When I came across this quote the other day, my head exploded.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s not an overstatement to say that these nine words once uttered by Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer often referred to as the “mother” of contemporary dance, sum up my whole philosophy of educating children and youth over the past 30 years.
No matter what it is we want a child to acquire—and that includes developing active ability in another language—the most effective way forward involves inspiring joy in the experience of that area of knowledge or skill. It’s not that teaching isn’t important, too, but teaching is secondary, really—and even irrelevant to some degree—when joy is given and illuminates the child’s experience.
When joy is kindled, it not only fuels learning in the present, it can stoke further learning that continues far beyond the time we work with that child. After all, whether as parent or teacher, the actual time we spend with a child is necessarily limited. Chances are, the period following our direct contact—the period without our presence, where the child ventures on independently—will last much longer. If joy is given in that limited time we have together, our positive influence may be felt for years to come.
The opposite, it should be said, can occur as well. When there’s a lack of joy in the learning, and the focus is solely on teaching for short-term gain, the greater outcome, far outweighing whatever has been learned, can be an enduring disenchantment with that area of knowledge or skill. I suspect we could all point to certain areas of our own lives where a shortage of joy in early experiences led to dislike and avoidance for decades afterward.
The truth is, it may look like I’m teaching when I’m with a child, but the teaching is really just what lies on the surface of this interaction. It’s what I’m trying to do through this teaching, at a deeper level, that I consider more significant:
I’m seeking to give children joy—joy for language and literacy—that will not only spark stronger progress during our time together, it will glow warmly, and promote continuing growth, for the rest of their lives.