Don’t forget the joy!: A call to action for our children

I got quite the shock recently – and, for a change, it wasn’t an unpleasant one. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Let me explain…

In preparation for an interview with Tim Walker, an American teacher now working in Finland, I was reading his book, Teach Like Finland. There, in the last section of the last chapter, was the heading, “Don’t forget joy.” Turns out that in 2016, Finnish comprehensive schools implemented Finland’s newest core curriculum – in which joy is prioritized as a learning concept!

Imagine that! I suspect you may be as stunned as I was. I mean, what the heck? Someone actually understands that joy and learning are synonymous in childhood – and that if learning is to continue to be meaningful, it must continue to be joyful!

As I wrote in What If Everybody Understood Child Development?, we don’t have a lot of research proving that joy and learning go hand in hand. We do have the results of a recent study by two Finnish educators (yes, them again!) that points to several sources of joy in the classroom. They include

  • active, engaged efforts from the children;
  • desire to master the materials – to become “expert” at something;
  • students allowed to work at their own level and pace;
  • finishing a task or solving a problem and the time to do so;
  • the chance to make choices;
  • sharing and collaborating with other students; and
  • the opportunity to play.

None of that, I’m sure, surprises you.

Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis has also written, “Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen – literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research.”

But I’m certain that you don’t need research to see the link between joy and learning. Watch any child involved in self-directed activity – whether it’s building a block tower, engaging in dramatic play, or experimenting at the water table – and you’ll witness it. There’s simply no one more engaged – or engaging to watch – than children fully absorbed in an undertaking. They direct all their attention and effort into it. They put their heart and soul into it. Most adults would give plenty to still feel the pleasure that comes from that kind of absorption.

As you may have guessed, the unpleasant part of my recent shock is knowing that the Finnish see the connection between joy and learning, but that our policymakers don’t. In fact, they don’t seem to care at all about what works and what doesn’t (or, possibly, even about children in general). But I know that you do – and I know that it’s possible for one person to make a difference! So, even though policies and practices in most U.S. schools fall short of the Finnish system, I believe you can still find a way to implement some of their practices in your classroom. And making joyful learning part of your students’ experience is one such practice.

Yes, our culture is certainly different in many ways. But joy is joy in any nation. In any language.

In our interview, Tim recommended beginning with small steps. Start simple, he said. And, to me, the simplest thing you can do is to feel joy and excitement yourself about what takes place in your classroom. When you feel it, the children are sure to feel it too.

If policy dictates less-than-joyful practices in your school, you have my deepest sympathy. But you additionally have the advice of educator Nancy Flanagan, who took part in my conversation with Tim and suggested simply “going around current policy.” After all, policy should never take priority over the children.


School image created by Asier_relampagoestudio –

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