The Conversation: The Purpose of School and Bringing Joy into the Classroom

Fall 2022

This article appeared as "Getting to Flow" in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School.

That’s the difference between educating students for the future and simply “doing school?” Are we designing school communities that foster the development of better adults, or are we clinging to old ideas about content and rigor that no longer serve us well? Denise Pope, a speaker, author, and senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, joined Tim Fish, NAIS chief innovation officer, on a recent episode of the New View EDU season 2 podcast to talk about how to reframe of our definitions of success, the purpose of school, and the importance of well-being. 

Tim Fish: In your book Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, you paint a picture of schools where teachers and students are largely just going through the motions. They are just doing school: Student engagement is down, their boredom is up, compliance and control is the name of the game. Since writing the book 20 years ago, how have things changed?  

Denise Pope: In 20 years, I thought things would be so much better. Before the pandemic, I did see some schools focusing on getting kids excited and motivated and bringing joy into the classroom. Then we got hit by not just the pandemic but by everything that was going on in our country with climate issues and politics. Everyone had to pivot to remote learning.  

We studied 86 high schools during the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 75,000 kids from public, independent, and charter schools. We saw “doing school” go up again to about 53% of the students. One of the kids said, “They took all the fun stuff out of school”—the lunch, the recess, the meeting with your friends, the getting excited over something, the hands-on experimentation. Now that students are back in person, the problems of workload and stress have come flying back. And they’re not over what happened in March 2020. So that’s a little bit depressing. 

But what excites me is that people now know how important mental health is in schools. I think social-emotional learning and belonging and mental health are now more than ever at the forefront of people’s work and experience. That’s really foundational. 

Fish: One of the questions we’ve been asking since the beginning of this podcast is What’s the purpose of school? Why do we have it? If you go all the way back to the Committee of 10 in 1892, I would say that curricular learning was in the center of what school is. It’s the place you go to learn the stuff you need to know. We know a lot more about the conditions for learning now. I’ve wondered if that content—the curriculum, the stuff—should be in the center today?  

Pope: In my class, Introduction to Curriculum, the essential questions are the why, what, and how. The why is what’s the purpose of school. Because you can’t design curriculum if you don’t know the why. The what is what should be taught once you figure out that purpose. And the how is how you teach it, which has to be aligned with that purpose. 

In that class, we read all sorts of theorists and ideologues: Dewey, Bruner, Freire, Noddings. On the why, Noddings has this beautiful concept that the purpose of school should be to create better adults. And if you combine that with Dewey, who says that what we’re learning is now—the kids are experiencing experiences now—and we can’t just say you have to know this for the future, then we need to create schools that allow for really amazing, joyful educational experiences that help prepare our kids now—and for the future.  

Content, in and of itself, can’t be the center of that equation. But it’s tricky, because every community then has to decide What do we mean when we say we want civic-oriented, wise human beings to help us run our democracy? That’s not easy, but it takes you out of facts, chronology, and mathematical equations and puts you more into What do we need to know about this? We need to know how to take all this information and think critically about it. We need to know how to balance really difficult decisions and tensions and decide on policies and practices in this world. This is tough stuff.  

Fish: When we start moving away from having content at the center to more critical thinking, dealing with complexity, and working with a team in an interdependent way, often people think, Where did the rigor go? Families or boards will say that at the heart of our school is an excellent education. Often that’s code for rigor, and often rigor is code for traditional content. 

Pope: Rigor is not the same thing as load. Parents say they want academic excellence, and that’s what schools are promoting. But schools need to see that it’s not just piling on more stuff, and that’s not the traditional way that they’ve been teaching. Change is scary. I’m all for rigor; I want kids to think hard. I want this to be challenging, but I also want it to be joyful. The problem is the definition of rigor. 

Fish: I dug back into my graduate school books from the early 1990s and pulled out Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He talks about how being in a state of flow contributes to the formation of a healthy self-image, positive psyche, and positive interactions with others, and that well-being is connected to being in flow. A necessary component of being in a state of flow is that you’re really challenged, pushing your own expanses, and dealing with ever-increasing levels of complexity. Only through challenge and complexity do we really develop that self-image. So how do we enable well-being?

Pope: That’s the million-dollar question: What’s the connection between well-being and engagement? Everything. They are fully connected. So, you’re spot on when you talk about flow. For me, flow is the equivalent to what I call full engagement where you’re effectively, behaviorally, and cognitively engaged. 

That means it’s joyful. Let’s bring back the joy in learning and discovery. When you’re in flow, you are so focused that you love it. And you’re cognitively engaged because you’re challenged, and you see the value and meaning in what you’re learning. But right now, there are a lot of things in and around the classroom and in the structure of how we run schools that get in the way of flow and well-being.  

Fish: So many schools have said to me, “You have got to come see our robotics program or our documentary filmmaking because it’s amazing.” In every case, I see an essential amount of structure that creates the challenge and introduces complexity, and I see a whole lot of agency. It’s the mix of the two, what I call structured agency, that creates the context for that really good stuff to happen. But I also have seen schools that see it and say, “We can’t do more.” They get stuck thinking they have to have all these other things they’ve always had. What advice do you give them for moving forward?  

Pope: When you look at the places at school where kids are taking the lead, where teachers feel like they’re guiding, where real challenge, joy, and flow is happening, they’re often at the edges. It’s the robotics team or it’s the debate club. Or it’s what happens after that class, where the kids are getting together and talking about it in the hallway. We’re trying to figure out how to get those edges to be the centerpiece of the school because there’s so much learning, joy, and challenge going on there. But that means thinking really differently, and it’s hard for schools to think differently.  

Independent schools are usually more nimble, but they’re also sometimes more stuck in the tradition: We’ve been doing it this way for 100 years. So, they try to do the new and the normal. They’ll say, “We’ll have this amazing capstone experience on top of your normal full load of senior year classes.” It’s the “yes and” problem that I see. Schools need help reimagining the learning experience so that the students’, and the whole community’s, experience of flow is at the center.  

Fish: I think school leaders need to be the chief storytellers to help parents and students see what school can be.  

Pope: During the pandemic, there is this devolution back to the old norm because everyone is so tired. But we should ask people to innovate in a crisis because that is exactly what propels us to do different things. We’ve seen some schedule changes. One school eliminated homework altogether because they said if you’re with us online from 9 to 3 every day, you’re done. Now, can we now weave that back into the normal life of the school? Can we keep that innovative schedule? Can we keep more office hours and one-on-ones? People are so tired, and they are craving the old, so we’re seeing a lot of backsliding. That worries me.  

Fish: When you look at the next five years or more, where do you hope we go?  

Pope: I hope we go to flow. I hope we reimagine how we spend our time each day. 

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