Sparking Joy in History Classrooms, pp. 5 of 10

Embracing Broader Purposes for Education

If we move toward embracing joy as a fundamental element in teaching and learning, it requires moving away from the obsession with exam preparation, test results, international comparisons on PISA (as indicators of educational success) and prescribed or transmissive modes of education. Rather than view education as mainly serving economic ends, and of civic education to socialize students into narrow avenues of national affiliation, we might view education as more broadly developing human potential. Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2013) suggest a capabilities approach to broaden conceptions of education through the lens of human flourishing. Education for human flourishing would emphasize the development of capacities for imagination, thought and the senses (e.g., in the arts), multiple notions of affiliation (e.g., the many ways of belonging and participating in social life), and greater agency and political control over one's environment (whether in the workplace or as a citizen).

The American educational philosopher, John Dewey (1932) challenged teachers to cultivate students’ capacities for joy and happiness by having students focus on what they could do to improve society and the conditions of others (Fishman & McCarthy, 2010). This required students to focus on social problems, to be critical of current social conditions, and to work toward helping others and social improvement. Dewey (1932) believed that “Education should create an interest in all persons in furthering the general good, so that they will find their own happiness realized in what they can do to improve the conditions of others” (p. 243).

It matters, then, what kinds of educational experience we design for students. King, Newmann, and Carmichael (2015) offer a framework of authentic intellectual work to guide pedagogy and student performance in ways that meet some of the criteria for joyful educational experience outlined above (e.g., a strong sense of purpose to guide learning, meaningful learning tasks, autonomy, engagement in activity at the edge of one’s skills, and learning that enables one to develop their own skills, understandings, and self-fulfillment while benefiting others). Authentic intellectual work emphasizes disciplined inquiry, the construction of knowledge, and the value of students’ work beyond school. This framework requires teachers to design rich tasks around challenging problems or questions, to guide student autonomy in investigating these problems, and ensure that student work has value beyond school or an impact on others, rather than simply be considered for success in school (i.e., for grades).

The pursuit of joy cannot be construed as only an individual experience. Instead, joy in classrooms can be a collective experience, and as noted by the Education Ministers and the scholars cited above, it involves rigor, challenge, a focus on problems. Paradoxically, joy comes from struggle, by confronting reality and investigating problems, by working together to manage the challenges of authentic intellectual work, and by not being satisfied with current conditions or by imagining new possibilities. But, what might this look like in history classrooms? Next, we explore some suggestions that we hope might spark joy in history classrooms.

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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