There were a couple of pretty good keynote speakers at ITEC this year — Buddy Berry did the Monday session. I’ve written plenty about him already. The Tuesday keynote speaker was Dean Shareski. The title of his talk was, “The Relentless Pursuit of Joy.” It was a good presentation. Essentially, at the core, the big idea was emphasizing the importance of student engagement through a strengths-based approach: a great message. The way to get there or the “how” was the pursuit of joy. Shareski shared this early lip-dub produced in 2009 from Wartburg here in Iowa that apparently ignited this line of thought. His ending call was that all educators need to make it a priority to design for or set the conditions that make joy possible for everyone in their classroom (including the teacher).
I recently wrote about some new personal insights about my son Koan from Mr. Shareski’s presentation. And, so from that standpoint alone, listening to him speak was a worthwhile and valuable experience. But, after reflection, I do question his core premise. While I think joy is incredibly important, I’m not sure it’s a worthy pursuit unto itself. As I reflect, I find the pursuit of meaning and purpose to be more fulfilling than joy. Don’t get me wrong, I love feeling joyful. But, doing purpose laden and meaningful work is much more satisfying and sustaining, at least for me. And, sometimes this type of work is really difficult, hard, and even unpleasant. During the presentation, Shareski did his best to deconstruct and discredit the term “rigor” as it applies to school. His assertion is that rigor is a very negative, and counter-productive concept. I don’t disagree with a lot the thought behind this. Nothing — learning at schools in particular — should be difficult for difficulty’s sake. We don’t need to artificially construct suffering to teach grit. We learn perseverance when we are doing things that we love. There is an important distinction to be made, too. The things we love are not always strengths. There are many things I enjoy and strive to improve upon that I’m would not categorize as a strength — playing the guitar or distance running are a couple of good examples. I have done both for years and while I’ve gotten better at both, I’m still not very good at either. So, I think this goes deeper than just working with a student’s strengths. This is complex and difficult work. As I look back over what I’ve done so far in my personal and professional lives, I find that I’ve gotten the greatest satisfaction from difficult, meaningful, complex situations I’ve navigated. Sometimes (many times) while engaged in that type of work, it was not fun and not joyful.
I’m certain Shareski was not implying that the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of joy are mutually exclusive activities. Sometimes (the best of times), there is a complete overlap between meaningful work and joyful work. But, I believe that joy, by its very nature, is fleeting. I think for most people, it’s impossible to sustain. Doing the same thing over and over is a joy-killer for most people, even activities that have produced joy in the past. We get tired of them, and they lose their novelty. Most people would need to continuously seek out new things that make us joyful. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does feel a little trivial to me. If I must spend my energy pursuing something, I choose to strive for meaning — which can result in short stints of joy — rather than to intentionally chase after a temporary rush of joy as an end unto itself. I really believe the truly essential core of wellbeing is developing a deep understanding of what we are good at (strengths) and a broad knowledge of what we love to do (interests). Locating the intersection of these two dimensions is the art of finding happiness. As we look to design learning, this seems like a pretty essential skill set if we are looking to build confident, persistent, and competent learners.
I realize this is pretty substantive, philosophical thinking for an ed tech blog post. A significant portion is rooted in semantics as well. But, I find the simple, false dichotomy of “rigor bad, joy good” very unsatisfying. I recently read a sticker pasted on the cover of one of our Macbooks here at Prairie. It said, “Don’t steal the struggle.” The struggle brings meaning and often joy. I can get behind that.