Back in March I published a post titled, “Now some schools are testing kids for their ‘grit’ and ‘joy’ levels. Really.” For years we’ve heard of schools viewing “grit” as a character strength and moving to measure how much grit students have while attempting to build it up in those deficient. Now one of the co-authors of that post is back with a piece on a similar effort with “joy” — and why this effort to elicit joy in students is not authentic social-emotional learning but instead counterproductive.

This was written by Joan Goodman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania who has served as a director of the school’s Teach for America program. Goodman is a psychologist who has spent her career combining applied psychology with teaching. She is also an expert in moral education and she studies the practices and moral underpinnings of school discipline and authority in classrooms.

This appeared on the EduShyster blog of Jennifer Berkshire, a freelance journalist and public education advocate who worked for six years editing a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts. She gave me permission to republish this piece.

By Joan Goodman

“No excuses” charter schools face a teaching predicament.

Their long school day/year with few diverting extracurricular activities and heavily rule-governed pedagogy is tough on students. Inevitably, strict behavior restrictions, aimed not just at controlling common misbehaviors but also behaviors that might lead to misbehavior, result in a gulf between student desires and teacher demands.

To close the gulf and avoid constantly admonishing students, charter management organizations have layered onto their culture an expectation that learning is to be approached joyously. Indeed, joy has been elevated to a central value at many charter management organizations (CMOs).

The j-factor

Uncommon Schools promotes “joy” as one of its five values; Democracy Prep advertises a “joyous culture” with enthusiasm as one of its DREAM values; Mastery lists “joy and humor” among its nine core values; and Achievement First includes the child’s joy in its assessments of student progress. Success Academy says that, along with rigor, its schools stress “humor (joy) … making achieving exhilarating and fun!”

Meanwhile, KIPP includes joy’s close cousin, “zest,” as one of the seven character strengths on its Character Growth Card. Chicago’s Noble Network has likewise embraced “zest.” According to Doug Lemov, a major source of CMO pedagogy, the Joy Factor, one of his 49 essential techniques, is “a key driver not just of a happy classroom but of a high-achieving classroom. … [People] work harder … when their work is punctuated regularly by moments of exultation and joy.”

When I began visiting no-excuses schools, I was struck by the striking juxtaposition of teachers presiding over silent class periods during which children diligently followed instructions, only to interrupt them periodically with the demand for reciprocal clapping, rhymed motivational cheers, and choral responses that seemed more appropriate to an athletic or marching event than an academic environment. The effort of schools to whoop up excitement appeared artificial and disingenuous given the often tedious tasks students were assigned, and the passive/receptive role they were, for the most part, expected to assume.

The intentional artifice is particularly clear in teacher training videos, when leaders such as Lemov, or Doug McCurry of Achievement First, talk about how teachers must be skilled at quickly turning arousal on and quickly turning it off so that it serves its purpose — aiding their academic objectives. Stimulating this shallow “joy” is, then, just another control technique designed to foster high achievement. Joy has become a “character strength,” like grit, because of the results it produces, not for its own sake.

Just add sparkle

To elicit joy, the CMOs use emotional arousal techniques such as choral chanting, finger snapping, and gestural sequences. For instance, to lend “sparkle” to a lesson, Lemov advocates the Vegas Technique. This entails breaks from instruction, as brief as 30 seconds, for a ritualized routine loosely associated with the lesson. Students might, for example, do an action-verb shimmy, clap a routine to accompany a pronoun, or perform a vocabulary word charade.

Achievement First’s McCurry advises teachers to plan “joyous interludes” by using four chants accompanied with gestures and 10 cheers per class. One chant, for example, is: “Hey hey hey, I feel all right,” followed with a stomp. The phrase is repeated with two stomps, then three stomps and finished off with: “I feel motivated to learn. And graduate college.”

KIPP defines chanting as a key component of “KIPPnotizing,” the process by which students come to identify with the school and its culture. As a student-family handbook from KIPP Triumph Academy in St. Louis, a middle school, explains:

Chanting at KIPP Triumph begins in summer school, where all new students learn a series of school-wide chants. For fifth-graders, learning to chant their multiplication tables during summer school is an essential part of their KIPPnotizing. Since many of our students arrive so far below grade level, they often have significant deficits in terms of their multiplication facts. However, when set to a chant, students — even our most struggling students — are able to learn all of their times tables in a few weeks.

The following jingles from KIPP are illustrative:

A is for audacious

What could be wrong with teachers using stomps, chants and “sparkle” as a means of generating “joy” in their students? For one, the chants, like those from KIPP, have little to do with learning and less to do with education; indeed, they may work against it. Education is not recitation; it is becoming knowledgeable and curious about our human heritage — physical and cultural — about the properties of the universe from atoms to galaxies, about the heights and depths of civilizations, about current threats to the biosphere and the dignity of living beings. History is a dramatic story of events and dilemmas, brave and principled heroes, vain and villainous deeds that should stir reason and emotions. Claps and jingles get in the way of this pursuit. A better antidote to low interest is a fascinating rather than fast-paced, even frantic lesson.

Emotional manipulation?

But there is something more disturbing at work here than abetting memorization rather than deeper learning. Educators at no-excuses schools assume the authority to manufacture emotional states in students in the service of academic achievement, while at the same time disallowing genuine emotional states — anger for example — when they interfere with teaching. They stimulate “joy” so that their students will greet the strict codes of discipline and daunting academic expectations at these schools with eagerness and excitement.

But genuine joy cannot be canned or imposed. As C.S. Lewis described it, true joy is experienced as descending upon us, stabbing us unexpectedly; unlike pleasure, it is not in our power to procure. Real joy must come from within. While it is possible to set the stage for a joyous experience, it is inauthentic, even manipulative, to demand, regulate, and use “joy” to improve a test score or make students pliant to authority figures.

That is not to say schools shouldn’t plan for fun, have games, skits, songs as a release from work, or sometimes to facilitate rote learning. It is also true that through such activities there is important social learning and opportunities for inventiveness. But that is qualitatively different from stimulating a culture that imposes bursts of joy, excitement, zest. The harder, more essential, task is to stimulate genuine intrinsic interest in students rather than externally induced transient excitement. We’ve known since Piaget that without significant and authentic input from students themselves, without engagement through interaction, learning will be a collection of evanescent bits and pieces, hardly joyous.