Sparking Joy in History Classrooms

“Joy spreads. Joy provides strength to a learner to face and surpass difficult situations.”
(Rantala, Ukusiautti & Määttä, 2016, p.23)

Introduction

In 2017, then-Minister of Education, Ng Chee Meng emphasized the need for joy of learning in schools. In his parliamentary speech, he commented, “We believe in nurturing the joy of learning so that every child can discover his interests, grow his passions, and love what he is doing. School should not just be about doing well in exams. It should be an exciting place to acquire knowledge and skills, where learning is fun and with the necessary rigour” (Ng, 2017, para. 11). For him, the joy of learning is not merely about having fun in the classroom; it should be balanced with academic rigour. Since then, this has become the prevailing view of the Ministry of Education (MOE) Singapore, and reinforced by the current Minister, Ong Ye Kung in the 2018 Schools Workplan Seminar:

We know that students derive more joy in learning when they move away from memorisation, rote learning, drilling and taking high-stakes exams. Very few students enjoy that. It is not to say that these are undesirable in learning; quite the contrary, they help form the building blocks for more advanced concepts and learning, and can inculcate discipline and resilience. But there needs to be a balance between rigour and joy, and there is a fairly strong consensus that we have tilted too much to the former. Our students will benefit when some of their time and energy devoted to drilling and preparing for examinations is instead allocated to preparing them for what matters to their future (Ong, 2018, para. 29-31).

If we take the Education Ministers at their word, Singapore’s education system will undergo a profound shift away from the primary emphasis on academic results to one that endeavors to instill joy of learning. Calling this new phase of the education system “learn for life,” Minister Ong declared that it is time to focus on “the true spirit of learning” so that education can be “both an uplifting and integrating force” by helping people develop “the skills and knowledge to lead dignified lives, fulfil their aspirations and contribute to society” (Ong, 2018, para. 2). Nurturing joy in learning would entail encouraging students to identify their interests, develop their passions, and focus more on intrinsic motivation than on extrinsic factors, like exam scores.

We might ask why the Ministry is calling for this turn toward joy of learning. It might be due to growing concerns about the “heavy costs” of an intensely competitive and instrumental education system (to produce a productive workforce), and the impact this has on children’s well-being and flourishing in other areas of life (How, 2015). This is a very real concern. However, this turn to joy of learning is also not unique to Singapore; such interventions are being introduced in education systems around the world (Ciarrochi, Atkins, Hayes, Sahdra, & Parker, 2016). For Ahmed (2010), these developments are part of the “happiness turn,” evidenced by the happiness industry (e.g., the slate of popular works on happiness, joy, well-being, etc.), the positive psychology movement and greater emphasis on positive education (e.g., see Seligman, 2011; World Government Summit, 2017). Ahmed (2010) argues that happiness and joy are often instrumentalized as techniques to shape people’s views and behavior through positive means and reconfigure policies that have focused on economic growth at the expense of happiness. While we believe a focus on joy of learning opens new possibilities for teaching and learning, we also don’t want it to conceal fundamental problems in education or society. An increased emphasis on joy in schooling shouldn’t be used to brush away legitimate complaints, grievances, or discontent. Paying attention to and addressing what causes students and teachers despair, dissatisfaction and anger can be productively channeled and serve as powerful drivers for real educational and social change.  .  

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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