Guest Annie Murphy Paul asks “Where’s the Joy in Learning?”

A school is not a desert of emotions,” begins an article by Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä, published last month in the journal Early Child Development and Care. But you’d never know that by looking at the scientific literature.

“In the field of educational psychology, research on feelings is lacking,” the authors note, “and the little that does exist has focused more on negative rather than positive feelings.” Rantala, the principal of an elementary school in the city of Rovaniemi, and Määttä, a professor of psychology at the University of Lapland, set out to remedy this oversight by studying one emotion in particular: joy.

The researchers followed a single class through first and second grade, documenting the students’ emotions with photographs and videos. Through what they call “ethnographic observation,” Rantala and Määttä identified the circumstances that were most likely to produce joy in the classroom. No doubt many pupils would agree with this example of their findings: “The joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches.”

Such teacher-centric lessons are much less likely to generate joy than are lessons focused on the student, the authors report. The latter kind of learning involves active, engaged effort on the part of the child; joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal. One of the authors’ videos shows seven-year-old Esko, tapping himself proudly on the chest and announcing, “Hey, I figured out how to do math!” A desire to master the material leads to more joy than a desire to simply perform well, Rantala and Määttä add: joy often accompanies “the feeling of shining as an expert.

 Likewise, the joy of learning is more likely to make an appearance when teachers permit students to work at their own level and their own pace, avoiding making comparisons among students. The authors recommend that children be taught to evaluate and monitor their own learning so they can tell when they’re making progress. Some pupils will take longer than others—as Rantala and Määttä write, “The joy of learning does not like to hurry.” Because joy is so often connected to finishing a task or solving a problem, they point out, allowing time for an activity to come to its natural conclusion is important. Granting students a measure of freedom in how they learn also engenders joy. Such freedom doesn’t mean allowing children to do whatever they want, but giving them choices within limits set by a teacher. These choices need not be major ones, the authors note: “For us adults, it makes no difference whether we write on blue or red paper, but when a student can choose between these options, there will be a lot of joy in the air.”

Not surprisingly, play was a major source of joy in the classroom Rantala and Määttä observed (even when that play was not exactly what a teacher would wish: the researchers’ video camera caught one student fashioning a gun out of an environmental-studies handout). “Play is the child’s way of seeking pleasure,” the authors write, and it is a learning activity in itself; it shouldn’t be viewed as “a Trojan horse” in which to smuggle in academic lessons. Lastly, sharing and collaborating with other students is a great source of joy. One of the authors’ videotapes shows a student reacting with pleasure when a classmate, Paavo, says, “You are so good at making those dolls!” The researchers conclude: “Joy experienced together, and shared, adds up to even more joy.”

Finland leads the world in its scores on international tests, and the country has become an educational model for many in the U.S. Rantala and Määttä’s paper is a welcome reminder that academic excellence can coexist with delight.

This column originally appeared on Annie Murphy Paul is the
author of the forthcoming book “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.”
To read more about scientific research on learning, visit her website:


Woo-Hoo! Annie Murphy Paul Appears in Our Blog!

After we pointed you toward Annie Murphy Paul’s “The Brilliant Blog” last week, we dropped her a line to let her know we admired her.  We were amazed when she not only sent a prompt and gracious reply but also generously offered to allow us to re-post one of her pieces that fits out mission perfectly.

If you are not familiar with Ms. Murphy’s work, here’s an introduction from her website:


“Annie Murphy Paul is a book author, magazine journalist, consultant and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributing writer for Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for, and also blogs about learning at,,, and She contributes toThe New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of The Cult of Personality, a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of Origins, a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, to be published by Crown in 2013.”

Check in Monday to see her thoughts on “Where’s the Joy in Learning?”


Clever Clip of the Week

August always brings a few things with it…..the extreme hot temperatures, small breaks in these temperatures to let you know fall is coming, football and high school marching bands start to practice, and the “smell” of back-to-school is in the air.  I would assume that most teachers eagerly look forward to the start of a new year.  It is a time to make a fresh start.  There might even be some excitement over trying a new strategy that was learned over the summer.  This is usually what I feel and enough to get me motivated to return back.  However, I always like to watch the following clip from Mr. Taylor Mali.  If you aren’t already fired-up and ready for a new year, then listen to what he has to say.

Wishing you the best of luck, the best of students, and a great 2012 – 2013 year!


Needled by Neatness

The topic following me around this week, jabbing at my ribs with her perfectly exfoliated and lubricated elbow, is Neatness.  Maybe it’s because the beginning of a new school year is the teacher’s equivalent of January 1 for inspiring resolutions. Perhaps it’s seeing all these tender new students with fresh books and high hopes that reminds us that we all face our personal uphill battles.  It could be that my office is a bigger mess than I had promised myself (again!) that it would be at the beginning of the term.  Whatever the reason, Neatness has been stalking me.

My desk on a pretty good day.

  • As I visited with my chair, Ted, we discussed possible etiologies for our shared “messy office” problem.  We discovered that we both had uber-neat mothers, and I have speculated that I am continuing a rebellion lasting 50 years and counting.  Ted thought that maybe his mother was such a good housekeeper that he never had the chance to practice neatness, or maybe he just realized he couldn’t compete and gave up.
  • My campus director, Allisha, a true master of logistics  and the most organized person I have ever met, confided that she really isn’t naturally neat.  She compares herself to her congenitally neat husband, Jason the IT superhero, who always puts everything in its perfectly ordered space.  I’m not sure that I believe Allisha’s self-evaluation, but I understand what it’s like to be a closet slob, literally.  My friends think my house is neat, but the truth is that my walk-in closets morph into “wade-in” closets the moment I relax my vigilant stance.  Just this morning I found an NBA preview magazine in the guest bathroom linen closet…and it was dated 2002-3.  Sigh.
  • My office mate Brian continues to taunt me with his desk.  Every day I arrive to see the vast expanse of pristine space, punctuated only by a bit of personal memorabilia, tastefully understated.  No papers, no crumbs….nothing.  Every day when I lock the door on my way out, same view.  Maddening.   But then,  he teaches English.

    Brian’s maddeningly neat desk. It always looks like this.

  • At lunch, at the copier, at meetings, I hear the same refrains, “My stuff is such a mess!  I wanted to be so much better organized by the start of the term.  My BlackBoard courses need reworking.  My syllabi are in shambles.”  And so it goes.  Almost everyone wants to be neater or more organized.

Does this have anything to do with pleasure in learning?  I believe it does.  My own experiences confirm that some of the pleasures targeted by this blog have ties to neatness.

  • When I open my sock drawer and see all those darlings sleeping in their little sock cribs, arranged by color and texture, I experience sensual pleasure. The socks are prettier in the drawer than on my feet.  My flotilla of bright scarves waving from their rings pleases me every time I get dressed.
  • Neatness is a good example of a (theoretically) achievable challenge.  I have established beachheads of tidiness in my kitchen utensil drawers, my labeled lab boxes, my online course materials. I’m far from perfect, but I’m better than I once was.
  • When I am more organized, I feel like part of an elite group: the mythical creatures who’ve Got It All Together.  I’m only half kidding. Research has shown that disorganized people often feel a sense of shame about their disarray.  “What research?”  you ask.  Read on for book recommendation.
  • Finally, when I am at least marginally in control of my environment, I feel that I own something of value.  I can dress faster and more easily when my clothes are organized.  I can work more efficiently when I can locate the files I need. My students have more time for learning when we can easily locate the models and slides we need.

    Items from my Lost Cause library.

The ever-growing self help section of my personal library has an entire shelf dedicated to the pursuit of neatness, a sad testament to my inability to conquer the problem once and for all.  I read faithfully and even had an extended flirtation with flylady.netUnclutter Your Life in One Week, It’s All Too Much, Messy No More!, and The NOW Principle all grace my shelves.

I recently discovered a different kind of book, one written just for me and my fellow slobs, be they proud or closeted (couldn’t resist) like me. In A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman discuss the hidden costs—in dollars, productivity, and angst—of the quest for neatness. Thumbing their literary noses at shelter mags, professional organizers, and (gasp!) The Container Store, they make convincing arguments for the connection between messiness and creativity, offering stories of real people who have accomplished great things despite, or perhaps because of,  being organizationally challenged.

All of this has left me pondering: do neat students learn more from neat teachers?  Are messy students more comfortable with messy instructors?  Does the way we manage our environments have a bearing on the quality of our teaching?  Tell us what you think. Better yet, send pics of your office!

Super Site of the Week

If our little blog ever grew up to a big blog, we hope it might look something like The Brilliant Blog by Annie Murphy Paul.  A quick visit to the blog today left us itching to read “When Co-Workers Should Ask You for Help–and When They Should Leave You Alone” and “Reading History Like a Historian.”  I probably need to sneak a peek at “Grammar Gaffes in the Workplace” as well, but that might be too painful. 

Then I noticed “Before Bed, A Math Problem” and “Do You Have a Rage to Learn?”  Hmm…I hope so…I’m pretty sure I used to have something like that.

Any science-of-learning junkie could spend a long time browsing this site.  This might be a great site to shop for new strategies for our classes, or just a jolt of energy for the start of a new academic year.  So we’re adding it to our blogroll.


May I Have Your Attention, Please?

At convocation today, some colleagues were reminiscing about their own former teachers and their methods for securing their students’ attention.  One remembered a teacher who threw a baseball at inattentive pupils.  Another recalled the whack of a meter stick on a desk.  I had a teacher who could emit a piercing whistle through his fingers.  We all remember the “hollerers.”

Not gifted with a booming voice?  Neither am I.  A colleague once shared that by the end of the first week of a new school year, she found herself physically tired from projecting her voice.  I could sympathize.  I don’t like to shout.  A shouting teacher sounds to me like a teacher who has lost both her students’ respect and control of her classroom.  And it just seems rude.

I seldom encounter disruptive students, and most episodes of excessive chattiness in the classroom seem to result from innocent obliviousness.  I usually deal with these situations by simply ceasing to speak.  Within a few seconds, all eyes turn to the talkers and other students typically do the “shushing” for me.  Rarely do I need to repeat this process.

A different–and happier–challenge to obtaining attention occurs more frequently.  Since I incorporate lots of group work into my classes, my lab can get a little noisy.  When I first began teaching, I tried raising my voice (didn’t work), clapping my hands (nope), and pounding on the table (more effective, but, again, rude).  I needed a way to help me transition from group collaboration back to focused attention on the instructor  more quickly, and I needed to do it in an inoffensive way.

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, right?  While browsing in Pier One for some of life’s essentials, I found this little gem in the sale bin.  It filled the bill perfectly….a little glitz, pleasant timbre, adequate decibels, portable, and, darn it, kinda cute.  Now when I need to muster the troops for the next step in a lab, to rotate stations, or to complete a pair-share activity, I just apply an energetic “ding-ding!”

The bell has become part of class culture. If I happen to be out of arm’s reach when I need the class’s attention, a student will often holler “Ding, ding!”  It works as well as the real thing every time.

I recently enjoyed  a piece on NBC news showing America’s top teacher in action, and I was delighted to see that she uses a bell much like mine.  She has gone beyond simply using it as an attention-getter, ringing it to celebrate correct responses.  Here’s Rebecca Mieliwocki  ringing her bell and firing up her class…and us!:

Do you have a way to get your students’ attention?  Share, please.


Is This Seat Taken?

I was perusing Science Daily this morning and was intrigued by “Strangers on a Bus: Study Reveals Length Commuters Go to Avoid Each Other.”  The study revealed strategies commuters use to preserve a free space on an almost-full bus, including lack of eye contact, using belongings as placeholders, and iPod “deafness.”  However, if the bus is completely full, the strategy changes to “Avoid the crazy person!”

With the first day of class approaching, I thought about some seat selection patterns in my classes.  One of the pleasures in learning that this blog explores is the pleasure of belonging to a group.  Both the fixed furniture arrangement—four long benches with one end of each attached to a wall—and the short eight-week accelerated term are challenges as I try to facilitate group formation and a sense of belonging for each class member.  Here are a few of my strategies:

  • Before classes begin, I send my students-to-be an email with some information, including the alert that “this is a full flight, so come early for best seat selection.”
  • On the first day, I make sure that I am in the room with jock rock playing as the students arrive.  I introduce myself to as many as I can as they enter and direct them to make name plates for their desks with the cards and Sharpies provided.
  • I try to take special notice of anyone hiding out on the back row. Some of these folks just like the back, but that position also tends to attract the less confident students and repeaters from another section of the class.  Sometimes, the back row also appeals to a pair of students who are already acquainted and may have chatty tendencies.
  • I try to identify any natural “connectors,”  the sort of person who is naturally friendly and begins group formation almost intuitively.
  • The demeanor of late arrivals can be particularly revealing….the saunter-in-like-start-time-is-flexible, the frantic-couldn’t-find-the-room, the frustrated couldn’t-get-through-the-military-base-gate, the hysterical-over-apologizer.
  • I always wonder about the empty seat whose potential occupant may or may not have notified me ahead of time, and which may or may not be filled on the second day.
  •  I point out that seats are not assigned and are not personal territories by virtue of planting one’s notebook upon them.  (This became part of my schtick after a long-absent student staged a return visit and confronted the student who had occupied “her” seat!)  Nevertheless, after the first day, most students have begun to identify with their table group, and relocations are infrequent.
  • For students who are repeating the course to improve their grade, I schedule a conference to discuss how they can be more successful the second time around.  I always suggest moving to the front row.  While many are skeptical or uncomfortable about doing this, every successful repeater has told me how much it has helped to move closer to the front, and several have said that they have moved to the front in other classes with good results.

Now that I have really considered the role of student seat selection in my classes, I plan to see what else I can learn through observation.  Do you have anything to share on the topic?  Please let us know.