The Joy of Learning

-Sandy Kerr, Future Nation Schools Lead Teacher: Languages

Sandy Kerr is a seasoned educator with over 30 years of teaching experience. She holds a two BA degrees as well as a two diplomas in education. Sandy also writes, reviews and edits English Language and Literature textbooks for Macmillan, Vivlia, Pearson, Oxford University Press and Via Afrika.


Anyone who has been around young and very young children will know how annoying the Why-questions can be. Each answer that is supplied, generates another flurry of Why-questions. The open, eager faces processing the information that is supplied; the changing expressions that indicate that information is being tested and sifted, and linked to prior knowledge; the next barrage of Why-questions all indicate that an eager little mind is at work, learning, learning, learning…

Anyone who has taught teenagers will relate to the dragging of feet, closed faces, sometimes sullen expressions, the sly attempts to take lessons off course, the subversive use of digital devices to communicate with others or to zone out of the present moment, outright avoidance of classes…

What happens to the excitement and eagerness that little people have to master their environments? What crushes their enthusiasm? What makes learning hard work for them?

School is what happens.

We take the boundless energy and eagerness to learn and we regiment it: we make little children walk in lines, holding on to each other like a small chain of cartoon elephants – trunk to tail. We create rules so that a classroom of bubbling energy can be easily managed: hands have to go up when a question is to be asked or answered, children have to ask permission to go to the bathroom or to drink water – two of our most basic needs. We make them discuss their learning, speaking one at a time, taking turns; we don’t let everyone share their thoughts and experiences, and we move on to the next topic, or lesson, and much goes unsaid – and we systematically crush their love of learning.

We don’t trust them. We lead, direct, monitor, watch, observe, control, manipulate, organise, manage, rule, command, administer and oversee. We do these things at the expense of inspiration, ingenuity, creativity, revelation, innovation and intuition. We are always in control. Of them. Of the process. Of the results. We don’t trust them. We know better.

One of the first things many teachers do is inform their new students about the rules that will govern their experience in that classroom – for the good of all in the room, they say. Some clever teachers have sessions where the class creates its own Code of Conduct. I have never seen or heard of a teacher who really allowed the class to create ITS own Code of Conduct. The process is often subtly assisted by the teacher who manages to get a set of rules that he/she can live with; and then he/she disingenuously refers to the rules at times when transgressions occur and reminds the students that these were THEIR rules, and they need to uphold them.

What would these teachers do if their students wanted to use their cell phones at will, as many adults do during their days? If they wanted to leave the room to see to their basic needs when they occurred? If they wanted to work in groups, alone, in pairs when THEY felt that it was important? If they were allowed to do the work at their own pace, to leave some of the lesson out, and include other content or skills? None of these ideas would make it to the Code of Conduct!

And the teachers would have their reasons for rejecting these inclusions: how would it be if we all did what we felt like when we felt like it? There are exams to be written. If we left sections out, we would not pass these exams. Timetables, and content are to be monitored by educational officials who take a dim view of deviations from the norm. Teachers know they are accountable to the system, not their charges.

What it comes down to is that teachers are not trusted to make essential decisions about what the young people in their care need. (And it is true, some are not capable of making these decisions – but that begs the question – what are they doing in that classroom to begin with?)

Our biggest mistake is underestimating the people who sit in front of us. Like Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, young people can smell ‘phoniness’ a mile away! And they can sense disinterest and lack of care; they recognise when we know what we are doing, and when we don’t, and when we have their best interests at heart. They know far more than we realise, or are prepared to admit.

And they know that the system is weighed heavily against them, and they do any of a number of things as a result: they acquiese, they play the system at its own game, they withdraw, they fight the system, or they leave it.

But the worst thing of all is that they no longer love learning. Learning is associated with a loss of power, with dismissal, with disrespect, with rules and restrictions, with dissatisfaction, even with failure…

And the very people who should be their champions, their teachers, are so complicit in the process that they do nothing, at the very best, or they enforce the norms of the system, at the very worst.

Excellent teachers know all about this, and they find ways to make the child the heart of their endeavours. They work in the system but sometimes around the system. The child is at the centre of all that they do. And when that happens, magic happens. Classrooms are places of discovery, laughter, mutual respect and filled with the joy of learning, experienced by both the teacher and the students!