“Infants and toddlers love learning and do it intrinsically. Grades often kill intrinsic motivation. Just ask the average middle schooler ‘What did you learn in school today?’ and you are likely to get in return ‘Nothing.’ They have lost the thrill that so many have on the first day of kindergarten.” –William Sharp, psychoanalyst, Wheelock College, Boston
The finding that happy students tend to be high-achieving students, from a small 2013-14 survey of about 450 fourth-to-12th-graders at a private school in Potomac, Maryland, where parents are very invested, emotionally and financially, and have college degrees, if not doctorates, is hard to generalize to most American children. It is interesting and encouraging.
When students are deprived of their happiness, their grades are liable to suffer, according to this research from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In the study, Christina Hinton, adjunct lecturer at Harvard, found correlations between students’ happiness and their motivation and achievement. Happy students tending to be high-achieving students is a counter-narrative to the view of school as a necessary pill to swallow. “It’s often seen as you have to sacrifice happiness in order to do well. In fact, if you support students’ happiness, they’re more likely to do well,” Hinton concludes.
Happiness is defined by Harvard “as frequent positive feelings accompanied by an overall sense that one’s life has meaning.” Based on the Harvard study, Hinton says, “we are thinking of happiness as a skill that can be built over time rather than a stable personality trait.” She stresses that the research thus far doesn’t demonstrate that being happy causes students to earn higher grades. “Some students could be unhappy and still do well. It’s an average effect that if you’re happy you’re more likely to do well.”
Some would argue that happiness is very elusive and difficult to dissect. What about desires and motivations that drive us to achieve? Those desires make us actively participate in life. Unhappy students can display low motivation which leads to low grades–even when the students may be very bright.
At Horizonte, Salt Lake City School District’s alternative high school and adult education center, formerly unsuccessful students feel valued and appreciated. Teachers convey joy in learning, have patience and focus one-on-one. As these students experience happiness from love of learning, they value their work and its reflected in their performance.