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Study Shows Happiness in School Leads to Better Grades – But Should We Care About the Grades?

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happy 3 123rf.cvomWe all talk about being “happy.” Being happy seems to be something we desire, and everything we do could be seen as a course to happiness. If I ask people what makes them happy, I get responses such as shopping, eating, sleeping, reading, watching TV, going to the movies, kissing, hugging, walking, fishing, skydiving, and so many other activities. I know when I see someone jogging in the park, he or she tends to look happy. Yet many times, sitting on the subway in the morning, I witness people on their way to work who look decidedly unhappy. Why is that?

I recently read an article about a study that suggests that “being happy in school” is inextricably linked to success. While the study notes the obvious reasons why happiness would help students do well, the author also makes clear that happiness “might be the most overlooked variable of all.”

School officials concerned about test scores rarely think about students’ happiness. If they want their teachers to continually to teach to basically meaningless assessments (meaningless unless you are school district leaders who have sunk millions of dollars into the testing programs), students are not going to be very happy. A school day dedicated to learning how to take an assessment is a day that is not about opening the children’s eyes to the more important educational objectives – most notably learning about the world in which they live, how to read and write effectively, and knowing how to compute and reason in real life situations. All teaching to the test does is prepare you for the test. Not much happiness can be found there.

happy 1 sramirezhsenglitcompThis article reminded me of John Lennon’s famous quotation about being “happy.” Lennon’s mother told him that it was the most important thing in life, and when he went to school and was asked what he wanted to be, he was basically told that “happy” was not the answer. Lennon wisely noted that they didn’t know anything about life, and all these years later we have to recognize that Lennon’s mother and he were right about the happiness factor.

As a teacher and administrator at all levels of education for over 25 years, I have seen both sides of the spectrum. I have been in classrooms and buildings where “happy” must have been a word in a foreign language. I witnessed students who went about their daily routines in true and deep solemnity, and most of this had to do with an administration and teachers who had no concept of “student life.” They had all the curriculum covered, all the exits clearly marked, and the rooms properly ventilated, but whatever the policies were and however they were enforced led to markedly unhappy students. You could also tell the teachers were unhappy, breathing deep sighs as they went about their machinations. One golden rule of school is this: if the teachers are unhappy the students will be too.

I think we have reached a point in time where “grades” have been so over emphasized that they are becoming detrimental to the emotional and social health of students in many schools. I know in my own family, I have seen certain kids shaking about a test being given the next day. This can also go back to parents who express that nothing less than an “A” is acceptable. So those kids who see other students celebrating their “B” or “B+” on a test are going home with a “B+” expecting (and probably getting) the wrath of an seemingly unloving parent.

The first blame has to be placed on educational institutions that have pressed assessment as the great panacea of our time. High scores will help districts get more funds from the government, so the politicians are responsible for this mentality as well. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top never recognized that some kids will not keep up or be able to climb the mountain. School is about learning and becoming aware of life and understanding how to be socially successful; it should not be about the best grades and using the grades to break students’ spirits or remove supposedly ineffective teachers.

All of this is very political and has nothing to do with real education. The current emphasis on teaching to the test is leading to a breakdown of what we all want for our children. It is time to face some hard truths – unhappy kids will grow up to be in even worse emotional states than those unhappy people I have seen taking the subway to work each day. We are missing something along the way and need to rethink what is happening in our schools.

I recall observing two lessons in different first grade classrooms. Both teachers were doing a spelling lesson. One wrote the words on the SMART Board, asked students to repeat them, and then asked them to write the words in their notebooks and to make up a sentence for each one. The teacher put great emphasis on their penmanship (which I found to be a bit excessive at this grade level), and students raised their hands because they were having difficulty. Sadly, these kids were not smiling even though the teacher was doing what she felt was her best to accomplish the lesson.

The second teacher told the students to clear off their desks and put everything away. This immediately stirred excitement and expectation. She wrote the same words on her SMART Board, and then she distributed large pieces of paper to the students (who sat four to a table). She told them to “put on your smocks” and then produced finger paints. They were to write each word on their papers with the paint and then a sentence for the words, and she promised to later hang the papers prominently in the hallway. The kids were laughing and smiling throughout, and I know they were learning and enjoying the moment at the same time.

What it comes down to is the teacher, of course, being brave and flexible enough to not just think out of the box but to throw the box away. It is also essential that teachers have administrators who support their efforts to make education something that lights up children’s faces and doesn’t put frowns on them.

The overemphasis on grades has led to a dour atmosphere in many classrooms. Teachers, understandably worried about losing their jobs if test scores are not up to par, are not in the mood to smile because they are nervous. They are then positioned to do only what is expected of them – teach to the test and get those scores up! In this climate there is no room for happiness, and that is a travesty for our students and their parents.

happy 2 huff postJohn Lennon moved to New York City because he was “happy” here. Lennon’s last years were spent embracing his new home, a place he loved, and if you saw him walking through Central Park, he was happy mostly because people left him alone (he could never have walked through Hyde Park in London without being mobbed). Lennon was living the life that he spoke about in school when he was 5 years old. The key to life is to be “happy,” and being happy is something that parents and guardians should want for their children.

I would like to revise many things in education if I could and, besides changing grading systems (eliminating them in favor of projects and portfolios would be even better), I think we should be teaching “happiness” at every grade level. I would propose that even when students are freshman in college that they should have a required course – Happiness 101. It most definitely must be taught by professors who are not afraid to smile and share the joy with their students.

Next time you are in your children’s schools, look around at the faces of the other students. Are they smiling? At the end of the day do they look as if they are coming out of the circus or the morgue? Sit with your own children at dinner and, after asking about homework and tests, ask the more pertinent question: “Were you happy today?” The answer should surprise and delight you, and if does not then you have some work to do. In fact, I would dare say that we all have work to do for our children and generations to come to acquire more than knowledge but sustained and lasting happiness. Anything less should be unacceptable.

Photo credits: Lennon- sramirezhscomplit, huffington post; kids – 123rf.com

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Ryanweston605

    I agree with a lot Victor Lana has said here. The truth is that we have turned our schools into overly competitive hell holes, where we cruelly pit our children against each other. We teach our children only to care about ego centric goals and we teach them nothing of the value of human connection. There whole educational experience is geared towards getting jobs, regardless of whether or not those jobs will bring them any satisfaction, or indeed whether those jobs serve as any benefit to society. Many jobs simply don’t! And then we scratch our heads and wonder why our children feel miserable, stressed and unhappy and our schools are full of bullying and God’s know what else. Our school system is defunct and it needs major upheaval.

    Primarily what we need to do is to teach our children the importance of good connections with other people. That would be a step in the right direction. The bottom line is we have to take this over competiveness out of our educational system and we have to put happiness back on the menu. One thing that can certainly help with that is the following app:

    http://y55happy.com/
    http://vimeo.com/71677533

    • http://www.henrybuell.com/ Henry Buell

      Well written Victor.

      @Ryan – Schools definitely need to change, but so do parents. We teach our children these things by example. Parents have children, and then as soon as they can they rush back off to work instead of raising them. The schools and daycare centers instead raise the children, and honestly, it shows – and by and large a lot of the parents aren’t too happy either.