The idea that pupil happiness is key to effective learning is an important tenet of progressive educational theory, firmly rooted within the education system. Yet it’s an idea that is strangely ill-evidenced. Despite the obvious appeal of the idea that children who enjoy learning achieve more, it isn’t that clear cut.
According to the theory, real learning is expected to be energising. Education that does not deliver this experience tends to be seen as poor quality – the result of some deficiency of the curriculum, outdated teaching method, or lack of charisma on the teacher’s part. As such, pupil engagement, stimulation, and enjoyment appear to be preconditions for effective learning – and the relationship between them as mutually reinforcing.
However this account is not adequate to the realities of life and learning. Far from impeding learning, trial, frustration and failure often act as powerful pedagogical tools that teach the qualities most necessary for true learning, and force pupils to learn from their mistakes – qualities like resilience, working with others, and adaptability.
In new research published by the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE), economist Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren, casts serious doubt on the conviction among modern educationists that enjoyment and learning go hand-in-hand, in fact finding ‘little evidence’ that pupil happiness leads to learning.
Far from being enjoyable, many effective education strategies – such as school competition, external school-leaving exams, traditional teaching methods, and homework – are actually just tough going. They involve a trade-off for young people between happiness and hard work, for the sake of improving their test performance and chances of longer-term success.
This trade-off between happiness and learning is evident in many areas of education policy.
Traditional, teacher-centred methods are more effective from a learning perspective than progressive teaching methods on average, even though research suggests that progressive methods improve pupil attitudes towards learning.
In an intriguing study of American pupils’ happiness, researchers equipped secondary students with pagers to monitor their happiness in relation to what they were doing in the course of the school day. Pupils proved least happy when in the classroom and engaged in school- and homework. Yet paradoxically we know from other research that spending more time in school, more instructional hours, and more homework raises pupil achievement.
These interventions and practices appear to increase pupil test scores, while having a negative effect on their enjoyment of learning and general sense of well-being.
Of course, this does not mean that policymakers should ignore pupil happiness entirely.
A basic cost-benefit analysis undertaken in the course of the research suggests that pupil achievement is more important from an economic perspective – but when using adult life satisfaction as the outcome measure instead of income, pupil happiness may be more important.
Who’s to say that individuals that have already made the trade-off and pursued wider life satisfaction ahead of material welfare are wrong to have done so?
Both the global economy and the labour market are only getting more competitive; can we afford not to trade-off in favour of whatever contributes to young people’s success at examination and thereby helps them to achieve their potential?
There are hard choices to be made in relation to these and other policy goals. And we can’t have it all. Politicians commonly dodge this issue – taxpayers like to believe we can, or should be able to; teachers protest, but still want to be able to; parents are conflicted – wanting their kinds to be both happy and high-achieving.
What’s clear is that if we fudge it and pretend that education can deliver both enjoyment and learning, without compromising either, we’ll only increase the sense of alienation that many young people already experience.
James Croft is the Director of the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE).