Should we test kids for joy? It might sound like an absurd question, but it’s becoming an important one as schools increasingly focus on what they call social-emotional skills like self-control, empathy, resilience, grit, and even joy. Isolated efforts to cultivate these attributes in students have been in schools for years, but they’ve gathered momentum in the wake of a 2011 study that linked social-emotional learning to improved academic outcomes. Now, a change to federal education law is requiring states to include at least one non-academic measure when they evaluate schools’ performance. As a result, the New York Times reported this week that districts are experimenting with ways to teach these virtues in the classroom and measure the results.
On the positive side, I want to say “Huzzah!” to any effort that considers the emotional side of a kid’s learning, not just the facts and figures needed to pass endless rounds of standardized testing. And I was happy to see joy on the list as a potential social-emotional skill. We rarely think of joy as something that can help us achieve great things in our lives, and yet research shows that joy promotes exploration and engagement with the world, enhances creativity, and increases our likelihood to connect with others. So I find it hopeful to think we might one day see educators being as responsible for nurturing a joyful mindset as they are for conveying the basics of math and reading. But as lovely as that idea is in theory, the reality is more troubling.
As the article points out, social-emotional skills are notoriously hard to measure. There’s a lot of controversy about how to test for these attributes, and how much responsibility falls on the teacher vs. the student. One fear is the potential for “blaming the victim,” suggesting that “if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools.” Another is the risk of excusing “uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop ‘zest,’ or enthusiasm.” A noted expert in the field, Angela Duckworth, whose particular focus on grit is the subject of her forthcoming book, actually resigned from the board of a group in California overseeing one of these initiatives because she didn’t believe there were reliable ways to measure social-emotional performance.
When it comes to joy in particular, I’m left wondering a deeper question. Before we start testing, is joy something we can even teach? On one hand, I feel strongly that yes, there are ways to learn how to be more joyful, and many adults would benefit from spending time learning (or re-learning) these approaches. (Some of what I do on this blog, at times, is “teach” joy, by sharing ideas for how to bring more of it into your life.) But most children are born joyful. They giggle easily and play naturally, turning ordinary objects into toys and everyday situations into games. It’s the structure of the classroom, the emphasis on rote memorization and long periods of sitting still over multi-sensory stimuli and animated exploration that shuts this joyfulness down. Through this lens, it’s kind of mind-blowing that we might think we need to “teach joy” in schools. Creating more joy isn’t about shunting a joy curriculum into the existing system. It’s about undoing a lot of the existing structures that repress joy, to enable it to flourish. Before we try to test for joy, or teach joy, what we really need to do is just let it happen.