Rediscovering the Joy

Many believe that a paradigm shift is long overdue as the current education system is broken and beyond repair.
Changing the school environment so education is something done with instead of to students.

In a 2018 TED Talk that is still the most watched TED Talk ever with over 70 million views, Sir Ken Robinson (one of the best-known educationalists of recent years) talks about how creativity in students is killed in school.

Robinson says that the reason for the crisis in education is a false understanding of standardisation that fails to recognise people’s individuality. For Robinson, the consequence of not giving creativity the same status as literacy has triggered a pedagogical climate crisis in which students grow up in a system that does not do justice to them and does not understand them. Without a climate in schools that respects students and gives them time and space, their self-concept – including their interests and strengths – cannot flourish and joy in school becomes elusive.

According to the false understanding creating the crisis, failure and the making of mistakes in school must always be avoided. However, we know that correctly understood failure is the motor of learning – without experiencing failure there is no learning. Finally, Robinson criticises a resulting superficiality, which in essence does not do justice to human possibilities: through too much meaningless detailed knowledge, learners lose the desire to learn and thus also the joy of school.

Robinson argues that to stigmatise failure, and making mistakes, educates children out of creative capacity and that traditional academic disciplines are an anachronistic and increasingly dysfunctional high-water mark of human achievement.

Joy is fundamental
The right to light-heartedness in students becomes particularly clear at this point (cf. Zierer, 2021b). Joy is the motor of life, education and learning. At the beginning of the 21st century, we humans not only have the necessary knowledge, but also the necessary opportunities and hence the capacity to realise ever-improving possibilities. Creating and maintaining a positive and inviting school environment is fundamentally important.

Purkey, Novak and Fretz’s latest book, Developing Inviting Schools: A beneficial framework for Teaching and Leading (2020), explains Invitational Learning Theory and Practice (ITP). ITP is a self-concept theory of practice based on a foundational belief that everything and everyone in a school system is providing messages to students, staff, and parents/caregivers which the receiver interprets as a positive or negative message about their ability, value, or level of responsibility.

ITP resonates with Hattie and Zierer‘s 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning. Through its three interlocking foundations: the democratic ethos; the perceptual tradition; and self-concept theory it provides a systems thinking framework to develop an educator stance of intentionality to implement the five elements of: Intentionality, Care, Optimism, Respect and Trust (I-CORT).

And so, what is intentionality and why does it matter? Intentionality is the precursor that underpins intentions: change is inexorable however, growth is intentional. Intentionality is fundamental to becoming an accomplished teacher.

Many schools try too many different initiatives all at the same time (both learning and climate strategies) without regard for how each initiative is messaging the stakeholders. The initiatives should be like-minded if schools are  to intentionally develop a trusting stance that is both consistent and positive. An invitational framework provides a prism through which we can determine those initiatives that are like-minded and therefore worthy of inclusion.

Making systems theory work within an invitational framework is summed up by William Purkey in personal correspondence in 2015:

“Visible Learning is a major advance in our thinking about teaching and learning. It is a learning theory. Invitational Education is a theory that encompasses the total gestalt of education. An example might be a Christmas tree. You can place many valuable things on the tree, but you must have a tree to place them on, Invitational Education is the tree.”

ITP provides a compelling framework for promoting meliorism (the belief that the world can be made better by human effort) in schools. Practice-based evidence (ITP) synergises with evidence-based practice (Visible Learning) to enhance the social-emotional climate of schools and accelerate learning. Creating joy in education by developing inviting schools is increasingly significant in the aftermath of COVID-19.

The educational climate should be developed in the direction of joie de vivre. We experience joy in learning when it meets our needs to be seen as able, valuable, and responsible. A self-concept approach to learning positively influences how we feel about our ability and value. Our relationships with caring adults and peers, enables us to develop a positive self-concept about both. School as a place of joy needs design. Learning today often takes place in a receiver role where learners listen and carry out what the teacher says. Learning that consists only of listening and executing does not do justice to human beings and is ultimately inhumane. The neuroscience of relationships demonstrates that school provides many relational experiences. It is important that teachers are aware that the way they relate to, and with, students matters more than the way they teach math.

School as a place of joy needs community because community is the basis for human development. This does not mean that all students have to do the same thing all the time and that the group focus takes precedence over everything else. That would be just as reductive as the exaggerated celebration of each person's individuality. Rather, a balance is needed between the two poles: the community on the one hand is just as important as the individual performance on the other.

Following COVID-19 school closures at the end of 2020, a phenomenon could be observed in this context that schools have rarely experienced. There was joy that there was finally face-to-face classroom teaching once again. It was clearly demonstrated that the collective can be just as educationally effective as competition. The two perspectives are not to be seen as opposites but complement each other in fostering joy in learning. The climate changes from a place of learning to an educational space. Being part of a team gives us a sense of belonging and being valued and working collaboratively towards a mutually beneficial goal. Hence, schools today must focus more than ever before on the arts, music and sport as they belong at the centre of schools’ curriculum experience because they provide creative time and space in which joy can arise.

Removing barriers – the Seneca Study
The Seneca Study (cf. Zierer, 2020b) investigated the question of how learners fared after the first COVID-19 lockdown. The study was named after the Roman philosopher Seneca, who criticised schools with his statement "Non vitae, sed scholae discimus" (“We learn not for life but for class time.”) since then, the change "Non scholae, sed vitae discimus" (“We learn not for school, but for life.”) has served as an educational appeal.

The Seneca Study, framed in Germany, asked what it is that motivates learners to go to school. In October and November 2020 over 2200 students from grades 7 to 12 in three states were asked what their main motive was for going to school. In all classes, the peers are in first place: 93 per cent of the learners state that friends are the decisive reason why they like to go to school. Only 72 per cent of students like to go to school because they learn something there. In view of the long-time young people had to be at home, the answer option of whether learners were happy to finally get out of the home was also of interest. Only 24 per cent agreed with this. The result shows that across all grades, the opportunity to interact with peers is the most important impetus for educational processes.

Against this background, the much-quoted saying "Non scholae, sed vitae discimus" inspired by Seneca must correctly read: "Non scholae, sed amicis discimus". In other words: we do not learn for school, but for our relationships. We go to school not simply to learn, but for the relationships we develop with our peers.

With this result, it is worth noting that the above-mentioned agreements are dependent on the age of the learners: For example, friends, learning and getting out of the parental home reach the highest level of approval in the 7th and 12th grades, while the lowest level is recorded in the 10th grade: Going to school for learning only applies to 55 per cent in this age group. Obviously, between the ages of 15 and 16, many things are far more important than school.

The Seneca study confirmed another study named the Jenkins‘ Curve, which already spelt out the enjoyment of learning at school is high at the start and then falls continuously to an approval rating of about 30 per cent, then only to rise again slightly towards the end.

In 2015 Lee Jenkins had pupils from kindergarten to the final year assess how much they enjoy going to school because they enjoy learning. Emeritus Professor John Hattie called the results the Jenkins‘ curve and said that the study provided a wake-up call as the result shows that at the beginning of their school career almost all students experience joy in learning at school. This value slowly decreases from school year to school year until it is at thirty percent agreement in the ninth grade. Towards the end of schooling, enjoyment of learning at school increases slightly again.

This result is confronting as the central goal of school is to maintain the joy of learning and, in the process of widening the circle of thought, to sustain and enhance the same. But if we now have to conclude that exactly the opposite is happening and that students experience less and less joy in learning at school as they get older, then something is going horribly wrong in our schools.

What does this mean for school as the most important social institution for young people?  Learning today often takes place without any comprehensible meaning for children and young people. Knowledge is often taught as that which is written in books. In class, it is rarely made clear what this knowledge has to do with the learners. Almost everyone is familiar with the book-page-asking game from their school days. Even today, this approach is not uncommon, and learners legitimately ask themselves: Why should I learn this? What does all this have to do with me?

Making the learning both sensible and meaningful to students will avert the pedagogical crisis. Joy should not become a forgotten leitmotif and the importance of relationships must be included. Without the emotional, the human, connection there can be no joy. School will be reduced to mere learning. Schools would be seen as a place where learning is poured into the heads of young people and becomes a doing to instead of doing with experience.

Five Recommendations for a master plan
The changes wrought on society by COVID-19 called into question and sometimes even abolished much of what was considered immovable in society. The education system was and is also affected. Weaknesses became visible, some of which were already known in terms of education policy, but which remained hidden and forgotten for a long time.

In a bid to ameliorate the educational risks associated with the findings of Robinson, Zierer and Jenkins the following recommendations form a framework for a master plan.

Education, not learning
1 Declutter the curricula so that students educate themselves and discover their abilities and value in the process

Whenever educational policy decisions are made, school must not be reduced to learning. A lot can indeed be learned in front of screens. But learning just for the sake of learning can become a valueless process.

For learning to become education, an exchange about what has been learned is necessary – and machines cannot replace this exchange. This is true not only for content knowledge but also includes the values at the heart of school education.

Evidence instead of eminence
2 Establish an education council with educators of all colours from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds to ensure students have advocates for education.

Nowhere, it seems, are there so many opinions as in the field of education. Since everyone has spent about 15,000 hours of their life in school (cf. Rutter et al., 1980), everyone can somehow have their say – and the higher the office, the greater the eminence. But opinions are not findings, and currently the pedagogical concern is not infrequently overlaid by a virological argument, an association interest or a political motive. Educational research provides evidence in the form of comprehensible and provable statements. We should therefore pay attention to its findings, especially in times of crisis in schools.

Presence before distance
3 Invest in effective health and hygiene measures so that students can attend school.

Even before COVID-19 there was distance education and research on this has been available for decades. The result is clear and there is no substitute for face-to-face teaching of the same quality. The teacher-student relationship is pivotal. Education is a social process, and peers are the most important motivation for students to go to school. Presence is therefore also more important than technology. The maxim of keeping schools open whenever practicable, and whenever safe, during the pandemic is essential from an educational perspective.

Pedagogy before technology
4 Digitise the school as much as necessary, yet as little as possible, and augment investments in technology with teacher professional learning to accelerate learning.

Digitalisation was the topic before COVID-19 and for many it is the solution in the face of the crisis. Despite all the justified fascination with technology, after 30 or 40 years‘ of educational research we know that technology alone will not bring about an educational revolution. Only when it is meaningfully integrated into learning environments can it become effective. Currently, hybrid teaching is being discussed and the opinion expressed that it is suitable for older learners. The error in thinking is obvious and empirically known as it is not age that is decisive for independence but competence.

A school system that has so far failed to educate learners to be self-reliant will have a hard time demanding it from them in these times of crisis. This should not call into question the necessity of digital equipment in schools, but it should put it into perspective to the extent that only the professionalism of teachers can bring it to life. Otherwise, there is the threat of a digital media grave, as was recently the case with language labs and computer rooms. We must strive to ensure that students can experience digital media with quantifiable value adding as evidence of impact.

Teamwork instead of lone wolves
5 Formulate an education agenda 2050 and ensure effective school development on the ground so that students can experience school as a living space.                                 

To engage and re-engage students schools must become a space where teachers act with Intentionality and commit to Care, Optimism, Respect and Trust (I-CORT). Educational research evidence of impact is crucial when building collective teacher efficacy in schools. Educational success is never a matter for the individual as it always depends on collaboration with all stakeholders.

The home plays a significant role in students’ education. If this cooperation is reduced to zero during COVID-19 lockdowns, then students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds in particular are harmed. Such harm has negative implications for society as a whole. Social segregation is a complex problem and equity has become more elusive in schools despite rhetoric about ameliorating disadvantage: wealth continues to favour the rich.

An educational master plan is needed to invite student involvement and make the learning visible. Such a plan is now more necessary given the impact of COVID-19 on students’ academic learning and social-emotional wellbeing. Rediscovering the joy in every school for every student in every classroom shapes the systems thinking to change the grammar of schooling.

As John F. Kennedy said: “In the long run, only one thing is more expensive than education: no education!”


Jenkins, L. (2015): Optimize your school. Thousand Oaks.

Kuhn, T (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 

Purkey, W., Novak, J. & Fretz, R. (2020), Developing Inviting Schools. Teachers‘ College Press.

Robinson, K. (2018): You, your child, and school: navigate your way to the best education. New York.

Hattie, J. & Zierer, K. (2018): 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning. London.

Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of public school reform, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Zierer, K. (2020): Für die Freunde lernen wir! In: DIE ZEIT, Nr. 54.

Zierer, K. (2021a): Ein Jahr zum Vergessen – Wie wir die Bildungskatastrophe nach Corona verhindern. Freiburg.

Zierer, K. (2021b): Prinzip Freude. München.

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