Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

07.26.21A TLAC 3.0 Excerpt: Joy Factor

Joy Factor is the last, but certainly not the least, technique in Teach Like a Champion. Like everything else in the book, I’ve rewritten it in the latest version and tried to make connections to what research tells us clearer and more direct. Here’s a snippet:

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We often feel the greatest joy when we feel belonging. This perhaps is why singing, in particular choral singing, is part of practically every culture on earth and specifically a feature of worship in those cultures. When we sing together, we affirm that we all know the words, literally and metaphorically.

Done even briefly this can have a profound effect on us, which is especially worth remembering given that ours in the most individualistic society in the world. The wholeness and joy of belonging that our evolutionary self requires is something that our rational self is most likely to overlook or even scorn.

This is something we can unlock in the classroom. Watch the joy in the faces of Nicole Warren’s students as they start their class signing a math song they know by heart in Nicole Warren: Keystone. It involves many of the things we are socialized to dismiss: rote, ritual, memorized, familiar to the point of repetitive. And yet the students are ecstatically happy. Note that the gestures emphasize the belonging of the experience—people love to “know the moves,” and here knowing the moves is visible. Our own math song is even better than one lots of people know; we can voice in unison something other people don’t know about. Knowing things others don’t know or aren’t aware of is a key to belonging.

Music can be a source of joy even when it is not choral. It is unclear why, but every culture on earth sings and creates music. They use those things to define themselves. Some evolutionary biologists suggest that singing predated language as we know it—that before we had words we had music, which allowed us to express emotion and urgent information over distance. We sang ourselves into battle or into comfort afterwards, and this is wired into us. We have evolved with a proclivity for music, so we can assume it had evolutionary benefit in some way and that we evolved to take pleasure in it.

You can hear snippets of song throughout some of the videos in this book, such as Summer Payne in Cold Call singing, “individual tur-urns listen for your na-ame.” Christine Torres in Format Matters singing, “Don’t talk to the wall ‘cuz the wall don’t care.” And every time you use Call and Response you are in fact using a sort of simple chanting: together in one voice, you are saying, we all belong.

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So singing, especially shared songs, can be a source of joy. But it can also remind us of how profound coordinated activity is to building a sense of belonging. Even sharing the experience together of hearing a text read aloud or reading a text aloud together as a group (see technique 24, FASE Reading), taking turns and bringing a whole to life through our efforts as individuals can awaken this feeling—the construction of a whole in which we subsume our individuality briefly and emerge gratified and infused with a sense of belonging and meaning.

Several pages back, I mentioned “flow” and this too is critical to understanding the difference between joy and fun: We like to lose ourselves in a challenging activity that sweeps us up in its momentum. We are often happiest when this happens. Any coach will tell you that one of the biggest teaching challenges in a sports setting is breaking the flow. You blow the whistle to talk about how the defense should be positioned and after a few seconds you start to see a gradual lurking frustration: We want to play, Coach; please stop talking so we can play. This reminds us that the core activity and its design are critical and that when they are well designed, joy is powerful because it is sprinkled in small moments—playful, silly, absurd, expressing belonging—that come and go quickly enough to augment and work in synergy with the sense of flow.

Consider: Christine Torres drops quick humorous comments into her lesson—the vocabulary word is “caustic”: the Turn and Talk asks students to engage an inside joke: “Imagine Ms. Torres is a contestant on American Idol; what’s a ‘caustic’ remark a judge might make about her singing?” Don’t be silly, she adds, he would never make a caustic remark about Ms. Torres’s epic singing. Maybe you see the belonging cues there: Ms. Torres’s talent as a singer is an ongoing motif, a sort of inside joke you would only ‘get’ if you were in her class. But also note the speed of it. It’s a quick laugh that preserves the sense of flow. The joy students feel comes as much from their engaged study of the vocabulary as it does from the joke. Christine’s humor sits off stage and comments amusingly on the main action; the lesson is still the star.

This, I think, is another reason why it’s important to differentiate joy from fun. We can play Jeopardy! to review during class today and that will be fun but, interestingly, it may not also be joyful unless we engineer it well so that it is designed for flow. We can all recall the “fun” activity we designed that sparked no joy because the flow wasn’t there or because the group dynamics didn’t work well. And while we’re at it, please recognize that the word “fun” can distract us. Most young people have fun when they play video games—though interestingly I am not sure they are joyful, perhaps because the degree of connection and belonging is missing. You can refer to “having fun” by itself but you don’t “have joy” by itself. You take joy or feel joy in doing something. “Joy” is clearer on purpose than “fun.” It has meaning and engagement.

The risk is that we forget that the fun is there to serve the learning. Happily it is not only possible to do both, but the goals are synergistic. People generally like learning things. So don’t play Jeopardy! unless it is rigorous enough to support learning, but also know that if it is challenging and engaging, joy will be more likely to arise from it.

Let me apply the conversation about flow and belonging to an additional source of classroom joy: humor is immensely beneficial to creating joy—we almost always smile when we laugh, and we often remember the joke forever (see the text note for an example). But small recurring inside jokes are especially powerful because of the way they maximize belonging and flow: Christine Torres joking about her excellent singing; a nickname for a character in history (one teacher called Orsino is Twelfth Night “wet wipe” because he was so spineless compared to the female leads in the play); or consider my high school history teacher, Mr. Gilhool, who was the master of the inside joke: he (and soon we) always referred to the city of “Amsterdarn” to civilize its “vulgar” name; he dramatized Count von Schlieffen on his deathbed advising Bismarck “to keep the West strong” and afterwards anytime anyone mentioned World War I military tactics, Gilhool would remind us of von Schlieffen’s words with a brief dramatization (except in cases where we remembered to do it first).

These jokes all happened in less than a second. That was part of the fun. Mr. Gilhool was also teaching with substance and pace while the inside jokes were coming at you fast, so you had to be paying attention or you’d miss the moment when he made a brief motion like he was weighing something on scales when he mentioned any philosopher’s name, which was why everyone around you was laughing. (See the next note for an explanation of why.) Part of what made Mr. Gilhool great was that we were learning a ton and part of it was getting the joke. These things were synergistic; so too the memory aspects. I still sometimes say “Amsterdarn” to this day and more importantly I still remember the Schlieffen Plan. Humor is powerful, especially when it is used in the service of learning via small recurring inside jokes.


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