Sparking Joy in History Classrooms - Mark Baildon, Cheva Rajah & Suhaimi Afandi - HSSE Online

HSSE Online 8(1) 66-76

         Sparking Joy in History Classrooms
                  Mark Baildon, Cheva Rajah & Suhaimi Afandi

                         National Institute of Education (Singapore)

    “Joy spreads. Joy provides strength to a        students will benefit when some of their
learner to face and surpass difficult               time and energy devoted to drilling and
situations.”                                        preparing for examinations is instead
(Rantala, Ukusiautti & Määttä, 2016, p.23)          allocated to preparing them for what
                                                    matters to their future (Ong, 2018, para.
                Introduction                        29-31).

    In 2017, then-Minister of Education, Ng         If we take the Education Ministers at
Chee Meng emphasized the need for joy of         their word, Singapore’s education system
learning in schools. In his parliamentary        will undergo a profound shift away from the
speech, he commented, “We believe in             primary emphasis on academic results to
nurturing the joy of learning so that every      one that endeavors to instill joy of learning.
child can discover his interests, grow his       Calling this new phase of the education
passions, and love what he is doing. School      system “learn for life,” Minister Ong
should not just be about doing well in           declared that it is time to focus on “the true
exams. It should be an exciting place to         spirit of learning” so that education can be
acquire knowledge and skills, where              “both an uplifting and integrating force” by
learning is fun and with the necessary           helping people develop “the skills and
rigour” (Ng, 2017, para. 11). For him, the       knowledge to lead dignified lives, fulfil
joy of learning is not merely about having       their aspirations and contribute to society”
fun in the classroom; it should be balanced      (Ong, 2018, para. 2). Nurturing joy in
with academic rigour. Since then, this has       learning would entail encouraging students
become the prevailing view of the Ministry       to identify their interests, develop their
of Education (MOE) Singapore, and                passions, and focus more on intrinsic
reinforced by the current Minister, Ong Ye       motivation than on extrinsic factors, like
Kung in the 2018 Schools Workplan                exam scores.
                                                     We might ask why the Ministry is
   We know that students derive more joy         calling for this turn toward joy of learning.
   in learning when they move away from          It might be due to growing concerns about
   memorisation, rote learning, drilling         the “heavy costs” of an intensely
   and taking high-stakes exams. Very few        competitive and instrumental education
   students enjoy that. It is not to say that    system (to produce a productive workforce),
   these are undesirable in learning; quite      and the impact this has on children’s well-
   the contrary, they help form the building     being and flourishing in other areas of life
   blocks for more advanced concepts and         (How, 2015). This is a very real concern.
   learning, and can inculcate discipline        However, this turn to joy of learning is also
   and resilience. But there needs to be a       not unique to Singapore; such interventions
   balance between rigour and joy, and           are being introduced in education systems
   there is a fairly strong consensus that we    around the world (Ciarrochi, Atkins, Hayes,
   have tilted too much to the former. Our       Sahdra, & Parker, 2016). For Ahmed
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(2010), these developments are part of the       242). This question encourages us to ask if
“happiness turn,” evidenced by the               our own schools and classrooms are places
happiness industry (e.g., the slate of popular   of joy. And, it prompts other fundamental
works on happiness, joy, well-being, etc.),      questions about the purposes of school and
the positive psychology movement and             learning. We begin with the assumption that
greater emphasis on positive education (e.g.,    asking the right questions can enable new
see Seligman, 2011; World Government             possibilities for teaching and learning.
Summit, 2017). Ahmed (2010) argues that          Exploring good questions can be a source
happiness       and     joy      are     often   of great joy; although they often arise from
instrumentalized as techniques to shape          frustrations, problems, and tensions that we
people’s views and behavior through              experience, questions prompt us to wonder,
positive means and reconfigure policies that     make sense of experience, to learn, consider
have focused on economic growth at the           the need for change and to grow as human
expense of happiness. While we believe a         beings. Starting from these premises, we
focus on joy of learning opens new               ask you to consider a few from the outset:
possibilities for teaching and learning, we
also don’t want it to conceal fundamental           • What does joy mean to you? To your
problems in education or society. An                  students? What is the experience of
increased emphasis on joy in schooling                joy like?
shouldn’t be used to brush away legitimate          • What sparks joy for you? For your
complaints, grievances, or discontent.                students? Think about a time when
Paying attention to and addressing what               you (or your students) experienced
causes students and teachers despair,                 joy. What gave rise to this
dissatisfaction and anger can be                      experience?
productively channeled and serve as                 • Now, think about a time when you
powerful drivers for real educational and             (or your students) experienced joy in
social change.                                        teaching (or learning) history.
                                                      Describe this experience. What was
   Drawing on these and other perspectives,           this experience like? Why did it
we ask what might joy of learning mean for            happen? What particular conditions
classroom practice? Can greater emphasis              gave rise to this experience? What
on joy of learning help develop a “true spirit        was it about history (as a subject)
of learning”? What new possibilities are              that contributed to this experience of
opened up for learning/learners and                   joy?
teaching/teachers by greater focus on joy?          • In what ways can you share your
What might this look like in history                  experiences of joy with your
classrooms – a subject often perceived as             students?
boring and irrelevant? Can teachers make            • What do your students say brings
assessment more meaningful and a joyful               joy to them? What do they find
experience for students? In this article, we          enjoyable in learning?
take up these questions to consider what
sparking joy might look like in history              We hope these are useful questions for
classrooms.                                      educators and students to discuss, to
                                                 explore what is joyful or enjoyable in
            Start with Questions                 learning, even how or why many of us were
                                                 called to study, learn, or teach history.
  Goodlad (1984) asked over 35 years ago,
“Why are our schools not places of joy?” (p.        We believe history has potential to spark

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joy, that it can provide lively, engaging,      subject matter, such as the feeling of
meaningful learning experiences, and that it    empathy in learning about how individuals
adds immeasurable value to life and             were affected by events in the past; social
preparing for the future. What is it that       emotions such as pride or shame, since
connects us to history as a subject or that     learning is always situated in social
continues to be a source of joy in terms of     contexts; and epistemic emotions that arise
learning or teaching? We consider some          from cognitive processing, such as surprise
possible responses next.                        or confusion when confronted with a
                                                perplexing historical problem (D’Mello,
        Sources of Joy in Educational           2017). Pekrun and Linnenbrink-Garcia
               Experience                       (2012) highlight how a challenging
                                                problem, question or prompt can initiate
    Random House dictionary defines joy as      surprise, which leads to curiosity and
“the emotion of great delight or happiness      interest, and then enjoyment when the
caused by something good or satisfying”         problem is understood and solved.
(cited in Wolk, 2009, p. 4). According to       However, anxiety and frustration can also
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2016), joy             be experienced when the problem is not
comes from within, dependent on our             understood or a solution does not seem
outlook, rather than from external sources,     possible. Addressing challenging questions
such as wealth, power, or status. It seems to   or problems, then, can be sources of great
come to us most often when we do things         joy or frustration, depending on how they
for others, make others happy or serve          are handled in classrooms. These
others in meaningful ways. The Dalai Lama       researchers highlight that emotions
(2016) emphasizes the importance of             influence student engagement with subject
perspective in having a joyful outlook, the     matter and thus impacts their learning and
need to see things from many different          achievement.
angles to gain “a more complete and
holistic view.” For educators, it requires us       Similarly, teacher emotions play a
to step back from the daily grind and           central role in classrooms. Keller, Frenzel,
consider the ways joy can be cultivated,        Goetz, Pekrun, & Hensley (2014) found
fostered, and supported as daily classroom      that the primary source of teachers’ joy was
practices. This means no longer seeing          derived from their students’ growth,
schooling as “primarily about creating          especially when their students had
workers and test takers, but rather about       breakthroughs in learning. Positive
nurturing human beings” (Wolk, 2007, p. 9).     relationships with students was another
We need new perspectives about education        source of joy for teachers. These
to create more space and time for joy in        researchers found that enjoyment is a
classrooms.                                     common emotional experience for teachers.
                                                In general, a sense of professional efficacy,
   Researchers also have something to say       the sense that one is being effective in terms
about fostering joy in classrooms. Pekrun       of helping students learn while remaining
and Stephens (2011) note the centrality of      true to one’s beliefs and values, was a
emotion in teaching and learning. They          source of teachers’ positive emotional
identify four “academic emotions” in            experiences.
classrooms: achievement emotions, such as
contentment or frustration, often linked to        In examining what contributes to joyful
achievement outcomes (success or failure);      experiences in classrooms, Wolk (2008)
topic emotions aligned with learning            argues that school spaces must be inviting

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places and encourage student exploration,        monitor their activity.
discovery, and choice (e.g., see Starker &
Baildon, 2014 for examples of classrooms            In sum, what is important in terms of
designed for these purposes). Student            students experiencing joy in learning is that
choice and autonomy in learning seem to be       they feel a sense of purpose and agency,
crucial factors for joy. Rantala and Määttä      that they are able to make choices and direct
(2012) argue that “joy is linked with            their learning toward their own learning
freedom” (p. 95). Similarly, Kohn (2010)         goals. Rantala, Uusiautti, & Määttä (2012)
found that students need autonomy,               found that learners “finding tasks
opportunities to express themselves, and         meaningful is crucial for the experience of
the freedom to generate possibilities for        joy” (p. 24). School work has to be
their learning, rather than be continually       perceived to be meaningful, the learner
directed by their teacher or an overly           needs to set goals to work toward, and they
prescriptive curriculum. Students need to        must be granted opportunities to plan, direct
be given the freedom to make choices,            and evaluate their own learning.
develop a sense of purpose, and be in
greater control of their learning.                    Embracing Broader Purposes for
    For teachers, supporting student
autonomy is a critical factor in creating            If we move toward embracing joy as a
joyful    and      productive    classrooms.     fundamental element in teaching and
According to Rantala and Määttä (2012), it       learning, it requires moving away from the
is important for teachers to provide the right   obsession with exam preparation, test
amount of guidance and support so that           results, international comparisons on PISA
students feel they are able to successfully      (as indicators of educational success) and
manage learning challenges. This requires        prescribed or transmissive modes of
teachers to help each student match their        education. Rather than view education as
abilities with learning tasks and to avoid       mainly serving economic ends, and of civic
comparing them to others in terms of what        education to socialize students into narrow
they can and cannot do. Teachers must see        avenues of national affiliation, we might
each child as capable of performing the task     view education as more broadly developing
given       the       necessary      support,    human potential. Sen (1999) and Nussbaum
encouragement and guidance.                      (2013) suggest a capabilities approach to
                                                 broaden conceptions of education through
   Meaningful engagement is key to joyful        the lens of human flourishing. Education
learning experience. Csíkszentmihályi            for human flourishing would emphasize the
(1990) describes such engagement as flow,        development of capacities for imagination,
“the state in which people are so involved       thought and the senses (e.g., in the arts),
in an activity that nothing else seems to        multiple notions of affiliation (e.g., the
matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable    many ways of belonging and participating
that people will do it at even great cost, for   in social life), and greater agency and
the sheer sake of doing it” (p. 4).              political control over one's environment
Characteristics of flow include: working         (whether in the workplace or as a citizen).
toward clear goals without fear of failure;
focused effort with minimal distraction; a          The American educational philosopher,
balance between challenges and skills; and       John Dewey (1932) challenged teachers to
immediate feedback on one’s actions either       cultivate students’ capacities for joy and
from others or as self-feedback as they          happiness by having students focus on what

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they could do to improve society and the         together to manage the challenges of
conditions of others (Fishman & McCarthy,        authentic intellectual work, and by not
2010). This required students to focus on        being satisfied with current conditions or by
social problems, to be critical of current       imagining new possibilities. But, what
social conditions, and to work toward            might this look like in history classrooms?
helping others and social improvement.           Next, we explore some suggestions that we
Dewey (1932) believed that “Education            hope might spark joy in history classrooms.
should create an interest in all persons in
furthering the general good, so that they            Suggested Approaches to Spark Joy
will find their own happiness realized in                in History Classrooms
what they can do to improve the conditions
of others” (p. 243).                                History teachers can play a vital role in
                                                 making the learning of history a joyful
    It matters, then, what kinds of              experience for students. Apart from
educational experience we design for             developing students’ historical knowledge
students. King, Newmann, and Carmichael          and skills, history teachers can (and often
(2015) offer a framework of authentic            do) cultivate in students a positive attitude
intellectual work to guide pedagogy and          towards learning. Below we suggest
student performance in ways that meet            approaches to spark joy in history
some of the criteria for joyful educational      classrooms.
experience outlined above (e.g., a strong
sense of purpose to guide learning,                       Foster Joyful Relationships
meaningful learning tasks, autonomy,
engagement in activity at the edge of one’s          Joy is infectious. To teach with joy, the
skills, and learning that enables one to         most essential element is positive
develop their own skills, understandings,        interactions and relationships with students
and self-fulfillment while benefiting others).   (Rantala, Uusiautti, & Määttä, 2012).
Authentic intellectual work emphasizes           Teachers can actively and persistently
disciplined inquiry, the construction of         cultivate positive classroom interactions.
knowledge, and the value of students’ work       Very simply, this requires showing active
beyond school. This framework requires           and ongoing interest in students’ lives and
teachers to design rich tasks around             learning. For example, asking students
challenging problems or questions, to guide      questions about their interests, their
student autonomy in investigating these          aspirations and their experiences, and
problems, and ensure that student work has       finding out what they enjoy in and out of
value beyond school or an impact on others,      school can demonstrate care and concern to
rather than simply be considered for             students. Honestly exploring what they
success in school (i.e., for grades).            enjoy in learning history, what they think
                                                 would make learning history more
    The pursuit of joy cannot be construed       interesting, engaging and relevant, and
as only an individual experience. Instead,       checking in with them on a regular basis
joy in classrooms can be a collective            about these matters not only fosters positive
experience, and as noted by the Education        relationships with students, it provides
Ministers and the scholars cited above, it       feedback to improve instruction.
involves rigor, challenge, a focus on
problems. Paradoxically, joy comes from              Teaching is fundamentally about
struggle, by confronting reality and             relationships – one’s relationship to
investigating problems, by working               students as well as to subject matter and

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how that subject matter relates to students’     alternative accounts about the past or
lives. Putting positive relationships at the     counterfactuals (what might have happened
center of one’s teaching enables teachers to     if…). By engaging students in these
better tap into and leverage students’           fundamental questions, students begin to
interests and experiences to make                see history as about life (why things happen,
connections with historical topics. A            how people both shape and are shaped by
skillful history teacher is able to connect      social conditions, why people might have
with students in ways that make the study        different perspectives and tell different
of the past meaningful, engaging and             stories, etc.) and understand the study of
comprehensible to their students through         history as a means to understand past and
examples, analogies, and explanations that       current life.
tap into students’ prior knowledge and
everyday experiences. Such teachers are              Joy also comes from a sense of
passionate about history as a subject and its    belonging to something larger than
relevance for students. They have positive       ourselves and this can come from helping
views of their students, of history as a         students see themselves (their ethnicity,
subject, and continually express enthusiasm      religion, gender, families, etc.) as
and purpose for learning about the past as a     continuous with the stories and accounts
way to better understand present-day             that are explored in class. Shared stories (of
realities. Put simply, they are able to relate   origins, accomplishment, hope and
the content to present-day realities and         inspiration as well as of tragedy, suffering
students’ lives and experiences. They care       and injustice) give us a sense of belonging
about and listen to their students and they      to larger communities that exist beyond the
are passionate about history as a subject and    classroom. Students can feel a sense of joy
its vital importance in students’ lives.         by having opportunities to author and share
                                                 their own interpretations and stories in the
        Develop a Sense of Belonging             classroom community as well as broader
                                                 communities (e.g., by using social media).
    Fostering joyful relationships in            The study of history can thus give students
classrooms contributes to building a sense       a sense of agency in seeing themselves in
of the classroom as a vibrant meaning-           stories about the past as well as provide
making community. In history classrooms,         opportunities to tell their own stories. With
this is achieved when ideas, interpretations     guidance, students can learn to empathize
and perspectives are shared and explored         with those in the past, reflect on what these
rather than taught in didactic fashion.          experiences might have been like, and
Students feel a sense of belonging to a          consider the extent to which these
community where their views and voice are        experiences were similar to and different
valued and where they work with others to        from their own experiences. They feel a
make sense of the past. For instance,            sense of being able to participate in and
teachers can provide opportunities where         contribute to the classroom community and
students develop their own theories and          to communities outside of the classroom.
ideas about the past—why past events
happened (causation); why these events                      Give Students Autonomy
might be important (significance); why
people might have different perspectives             Students experience joy in learning
about the past (accounts); how things have       when they have the autonomy to be self-
changed and stayed the same over time            directed learners. This means, however,
(change and continuity); and explore             that teachers and students need to be

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comfortable with struggle – not giving in to    human connections (e.g., with others,
the feeling that we must help students avoid    between past and present, etc.). It is an
frustration when they don’t get “right          effort to more systematically understand
answers.” In other words, teachers need to      human experience in all of its varieties. And,
think about what it means to be an              because human experience is varied,
autonomy supporting teacher that scaffolds      learning about history is best done by
autonomy rather than provide procedural         providing a variety of learning experiences.
scaffolding to answer exam questions, for       For example, students can study works of
example. This means giving students             art as sources that offer insights about the
options and choice in their learning with       past. Artwork in all of its forms can serve as
appropriate levels of guidance to help them     artifacts of analysis and interpretation that
successfully direct their own learning. For     provide evidence about the past. The arts
example, students would be supported to         can also be used by students to express their
pursue their own questions to investigate       own views and ideas about the past in a
historical topics.                              creative fashion. Students should be given
                                                opportunities to both work with artistic
    If students generate and follow their       forms of expressions from different periods
own questions about the past, teachers have     of history (i.e., music, film, artwork,
to be able to guide students through the        literature, etc.) to understand the past as
inquiry process, help them negotiate the        well as be able to create their own forms of
many demands of historical inquiry, guide       art to communicate their ideas about the
them in looking for information and sources     past. The past is both represented in and
relevant to their study, and teach them how     used as a resource in many forms of creative
to proceed on their own and manage the          work.
many challenges they will face in studying
the past. There is an emotional aspect to           Experiential learning through fieldtrips
autonomy that teachers must scaffold as         or fieldwork (in museums, heritage sites,
well. This means helping students manage        historical landmarks, etc.) can help students
frustration, feeling overwhelmed, and           see how history is used to communicate
dealing with the ambiguity and uncertainty      meanings about identity (e.g., what it means
of multiple perspectives and interpretations.   to be Singaporean), how the past should be
Teachers themselves must learn to manage        remembered (e.g., through memorials or
the emotions that come from working in the      heritage sites), and future orientations (e.g.,
ill-structured domain of history which          reference to “founding ideals” for future
depends on multiple, often competing            plans). By being more aware of how history
interpretations,      perspectives,      and    is used for different purposes, students can
arguments. Creating a classroom culture         better understand why there are historical
that supports autonomy will require a           debates and controversies in the public
significant shift on the part of classroom      domain (over matters of identity, heritage,
practice to give students greater autonomy      politics, etc.). Through such experiences,
to practice and develop self-directed           students see how history plays a role in
learning strategies.                            everyday life and how particular sites and
                                                artifacts communicate meanings about past,
   Provide Variety: Experiential Learning       present and future.
              and the Arts
                                                    To spark joy in the learning of history,
   For Dewey (1916) the study of history is     then, teachers need to reconsider the format
an effort to make meaning and to recognize      of their teaching. Does it incite imagination

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and creativity for students? Does it allow      content and personal experiences or public
for a range of engagements, interpretations     problems (King, et al, 2015).
and expressions? Apart from expanding
their lesson plans to include field trips or        This requires immersing students in
the arts, teachers could also find novel ways   interesting problems. Authentic problems
to spark curiosity, interest and joy during     can deeply arouse student interest,
their regular classroom teaching. Teachers      motivation, and curiosity in pursuing the
cannot be afraid to experiment. At the very     subject. Not knowing the right answers, but
least, students tend to be appreciative when    asking the right questions might be the way
teachers try something different to try make    forward for our students to experience the
lessons creative and enriching.                 joy of learning in history. And, we need to
                                                continually ask students what they find to
        Immerse Students in Authentic           be authentic, interesting and meaningful
           Intellectual Work                    questions, problems and ways to learn or
                                                demonstrate their learning.
    Historical thinking is frustratingly
“unnatural” (Wineburg, 2001). It requires            Make Assessment More Meaningful
disciplined ways of reasoning that are
challenging and difficult, yet, like other          When assessments of students’ learning
complex forms of thinking and behaving,         are made more manageable and meaningful,
can bring great joy when learned and            students may find it a more positive and
applied. To make work authentic, teachers       joyful experience. A productive way to
can design tasks that engage students in        reframe     students’    perspectives    on
historical problems and issues that are taken   assessment is to guide students towards
up in public life (e.g., controversies about    understanding the role and value of
how the past is remembered), where they         assessments in learning: Where am I at in
are asked to interpret, evaluate and            my learning? What have I learnt thus far?
synthesize different sources of information,    Which are areas I need to improve on? How
consider different perspectives, and            can I improve my learning? Such questions
develop their own explanations and              cannot be answered without some form of
conclusions.                                    assessment to gain insight into one’s
                                                learning. Just as much as assessments are
    Since thinking in these ways is             used by teachers to guide their instruction
challenging, teachers must help students        and provide feedback to students, they are
see how they also do think in some of these     also equally needed for students to take
ways already – students do think about why      ownership of their own learning.
things “happen” (causation), they do assess
the importance of various things they               In routine assessments, teachers provide
encounter (significance), they often use        feedback on each student’s assignment or
stories (accounts) and evidence to explain      test. However, very commonly, students
things or to justify their thinking. Making     tend to focus on the mark or grade received
these connections can help students see that    than the feedback for improvement. To
these ways of thinking also aren’t so alien.    circumvent this, teachers may consider
However, the study of history provides          holding back the mark and allowing
more sophisticated ways of thinking that        students to undertake self-assessment or
can help them be more systematic and            peer-assessment using rubrics or level
rigorous in their thinking and help them        descriptors. At the same time, teachers can
make connections between historical             ensure that assessments are manageable,

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balancing the assessment task to student’s       of education, how schools can better
abilities to provide the right level of          support the development of a fuller range of
challenge. Meaningful assessment would           human talents, capacities and aspirations,
support student autonomy and engagement          and how education might serve broader
and authentic intellectual work, as outlined     social purposes.
                                                     Greater emphasis must be given to
    Assessment should not be the be-all and      classroom practices that spark joy in the
end-all of school life. Rather, teachers must    study of history. These include developing
emphasize the purpose of assessments and         passion for history as a subject that is highly
link them to learning instead of                 relevant to individuals and society, and
achievement. They should set realistic           creating classrooms as meaning-making
assessment standards based on their              communities characterized by positive,
students’ abilities, and refrain from over-      joyful    interactions     and     supportive
testing. Over-testing and an overemphasis        relationships. These classrooms would
on      academic       grades      can    be     provide a greater range of autonomy and
counterproductive. Only when students            freedom than we currently see in
realize that assessments are necessary for       classrooms, where students would have
their own learning and development, will         some degree of control to set their own
they no longer find them daunting or             learning goals, identify topics of interest for
dreadful.                                        study, and be offered a variety of
                                                 meaningful curriculum tasks to learn
                  Conclusion                     history.

    There is a need for studies that examine         We believe joy can be derived from
the sources of joy in history classrooms and     rigour, that these are mutually reinforcing
in Singaporean educational contexts.             aspects of learning in which students
Undoubtedly, greater emphasis on joy of          engage with authentic historical problems,
learning in history classrooms will remain       issues, and questions, are guided to manage
challenging under the testing regimes that       the challenging work of historical
currently exist in schools. However, we          investigation, and engage in rich learning
believe that some of the approaches              experiences that help them see how history
suggested above can also lead to enhanced        is a relevant subject for understanding the
student achievement in the study of history.     past, themselves and their society. The
                                                 spirit of inquiry would infuse the classroom
    There is a need for educators to insist on   as a location for continual questioning,
broader and deeper purposes for education        sense-making, and engagement. And this
to include joy, human flourishing, and           spirit of inquiry would include asking
authentic intellectual work that goes            students about the purposes of their own
beyond the overwhelming emphasis on              lives and learning. Teachers would scaffold
examinations, test scores and the narrow         students’ autonomy and help them manage
instrumental purposes of contemporary            the rigour of exercising their reasoning,
schooling for economic productivity. And         expressing their views, and developing
there is a need to talk with students about      their own arguments and conclusions.
what they care about and what they find          Giving students greater choice and voice in
meaningful in their own learning. There          the study of history in a supportive, positive
needs to be ongoing discussions in schools       classroom environment can be a source of
and society about the meaning and purpose        joy for both teachers and students.

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