Should we test for joy in schools?

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


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.

Image: Annie Spratt
Source: Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills

March 2nd, 2016


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    Discussion (5 Comments)

  1. Laura on March 3, 2016

    So inspiring to hear that emotions (particularly joy) are coming to the forefront in the discussion of education. In the management research field, we too try to measure emotions by either unobtrusive artifacts or through survey questionnaires. However the conclusions are never quite satisfying and seem to miss something essential. I appreciate your point about undoing parts of structures that may impinge on joy. I do believe there is a link between simplying and joy!

    1. Ingrid on March 3, 2016

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Laura! And I completely agree with you about the limitations of surveys!

  2. Sherry on March 4, 2016

    Perhaps we don’t really need to teach joy to kids, we need to learn it from them. We just need to get out of their way and let them be kids for some portion of the day. Not a structured recess, not team sports, not something that will get a grade or be evaluated, just . . . play. When I did the Artist’s Way with a group of grown women, the hardest thing for them to accomplish wasn’t the three pages of writing a day, but the play date, where they were encouraged to just go and . . . play! It’s hard to evaluate joy, and perhaps hard to teach it, but who doesn’t recognize it when they see it on the faces of those kids just being kids!

    1. Ingrid on March 6, 2016

      Agreed, Sherry!! Your comment made me picture a classroom with lots of adults in the desks and a kid teacher up at the front. But then in that case they wouldn’t be in a classroom at all! We had a conversation about the play date awhile ago and I remember saying I needed to schedule it and you were like, “just go do it!” Sometimes play feels foreign if we haven’t done it in awhile. It’s a good thing to be reminded of – that play is something we let happen, not something we over engineer!

  3. Becky Blackhall on February 9, 2023

    This speaks to exactly what I am trying to do in the high school where I teach Interior Design. Largely inspired by your work (and the work of many others in a variety of joy rabbit holes I have been skipping down lately) I have been gathering research behind the power of color and joy in our educational environments and how I can ease our already overworked teachers in to adding simple, but effective, elements in their classrooms and in our halls so our school can look less like a place of incarceration and more like a place of INSPIRATION – as I think every school should provide.

    Much like the post of joy as a universal right, I feel students should have many moments of joy in their schools that can uplift them and contribute towards school becoming one of their safe spaces. Because kids who feel safe and feel joy are much likelier to feel comfortable which leads to higher engagements, better attendance and better academic performance.
    In a few weeks I am hoping to provide our teachers with what I’m calling the Joy in the classroom starter kit and will definitely be referencing many of your works and the works of those you feature.
    Thank you for the inspiration and for the continued joy I get from following you that keeps me motivated to do that little bit of extra for my students that is already going a long way in our relationship building – and providing a learning environment, at least in my own classroom , that kids WANT to be in.


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