Bill Gates, along with other well-known philanthropists, has now contributed billions of dollars to improve education.
What kind of change has all that money created? Well, Newsweek recently gave the overall results a disheartening B-minus to C-minus grade.
So I guess money wasn’t the simple answer.
But what if, before ever donating a dime, all those philanthropists had first answered this straight-forward question: How can we make learning joyful?
Yep, when we answer that question, we may be surprised at how much everything else falls into place. Here is how I believe we can make learning enjoyable.
1) We rewrite standards.
I’ve yet to read a state standard that includes the word joy as part of any criterion. Somewhere along the way, we decided that it’s only, for example, important to learn how to read—but it’s irrelevant whether we ever enjoy reading. But I don’t think you can separate the two.
So I want to see the words “with joy” tacked onto whatever skills are spelled out in existing standards. Think we’d see a change in classrooms if such qualifying words were part of how we measure success?
2) We present lessons that trigger a positive physiological response in the brain.
When we provide opportunities to move, engage multiple senses, and interact with peers while learning, the brain is able to process information efficiently and stay alert. It may even release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and motivation.
In contrast, if the brain becomes frustrated or feels “threatened” (e.g. “I can’t do this”), it immediately shuts down, going to the survival part of the brain. With repeated failure, the child then additionally creates a general brain map that says: I can’t learn. I’m not smart.
3) We present curriculum that parallels natural brain development.
For example, since there’s a growth spurt of dendrites in the right hemisphere during ages 4-6, we should be engaging these kids in activities that include lots of movement, music, creative thinking, fantasy and other activities reflective of the right side of the brain. We actually used to do that with our youngsters.
But without any research to back up the change, we switched to a left-brain focus (e.g. reading, writing) that begins as early as kids start school. Any surprise that so many children are now struggling?
4) We encourage and honor thinking over finding the “right” answer.
Not sure how getting it “right” ever came to rule in the classroom. But it’s a completely different learning environment when kids feel as though their ideas and reflections and questions are valued more than getting the correct answer.
Decades ago there was a “just say no” campaign against drugs. Well, how about parents “just say no” to stressful learning. Starting today, let’s make learning without joy . . . unacceptable, unpopular, offensive.
I’m lucky. I think learning is one of the most blissful experiences. That’s why it makes me sad that so many kids have no idea what I’m taking about.