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Curating Happiness in Education During a Pandemic

By Ashlea Campbell


“If we want children to be happy now and continue to derive happiness from their love of places, then somehow our curricula have to provide for this aim” - Nel Noddings Happiness and Education

The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine has brought about overwhelming concerns regarding public health and the spread of a deadly disease. In addition to these pressing concerns, educators and families have been thrust into a new normal of distance learning at home amidst crisis. Teachers struggle to teach a curriculum that was never meant for solely online learning. They have to make decisions as to which materials to include and what to omit. They have to provide additional resources so that parents can support their students’ learning. However, they face criticism from parents, and even from other teachers, about the amount and the type of work being sent home. This work is not inspiring, and if anything it exposes the inequities that exist within our educational systems. With this change in circumstance, it is important for teachers, educational leaders, and policymakers to make changes. This not only includes a change in curricular materials, but also a shift in the aims--goals and visions--for education. Now seems most appropriate to revisit the writings of Nel Noddings, specifically her work Happiness and Education.

Happiness as an aim is often overlooked in education. We consider behavioral objectives, and even economic goals for educating generations of pupils, but rarely do we examine happiness as a goal. Today, our pupils sit in turmoil as they attempt to make sense of the world around them, grieve and suffer loss, and, finally, attempt to learn. We as educators must “be moved to alleviate the misery around us” (Noddings, 2003, p.3). We must ask ourselves if the work we deliver to students helps to alleviate the misery around us, or are we contributing to it? And while we cannot alleviate suffering, and some may argue that some suffering is necessary for growth, we still need to consider if the assigned work inspires learning even during challenging times.

Alleviating Inequity in Education

“To be literate today, for example, is different from being in the days of Charlemagne…” (p.76).

The change in our society calls on us to analyze and evaluate our aims for education. What was considered literacy in the days of Charlemagne (being able to read, but not necessarily write) is not what constitutes literacy today. What constitutes literacy today is not what constituted literacy last week, last month, or any time prior to the coronavirus quarantine. Part of the evaluation of aims will have educators examining what it means to be literate, sufficiently instructed in mathematics, and ultimately educated.

What it means to be educated during the quarantine may influence what it means to be educated after the quarantine. It already is! The University of Denver, which is home to one of the most prestigious doctoral programs in Social Work will no longer require a GRE score as part of the application process. In Texas, the state assessments known as STAAR will be waived for the 2019-20 school year. Whether these changes will last after the quarantine remains to be seen, but a discussion will likely occur as a result of these changes.

This could open up the doors for populations who have been marginalized by the systems of education already in place to now have a fair shot of achieving happiness in school. Noddings notes how issues of inequity affect all learners.


Writers of the report do not pause to consider other, more generous ways of alleviating the inequity that has historically been associated with mathematics. For example, why not abandon the requirement that all college-bound students, regardless of their interests and abilities, present academic credits in mathematics? Why not consider ways to improve non-college courses so that mathematics is taught sensitively and practically within those courses? Why decide that the road to equity is established by coercing everyone into becoming proficient in mathematics? A thorough discussion of aims might lead in a different direction (Noddings, 2003, p.88).

This discussion is not limited to race or socioeconomic status, but also gender disparity and vocational tracking. During this time of uncertainty, one thing has remained the same for my family. My husband and I are employed. I point this out because before all of this, we lived as most middle to upper-middle class families. We have enough for our basic needs, but we often struggle to save or plan for our financial future. Our jobs are always in demand, but they are not attractive or “sexy” jobs, as I work in education, and my husband is a social worker. He entered a field that is predominantly dominated by women just as education is. Our pay provides a comfortable lifestyle, but nothing too extravagant. However, we love what we do. And during this time of uncertainty, we get to continue doing what we love and bring home a steady paycheck.

During this time, I think about what would have happened if my husband would not have followed his passion and love for helping people, what our life would be like right now. What would happen if he entered a “traditional” male career? Our financial security might be uncertain, but what would be most impacted is our sense of self and identity. During this time of crisis, we might not have anything that brings us joy, and that would negatively impact not only ourselves, but also our children as we try to help them learn at home amidst crisis. If we had succumbed to the notion that financial success equals happiness, we may not have chosen our current careers. If educational systems can provide vocational education that leads to happiness, then they are a success.


"American education can be rightly proud of these attainments and aspirations. Still, we could do better in securing these goals and others by analyzing the aims that gave rise to them. Why, for example, have we decided to encourage young women to study math and science? Well, because it’s the fair thing to do! Equity seems to require it. If equity is the aim, however, why are we not concerned that so few young men become elementary school teachers, social workers, early childhood teachers, and full-time parents? The response to this is that equity refers to equitable financial opportunities, and the occupations traditionally available to women do not pay well. But are they important? Well, of course. Why not pay appropriately for them, then, and strive for a balanced form of equity? " (Noddings, 2003, p.89)

Noddings’ quote emphasizes not only the importance of one doing what they desire, but also advocating for fair pay for important, essential jobs that may be deemed traditionally female jobs. I recognize that the lack of appropriate pay for jobs traditionally held by women could serve as a stand-alone topic of discussion. For the sake of brevity, I introduce this only to serve as a catalyst for rethinking the messages we send to students during this time.

Home as a Place of Learning

Lack of privacy does not signify immorality, of course, and this is probably a lesson that all students should learn about homes and the waves of other cultures. Today, many immigrant families, out of necessity, share space in ways that would make others of us uncomfortable. If the desire for privacy is culturally prescribed, we cannot regard it as a universal or basic need (Noddings, 2003, p.99).

On social media, I see educators lamenting about their students’ lack of access to technology, inability to complete the assigned work, student lack of privacy within the home, and even student apathy, which is easy to imagine considering the current circumstance. Even when teachers empathize with students, they acknowledge their home and background as deficient, a deficit to learning.

As a result, we have an opportunity to think of learning in a new way. The lack of privacy means we can engage families in student learning, and look to families as educators. The lack of access to materials means we can slow down, or think of delivering content in different ways. This will help educators to determine what to keep or omit in the curriculum. This will help them to determine what is essential.

Noddings provides some sage advice for including families in the educational process. We can look to them as experts on their learners, but we should never overwhelm them so that it takes away from the learning process.


Educators need to think carefully about how schools might increase opportunities for informal learning. They also should ask whether their interactions with parents increase or decrease the informal learning characteristics of good homes. The practice of involving parents in their child’s homework may, for example, actually reduce the parent’s enthusiasm for informal learning. Forced to act as taskmasters, parents may begin to feel that their proper role is to enforce formal learning instead of enjoying moments of shared experience with their children (Noddings, 2003, p.156).

Acting as taskmasters during this time is particularly challenging for parents who are also under pressure to perform professionally at the same capacity as they would in their places of employment. We should not neglect the families in curating happiness as an aim of education. Instead, happiness can be shared aim for students and their families.

Good Stewards of the Earth

In working with children and their connection to nature, we have to ask ourselves questions, pragmatic questions: What good does it do to adopt the view we are considering, for example, to save a little mouse? Can we do something to relieve the pain we observe? Should the existence of suffering destroy our happiness or make us more keenly aware of its fragility? (Noddings, 2003, p.130).

Now more than ever, being good stewards of the Earth is vital. We recognize that in order to come out of this experience, we have to be considerate of each other. While this is understood, it is not always taught explicitly in schools. As we practice distance learning, I implore educators to embed this often-ignored curriculum into the content areas. The great thing about environmental and ecological education is that it can be embedded into all content areas. From reading about dystopian society affected by poor environmental choices in English class to examining how to stop the spread of disease in science to looking at the economic issues of eco-justice work in Social Studies, this is the time to encourage our students to not analyze these issues, but work towards change. As they work to alleviate suffering for themselves, they also work toward alleviating suffering in others. As Noddings reminds us, “A major question for education is how to educate for a sensitive environmentalism that will extend care to all those involved and, at the same time, preserve and enhance human happiness” (p.130). Achieving academic success is not mutually exclusive from being happy or securing happiness for all and we can all do this by being open to new ways of teaching and learning in this time of crisis.

Ashlea Campbell is secondary program specialist for Richardson Independent School District in Richardson, Texas and a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado.


References

Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 
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