Imagine Joy … as the goal

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hang out with kids and educators at our regional Destination Imagination(DI) Tournament. Quite a few of the young people on teams at the regional tournament attend schools in my district. Their spirit, passion, and excitement entice attending crowds who delight in watching these kids work and play. A positive atmosphere exudes from teams before, during, and after project performances. It’s a joyful place to be.

Rising Stars

At the recent tournament, I observed two grandmothers, who sat side by side to watch a Rising Star team, the youngest of the children who simply come to demonstrate their projects. The grandmothers were enchanted by the children’s skit about a robot who came to life.  On a gym floor, a high school all-girls team, pros from years past, wowed the judges with their expertise in designing, creating, building, engineering and presenting a space exploration project for “assembly required.”  Their girl-built, fully mechanized front end loader performed without a flaw – sheer joy to watch.

Year after year, the DI tournament delights everyone who comes to see these teams at work. if there‘s one thing all of the young people who recently wandered the school’s halls seemed to have in common, it’s their enthusiasm. In fact, these wanderers – from second graders to college students – reminded me of a long-ago BMW commercial that proclaimed a desire to not just build cars, but to create joy.

It strikes me that many teachers across the United States would “die for” a DI Saturday morning hallway feel every day of the school week. It’s the best of what the most interesting and challenging classrooms have always been for children – spaces where they can apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Observing at DI tournaments has led me to question whether the traditional achievement goals we’ve set should be key areas of focus for today’s learners? I wonder what the DI teams would say about goals that results in work that looks like this?

Does this create joy?

DI kids and BMW commercials remind me that the endgame of learning is more than reading, writing and doing math proficiently, with or without the use of adaptive tools such as netbooks,  smart devices, or paper and pencils. Learning without joy kills interest, enthusiasm, and ultimately drive. When joy’s present, it’s almost impossible to disengage kids of any age from learning in the moment.

Learning issues children face in today’s classrooms often represent instructional failures resulting from an inherent 20th century mismatch of one-size-fits-all, factory education with the natural variance among young people who develop differently, learn differently, and assess differently. These differences have always existed, regardless of economic background, capability, gender, handicap or ethnicity. And, in reality, we can all find ourselves handicapped as learners, losing touch with the sheer joy of learning simply because of our mismatch with the learning environment, teacher, tool, schedule, or program.

On the other hand, when kids can access the learning environment, learning work, learning time, learning tools, and teacher support they need, even the sky doesn’t limit what they can accomplish. The work of the librarian in this high school is a case in point. When she redesigned library spaces to include a music production studio that integrated content and the arts, some of the school’s disengaged learners became students in all the best and most productive ways a teacher might desire.

In watching what happens when kids get access to developing capabilities that transcend 20th century curricula, I wonder, in this second decade of the 21st century, is it good enough to focus on reading, or any content area, as an isolated goal for learning work?

Are the needed goals really about STEM, literacy, social studies, or even the arts? Or, should goals be aligned with learning to access and use knowledge – to search, connect, collaborate – as young people choose from a variety of tools and multiple formats as drivers to create, invent, make, build, engineer, design, and produce?

Here’s what one joyful “at-risk” fifth grader listed as goals he’d like to accomplish by the time he turned 100. Who wouldn’t want all our young people to have such lofty goals including the acquisition of “awesome mind power?” But, where do his goals fit with those of educators who must spend precious time selecting vendor-aid instructional programs, developing time-intensive educator evaluation measures, and using more difficult standardized tests to enforce the teaching and learning of 20th century content and low-level skills?

If I Live to be 100, I'd like to ...

Despite the intensifying pressures of the last decade, children have been going to factory schools, not very joyful places, for a long time. Phillip Schultz, dyslexic Pulitzer Prize poet, reflects on the impact of factory schools upon his learning world, “I was put in the dummy class, kicked out of two schools, seen as hopeless, and I accepted that.. an awful lot to adjust to.”

We all can recite stories of dropouts who once carried gifted labels, bored mathematical thinkers waiting with patience for engineering schools, sensitive writers and artists who see school as “killing them softly,” and learners, handicapped or not, who yearn to graduate or drop out – so they never have to sit and do time in class again. These are not new school stories. However, we can change the stories young people tell about their learning.

Today, we need to take a lesson from both DI and BMW. Joyful learning commits us to our work. Joyful learning should be a goal for every child, including those of today’s children who, not unlike Phillip Schultz, continue to find themselves lost from learning in our contemporary classrooms. We can’t change the past, but we can change now and the future. After all, it’s not the educators or learners who’re broken. It’ the system that’s broken – one that was never designed to support success for all learners.

The Destination Imagination and BMW basics of creativity, teamwork, and problem-solving are essential competencies for success in college, the workforce, and as citizens and family members. Kids shouldn’t have to sign up for a DI team to get access to these basics. When a teacher integrates DI “basics” into pretty much any content, s/he becomes a teacher who is not just teaching, but creating joy as a baseline of learning.

Creativity, Problem-Solving, Teamwork

How different would our school-day hallways be if we loaded as many joy-laden learning tools as possible into our educational toolkit and then used them well?  How much more pleasure would we all derive from our day jobs – educators and learners alike?  What might the results be if learners could routinely create, problem-solve and work as valued members of diverse teams?

Why not pledge to bring joy into the classroom for a moment, an hour, or a day each week  for the rest of this year? What’s the cost of that?

Joy powers commitment and passion. It renews energy. It excites. It creates a sense that we can accomplish anything. It’s an essential outcome of our inalienable right to  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  It’s a gift that “keeps on giving.”


(thank you @jengrahamwright for sharing your 6th graders’ movies- I loved this silent movie- especially the joyful bloopers!)