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Why Schools Fail

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What would it take to ensure
joyful learning in the classroom?

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.

2 Responses to “Why Schools Fail”

  1. baker says:

    This article strikes a chord with me. As a parent of a child who was coming home from school without joy (asking me if there was a school that taught the way he learned), I can speak first-hand about the necessity of joy combined with learning. I found an amazing program that changed my son’s outlook on school. The difference was JOY. This school program put love for learning back into my son’s school life. He began to thrive. He came home feeling good about himself and his abilities. His teacher focuses on each child’s learning style and infuses joy along the way. I agree one-hundred percent with this article. There are programs out there that bring joy and learning together….don’t settle for anything less.

  2. [...] How do you make learning joyful? (See Why Schools Fail for a list of ways to do this.) But what if your school doesn’t allow parent input for teacher [...]

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