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Bringing Back Joy to the Classroom

joy
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Watch any toddler trying to recite the alphabet or count their numbers while jumping up and down, and you cannot help but notice the pure joy in learning letters and numbers. 

Every teacher aspires to see the ecstasy of acquiring new knowledge in their students, and now more than ever, teachers should strive to make the classroom a place of happiness. The emphasis on social and emotional learning through the curriculum is undoubtedly focused on raising awareness to have a more cohesive and engaged classroom. Still, it takes more than SEL to have joy in a classroom. 

As recently as 2018, psychologists were still debating the concept of joy, and the body of work related to joy in psychology remains relatively small. Still, a group of psychologists, philosophers, and theologians are working to connect the research on joy into a more unified collection of work as part of an interdisciplinary project called the Theology of Joy and the Good Life (opens in new tab) at Yale University. 

Harvard Graduate School of Education is also pondering the topic of joy in teaching (opens in new tab). In the recent article, the author quotes Decoteau Irby, who describes an erosion of joy in our schools and notes that although learning isn’t always a joyous experience, the confidence gained by academic struggle does produce joy. Gholdy Muhammad’s equity framework, as shared through her book Cultivating Genius (opens in new tab), includes joy as one of its five pillars.  

Instilling Joy in Learning

How can a teacher move from SEL to JOY? Consider the definition of joy (opens in new tab), and work backward from there. Keeping in mind that within the definition, we learn joy takes two forms: passive and active. Passive is connected to feeling contentment, and active involves a desire to share feelings with others and involves engagement. With this in mind, we think of ways to engage the learner in more positive, less overwhelming, and intrinsic ways. 

To get started infusing more joy in your classroom, consider these ideas:

  • Offer students an opportunity to experience some form of success throughout the day because small achievements serve as catalysts toward meeting greater learning goals. 
  • Incorporate play! All grade levels and all subject areas can incorporate elements of play. 
  • Offer choices. A student who has options can be inquisitive and creative. 
  • Be patient and allow student’s enough time to enjoy the activity. This is similar to wait time in questioning but feels much longer when trying to apply to practice. Yet, it can make a difference in your student's level of engagement. 
  • Allow students to choose activities that align with their interests and abilities. 
  • Encourage collaboration and creativity. 
  • Be flexible. The learning environment greatly influences whether a student wants to learn or shut down. Try to create a flexible classroom that accommodates a variety of interests and skill levels. 

Students naturally want to learn (remember our toddler), and allowing the opportunity for them to have positive experiences through learning ultimately leads to joy. Our schools are full of emotions, and joy should be the leading one. 

Dr. Ray's career includes designing technology within the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and directing technology research through Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Science Outreach programs. As a district administrator for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, she led the award-winning design, implementation, and evaluation of instructional technology programs, including instructional design for online and blended learning environments, redesigning physical learning environments, redefining school libraries, and establishing the first virtual high school to award the diploma. She leads K20Connect (opens in new tab) and other passion projects supporting K20 education around the world.