Restoring Joy in Mudville

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

In his famous 1888 baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” poet Ernest Thayer tells the story of a fictional baseball team known as the “Mudville Nine” and its last-ditch effort to win a ballgame, attempting to come back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning. The success of the team, in the mind of the fans, lay in the hands of Mudville’s star player Casey, who is scheduled to be the fifth batter that inning, but with little hope of getting a chance to bat based on the quality of the four teammates batting ahead of him. But, miracle upon miracle, with two outs in the ninth, two of his teammates make it to base and Casey, in all of his glory, comes to the plate as the potential winning run. As fate would have it, despite his heroic status and after letting two strikes pass by without swinging, Casey swings at the third, and the result is penned in the final poignant stanza of Thayer’s poem:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss joy in education and while offering “Casey at the Bat” feels like “rounding third” to do so, it offers at its conclusion a keen insight for consideration. In the final line of the poem, Thayer doesn’t close by telling us the Mudville Nine lost the game, although readers certainly infer this outcome. Rather, he highlights the lack of joy in Mudville as a result of Casey striking out and Mudville losing the game. In other words, joy was the outcome hoped for, while winning answered the question, “By what method?”

Before I go any further, let me be clear here about what I mean by “joy.” For the purpose of this writing, I will operationally define it as a sense of deep pleasure attained by the satisfaction of participating in meaningful and purposeful activity. Further, I offer for the readers’ consideration a question that I believe serves as a crucible for all of us in the field of education. It is one with which we should wrestle and reach a conclusion, for our responses to this question, individually and collectively, may reveal fundamental beliefs that drive how our education system has worked, currently works and, most importantly, will work in the future:

  • Do the students and adults in a school deserve to experience joy in their work, whether it is learning, teaching or leading?

I have asked this question of many educators, some of whom are students in our Educational Leadership program at Drake University, and the vast majority (approximately 99%) answer the question to the affirmative. If there is a level of agreement that learning/work should be a joyful experience, as defined here, then the next logical question specifically focused on students may be, “To what degree do students experience joy in their learning?”

In his book Optimize Your School (Corwin Press, 2016) Dr. Lee Jenkins, author, speaker and recognized authority in improving educational outcomes, included research from over 3,000 teachers who were asked the following two questions:

  • “What grade level do you teach?”
  • “What percent of your students love school?”

The sobering results from this survey are presented below in the “Jenkins Curve,” a title bestowed by John Hattie:

The first time I saw these results, I was taken aback, for as a former elementary teacher I assumed students would love their elementary experiences. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Likely these results are not what we would hope to see as educators and I am afraid that if this survey was shared with the general public, fingers would immediately point in the direction of teachers in order to place blame, which is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. Over the course of my 40 years in education, I do not know of any teacher who purposely stated that it was his or her intent to drive out children’s joy for learning. Rather, I believe this is a systems issue, not a people problem, for Dr. Deming tells us that approximately 95% of the results produced in a system are a result of the system itself, not the people working in the system. In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Dr. Peter Senge, American systems scientist, also tells us that in a system, “there is no blame;” for the cause of results, both desirable and undesirable, come from the system in which people work. In short, the rapidly decreasing joy for learning year-by-year, as noted in the Jenkins Curve, is the result of our current system of education.

Unfortunately, simply saying, “The system did it,” not only sounds like an excuse for a lack of high performance to those “outside” the system, but also sounds as though “the system” is some ethereal entity that came into being on its own with the purpose of subjugating those who work within it. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, for education, as we know it today, is a socio-cultural system developed during the industrial age to prepare students to work in factories. This “factory model” mindset drove and continues to drive schools, and to this day many educational environments still resemble factories; not so much physically, but in the way they function: students come to kindergarten and we “apply” certain parts called learning objectives. They then move to first grade, then second, then third and so on, with each grade level adding its own unique “parts” to prepare students for graduation. In addition to the way schools are structured, and despite new and exciting knowledge developed through research and experience over the years, education is still heavily influenced by the beliefs and mental models from the past. These archaic paradigms have created and continue to perpetuate the educational system that exists today. In short, well-intended people created the system based on the needs, knowledge, and attitudes of the time and to this date, contemporary education and its leaders cannot seem to reach the “escape velocity” necessary to transform our systems to better align with what we now know about learning and motivation and what is needed to prepare our students for a world that has yet to reveal itself.

But, back to the point, exactly how does “the system” destroy joy in learning for students? From his book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (bold added for emphasis), in Chapter 6 entitled, “Management of People,” Dr. Deming identifies what he describes as “forces of destruction” (Deming, 1994, p. 122), those that come from the present style of management and their effects. Take a look and see how many of these forces apply to our world of education:

Based on Dr. Deming’s work and the work of psychologists Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic motivation and joy appear to be clearly connected, for Deci and Ryan define intrinsic motivation in their article “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions” (2000) as “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards” (p. 56). Oudeyer and Kaplan, (2017) further reinforce the work of Deming, Deci, and Ryan when they write “People certainly can be motivated externally — by money, or grades in school, or a desire for social approval, for example—but Deci and Ryan say that type of controlled motivation can actually taint a person’s feelings about the basic worth of the project and undermine intrinsic motivation” (Bold added for emphasis). In other words, extrinsic motivation, found so often at work in schools, can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and joy in learning.

Based on the premise that joy in learning is a desirable condition and outcome for students, outside of the work of Dr. Jenkins and the Gallup Student Poll, I have begun to wonder where in our system joy is promoted, reinforced or measured. Using the old saying, “What gets measured gets done,” which connotes “measurement equals importance,” I took a moment to examine the Iowa School Performance Profiles to see what gets measured. The areas of performance in the summary view include:

  • Assessment Participation English/Language Arts
  • Assessment Participation Math
  • Average School Achievement English/Language Arts
  • Average School Achievement Math
  • Conditions for Learning
  • Graduation Rate 4-Years
  • Graduation Rate 5-Years
  • Growth in Reading
  • Growth in Math
  • Percent Proficient English/Language Arts
  • Percent Proficient Math
  • Post-Secondary Readiness Composite
  • Progress toward ELP Composite

Unfortunately, “joy” is nowhere to be found on this summary list or on the “Learning Measures” and “Additional Metrics” lists, although the category “conditions for learning” in the “Learning Measures” list includes adult-student relationships, emotional safety, expectations/boundaries, physical safety, and student-student relationships. Rather, what we find is a list of measures focused mainly on the academic performance of students.

This lack of attention to joy in learning in our public schools, a governmentally created and bureaucratically reinforced system of education, may have serious and long-lasting effects on the children we educate. Are joy and academic achievement at different ends of the educational spectrum? Must they be? What consequences are there, if any, when people, especially children, do not experience the joy that comes from authentic, meaningful, and engaging learning? In a recent discussion with one of my colleagues, Dr. Randy Peters, about this topic, he offered the following regarding the connection between joy and learning: “An area of study that may further link joy and learning is Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, which exhibits the following characteristics: complete and utter immersion in a task, obliviousness to the outside world/focus only on one’s own progress and what’s going on right here and now, doing something you love and losing all track of time. It is one of life’s most enjoyable states of being, helping us be more creative, productive, and happy. How often do students (or teachers or administrators) have such experiences in school in spite of the fact that they appear to impact both joy and success in learning?” These are important concepts to consider.

What systemic structures exist that may thwart “joy in learning?” Two examples may be statewide assessments and the accompanying school and district rating systems intended to display how public schools perform in compliance with requirements of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). In Iowa, particularly at the elementary level where I spent my time as a teacher and principal, there are multiple assessments in literacy required by the state. I believe these assessments, the results of which are reported to the state, are well-intended, for their purpose is to determine whether students are making adequate progress in reading, something critical to their success. However, I have also wondered, if and when we get all students up to grade level, whether we will have nurtured children’s joy for reading, or if the methods used to move students along will have the opposite effect. With the pressure to meet arbitrary standards in order to avoid the embarrassment and stigma of being ranked at the lower echelon of the state’s school rating system, might educators be influenced to employ methods that result in academic gain but produce a generation of children who may not enjoy reading and think of it merely as a mechanical process whose purpose is to show gains and proficiency on a state and federally required assessment? This is a plausible hypothesis, for based on the book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon, a “market-based” environment, one that emphasizes competition, may have the potential to wreak havoc on both excellence and ethics.

I can attest to the influence of state testing, the undue stress that can come from arbitrary standards, and the role leadership must play in protecting children from an “achieve at all costs” mindset. The year was 1998 and I was the principal at Phenix Elementary in the West Des Moines Community School District. That year we received the devastating news that we were being designated by the state as a “school in need of assistance” based on our students’ performance on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This was demoralizing news for us a school, especially since just two years before Phenix had garnered accolades by earning Iowa’s F.I.N.E. (First in the Nation in Education) award. Worried about the performance of our students and the standing of our school (and my own job security), I remember sitting down with then-Superintendent Dr. Les Omotani to discuss the situation. In a fashion true to his character, I recall Dr. Omotani saying that, while he certainly understood and appreciated my concern, he wasn’t worried to the degree I was. He asked if I had ever experienced undue pressure from central office to produce higher levels of performance. No. He continued saying he believed in our approach, one based on the principles of educating the “whole child” using “learner-centered” methodologies. He then said that if forced, we could find ways to “make” our students “learn” in order to meet the arbitrary standards established by the state. But in so doing, we might make the experience miserable for our students and that was not something he would expect or support. In other words, Dr. Omotani believed, as did I, that that learning should be a joyful experience (“inspiring joy in learning” is still a part of the district’s shared vision) and that working toward high levels of learning does not exclude the need to ensure that joy is a part of the learning equation.

State testing and ranking systems are just two examples of systemic structures that may contribute to a loss of joy in learning for children. There are likely others, including grading, but that is a topic for a different paper. Uncovering and eliminating these structures might lead to the restoration of joy in learning. The challenge here may be that while some of the systemic barriers to joy in learning are self-imposed, others come from the government itself.

Dr. Deming believed that people are entitled to joy in work and that there should be, “a system of education in which pupils from toddlers on up through the university take joy in learning, free from fear of grades and gold stars, and in which teachers take joy in their work, free from fear in ranking” (Deming, p. 62-63). Without this sense of joy and wonder about their learning, students may simply go through the motions of so-called “learning,” doing what’s required/expected of them without a sense of meaning directly connected to their own lives or interests. Even worse, without nurturing joy in learning in the short term, we may be extinguishing the flame of learning in the long term. Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery.

So, let’s begin to think about how to restore joy in “educationville.” This is the work of leadership, whether it be at the classroom, building, or district level; for in his lectures Dr. Deming routinely stated that “Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in their work.” I fear that if we do not heed Dr. Deming’s words, it will be our children who “come to the plate and strike out.” But rather than pointing fingers at individuals, let’s identify existing structures in our system that lessen joy in learning; eliminating and replacing them with new structures and practices that engender one of the most natural of human tendencies: the desire to learn.

For more information about a leader’s role in educational transformation and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, please contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at doug.stilwell@drake.edu.

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References

Deming, W. (1994). The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet. New York: Basic Books

Iowa Department of Education. (n.d.). User Guide: Iowa Schools Performance Profiles. Retrieved from: https://www.iaschoolperformance.gov/ECP/Home/UserGuide.

Jenkins, L. (2016). Optimize Your School: It’s all About the Strategy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Publishing.

Jenkins, L. (2019). How to Create a Perfect School: Maintain Students’ Motivation and Love of Learning from Kindergarten through 12th Grade. USA. LtoJ Press.

Oudeyer, P. & Kaplan, F. (2009, November 2). “What is Intrinsic Motivation? A Typology of Computational Approaches.” Frontiers on Neurorobotics. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/neuro.12.006.2007/full

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25, 54–67.

Thayer, E. (1888). Casey at the Bat. poets.org. https://poets.org/poem/casey-bat.

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