Laughter is the true test of success

Credit Chris Huggins/flickr creative commons

I have a confession. I am a high school teacher who doesn’t care about how many As my students get or how many are on the Honour Roll.  In fact, I dislike high stakes tests as much as my students do. If we do have tests, they’re frequently open book. I tell my students that tests test how well you can do tests.  And so I do not “teach to the test” but I do teach my students how to do tests. Much of the lesson relates to how to combat test stress.

What do I care about most is how my students feel when they’re in my classroom. This is the most critical indicator of whether my students are learning or not. It’s the ground upon which I build my teaching practice.

On my recent trip to Italy, I was surprised and thrilled when Tullio De Mauro, a former Minister of Education expressed a similar idea. We were in a moderated dialogue during Internazionale a Ferrara 2015 when he said that the evaluation that teachers should be concerned about most is their students’ evaluation of their time in the classroom. We agreed that the physical space of the classroom did not matter as much as the emotional space that was created.

It’s wonderful to have a former Minister of Education in Italy espouse the importance of a hospitable classroom but what will it take to have all current politicians here in North America realize this truth? All across Canada and the United States, the powers that be insist on testing as a way to increase student achievement despite innumerable studies that reveal the failure of this approach.  I wonder if anything will change now that the White House recently called for limits on the number of tests that students are subjected to?  

I suspect it will take many more years before the stress of tests is a thing of the past for students.

But tests are not the only source of students’ stress in school. Most of us have vivid memories of a whole range of situations and experiences that made school a place we didn’t always want to be. When I was a student, I was frequently afraid or bored or tired even though I achieved many As. Turns out not much has changed over the decades since my high school graduation. A study released last week, reveals that 75% of high school students (Grades 9 – 12) feel either bored or tired or stressed.

The biggest tragedy of this for me is how much we are wasting the creativity of our adolescents. Just when their brains are developing the ability to think abstractly and to be creative, we bore them with forced memorization of facts we already know and that they can instantaneously access on the phones. Despite this travesty, there are growing numbers of teens who are simply going ahead and solving problems we adults had not been able to.

Ken Robinson’s  Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk has over 35 million views. Clearly there are many people around the world aware of what we are doing to our students’ creative potential so why do we continue to do this?

My students’ creativity constantly amazes me. I am often in awe of how they respond to assignments where their imaginations have free reign. I love evaluating those assignments because each one is unique, each student’s interpretation an expression of how alike and unlike they all are. When a final exam response includes the performance of a spoken word poem along with a brilliant talk punctuated by laughter, stress and boredom are simply not in the room.

But laughter does not come easily to me. I am by nature rather serious and so I’ve had to work hard at creating circumstances in my classroom where laughter is a frequent and welcome visitor. I have taken a course about laughter in which I learned about how well our bodies and minds respond to laughter.  I discovered that laughter is actually quite a serious matter!

In fact, it turns out there is a link between laughter and creativity. The more you laugh, the more creative you are when solving problems. Wouldn’t it be great if students could have a laughing session before each test? There’s a research study that needs to be done!  

Each school year many of my students make it onto the Honour Roll, many also achieve the coveted As but what I care about the most is how they felt and how often they laughed when they were in my classroom. They’ll remember that for much longer than they’ll remember what was on a test.

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