George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Are Happiness and Learning Connected?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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We've all heard of the fight or flight response. We go into survival mode when threatened by something or someone. We either put up our dukes (literally or metaphorically) or take off running (literally or metaphorically). Students often go into survival mode when they feel threatened by an overwhelming cognitive task or confusing text, or when they are called on and don't know the answer, or are confronted or teased by another student (or a teacher!) Can one even learn in such a setting?

It's a question that deserves our full consideration.

As teachers, we also know that when students' affective filters or defenses are sky high, fight or flight responses will be modus operandi. A room full of defensive behaviors (withdrawn, angry) is a sad, unproductive place to teach and learn.

Now let's flip it and take a look at how much more we are able to learn when we are in harmony with the people and things in any given educational environment. Being in harmony means feeling safe, feeling valued and a necessary part a group, and in this case, a learning community.

Hearts and Minds in Sync

What does research show to be the opposite of the brain's fight or flight response? It shows that when we don't feel threatened at all, we have a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to new ideas and guidance from others -- the ideal learning scenario!

Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute Dr. David Rock says this:

"Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions. ...Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning."

Unfortunately, the hyper focus on standardized testing has gravitated many public schools so very far away from whole-child teaching and learning. Less time is spent on social-emotional, behavioral activities that help create and sustain an inviting and engaging classroom environment. And we know that to engage students in deeper learning -- those times we really stretch their thinking -- there is a certain vulnerability they must surrender to. It's a magical mix of willingness and curiosity. So how do we get them there?

Let's go back to Dr. David Rock:

"There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall."

In the Classroom

Of course this is great news from the research of Dr. Rock and others. So before challenging students with those high-level cognitive demands such as problem-solving, we need to cultivate a safe and harmonious learning environment that invites vulnerability and genuine inquiry. Here are a few essentials for doing that:

Essential #1: Be Sure to Community Build All Year Long. Routinely include strategies and activities in your lessons, such as Save the Last Word for Me, that allow students to express who they are, their thoughts and ideas, build relationships, and practice collaboration. This will help grow and maintain a feeling of emotional and intellectual safety in your classroom.

Essential #2: Design Group Guidelines Together. We have all felt fear (or some anxiety) when working in a group: Will they like me? Will my contributions be valued? It's important students have a say when creating the guidelines so they feel connected to and ownership of them. They will also be more on board with adhering to them. "One Speaker at a Time," "Respect all Ideas," "Listen With Your Whole Body" are valuable norms when students collaborate. Make suggestions but let them decide on wording for the norms.

Essential #3: Have Non-Negotiables. Along with classroom rules and procedures, students must know non-negotiables right out the gate. My biggest non-negotiable: name-calling. This resulted in an immediate consequence (a call to the Dean and/or removal from the classroom that day). We have to tackle such things as name-calling and teasing head on or else kids won't feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn.

Essential #4: Post Student Work Everywhere. This one is simple and easy. When displays of essays, poems, projects, and exams dominate the walls, there is a sense of belonging for the students in the room. When they look around and see their own writing and thinking, they certainly experience a higher level of comfort than if they see store-bought posters. That said, if informational posters are needed, ask your students to create them.

Now we'd love to hear from you! How have you developed your classroom to be an inviting, safe, and productive place to learn? Please share in the comment section below.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor

Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jim Shields's picture
Jim Shields
Big Picture Advisor, South Burlington, Vermont

I completely agree with the focus on happiness and engagement. And I appreciate the recommendations for creating an engaging classroom. However, I hesitate to say that posting student work is "simple and easy." I believe it requires the same level of thoughtfulness that any other form of communication requires. I too often see teachers simply paper the walls with student work as an affirmation to students, but then leave it up long past the point that anyone "sees" it anymore. Then it becomes the visual equivalent of "background noise" and students value it less, and thus value work on the walls less. Think of an art gallery with the same work on the walls every time you visit, or the prints that have been on the walls of your dentist's office for the past decade. As a teacher, if I want my students to value the work displayed, I need to make an intentional plan to change the displays to correspond with what is happening in the classroom, and to actually use the work to inform the classroom discussion. And when it ceases to have validity, change it up. I also believe that the way work is displayed sends a message as to its value, so it is important to hang it neatly and carefully in a location where it is easy to see. This approach will ensure that students see their work as a valuable contribution to the learning community. Thanks for an inspiring article.

Meagan's picture

I most definitely agree that both happiness and learning go hand in hand. I feel that what you put into the learning environment is exactly what you get out. Therefore, when the teacher creates a positive atmosphere and is optimistic about learning and encourages his/her students to be just as upbeat, that positive demeanor will exude from all who enter. As I've seen from some of the other fellow bloggers, happy students=happy teachers!

Lisa's picture
Mom of 4 multiple aged students, Masters Student

I also agree that happiness and learning go hand in hand. When students want to go to school because of the positive experiences that they have there, it is a win-win situation for students and teachers alike. When a teacher desires to get to school to excitedly deliver his or her planned out and reflected upon lessons, it provides a positive atmosphere for all involved. Great thoughts!

Anna's picture

I agree, Lisa! Happy Students = Happy Teachers! As teachers, we need to create an environment where our students feel secure because this will bring interest and learning.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Love this! Full of truth!

I would throw in: "Add humor whenever possible " as a way to keep a classroom happy and productive. In my own experience, if I can make my students laugh? I own them :-) They are now ready to learn.

Jane Allison's picture
Jane Allison
Computer Technology Teacher

I thoroughly agree on the value of building happiness in our school community. Sorry.. Didn't realize this posted 3 times. Here's my dilemma. I teach in a K and 1 school with about 400 students. My duty at dismissal time involves calling the bus numbers over the loudspeaker. Rather than be dry and boring with this, I have been interjecting things like, "did you have a great day today?" And "give yourselves a 10-finger woo!" On Fridays I say, "it's our favorite day of the week! Are you ready to sing?" And I play a 30-second clip of a kid's song, "I'm so happy it's Friday." The kids love it. The trouble is a handful of teachers feel this is disruptive and don't want me to do any "fluff." I reached the last straw yesterday when one of them came to me and said it is wrong to teach young children that Friday is our favorite day of the week. We should be saying, "we can't wait to see you back on Monday" instead. It sucked the joy right out of me, and in response I just called the bus numbers and nothing else. I wanted to cry when kids and teachers alike came and said, "why didn't you play the Friday song?" I'm just wondering what other teachers think about this. How would you respond if you were me?

Cathryn Hudson's picture
Cathryn Hudson
Project manager, Conscious Dimensions LLC.

Stick to it! You are spreading joy, joyous communication. let those grumpy folk get over it. I think it means more that there were those teachers who asked "where did the joyous communication go?". Love you for doing this! keep it up!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Jane-

You wrote: " I reached the last straw yesterday when one of them came to me and said it is wrong to teach young children that Friday is our favorite day of the week. We should be saying, "we can't wait to see you back on Monday" instead. It sucked the joy right out of me, and in response I just called the bus numbers and nothing else. I wanted to cry when kids and teachers alike came and said, "why didn't you play the Friday song?" I'm just wondering what other teachers think about this. How would you respond if you were me?"

While I don't know about the culture of your school, I think this is something worth talking about as a learning community. Do you have PLCs or CFGs that could be used as a mechanism for further discussion? Could it be part of a faculty meeting conversation? Have you discussed it with your administrator? There may be a way to arrive at a win-win, with a balance between what others would call "fluff" and what you would call "fun." (And there's no reason you can't say both "hooray it's Friday!" and "We can't WAIT to see you again on Monday!")

Let us know what happens, okay- but don't just be sad. Use this as a platform for a conversation about how you all can work together to build community.

Good luck!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

One of the interesting things about long-term happiness is that it really depends on healthy relationships between all the participants involved. That's why Essential #1 is so important. Well, they're all important, but community building and SEL are the starting places--they prepare the ground for happiness in the classroom.

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