by Julia Steiny
Recently an early childhood educator got me and several hundred other people beautifully primed for learning – in about five minutes, ten tops.
Maryann Finamore, the Director of the Westbay Children’s Center in Rhode Island, was our teacher. Granted, her technique would have grown old quickly with older audiences. But this once it worked like gangbusters for a crowd expected to absorb a lecture with 52 Powerpoint slides. No lie. I have the stack.
After the obligatory funder and sponsor intros, Finamore uttered the dreaded words, “Stand up and choose a partner.” Oy. I tell people I left California so I never again had to hug people I don’t know. I believe in highly-participatory educational activities, but for other people.
The woman sitting next to me and I exchanged frozen smiles, communicating an agreement to be good sports. Finamore explained that we’d learn a clapping game, one of many that older children no longer pass down to younger ones. Such traditions are now the province of formal education, if they’re maintained at all.
Among kids, the game is to go faster, gradually, until you’re going so fast, you mess up and burst into giggles. We adults would merely learn it. She demonstrated and then talked us through which hand connected with which of your partner’s.
A sailor went to sea, sea, sea
To see what he could see, see, see.
But all that he could see, see, see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea sea.
We learned it, practiced it once. And then an enormous lecture-hall-sized group of adults – politicians, educators, agency directors and God knows who else – clapped and sang our way through the ditty together.
Then the room erupted like newly-opened champagne. People laughed and applauded, partly from relief that our dignity had survived, also from the sheer fun of playing. As we settled into our seats again, I was keenly aware of my hit of dopamine, or whatever it is that tells you you’re feeling especially terrific.
I was profoundly ready to learn. Mentally refreshed, as only a good laugh can do. While everyone was getting settled, I marveled at the lack of research or public discussion about the importance of clearing the brain’s palate with a laugh, a break, a bit of fun. Surely kids would listen and participate more if their little pleasure principles had more frequent tastes of satisfaction.
I know two speakers who use memorably funny cartoons to make their points. Both lecture on really dreary subjects – child abuse and statistical research – but still make their audiences laugh.
Normally, however, in my grim work examining the painful realities of American children’s education and well-being, I don’t expect a lecture to have a moment of fun. Ms. Finamore made it look easy. I sat there in my laughter buzz, wishing I could get a similar sensation to every kid, every day, in every classroom.
One goal of education is to spark curiosity, wonder and a hunger for knowledge. How can that be done without pleasure? What would be the kids’ motive to stick with the subject at hand? No wonder all kids seem to care about is what’s going to be on the test. In a recent study, students say loud and clear that the work is too easy; but if it were merely harder, and not more fun, they’d just balk at doing it.
So exactly when in a kid’s school day might she be getting a hit of pleasure?
To find out, I scoured Rhode Island’s annual opinions-and-perceptions survey, called SurveyWorks. For years the state has been praised for having the nation’s best affective data, i.e., information submitted by parents, teachers, and kids about conditions that influence students’ ability to learn. The survey looks closely at bullying, for example, and delves into issues of school safety with multiple questions for all parties. It asks students about depression, wanting to hurt themselves, their drug and alcohol use. Important information, to be sure. But it largely examines negative conditions.
Where’s pleasure? Curiosity? Laughter?
Surely there’s some way of assessing fun. Like: In what class or activity are you most likely to laugh, have fun or get curious? It can be done. We can use surveys to find out more about what students are motivated to learn and why, what turns them on about academics and why.
Failure is not fun. An occasional hit of school-based fun would reduce failure.
And that which gets measured gets done. This has become a over-worn cliche. But all states, and especially the federal department of education, have put more and more and more emphasis on achievement-test scores. If tests help to close the drop-out factories and make it easier to shed ineffective teachers, fine. But a punitive, test-driven school culture – gotcha! – is not what’s making Finland’s kids kick butt in the international assessments.
Finland’s schools make a point of balancing pleasure and work. We could too. And actually, that country doesn’t measure either achievement or pleasure. If we measure the one, we owe it to the kids to measure the other. Then as schools compete for high scores on the pleasure scale, I bet we’ll see test scores rise as well.
We’ve made learning way too dreary.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.