Motivated by Joy: Hooray For Monday!

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 

What does it look like when a student is motivated by joy? Joy in learning – fueled by curiosity or fascination or determination – happens all the time in young people’s lives:

  • A toddler figuring out how to walk, joyfully and determinedly tests her balance with each step, and pulls herself back up to her feet after each fall to her bottom. 
  • A child learning to ride a bike, finds his way with each push of the pedal, persevering through skinned knees and falls in order to experience the excitement of staying upright and racing forward. 
  • A teenager designing the switches and levers to make a redstone machine in Minecraft, or writing a campaign speech to run for class president, finds that moment of flow when all their hard work congeals into a finished product. 

These learners are motivated by the task itself, by the skill they wish to acquire, and the new opportunities it will afford them. Certainly fear is present—the new walker and bike rider may be motivated in part by fear of falling, the candidate for class president may be motivated in part by fear of looking foolish in front of their peers or losing the election—but the primary motivation in these cases stems from joy: that beautiful feeling of growing, and the tremendous satisfaction that comes from success in learning something new. 

All children, all human beings, are hardwired to experience curiosity, interest, and a deep desire to learn. And yet school tends to be set up based on the assumption that children don’t want to learn, that we have to create an unpleasant, fear-based set of motivations in order to get them to learn.

So how do we make the shift from fear to joy?

  1. Change your role from traffic cop to Instigator of Thought. A joy-based approach is rooted in the assumption that children are innately interested in learning and sets the students up for focused hard work and forward momentum. This means making the learning relevant and offering plenty of choices so learners are driving their own discoveries. In the role of Instigator of Thought, a teacher can fuel students’ learning, instead of playing the traffic cop who’ll spend the year giving citations for bad behavior. 
  2. Shift your mindset from “You have to do it!” to “You can do it!” This shift from a deficit to an asset-based approach has the added value of influencing the ways we as teachers see our work. You can do it conveys a belief in students’ abilities, confidence in their capacity, and confidence in our own ability to create the right conditions for their success. It puts the student at the center of the learning rather than the teacher.
  3. Redefine what joy means. We tend to think of joy as smiles, laughter, exuberance, even frivolity. It can and sometimes it does mean these things, but consider the Merriam Webster definition: The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. Consider what it looks like when that thing our students desire is learning, knowledge, new skills. Look at your curriculum through this lens. Search for the joy.

Teaching right now is hard. Educators are on the front lines carrying our youth through the biggest health crisis in a century. It can be a rough time to default to joy. Sometimes “It has to get done so I have to do it” is the cold, hard reality that motivates us to get out of bed, head into the classroom, or open our laptops and dive into geometry or Spanish or Chaucer. But it is also true that we feed off the energy of those around us. If you find ways to put joy at the center of your teaching, your students are more likely to reflect it back. In this way, it might just be a little easier to get through tomorrow and the day after that. 

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