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.

Want More?

For the latest updates, events, and learning opportunities, subscribe to our mailing list today!

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. Contemp. Educational Psychology. 25, 54–67.

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

38 thoughts on “Restoring Joy in Mudville”

  1. I relate most to this article when reading the paragraph 4th from the finish. I feel school districts, building level teachers and admin as well as students spend an abundant amount of time trying to outrun the stress of state testing. Yes, we need the data, the data is essential to understand where students are at, how we are teaching, how much they are understanding and enables us to make a plan going forward. However, when you are labeled a “school in need of assistance” those stress levels sky rocket (in everyone). The principals demeanor changes (maybe non intentionally, possible intentionally) and so do the teachers because we are working tirelessly each day to close the achievement gaps at our schools, these test, most of the time highlight what we all ready know and are constantly trying to fix with interventions, tier work, MTSS meetings, etc. But worst of all, even when this stress is buried and handled I feel the kids still feel it as we teach and re-assess and I know, even as an adult, I do not work well under pressure so it is appalling to me that we are expecting children 1/3 our age to do the same and do it well, or else…

    It seems we are always in the “pit” when it comes to state assessments, I value their worth to an extent, I just wonder if the way we administer them and how we talk about them and introduce them to students could somehow be changed/altered to allow more “freedom” for kids to truly show what they know; sometimes choosing multiple choice for those creative visual kids doesn’t seem to be the right tactic, or writing an open-ended question for kids who are more concrete and struggle with writing can cause the whole test in general to be negative and therefore, produce results that are not valid because they were not aligned with or complimenting a child’s learning style. The test just also add and edge that truly can take away from the “joy of learning” and in turn I think put a negative spin on assessments in general for students. I imagine a world where assessments could be looked forward to as a time where students could “show their growth” and celebrate their success, or possibly analyze their downfalls and make new goals going forward.

  2. This article was a great reminder to focus on the ‘joy of learning’ and intrinsic motivation as we go into the new school year. As an elementary music teacher, there are many times in my day where my students and I experience joy. While reading about Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, I found myself reflecting back to my lessons from this past week. When my students and I were singing, dancing, and giggling together this week we were completely immersed in the right here and now, doing something we loved, and enjoying each others company. I will strive to create more moments like this in my classroom. Learning should be a joyful experience!

  3. Ferida Nuhanovic

    The Jenkins Curve is disheartening but not surprising. When I think about my own school experience, I can certainly relate to the data. It seems obvious that this decline is a result of various factors such as age, rigor, reduced/lack of play, increased social-emotional stress, increased responsibility, etc. I say obvious, because we seem to easily recognize and discuss these factors frequently in the world of education. So why is this still a problem? The answer lies in the system as stated in the article. More specifically, the system’s inability to cross that threshold of old pedagogies and theories into applying new ones. I’ve often been frustrated in my own teaching experience when my own school has seemed to fail to do this. Education seems to still be stuck in the past even though are constantly new initiatives being pushed forth from the top-down. Consequently, its participants grow frustrated, jaded, and unmotivated and finally just submit to orders or provide so little energy and effort that the initiative fails and the cycle repeats itself. I think the joy needs to resurrected in all levels and members of education. It’s clear that students are losing their joy, but so are the teacher, principals, superintendents, etc. So if what we all want is to just find joy again then lets make that the new initiative.

  4. As I was reflecting on the data on the Jenkins curve, I wondered what the data would look like for preschool students. Would the data show that in preschool, students have a higher than 95% rate for joy in learning. Furthermore, is one reasoning for such joy in learning in Kindergarten due to play in schools? Through play, tasks are meaningful and as students move through school, is the work less meaningful because the process of delivery is stripped to essential elements students are required to know. As I think about my career from preschool to Kindergarten, the school I work in has a distinct shift between learning through play (preschool) to using play as a reward after learning (Kindergarten). Joy in the classroom is essential for accelerated learning and assessing joy in learning may be an initial step to develop a process to increase joy.

  5. Charlotte Hayes Brumfield

    As an elementary school teacher, I have noticed that “joy” in learning and teaching has not been an area of evaluation. I remember hearing a conversation between two teachers in which one of them complained that ” kindergarten is now the new first grade”. The other teacher added, and ‘THEY’ have taken away play from us as well. Observations and statements like this have been examples that the ‘joy’ of learning is diminishing in our schools. The ever-changing policies, timelines, and grading practices seem to cntribute to the results of the Jenkins Curve.

    I would love to to see joy restored in teaching in learning. Teaching and learning would become much more powerful if this were possible. Deadlines, grading and contant changes seem to cause a great amount of stress for both teachers and students. The test scores sem to be the main focus. People thrive when they are happier in their chosen profession. Marriages thrive when there is joy and happiness betwen spouses. I can only imagine how much our system of education would thrive if the ‘joy’ was restored?

  6. This was an interesting read. I was exposed to the “Jenkins Curve” as a pre-service educator and had a similar response to you. In efforts to preserve my students’ joy in learning, I made a commitment to establish a strong foundation of SEL and culturally responsive teaching practices in my classroom.

    I appreciate you sharing your experience of finding out that your school was labeled “ a school in need of assistance”. It was great to hear what transpired between your conversations with your superintendent.

    I wonder how often the Iowa state government updates the criteria measured on the Iowa School Performance Profiles. I also wonder if any state governments are aware of data related to joy in learning. If so, what are they proposing to reverse the trend? What system-wide changes do you propose will restore joy in learning? I agree that all stakeholders must be included in identifying existing structures that eliminate joy in learning, and work to adjust them.

  7. Derek Barnhouse

    Aside from my initial disheartened reaction to the results of the Jenkins curve, I also immediately start to wonder what factors other than grade-level alone (and the increased rigor, expectations, mandates, etc. that tend to increase with age) contribute to student joy. For example, I would be curious to compare this same information with teachers’ levels of joy related to the age the teach. Surely, secondary teachers do not experience significantly less joy that their primary-level colleagues, but I would imagine there is a relationship between a teacher’s joy and the joy of their students.

    If we assume mandates and standardized test are a given reality of our current system, I would ascertain a school’s greatest point of leverage is instead the joy of their teachers. When districts and administrators systemically support, develop, and invest in the well-being of their teachers, their joy would increase and I would imagine the joy for students would eventually do the same. There are certainly many more components contributing to a student’s level of joy for learning, but improving the overall joy of their teachers may be reasonable and realistic place to start.

  8. When I went back to school to become a teacher, the driving force behind my efforts was the thought that I would soon be able to create in students the magical experience that education was for me. I went into teaching with the mindset of creating a culture of excitement and adventure, as my teachers had done for me. As a child of the 1980’s, I grew up without access to much in terms of technology or advancements. Phones were these things stuck to your wall. Social media was not a thing. What computers we did have, the classic Apple, was used to practice making the turtle turn (angles) and move (distances). If we were really lucky, we got to take a shot at getting our family safely across the country on the Oregon Trail. My joy in being a student was learning about the world around me, and making a connection to my place in it. Whether it be the Civil War, fractions, or a study of body systems, I could always find that connection to my world. For the life of me I wish I could nail down how this happened so I could bottle then sell it. Reading was often time my escape into the world of imagination. All of this has stuck with me into adulthood. I LOVE to learn about the world around me. I haven’t met a historical marker or mathematical/word puzzle that I can say no to. I read for learning and pleasure. I love to learn.

  9. Joy and the pursuit of happiness is essential to humanity and life. That said, the need to quantify results and control the rate of growth through constant and consistent instruction, assessment, and graduation to the next level continues to drive our educational system. What is unfortunate is that in the course of doing so, we have not only kill creativity (as Sir Ken Robinson mentions in his Ted Talk), it also kills the joy associated with learning. The public education system was formed during the Industrial Revolution, creating a systemic way of educating and creating models of learners in a uniform way.

    All students have the right to access education and that certain skills are essential for growth as we move through this world. However, I wonder why we must require students to show these skills through predetermined means of standardized testing and education. If we were to look at the whole child, why must they all meet the informative writing standard through a book report on a determined theme? Why must students show their learning in math through formulas, rather than real world application, such as how many gallons do I need to paint this mural?

    The challenge is how to standardize education enough to ensure access and accountability in growth and, at the same time, foster a love of learning, experimentation, creativity and challenge? What connections do we see that link enjoyment to achievement? And how do these same factors play a role in our teacher’s and their instruction? How many really enjoy their work in the way they are currently teaching? Creating a space where students can see themselves as learners, artists, scientists and people is a good start. And to offer this, we must make sure that all stakeholders also see themselves in that system as well.

  10. I don’t think we realize how pertinent extrinsic motivation is prevalent in our society. Clearly, as a teacher I enjoyed school, but reflecting back, how much did I ACTUALLY desire to learn? Everything was a means to an end, an action for a reward(grade). I do think I enjoyed learning, but I think the desire for a high GPA was higher. I was more “motivated” in other areas: sports, music, etc. I think I am also using the word motivated when I should be using the word competitive. Who is responsible for joy in schools?

    What is the catalyst for educational systemic change? Is it a “boots-on-the-ground” movement, or do we need the right leaders in charge to make the changes?
    This article made an exceptional effort to combat “the blame game”. I appreciate the correlation between the “Jenkins curve” and Deming’s forces of destruction graphic. The reality is the more pressure we put on the education system to perform at a specific target, the more the system pushes back with detrimental results. A societal mindset shift is crucial for the education system to thrive in a post-industrial age world.

  11. Benjamin Schauer

    I very much appreciate the premise of this article. It’s no secret that students dislike school (or dare I say “hate”). That said, it’s important to distinguish between the definition of joy Dr. Stilwell is working with (“…a sense of deep pleasure attained by the satisfaction of participating in meaningful and purposeful activity”) and the world’s definition (“fun” and “stimulating”). You can take joy in something but not necessarily be having the time of your life. That’s just how it is sometimes, and it’s ok. Sometimes knowledge acquisition is dull, but it’s crucial to stress that this so-called “boring stuff” can be done without impacting the joy of learning if we keep it in perspective. Obviously this is easier said than done. Current culture thrives on the idea of mediocrity, and technological innovation has made knowledge acquisition a matter of typing and hitting “search” on a SMART device. Factor this in with standardized testing trends that stress regurgitation and memorization over true learning, and it’s no wonder students are disengaged from this process.

    As an educator, I would like to see schools move away from the factory model mentioned above. We treat students like cookie cutter robots and over-test them without really looking at what the data we collect suggests they need. Students need more time in their day for exploration (“play” in some circles) and to make meaningful relationships with their peers and the content they’re receiving. We need to make learning applicable to real life and engage students’ desire to use their critical thinking skills to make connections beyond a good grade on a test. I’m encouraged to see more of my colleagues slowly starting to recognize the need for a reformed system, and I look forward to helping spearhead this work in my own little patch of earth.

  12. To find the joy in learning is the most important thing in finding the intrinsic motivation to carry on the learning process. These two things, joy and learning are connected in many ways. From this article the piece that stuck with me the most was the fact that intrinsic motivation is one of the most important parts of finding this joy in learning. Every student and teacher deserves to exist in the system that provides them joy and allows them to learn at the highest level possible. 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). I believe that while finding this joy, teachers and students should participate in the learning to reach their goals because they deeply desire being successful in their task, job, skill etc. When set rewards are put in place, it creates a system that drives in fear and creates a demanding environment unlike the one where one would find joy in their work. Teachers and students deserve to find this joy in all places, including the education system.

  13. I agree that as a system we should be focusing on, “the joy of learning”. Working with students who have lost that joy due to not getting, “gold stars”, and being put in categories that separate them and rank them against their peers has been a front-row experience of how it affects them. They no longer want to learn because they are afraid of failing. This feeds into teachers’ joy of their work, if the students they are trying to reach are not experiencing joy and dread coming to the classroom, what is enjoyable about the work? I’ve also experienced it from a student’s point of view, if you have a teacher who no longer finds joy in teaching, why should the student enjoy learning? Students look up to their teachers and see how they are reacting to things so if the teacher doesn’t find excitement in what they are teaching, why should the student?
    As a system, we need to bring back joy, otherwise, we will continue to get the bare minimum, continue to see a lack of imagination and creativity, and continue to see struggling students fall behind. What I have found that is beneficial with my own students is constantly creating goals, celebrating the successes of every student, and allowing them to discover on their own. As an aspiring leader, how can I help my future staff find their joy in teaching again and help them implement joy of learning back in their classroom to combat the lack of joy in the system?

  14. I appreciate many points and ideas that are made throughout this article. The quote, “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” summarizes my thoughts as I process and reflect upon this article. I find myself asking, “How does the lack of joy in our current system impact the next generation?” Does the lack of joy in our current leaders trickle down to current teachers, and thus impact our students? If so, those students who are losing joy are the leaders of the next generation. Have we allowed our current system to create a vicious cycle that continues to eliminate joy?

  15. The “joy” in school is a significant aspect in learning. For many years I have asked, what if administration did walk through to evaluate the morale of the classroom? How could the evaluations we place on teachers trickle down to how the students feel in the classroom? As we evaluate the joy, it connects with social emotional needs of our students. Lee Jenkins discusses the important on having students see the data and watch as they reach a new ATB. As students achieve that, students have such a sense of fulfillment. As an adult in a career world, I find a lot of joy in my job when there is an improvement, or I see that the work I am doing is helping something else.

  16. Reading this article continues to confirm my desire to become an administration that works towards finding ways to bring joy back into students’ lives. As teachers, we often focus on trying to ensure all students can master certain skills and standards. As a system, we often fail to consider student joy or happiness. If students can master all the standards we have established by the end of the 12th grade but hate learning by the end of high school, is it even necessary to ensure they can meet these standards? At the end of high school if students don’t enjoy learning are they going to continue to be learners in the future? I would be more supportive of a system that encouraged joy in learning and created students who want to continue to learn throughout a lifetime than to think about students meeting all standards but lack a desire to continue to learn post 12th grade.

  17. Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory and immersion in a task is exactly what students needs. Students focus in a way that fits them best. The difficult part of this is to determine how or structure lessons with possibly PBL in mind so that students have the time and space to do this. Moreover, this sounds like real world application. When working on a household task, something in your career, or a hobby, the learner is focused in the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to help them progress through the task in all stages of life. It is innate. As the old saying goes “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Ultimately, find the joy in what you do. I am interested to see additional data for larger and smaller districts in various geographic and socio-economic statuses.

  18. As I was reflecting on the data on the Jenkins curve, I wondered what the data would look like for preschool students. Would the data show that in preschool, students have a higher than 95% rate for joy in learning. Furthermore, is one reasoning for such joy in learning in Kindergarten due to play in schools? Through play, tasks are meaningful and as students move through school, is the work less meaningful because the process of delivery is stripped to essential elements students are required to know. As I think about my career from preschool to Kindergarten, the school I work in has a distinct shift between learning through play (preschool) to using play as a reward after learning (Kindergarten). Joy in the classroom is essential for accelerated learning and assessing joy in learning may be an initial step to develop a process to increase joy.

  19. This article feels true now more than ever. In our efforts to increase student achievement, we are sucking the joy out of learning. Students receive hours upon hours of reading instruction a day, yet we know students learn in ways other than direct instruction. We say we want teachers to be facilitators, yet we continue to get caught in the role of teachers at the center of the learning. Joy comes from authentic, meaningful tasks. Humans are intrinsically motivated to learn when it is engaging and a topic of interest to them. Students rarely read for enjoyment anymore. There is always a task, an objective, a question to be answered in response to reading. In my time in education, it seems that I am continuously surrounded by teachers who know better, but we are struggling to do better. The idea of needing strong improvements to the system resonates with the struggle to do better and create joy in learning.

  20. As a teacher who has had students in K-12th grades and worked in both elementary and secondary schools, I have noticed the drop in joy for quite some time. Because of the system of grading students, we have trained students to be really good at complying with rules rather than focusing on growth and learning. At the secondary level, this is defended as being necessary to prepare students for their futures. If we don’t prepare students to meet deadlines, finish assignments, and do well on tests, they won’t be able to enter the work force or university successfully.
    I would argue that we as teachers do not need to wait for the entire system to shift to make changes in our own classrooms. Our classroom is also a system, and we do have control over many aspects of our system that can contribute to joy and growth. By making action in our own classrooms, we can lead by example and show other teachers that it is possible to make positive improvement.

  21. “Joy” – the fact of the matter, I enjoyed school when I was a kid. I really didn’t enjoy the learning part. I really enjoyed all the other entities that school offered: lunch, recess, friendship, just to name a few. Now being a high school teacher, I see students just going through the motions of school. The entire world has changed drastically in the last 100 years, but we do school for the most part in the same manner.

    I don’t know if there is a right answer when talking about giving kids more joy in their learning. I am sure that some students really like the day in and day out grind of what school is. I think the biggest picture that we must remember as educators, never get too far away from the trenches. As a high school teacher, I teach 6 classes. Most of my day is very similar. The students on the other hand, their day is 6 to 7 different schemes that they must master.

    A great first step in my opinion on gaining student joy, would be to go to those doing the work. Ask them, listen to them, and see if we can do a better job for them. A list below that might help:
    1. Do less, achieve more
    2. Dopamine (pump encouragement and love into the students)
    3. Never let today, ruin tomorrow
    4. Allow the students to build their own house
    5. Keep them fresh and happy

  22. Elli Beardsley

    While reflecting on this article, there is nothing more heartwrenching than analyzing the downward trajectory of the “joy” in learning data. As educators, it is in our best hearts to care for, nurture, and support students and their love for learning. When joy is present, students and teachers are motivated and determined to succeed in more ways than ever imagined. As leaders, we need to ensure that joy is found in our instructional practice. We need to welcome students, instill a love for learning within them, and create an inclusive and safe environment for them to learn. I am positive that kids will do well when they can do well. Create a space for all and help all find their passion while you live through yours. This practice is intentional and worthy of time during your day. A goal in place for myself after reading this is to allow more time and grace throughout each day. I hope to take more time to reflect on the joys and the highs that are in place and continue to teach with those at the forefront of my instructional leadership practices to best support the “joy” in learning.

  23. As a teacher at the high school level, I reflect upon the Jenkins curve and lack of joy students have entering into the penultimate years of their formal education. It would be interesting to research any possible correlation between the amount of unstructured “free-time” students have to interact with one another and the amount of joy that is experienced. The systems in place have become more academically-oriented at earlier levels driving out recess entirely in some settings. Unstructured time is most definitely not the only contributor; during those times that we are actively participating in learning activities, students need to be engaged and should want to pursue new knowledge but as they progress year by year having the same strategies presented to them they begin to become apathetic towards school and their joy wains at a swift pace. At my current position it’s difficult to bend that curve in the upward direction but I know that by attempting to do so, student’s begin to listen more attentively and participate in greater numbers.

  24. Brittney Andreassen

    This article made me realize that in order for students to be successful, staff and students need to have a joy in the learning. If teachers do not feel any joy in the subject they are teaching then students will also feel the joy of learning being taken away. The “joy” of learning has to happen at all levels of the school. It starts with a joy for learning and motivation with the leader of the building. Without that model of joy in learning from all parts of the system, little by little the joy of learning will diminish into competition and a numbers game. Students and staff will no longer be motivated by intrinsic motivation but only by extrinsic motivation which does not lead to a high level of joy in learning.

  25. Mary Sklenicka

    As a middle school, language arts teacher, it is no surprise to me that the Jenkins Curve shows that only 50% of students love school, add on reading and writing for 86 minutes, this becomes very clear during my time with students. As a language arts team we are constantly reinventing the wheel, never thinking about the root cause, until this year. As the following sentence states, “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” our team needed to provide that sense of meaning by revamping our units to connect to students lives and interests and provided opportunity of choice in their learning. Intrinsic motivation started to show; reading and writing finally became applicable to their every day lives, something that was once seen as a ‘have to’ was know seen as thinking and communication tool.

  26. Reading this article and looking at the survey results was very eye opening. As a 2nd grade teacher, the first greater decrease in “joy in the classroom” happens at my grade level. If we want students to become lifelong learners, there needs to be a greater enjoyment of learning. This “joy” (or lack thereof) roots from all levels of the education system, and trickles down to be seen in the classroom. From being a student myself, and now teaching students of my own, I believe students need to constantly feel motivated and responsible for the learning they’re doing, and supported along the way. The motivation piece comes from the voice in choice in learning, and they feel responsible for their learning when they’re taught to feel proud of the work they’re engaging in. Half way through the school year, our school asks students to fill out a survey asking them a variety of questions regarding their feelings about school, their teacher, and their building leadership. I would like to see our school take the next step with this data and look for ways to improve the different areas, or further investigate what it is that specifically starts to give students negative feelings about school.

  27. The way joy is defined in the third paragraph, all teachers should be experiencing joy. We all participate in “meaningful and purposeful activity.” As many people know, teachers are not always experiencing joy. I also really think that this joy decreases as we go on in schooling. I feel like it is much higher for a kindergarten student that a high school student, confirmed with the Jenkins research. What is happening in our schooling to take away this joy? I teach 9th grade, and it is absolutely no surprise to me that Jenkin’s found only 37% of students love school. With the variety of schools and teachers surveyed, it is almost impossible to blame teachers. Are students losing motivation as they go along in school? Suddenly the extrinsic motivation is not enough for them. State testing gives students no joy in my opinion. They see no purpose in it, so if we are defining joy as participating in purposeful activity then we must show students how to find purpose in learning. Finding purpose will help increase intrinsic motivation. I also think there is less ranking of teachers. I always feel the teachers receiving praise are ones that are phenomenal at building relationships with their students; it no longer has to do with teachers who receive high test scores.

  28. Lindsay Swartzendruber

    I appreciate many of the ideas in this article. The quote “Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery,” resonated with me. I especially connect with this as a special educator who often feels like we are pulling students through the system instead of equipping them with the tools to be successful. My career has been spent trying to “close the achievement gap” between students with IEPs and those without. Many times, we try to accomplish this by pulling students away from activities they enjoy, so that they can practice skills that are most likely their least favorite part of school.

    I also connected with the idea that the whole system of education was developed in another time, with a totally different group of students in mind. Students now are coming to school with complex backgrounds and needs. Instead of meeting them where they are at and focusing on creating a safe space for them to thrive, we push them into this system of “how we have done things” without understanding the impact this has on our students, especially the most vulnerable ones.

    Thank you for the article!

  29. Kendall Van Woerkom

    As I read this piece, the thoughts at the forefront of my mind were, “How does my joy, or lack of joy, in my classroom as the teacher impact my students’ joy in learning?” and “What am I doing to ignite the joy of learning in my students, despite everything in the system working to take their joy in learning?”
    In my own classroom, in terms of joy, I see the direct correlation between my joy and excitement about what we’re doing in class, be it the lesson, the objective, the unit, etc. and my students’ joy in learning. When I go above and beyond to engage students in an activity, and am filled with joy about their learning, I see my students’ joy and excitement about learning grow. However, when I feel that what we’re doing in class is monotonous, students realize that, which takes the joy out of it for them, because if I’m not excited, why should they be?
    As stated in the article, though, it takes more than joyful teachers to restore students’ joy in education; it takes a system wide shift. And since I can’t control the whole system of education, in my classroom, I work to find ways to spark joy in learning for my students. I think that students find joy in learning when it is tailored to students as individuals. Which, to me, makes sense, because everything we know that steals the joy of learning from students (standardized testing, achievement rates, graduation rates) looks at students as a whole entity, or as a part of a grade level, part of a specific race, part of a specific gender, not as individuals. When I give my students the change to be seen as individuals, I see them thrive. For example, I utilized project based learning (loosely) twice in my classroom, dedicating weeks at a time for students to solve problems and come up with solutions, in order to reach a learning target, and both times I was floored at the invested, creative, vibrant learners I had in my classroom–ones that in some cases, I hadn’t experienced before. In the PBL setting, as opposed to a quiz, or an assigned reading, students were able to navigate learning in a way that made sense to THEM as an individual, not to me as their teacher trying to create a one size fits all version of learning for a class-full of unique students.
    All that to be said, after reading this article, I am inspired to find more ways to foster joy of learning in my students. I am inspired to fight back against the system that says there’s only room for standards and learning targets and standardized testing, and joy has to find a place fit within the cracks of that in the system of education. I want joy in learning to be the forefront of everything, because if my students find joy in learning, chances are the rest will follow!

  30. Charissa Stanley

    This post is both eye opening as a teacher, and put into perspective my thoughts around my teaching career as a math and language arts teacher. As I was working towards my degree to become a teacher I had told family and friends I wanted to work with younger students because they still had a joy for learning. This post seems to prove my claim correct. I didn’t end up following through with what I told my family I wanted. After I received my degree I became a middle school teacher, which according to Jenkins Curve is part of the lowest point on the graph. I felt that I could make a difference in my students thoughts of school. As a language arts/math teacher I was however quickly halted in the plan of changing the students thoughts about school with the testing expected for the students. They were required to take three assessments, plus the state assessments each year. Additionally the students needed to show growth on the assessments or they would be “placed” in remedial classes. I was in a rut to find a way to keep the promise to myself as changing the students hearts of learning, but still teaching the kids so they could achieve for the tests.

  31. This is a critical conversation in education. Historically, our public schools do many things well, but stoking the internal motivation of our students is rarely one of them. I have found this to be the single most challenging aspect of teaching, personally.

    I appreciate the focus here on the “joy” of learning. That’s a wonderful way to describe internal motivation. We seek hard after joy in our human experience, and young people in our K-12 schools are no different. The Jenkins Curve is alarming.

    I’d be a millionaire if I had the silver-bullet answer. There are so many moving parts to this crisis, and that’s why it’s so difficult to problem solve. But when I look at my own classroom and my time as a high school history teacher, I know I made an impact with reluctant learners–for the Jenkins Curve quantifies what every high school teacher already knows…the majority of my students are already “over” school–through relationships. There is joy to be found in relationship, and the teaching-learning process is founded on relationship. It’s a big step in the right direction.

  32. The curve of joy of learning is reflected in the mindsets of all in the learning community. If the whole child is educated in the joy of learning all participants in the learning community will be successful. If the education is to be effective, efficient, and purposeful participants must not dread going to school but be excited to learning. The system will always win unless all participants in the system agree to change and an alternate system in place.

  33. Mitchell Schank

    Seeing the “By what method” really helps understand the situation. Students losing their love of school has become an issue and it is not a teacher issue. We need to look at the educational system and what is bringing the Jenkins curve down. It seems as students are losing their love as school as students are put into more “tell them what to do” content. The students are not getting to explore as much and the content is being given to them. As we look at the system, we need to see where this fault is occurring. It is possibly it is an external versus internal motivation in schools.

  34. I really enjoyed reading this article. I connected with the story you told at the beginning about Joy in Mudville. Obviously the whole town and team wanted to win the game, but they relied only on Casey to win it for them. When he did not succeed, their joy was lost. This connects back to schools in so many ways. I like how you stated that when information gets shared about schools and it states anything in a negative light, the first to be blamed are the teachers. However, there are so many factors in the success in a school. You posed the question on whether teachers and students can find joy in learning and teaching. I agree that students and teachers should be able to enjoy school. However, before graduating college I was warned time and time again about teacher burn out. I did not understand what they meant until I started my first year of teaching. I enjoyed teaching and being in the classroom, but it also was exhausting. I feel that this is the same for students sometimes. Schools have so many responsibilities and tasks they want to accomplish, that sometimes it becomes overwhelming. Teachers start to cram as much as they can in a single school day and if anything gets cut, joy and fun activities are the first to go. Testing is important in schools today, but should not replace the joy of learning. I looked at the Jenkin’s Curve and I went straight to 7th grade (since that is what I teach) and I was not surprised by the number. I wish that so many more students enjoyed school, but I know from my experiences with students that is not always the case. I try my best to find joy in teaching and making sure my students are also finding joy in the classroom. Some days get the best of me and I rush to get everything accomplished and loose track of what really matters. We test students often to make sure they understand the content, but do not always check in with how they are doing mentally and emotionally. You stated in your article how we teach students to read, but do they find joy in reading? I grew up hating science, but now I teach 7th grade science. My main purpose to show my students that they can find joy in science and to give them a better experience than what I had growing up. I’ve had several students state they never used to like science, but I enjoyed my class. I hope to continue this trend and continue to remember to look for joy in teaching.

  35. Thanks for sharing your personal experience with feeling the “pressure” from the state. Feeling this kind of pressure on yourself can’t be enjoyable for yourself. If your feeling under pressure imagine how this feeling or “vibe” transfers to your staff and students. Instead of being so concerned with how the state views you, I think this is a time when sticking to your school’s core values and vision is going to be essential. I think as long as growth is being made and you have evidence to prove it and you are sticking to your core values, than you should be proud of yourself as a leader. Unfortunately, teaching teaching to a test and making reading miserable for students due to new instructional practice or routines which don’t fit with your school’s vision could ultimately be detrimental to your students joy for learning as well as your staff’s joy for teaching.

  36. Keri Van Polen

    This article was enticing as fall and a new school year is approaching. As students flow through grades K-12 or onward from there, there are many factors that can play into the joy and excitement as they walk through the classroom doors. As I think about the end of August, a new group of students will come to me with curiosity to who I am as a teacher and what the school year may involve throughout this pandemic. Keeping the joy of students at the forefront, I agree, truly helps these students to be successful and start the school year on a positive note.

    In elementary school, students, for all practical purposes, are new in the world of school. They are figuring out the ropes and expectations, who their friends are, what they like to do at recess, and so on. Unfortunately, as Dr. Deming’s graphs indicated, as students get older there tends to be more stress that can be put onto the students, therefore, decreasing the joy and desire to learn.

    I look forward to keeping these insights in mind going forward. This was a great article and a wonderful read!

  37. Lindsay Swartzendruber

    I appreciate many of the ideas in this article. The quote “Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery,” resonated with me. I especially connect with this as a special educator who often feels like we are pulling students through the system instead of equipping them with the tools to be successful. My career has been spent trying to “close the achievement gap” between students with IEPs and those without. Many times, we try to accomplish this by pulling students away from activities they enjoy, so that they can practice skills that are most likely their least favorite part of school.

    I also connected with the idea that the whole system of education was developed in another time, with a totally different group of students in mind. Students now are coming to school with complex backgrounds and needs. Instead of meeting them where they are at and focusing on creating a safe space for them to thrive, we push them into this system of “how we have done things” without understanding the impact this has on our students, especially the most vulnerable ones.

    Thank you for your post!

  38. There are many elements at school that take away from joy in the building. Beyond testing requirements; grades, class rank, rigor in course work, college applications and awards fill students’ heads with visions of carrots at the finish. At the high school level students and families strive for these things. It is difficult to divorce a system from the achievements that at least some in the community pursue. I wonder if we can refocus celebrations of such achievements to be centered around the joy learners feel in the process that leads to their achievements. Perhaps celebration should happen earlier in the process to maintain a focus on joy?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top