Joy has to be a prerequisite

I think that one great unspoken truth about learning is that it should be enjoyable. Constantly and reassuringly enjoyable. I don’t mean fun, and I don’t mean engaging – they are different. Learning should be joyful – when someone is learning about something new that person should be experiencing a deeply positive feeling of discovery and genuine joy. That’s how I feel when I’m learning the things that matter, that’s how I think many of us feel when we are learning things that matter. We enjoy it for its own sake.

But high school classrooms are often tedious, joyless, soul-sucking, boredom factories where the ‘right’ learning (exams, essays, reports, papers, and assessments) is given precedence over something as essential as happiness. The teenagers hate it, and they are right to do so – why would you love something that is an exercise in ennui and suffering? Honestly I shudder to think how often our education system, classes, and teachers accept students loathing their time in school.


Earlier this year I began to realise that my classroom was only a place of motivation and energy if students bought into my message that ‘this is hard, but we will succeed’ – and that message is only relevant when an individual values success in the long term over short-term difficulty. If the students do buy into that message, then there must be more – how can one of the longest periods of an individual’s life amount to delayed gratification? There has to be short term gains – there has to be joy.

So why do students often hate their classroom?

It would be easy to say that everyone enjoys different things. This is true – but I think, given the chance, we all enjoy the process of discovery and genuinely new things – and this feeling is integral to learning. It would be easy to say that students lack grit and perseverance and don’t always push through to love something. This is sometimes true, but I think that if a prerequisite to joy is a level of discomfort then we are in an awkward place with our schooling. It would then be easy to repeat the common argument that the requirements of the curriculum strip a lot of potential joy from the subject or material. While I do agree that our curriculum does not necessarily care much about our students’ enjoyment, I am not sure that this argument is fair. I think the hardest, but in my opinion the most truthful, response to students not finding learning enjoyable is this: we (teachers, parents, adults) do not give enjoyment much credence in the classroom.

Simply put, we do not care if kids find learning enjoyable.

To be sure there are dozens of positive feelings that are a part of the classroom: reward, pride, success, and growth, for example, are all positive experiences that many teachers foster in classrooms fantastically. But what about joy? How come students don’t seem to experience joy?

In my opinion it is simply this;  we have forgotten how to play.

Kids play all the time. A child with a doll, a ball, a stack of Lego, a piece of paper, a crayon, will start to play. They will mess around, make mistakes, push boundaries, create stories, ask questions, think through things, work out solutions, get involved, feel motivated, care about what they are doing and want to do it more, again, differently. And most importantly: the process is joyful.


Returning to my grudging admission that my classroom was not terribly enjoyable, even if it was rewarding, mature, or progressive, a colleague shared a valuable complaint. He lamented how his attempts to boost student learning by narrowing the work to exam-style questions and content was making students miserable. He then went on to talk about how disregarding assessment (for a few weeks) and just working on genuinely finding ways to let students love the material and play with different parts of his subject saw a real improvement: students liked being there, were energised, were happy. The first point wasn’t radical, but I think that the second point is: to find ways to increase the enjoyment students take in learning is an absolute imperative.

So I started finding ways to get students to play in my classrooms. I thought a lot about what we were studying, the concepts, the forms, the genres, and I thought about different ways students could muck around with what they were supposed to be learning, rather than just forcing it down their throats and telling them that it was good for them.

At the time I was teaching a unit on poetry to my Year 9 class, and I tried really hard to incorporate opportunities for play. We cut up poems (and not in a boring ‘check-out-how-this-is-structured’ way) we blacked-out books, we played with poetic insults, we played with rhythm and music and lyrics and avoided acrostic poems. And it was joyful! These weren’t amazing ideas by any stretch, but they worked, and they were hard to think of – it is hard to find ways to get students to play, genuinely play, with poetry – it is not intuitive or common, and it is so easy for playful tasks to feel empty and purposeless. Bad ones are.

Later I started thinking about one time I had to teach Drama for a year. And I went into that classroom all alive and thinking ‘you know what? I’m going to just get the kids learning so much. There’s going to be learning out the wazoo – I’m not going to focus on games at all, because drama is performance, and confidence, and speaking and creativity, and these things have real value’. And when my first class of students rocked up all they basically wanted to know was: “When are we going to play? Can we dress up? Can we pretend to be llamas, or lamps, or make slow-motion action scenes?” They just wanted to play. And I killed that because I didn’t value joy or happiness. I was Scrooge-ing the kids and if, as a teacher, the closest person who I can compare myself to is a Dickensian villain I was obviously failing pretty hard.

Not every lesson will be joyful – there are no silver bullets. But that’s fine, just add a bit, do it a little more often, try it out. Play with the concept of play in your class. Maybe play is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. I would be much happier as Mary Poppins than I was as Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Some people like to make the point that a person engaged in play is demonstrating excellent behaviour for learning. While this is true in part, it is a disingenuous way to think. The point of play is joy, all other effects are peripheral. I think that we should be trying to make classrooms more joyful because joy works where other lessons fail, and joy is what makes life worth living. Content becomes exciting, poems worth reading, ill fitting throw-me-downs from a musty school cupboard worth putting on, and things worth doing over and over and over and over – obsessively, experimentally and compulsively.

Underpinning all of my opinions is this: sometimes there are no results more worthwhile than happiness. I think play is the best way to get there in the classroom. That’s my entire point.

I think it’s like music. Someone gives you a guitar and playing with the thing is fun. That’s what keeps people returning, over and over, that feeling of joy, that sense that this is happiness, the activity becomes an all round good time. And that joy matters more than the results, the mistakes, the frustration. That joy is the shining light.

So maybe guitar isn’t your thing, just change the metaphor. See the forest from the trees.

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