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Fostering joy in the academically rigorous English classroom

Written by: Dena Eden
9 min read
Dena Eden, English Standards Leader, Inspiration Trust, UK

Joy and academic rigour are often dichotomised. However, through careful consideration and application of cognitive science, we can appreciate not only how they can co-exist, but also how academic rigour is crucial if we are to see our students taking joy from English.

An academically rigorous classroom is one where students feel both success and challenge – one with high levels of learning and high expectations. One might question where joy can fit into a classroom where students are expected to perform to such high standards – but if we can communicate the fact that the knowledge we learn in English represents who we are and guides how we act, rather than simply being knowledge that gets us a grade in Year 11, we can create an environment where student motivation is rooted in the learning itself. 

Previously, in an effort to increase engagement and enjoyment in English, some lessons may have sacrificed academic rigour – for example, students may have been given tasks with which they engaged, but that did not transmit any knowledge. When recalling knowledge, they could remember the colour on their poster or the people in their group, but not the core knowledge needed to move their learning forward. Alternatively, some classrooms have been criticised for sacrificing joy in favour of academic rigour – robotic classrooms where direct instruction has been interpreted as the teacher speaking at students for hours with no interaction whatsoever. There have also been classrooms that appear to be both joyful and academically rigorous: students answer questions and contribute. However, their joy is often rooted in extrinsic rewards such as house points. This joy means that their learning is seen as a by-product of their achievement, rather than their achievement being a by-product of their learning. So what can we do to create an environment where academic rigour is not only present but is the driving force for joy? 

Cognitively speaking, joy is more complex than happiness; joy is ‘an enduring, deep delight in what holds the most significance’ (King, 2020) or ‘a feeling of great pleasure and happiness’ (Lexico, nd).Three areas have been identified by King (2020) as necessary to foster joy:

  • living into one’s strengths
  • deep relationships and contributing to others
  • living aligned with your own ethical ideals.

 

Essentially, joy is not an individual pursuit, ‘but one that deeply involves our connections with others’ (King, 2020). Thus, the study of literature lends itself to a joyful environment through the discussions that we have with peers and experts. Our classrooms can ooze a passion for literature and language alike: a journey of discovery, relishing the different ways in which language is used to impact on people, whether through novels, poems or speeches. In the classroom, we should emphasise the problem-solving nature of English – how we find the hidden depths in what we read. ‘Curiosity is a basic component of our natures’ (Kidd and Hayden, 2015, p. 449), and thus classrooms need to be exciting, exploratory, tentative and interrogative. As we know, the world of literature addresses the universality of human experience – we make connections between texts, time periods and language itself through etymology. We live different lives and empathise and sympathise. Thoughts, feelings and reactions can be created, shared and, perhaps most importantly, changed. 

The very nature of English then means that students will want to write, speak and listen well because they take pride and ownership of their ideas and opinions; they want to take part in conversations larger than themselves, and they work hard and produce good writing because they enjoy it and consider it valuable. 

Despite the ease of English lending itself to a joyful environment, students can find reading and interpretation difficult, and if an area needed to foster joy is living to one’s strengths, we need to ensure that our students feel confident. Our students need to feel as though they have mastery over English – this is where academic rigour comes into play. As Peps Mccrea (2019) explains, ‘mastery is a powerful motivator’. However, it is important to clarify that mastery is to have power or control over something – it is not knowing everything that there is to know about a topic or subject. As we know, English encompasses a huge amount of knowledge, and in order for students to feel in control, we need to be sure of two things:

  1. The most time is allocated to the highest leverage activities in English: reading and writing 
  2. ‘It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic’ (Willingham, 2009, p. 210), and therefore the most powerful knowledge of our subject needs to be prioritised through portable concepts, thus opening doors to the next stage of learning – for example, ideas such as betrayal or love are returned to regularly in different contexts, thus creating robust mental models with which to think deeply and conceptually.

 

In practice, these elements of teaching can be assured through a carefully sequenced curriculum, with texts selected as vehicles with which to teach and then return to throughout students’ English experience. This curriculum then needs to be powerfully implemented through the consistent use of high-leverage activities. 

Mastery, then, is inextricably linked to joy – but this does not mean that students will be either intrinsically motivated or capable of thinking deeply enough, or that they will be reading and writing to a standard that will enable them to achieve mastery. They are undoubtedly going to need more support from us than simply passion. The gap between novice and expert is large, and teenagers are unlikely to be able to create knowledge (Willingham, 2009) – instead, we aim for deep rather than shallow learning.

Creating an academically rigorous and joyful English classroom

Fostering an environment of academic rigour and joy begins with the curriculum but is implemented by the teacher; the power of the teacher in the classroom cannot be emphasised enough – not only the enthusiasm that a teacher has for the subject, but also the way in which they enact the pedagogy. From cognitive science, we know that individuals learn more from people whom they respect and trust (Hogg and Reid, 2006) – if a student believes that you know something worth knowing, they are more likely to engage. How can we convince them that we know something worth knowing? Enthusiasm and passion – unapologetic academic approaches to everything that we do and an acknowledgement that it is hard work and passion, and not intelligence, that help us to achieve. 

Having said that, our teaching persona alone is not enough. Students can want to impress their teacher, but still struggle to remain intrinsically motivated. This is where we become even more important in the classroom when, using cognitive science, we can anticipate how students will respond to our actions and thus act pre-emptively to maintain the academic rigour and thus create space for joy to flourish. To experience joy, students need to experience mastery. So what are some specific practices that contribute to mastery and thus joy in the classroom?

Thinking time

When learning, having time to think leads to a sense of ownership over the knowledge and thus contributes to a deeper understanding (Willingham, 2009). By allocating ample time for thinking in our lessons, we are communicating to students that their thoughts, ideas and reactions to things that we have read or discussed are valuable, thus giving them ownership of the knowledge.

Finding the balance

Cognitive science tells us that we are more likely to attempt something if we already think that we are good at it (Willingham, 2009), and therefore we need to convince our students that they are capable. For example, pre-teaching necessary vocabulary before reading will make the difference between students feeling out of their depth and switching off, and students feeling challenged in understanding but equipped with the knowledge that they need to attack it – the difference between ‘can I do this?’ and ‘how can I do this?’ (Mccrea, 2019).

Questioning

Questioning in the classroom is an excellent tool for building mastery and encouraging ownership of the knowledge while offering support: it can direct student attention to the appropriate parts of their own existing knowledge and thinking. Therefore, good questioning allows students to feel empowered and emphasises the value of knowledge at their fingertips, as well as future knowledge that they will now be able to access. 

But what does good questioning look like? The answer to that question would be an entire piece of writing in itself, but much work has already been done on this and can be found in Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2015) and Reading Reconsidered (Lemov et al., 2016). With regard to the academic rigour of questioning and joy, essentially, asking the right questions in the right sequence communicates to students that we are looking for their answer rather than the answer. To students, it should feel as though they are creating knowledge – in reality, we are maintaining academic rigour by guiding them to a valuable, insightful answer. 

Sometimes, despite an academically rigorous enactment of the curriculum, students will not get everything right. How can we uphold a joyful environment when students do not feel like they are playing to their strengths? This is where we need to emphasise the fact that mastery happens over time – joy comes from learning, and making mistakes is part and parcel of that joy. How can we get students to truly appreciate the knowledge and learning itself rather than an activity or a house point?

Live modelling

Live modelling is an excellent tool to demonstrate what is essentially a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006), because we share our own thought processes and celebrate a crossing-out mindset. For example, when teaching writing, a visualiser can be used to write a live paragraph – thoughts are shared while writing, and students can be asked to contribute with their own interpretations and vocabulary where appropriate. This fosters both joy and academic rigour on two counts:

  1. The class feel empowered and involved in the expert process – they feel successful but not threatened, as it is not ‘their’ paragraph
  2. Cognitive science tells us that ‘the more we feel we belong to a particular group, and share what they value and want to achieve, the more likely we will learn within and from it’ (Mccrea, 2019); therefore, a group activity with shared ideas will reinforce learning in the students.

 

Feedback

The framing of feedback is also a powerful tool with which to encourage a growth mindset and to stress the fact that learning is a journey over time rather than something that culminates in achievement. Lesson objectives can be guilty of communicating the message that an end goal of learning is visible and necessary; similarly, feedback in the form of numbers and percentages or constant redrafting can also communicate this message. Instead, we should avoid falling into the trap of ‘learning with an end goal’ and instead emphasise the curriculum links connecting future and past knowledge to current learning. Removing single lesson objectives will help with this, as will ensuring that any feedback moves learning forward – for example, consistently applying any feedback to future pieces of work. Hopefully, this will reduce the focus on academic achievement in a data sense, and increase the emphasis rooted in the joy of learning.

Not only can academic rigour and joy co-exist, but academic rigour is an absolute necessity in fostering a sense of joy in the English classroom. 

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