the league tables, governments often make sweeping changes in how institutions are run and what they teach. The 1,300-word letter describes these as “short-term fixes” designed to boost league table positions, and argues that “enduring changes … take decades”. It says the next round of tests in 2015 should be scrapped.

“Education policy across the world is being driven by the single aim of pushing up national performance levels on Pisa,” said one signatory, Stephen Ball, professor at London University’s Institute of Education. “It’s having a tremendously distorting effect.”

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has repeatedly used English student’s poor performance in Pisa (the latest scores showed them 26th in maths, 23rd in reading and 21st in science) as justification for introducing more traditional exams. His junior minister, Liz Truss, went to Shanghai in China, which topped the league tables in all subjects, to discover the secrets of its success.

“Education policy across the world is being driven by the single aim of pushing up national performance levels on Pisa,” said one signatory, Stephen Ball, professor at London University’s Institute of Education. “It’s having a tremendously distorting effect.”

The letter says the OECD is co-operating “with multi-national for-profit companies which stand to gain financially from any deficits – real or perceived – unearthed by Pisa.” Pearson, owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books and the world’s biggest textbook publisher, is setting the framework for the 2015 tests.

Heinz-Dieter Meyer, professor of education policy at the State University of New York and one of the letter’s organisers, says Andreas Schleicher, who runs the OECD tests, gives public endorsement to controversial policies such as Common Core, an attempt to introduce a national curriculum in the US.

Schleicher told the Guardian: “All we said was that Common Core standards are in line with what they have in high-performing countries.” He also said Pearson was just one of numerous contractors, including universities and colleges, which carry out aspects of Pisa’s work. Far from narrowing education, he argued, Pisa encouraged countries to look at new ideas from around the world.

Meyer warned that the OECD is expanding its testing into areas such as teacher training and higher education and “seems hell-bent on assessing every square inch of the educational globe”.

Whether or not the OECD is to blame, this event sheds light on a larger issue that has been plaguing education for some time: where has all the enjoyment gone?

Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä may have an idea.

The Missing Ingredients

In the field of educational psychology, research on feelings is lacking, the authors observe, and the little that does exist has focused more on negative rather than positive feelings. Rantala, the principal of an elementary institution in the city of Rovaniemi, and Määttä, a professor of psychology at the University of Lapland, set out to remedy this oversight by studying, yes, joy. Their conclusions have important implications for how we do things in educational circles and in workplaces.

The researchers followed a single class through first and second grade, documenting the students’ emotions with photographs and videos. Through what they call ethnographic observation, Rantala and Määttä identified the circumstances that were most likely to produce joy in an educational setting. No doubt many pupils would agree with this example of their findings: The joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches.

Such teacher-centric lessons are much less likely to generate joy than are lessons focused on the student, the authors report. The latter kind of learning involves active, engaged effort on the part of the student; joy arrives when the student surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal. One of the authors videos shows seven-year-old Esko, tapping himself proudly on the chest and announcing, “Hey, I figured out how to do math!” A desire to master the material leads to more joy than a desire to simply perform well, Rantala and Määttä add: joy often accompanies the feeling of shining as an expert.

The authors recommend that students be taught to evaluate and monitor their own learning so they can tell when they’re making progress.

Likewise, the joy of learning is more likely to make an appearance when teachers permit students to work at their own level and their own pace, avoiding making comparisons among students. The authors recommend that students be taught to evaluate and monitor their own learning so they can tell when they’re making progress. Some pupils will take longer than others. As Rantala and Määttä write, “The joy of learning does not like to hurry.” Because joy is so often connected to finishing a task or solving a problem, they point out, allowing time for an activity to come to its natural conclusion is important.

Granting students a measure of freedom in how they learn also engenders joy. Such freedom doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but giving them choices within limits set by a teacher. These choices need not be major ones, the authors note: For us adults, it makes no difference whether we write on blue or red paper, but when a student can choose between these options, there will be a lot of joy in the air.

Not surprisingly, play was a major source of joy in learning Rantala and Määttä observed (even when that play was not exactly what a teacher would wish: the researchers video camera caught one student fashioning a gun out of an environmental-studies handout). Play is the student’s way of seeking pleasure, the authors write, and it is a learning activity in itself; it shouldn’t be viewed as a Trojan horse in which to smuggle in academic lessons.

Lastly, sharing and collaborating with other students is a great source of joy. One of the authors videotapes shows a student reacting with pleasure when a fellow student, Paavo, says, “You are so good at making those dolls!” The researchers conclude: “Joy experienced together, and shared, adds up to even more joy.”

A Recipe for Joy

Rantala and Määttä’s recipe for joy includes support for collaboration, respect for effortful struggle, and promotion of autonomy. Here are their ingredients, in addition to what the literature says:

1. Remove all labels.

Though it may help build a healthier learning environment in the end, labelling “joy” automatically takes some of the joy out of learning. We don’t like to be told that what we experience is easily categorized or the same as what other people experience. If at all possible, leave the labels out of it for others, too.

2. Savour successes and make peace with failures.

“A teacher should favour such teaching methods that enable the achievement of little intervening goals as a part of a greater learning process: smaller achievements function as catalysts towards greater overall goals,” Rantala and Määttä write. “These small steps are important when it comes to the joy of learning.”

3. Provide opportunities for play.

“Although a student does not consider play as a tool for learning, play itself represents important and meaningful activity. Even if play does not produce anything significant or concrete from an adult’s point of view, a student structures his/her own environment through play. Thinking and action merge during play, and by means of play, a student takes over in terms of handling their social, cognitive and physical environment. Playing is the student’s way of seeking pleasure: why is this matter not tapped into more in teaching?”

4. Create an environment of freedom.

“Free play should not be regarded only as side action that occurs when nothing important is happening and all the “real” tasks are completed. Free play is relevant to a student and can be considered free, typical and valued activity without any demands from adults or attempts to subordinate it as an instrument. A free student is inquisitive and creative.”

5. Don’t rush it.

“As the joy of learning is often connected with finishing a task or solving a problem, hurry does nothing to enhance the achievement of these goals. The activity itself can act as a significant source of pleasure and joy.”

6. Aim for “flow.”

“The balance between a learner’s abilities and the task is crucial to the joy of learning. A learner has to consider the task meaningful to him/herself because true commitment to the task does not occur without considering the task valuable. One also has to feel able to manage the task. The feeling of capability provides a learner with courage and represents the meaning of the joy of learning as daring to meet challenges.”

7. Remember curiosity is natural.

“A student wants to learn. One adds one’s energy in order to attain positive experiences and with these experiences gains positive emotions in a pleasant situation.”

8. Share it to spread it.

“The company of other students and friends and a teacher’s genuine interest are premises for experiencing the joy of learning.”

9. Avoid prolonged speeches.

“A student should be at the centre of the learning situation. If a teacher alone is active and talks considerably, the student’s role is just to listen, get tired and bored with the lack of action and doing.”

10. Match task to abilities.

“The student’s opportunities to participate in the decision-making of their own learning and to be allowed to make choices that support their learning, strengths, and success, strengthen the joy of learning.”

11. Appreciate context.

The joy of learning appears differently in every learning environment. There are many ways to establish an educational setting that enables students to experience the joy of learning… the most important thing is for every teacher to consider the joy of learning or lack of it and to think of ways to provide his/her own group with opportunities to experience joy.”

12. Consider the situation before you blame yourself.

Some of us live with the belief we can only be brilliant learners if we pass exams. But what if we aren’t good test-takers? We shouldn’t let it define our identity as learners. Ask yourself if you’re limiting your potential to enjoy learning because of self-blame, and consider the external circumstances dictating your performance instead.

13. Don’t be afraid of not knowing.

Fear of the unknown–and especially of being wrong in the face of uncertainty–can put a damper on learning. Treat the next suggestion as an alternative to holding back.

14. Cultivate wonder.

Everything was new to you at one point in your learning journey, just as it was to everyone else. Just because you’ve “heard it all” doesn’t mean you have to stop appreciating details and facts about the world. The most powerful learning weapon we possess as learners is a sense of wonder. If we can keep this feeling alive well into adulthood, learning can be as joyful as it was when you were young.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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