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Why we must have joyful and imaginative learners

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If we don’t commit to exploring how our emotions affect the way we learn, there will be fewer happy endings in children’s education, say Stephen Scoffham and Jonathan Barnes.

happy children studyingWe all recognise a happy classroom. There is a buzz of conversation, the children are involved with their work and engage well with each other. There is a sense of purpose and meaningful activity.  Happiness matters in all walks of life and it certainly matters in schools. When children feel threatened, constrained or unable to take risks, their education suffers. Why then doesn’t happiness figure more prominently in educational policy and debates about the curriculum?

Studies by the World Health Organisation over the last few decades have alerted governments to worrying levels of stress and anxiety amongst school children. Moreover, the wellbeing of young people in the UK appears to compare unfavourably with many other European countries. UNICEF reports that, in England, almost one in three 11 year olds say they feel ‘pressured by school work’ compared with one in 20 in the Netherlands. The widening gap between rich and poor, excessive individualism, unrealistic expectations and identity problems are all possible causes.

Happiness is difficult to capture or quantify. Most studies on childhood wellbeing skirt round this problem by focusing on experiences that can be measured or quantified. The international comparisons made by UNICEF, for example, use narrowly drawn questions to yield data that can be ranked and tabulated. Quantitative data certainly has a place in building an understanding of social and educational trends, but much of what is most important in education resists easy measurement. Valid comparisons need to respect the complexity of lived experience.  What actually happens in a classroom depends on the quality of individual relationships and involves subtle interactions between teachers and learners that develop over considerable periods of time. Psychological processes are almost never simple and often involve hidden complications.

Long-term problems

Wellbeing has a particular resonance in educational contexts because many teachers recognise that pupils’ active engagement is central to learning. Whilst constructive challenges rightly involve a degree of pressure, prolonged periods of negative emotion can have damaging physiological and cognitive impacts as Goswami (2004) claims. Sadness, stress or insecurity in young people typically show themselves in low achievement, but are also related to health complaints such as stomach and head-aches. A relentless focus on targets and outcomes may raise some standards in reading and mathematics but it also risks sapping children’s enthusiasm for learning. Schools cannot easily change the society or culture in which they operate, but the danger of demonstrating progress in key curriculum areas is that it comes at the cost of undermining deeper and more long-lasting cognitive and emotional achievements.

Happiness and wellbeing are sometimes interpreted in simplistic terms. Pain and anger contribute to learning along with curiosity and competition. However, in exploring the research literature we have been particularly attracted to ideas that emanate from positive psychology. The  ‘broaden and build’ theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson (Fredrickson, 2004) is particularly noteworthy. Drawing on empirical evidence assembled over several decades, Fredrickson documents how positive states can lead to more expansive patterns of thought, an increased preference for variety, greater ease in the forming of relationships and increased willingness to accept difference. She also contends that positive emotions, though transient, enable us to generate enduring personal resources, which contribute to our future resilience. Furthermore, a positive outlook appears to elicit a positive response in others. This helps to establish mechanisms of mutual support and initiate an upward spiral of wellbeing.

Lost in thought

The idea that we can help children build their psychological capital and long-term resilience is highly affirmative. Another positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi (1997), highlights a related dimension of personal growth when he links happiness with the deep personal engagement or the sense of ‘flow’ that most commonly occurs in physical or creative activities. At such times, we become so engrossed in an activity that we lose track of time, our worries fade away and we feel able to face challenges with confidence. Activities that involve authentic challenge, self-expression, inter-personal relationships, problem solving or competitive sport appear to be particularly effective in promoting flow experiences. When we are being creative there is also a sense in which we are deeply happy.

The links between happiness and learning are now being explored in neuroscience research.  Antonio Damasio (2010), for example, argues that feelings of wellbeing occur when our body and mind are working at their optimum level. Fascination, discovery, invention or creation, typically generate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins, which are associated with positive feelings of happiness, satisfaction and joy. Claims that learning involves a social, multi-sensory and experiential dimension are now being verified empirically. Indeed, emotional engagement of any kind appears to be the neurological pre-requisite of learning. Our own research and accumulated knowledge of children’s learning aligns with these conclusions and confirms the importance of paying much greater attention to the emotional dimensions. We have argued elsewhere (Scoffham and Barnes 2011) that playfulness, imagination, experiment and speculation all derive their strength from emotional impulses.

Applying theory to the classroom

Evidence from psychology and neuroscience must be used with care. Studies involving groups or individual children are often conducted in contexts far removed from classroom realities. Few scientists have everyday contact with classes of children, year after year; neither are they charged with constructing the optimal environments for their learning. Only teachers have this responsibility. The challenge for schools is to take relevant insights from psychology and neuroscience research and judiciously apply them to their daily experience of ordinary children.

We believe that the growing body of evidence to do with the importance of positive mind-sets and overall wellbeing needs to be taken more seriously. The happiness of both teachers and pupils are fundamental to successful learning. Why on earth have we allowed education to become so fixed upon the measurable that we have lost sight of the quality of individual children’s lived experience? If we really want to raise standards, we need to pay more attention to the emotional foundations of learning. An education that motivates and engages all children depends upon teachers who really understand and acknowledge the unmeasurable.

Out of 29 developed nations analysed by UNICEF, the UK was ranked 24th for educational wellbeing.

The percentage of UK children surveyed by UNICEF who find classmates kind and helpful.

30% of 11-year-old girls in England feel pressurised by schoolwork, according to data gathered by the World Health Organisation (WHO). For boys it’s 33%. In Sweden, the equivalent statistics are 6% and 9% respectively.

The proportion of 11-year-old boys in England who say they like school a lot. For girls it’s 52%.

The proportion of 15-year-old boys in England surveyed by the WHO who say they like school a lot. For girls it’s 17%.

Results are taken from the World Health Organisation 2009/10 survey, Social determinants of health and well-being among young people and UNICEF’s Innocenti Report Card 11: Child well-being in rich countries.


Csikszentmilhalyi , M. (1997) Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, New York: HarperCollins

Damasio, A. (2010) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the conscious Brain, London: Vantage

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One Response to Why we must have joyful and imaginative learners

  1. Kaden James Tuesday, 2 December 2014 at 13:05 #

    Lee Sheldon is a book author whom discusses the theory of gamification. The theory of gamification has been used in a variety of age groups in education, ranging from pre-school, to university level. What the theory of gamification is about, is to make schools and lessons essentially less boring, to increase the stimulation sensors in the brain in a similar way that playing video games does. This theory has been proven to be effective as it allows the class to use more of their imagination, determination and believe they are achieving a goal faster. There are simple things that can be modified in a classroom, is the grading system; instead of everyone thinking they start off with an A and struggling to keep it, they build their way to it. It’s much better to rise than to fall. With primary children, instead of saying they are taking a test, they are actually trying to defeat a monster. This allows the child’s imagination to have a further drive to beat the challenge.

    Another theorist is Jane McGonigal from TED talks. In her lecture she describes to the audience how playing simple games can increase happiness through social, physical, emotion and mental tasks which have been proven to work on people with serious illnesses. If implemented on the learners of the classroom this would benefit the well-being of not only themselves but the teacher as well. McGonigal also states that by using this theory, people are almost guaranteed an extra 10 years more living since the 5 biggest regrets on your deathbed are actually counteracted by the use of games. Many studies have been analysed and assessed to see whether gamification could work or is it just another trend, however with the evidence produced by many of these studies it is clear that the results can not be brushed away. In Ken Robinson’s lecture on education (can be found on RSAnimate), he notes that “education is boring”, this was stated due to the fact that humanity has come into a digital age, education has not moved or changed for hundreds of years, yet our technology has been improved exponentially in the last 20-30 years.