Joy in Learning

This is an explanation of how to have students want to do quality work.

Joy is ever changing. What is thrilling at one age is infantile at another. The joy of sharing, so prevalent at a young age, gives way at a later age to the satisfaction of doing something well. With older students, joy that comes from learning is not necessarily accompanied by joyful sounds or even smiling faces. It is often manifest in a more serious expression like that of the scholar so engrossed in the activity as to be oblivious of surroundings. Most teachers have experienced this joy of learning, and they want to pass it on to their students. Focusing on quality is a natural approach to achieving this objective.

Quality is what makes learning a pleasure and a joy. A quality experience hooks a student on learning. Sometimes mastery is hard work. However, when there is joy in learning, it does not seem like hard work because it feels good. A student will spend hours on the basketball court, working up a sweat while he practices a particular shot. Yet it is not thought of as hard work. When a person wants to do something, the labor seems incidental. Quality work involves exertion, but it may even seem like fun. The adage to remember is that people produce quality when they enjoy what they are doing.

When people are engaged in quality work, a few indicators can be observed. People choose to be engaged in the activity; it is meaningful to them. The work involves some creativity and skill and involves more than a simple task; it is usually complex. The activity results in some success. Personal control is present. Self-assessment is involved. The engagement in the task is not perceived as being coercive. Oftentimes, the activity is not perceived as stressful; it may even feel relaxing.

Starting on the Process

Quality in learning is influenced by the quality of the process. An investment of time in which the student discusses quality actually raises quality. This fosters a sense of ownership, which is so critical to quality work. Students of every age can be so engaged, but it takes more than just announcing a desire for quality. A sense of purpose needs to be established. A discussion of the following questions assists in this regard:

Why are we here?
What are we trying to do?
What does it mean to do something well?
How will we know if we are doing it well together?

When students move from the child development emphasis in primary grades to one of greater accountability in upper grades, a need for students to evaluate their own work is critical. Therefore, the first few sessions of the class should be devoted to a discussion of each of the following topics:

What does it mean to do work with quality?
How will each student know a quality level has been attained?
How will the teacher know a quality level has been attained?
What does the student need to do in order to attain the level?
What can the teacher do to help students attain the level?
How will a third party be assured that the level had been attained?

These discussions prompt students to examine their own objectives regarding what they can gain from the learning, rather than just engaging in activities for the usual external reward of a grade and the external evaluation by the teacher. The result of such discussions is that during the remainder of the semester student enthusiasm and drive increase so that the students learn much more. What one may think of as lost time becomes more than regained.

A class consensus regarding the importance of what is to be learned is helpful. This is especially important since there are mandated subjects and mandated tests. The objective of the teacher is to kindle the workings of peer influence for the learning process. As mentioned, the investment in the process is worth the time because students become so much more motivated. With increased motivation, students learn much more than if they had not been involved in discussing the curriculum and what is necessary to attain quality.

Once students are persuaded that the contents of the course are worth their time and effort, discussion focuses on how the learning is to take place. This discussion revolves around such subjects as follows:

Testing: How often? What kind? How to evaluate? What is the purpose?
Homework: Why? How often? When?
Evaluation: How will we know how we are doing? Against what shall we make comparisons (benchmarks)?
Class Management: How do we make ourselves most efficient?
Documentation: How shall we persuade others that we have really done a good job?

The purpose of these discussions is to have students become more involved in their own learning-to persuade themselves to become responsible for their own education. These discussions facilitate this process.

Once some students have tasted the joy of learning they may not want to return to something inferior. But other students need to be constantly engaged in order to be wedded to academic learning. Teachers must ever be alert to engage the students in discussions of what constitutes a quality experience. The negotiations and discussions are continual.

Teaching vs. Learning

The quality of the learning experience depends upon how the teaching and learning processes are managed. The following illustrates the difference between learning and teaching: The dog owner says, “Last Wednesday I taught my dog to whistle. I really did. I taught him to whistle. It was hard work. I really went at it very hard, and I taught him to whistle. Of course, he didn’t learn, but I taught him.”

Recognizing that it is not teaching but learning which determines the quality of education, it is evident that learning depends upon how enthusiastically the students tackle their assignments. For example, over the years teachers have learned how much homework students will tolerate and have adjusted assignments to this level of toleration. To get students to do more, teachers have employed “carrot and stick” approaches. By a combination of rewards and threats, we have tried to force students to do homework-often tying it to a grade. The students, in return, have done their best to outwit the teacher. To change the situation requires harnessing the internal motivation of students. The key to harnessing that internal motivation is participation. Research has shown that participation with others may stimulate the brain to release “feel good” chemicals such as endorphin and dopamine. Positive feedback from working with others may be the single most powerful influence on the brain’s chemistry.

Collaboration and Quality

W. Edwards Deming, the teacher who brought quality to the workplace, clearly showed the advantages of collaboration over competition for improved quality work. Traditional approaches believed that if quality were increased then costs would surely rise. Deming showed-by using collaboration-how quality work would increase while costs simultaneously were reduced. Using collaboration to improve quality, Dr. Deming brought Japan, from a reputation of producing cheap and shoddy products, to becoming the world’s leader in producing quality products. Collaboration-the antithesis of individual competition that is so prevalent in our schools-became the overriding approach. Along with diminished competition, the use of exhortations, threats, prizes, and special rewards for doing what people are supposed to do were also reduced. In a nutshell, Deming showed the world that, for improved quality work, working collaboratively is better than working competitively.

The key to quality learning is to structure student interaction for maximum participation. For example, a common approach to starting a lesson is to ask students a question, which infers a right answer. Students compete for the teacher’s attention by raising their hands. Using this approach, the only winner becomes the person whom teacher calls upon. In a primary class, one can hear the sound of disappointment of those who were not called on. Instead of this approach of asking a question and then calling on a single person, pose the question. Posing-in contrast to asking-infers open-endedness, invites students to engage in thought, and engenders dialog. Have students collaborate in pairs or small groups for responses. When collaboration is used, then all the students participate. Also, notice that students first grapple with the idea or concept. This approach of challenging students at the outset is the approach used so effectively in Japanese schools. When curiosity is fostered before presenting information, student interest and motivation are increased. In addition, by structuring learning activities to be primarily collaborative, learning becomes noncompetitive-an essential principle for increased quality.

Here is another example of how collaboration improves quality of learning. A high school student accustomed to above-average test scores was disappointed in her last two test results. The student had grasped the prime concepts but did not do well on reporting details. The teacher told the students that in order to place concepts in long-term memory, details need to be remembered. The student’s father suggested that, as the daughter reads, she should illustrate what she was reading. The daughter, being in high school, thought that illustrating was too juvenile. The father explained that when the brain attempts to remember words, semantic pathways to memory are being used. Semantic pathways require much repetition in order to be retained. On the other hand, he explained, when the brain attempts to remember illustrations, it uses episodic pathways that require little, if any, repetition. Episodic pathways are contextual or spatial and always involve location. The father, to make his point, asked his daughter what she ate for dinner the previous Saturday and requested that, as she answers, to relate her thinking process out loud. The daughter responded by saying, “Where was I last Saturday?” “Exactly the point! You looked for a location because we are always somewhere, and we remember through images,” said the father. “This is the reason it is easier to remember illustrations and pictures in contrast to remembering information from textbooks and lectures which usually involve only words.” After the explanation, the daughter suggested to two of her friends that they also illustrate their next reading assignment and share their illustrations. All three met and discussed their illustrated notes. During the discussion, each became aware of a few additional details that the others had included. Their test scores dramatically increased. Although the strategy of illustrations assisted, it was the contributions shared through collaboration that made the activity not only enjoyable but also so successful in attaining higher test scores.

Continuous Improvement

Deming’s overriding theme was continuous improvement through continuous evaluation. This model calls for a framework that allows those closest to the task to have ownership of the task. Ownership is critical to quality because the driving force is self-evaluation-rather than outside inspection. Deming understood that motivation, productivity, and quality work cannot be legislated. They come from intrinsic motivation.

Schools generally use the old factory approach to evaluation. Before Deming showed the superiority of self-evaluation for improved quality work, American managers hired inspectors to inspect the work of their employees. Quality did not really improve; rather, the poor quality work just did not get out. Costs went up because items that did not pass inspection were discarded.

Dr. Deming told me that when he went to Western Electric in the 1920’s there were 30,000 people making telephone sets and 10,000 people inspecting their work. The job of the workers was to get their product past the inspectors, and the job of the inspectors was to catch them if they did something wrong. This is no way to reduce cost. It is no way to achieve improved telephones. It is no way to work. (Personal communication with Myron Tribus.)

Rather than use this outdated factory model of the teacher as inspector at the end of the learning process, improved quality work results if continuous improvement and continuous feedback are built into the learning process. It is learner-generated feedback which increases motivation and which is so critical to improved quality of work. When we are pleased with our efforts, especially when we see improvement, we invest more effort. Improvement comes through self-evaluation, practice, and more evaluation. The better the quality of our work, the more we are pleased and the more we engage in the activity.

Collaborative Evaluation

Stephen Covey, in his provocative book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, refers to the concept of collaboration as “synergy.”

Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship that the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.” (pp. 262-263)

Collaborative evaluation is an integral component of synergy. Collaborative evaluation enhances success, perpetuates a positive learning atmosphere, and raises quality.

Teachers who employ collaborative evaluation methods promote quality because students become more involved in assessing their own work, which results in greater retention of subject matter and improved attitudes toward learning. Interpersonal relations and understandings are also enhanced. Students learn that others’ ideas and feedback can contribute to one’s success and that having a different perspective and even a different background is of benefit. Due to the interchange of ideas, collaborative evaluation also improves both listening and expression skills-oral as well as written.

The brain is innately social and collaborative. Although the processing takes place in our individual brains, learning is enhanced when the environment provides opportunities to discuss thinking out loud and to bounce ideas off peers. The act of shared thinking, of having to put one’s own views clearly to others, of finding defensible compromises and conclusions, is evaluative and, therefore, educative.

Teachers’ workloads can be reduced, while simultaneously increasing the quality of student work, by applying approaches of collaborative evaluation through feedback. For example, assume the assignment has to do with writing an essay. After an assignment is given, but before it is started, students pair with each other and then share their understanding of the assignment. Then the procedure of “three before me” is explained, which is that before the teacher corrects any paper, it will have been seen by one other student three times. (A variation is to have the work seen by three different people and may include someone other than a classmate. A parent qualifies.) After the original oral sharing of ideas, each student writes a first draft that is exchanged with another student. Each student gives feedback to the other. A second draft is then written, again with each student giving the other feedback. The final copy is then completed and submitted to the teacher.

As a general principle for quality work, a first draft should never be considered a final draft. The story is told about Henry Kissinger who submitted a report when he first started working for the government. His supervisor inquired if the report was his best work. Kissinger worked on the report for an additional two days fine-tuning it and giving the report greater clarity before resubmitting it. Again, a similar inquiry was forthcoming, “Is this the best you can do?” The report was worked on for an additional day. After further revisions, Kissinger submitted his work with some anger and confidence asserting that the report was the best he could do. His supervisor said, “Good! Then I will read it.”


Although competition can serve as in incentive to improve performance, it can have a negative effect on learning. This is especially the case where success, not defeat, is so necessary when first learning a skill. Competition can also have a deleterious effect because some students find themselves rarely winning, thereby decreasing their motivation. In addition, the focus becomes one of winning or getting the prize, often at the expense of the joy of learning and quality work.

Learning is greatest when people work with each other—not against each other. Collaboration and focus on continual improvement result in improved quality work because of continual self-assessment and feedback. Finally, because the focus is on learning, in contrast to a focus on teaching, this participatory learning strategy can also reduce teachers’ workloads.