A Joyful Learning Environment

When I applied to be WES’s head of school I did a fair amount of research including reading articles about WES, looking at the school’s website, and talking with several current and alumni families. Of all the information I gathered, I remember being struck by a line in the school’s mission statement, “We believe that learning should be joyful because academic achievement and happy children belong together.” Besides the simple elegance of the sentence, I felt the impact and importance of the articulated concept—when education is done correctly students are excited and passionate about learning, and there is a shared sense of enjoyment between the teacher and student in that experience. While we have since updated the school’s mission statement, joy remains at the center of our work–“WES inspires academic and personal achievement within a joyful learning environment to develop students who are kind, confident, and prepared.”

This summer I read quite a bit about joy, its impact on learning and the various ways educators can create joyful learning environments. I shared selections of this research with our students during my All-School Opening Chapel talk. I started off by asking our students what joy meant to them. Two of the three students who shared their thoughts stated that to them, joy meant having fun. On the surface this answer may seem correct, but I went on to explain that there is a key difference between fun and joy. The example I used to highlight this difference was about how runners while running a 5K, 10K, or a marathon frequently are not having fun in the moment. They are sometimes in pain and often pushing themselves with each step. However, once they have completed the run and realized their accomplishment, most runners are filled with a profound sense of joy. We have either experienced it ourselves or have seen photographs of runners breaking down in tears or emphatically raising their hands in celebration. Joy is much deeper than fun–it is actually much deeper than happiness as well. Joy involves meaning, passion, and connections and is internally triggered, unlike happiness which frequently depends upon external factors to exist.

Creating joyful learning environments is a community undertaking. The educators and administrators, the students, and the parents all have a role to play. The educators and administrators are responsible for creating safe, nurturing, and vibrant classrooms; making connections with students and helping students make connections to the content; providing engaging and meaningful learning experiences; and supporting students’ academic and personal growth. The students are responsible for coming to school every day with an open mind and with curiosity, having a positive outlook and keeping negativity at bay, and respecting their own and their peers’ learning environments. Parents are responsible for helping our children see the joy in a variety of venues and activities–especially, not in material things, but in their accomplishments, their experiences, and their relationships.

This year, as a school community, we are going to double-down on joy. We know that optimal learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interests, and experiences. And we know joy helps children develop compassion, empathy, and kindness. All things we could use more of in this world.