Reclaiming the Joy in Learning

Learning can be a source of joy.

Learning — whether independently or in a more traditional setting — can be one of the most joyful of human endeavors. Witnessing and facilitating the so-called “A-ha” moment is cited as one of the intrinsic rewards of instructional work; as a learner, I experience my own “light bulb moments” as a spark of delight coupled with an internal commentary of, “so that’s how that works!”

A figure looks at a giant light bulb.
“Light Bulb Moment” courtesy of unDraw

Then why isn’t it always joyful?

In practice, though, learning often becomes less joy-sparking and can even feel like drudgery, particularly after the initial thrill of novelty has worn off. Depending on your personality, the Whee-I’m-Learning! phase may be prolonged, but for many, it eventually gives way to a dutiful pushing-forward or abandonment of the effort.

How do I reclaim joy?

While each person will have their own experiences with learning, as I’ve facilitated the learning of hundreds of students over the past decade — from preschool to mid-career adults — I’ve fount a few tools that help me reclaim the joy in learning for myself and my students.

Progress before Perfection

In the United States, ranking and measuring academic learning begins as early as Kindergarten. This cultural emphasis on knowing how our own abilities and knowledge stack up against others’ makes it easy to lose sight of the ultimate reason we learn things: to become better.

Two figures celebrate; one is jumping in the air.
“Celebration” courtesy of unDraw

To re-center this motivation (especially during independent study, which can lack some of the motivating structure of a traditional course), I try to do two related things: acknowledge and lean in to my novice status and celebrate the tiny victories.

Why lean in to my novice status? Proclaiming myself a beginner allows me to side-step the perfectionistic feedback loop of why-can’t-I by celebrating the only time I have a built-in excuse to be this bad at and know this little about whatever I’m learning. (Bonus points if you, too, keep a list of all the cool stuff you’ll do with your knowledge once you’ve reached a higher level of mastery — the “It Will Be So Cool When I Can _______” list is a great way to stay excited about what you’re learning!)

By celebrating where I am in my current JavaScript learning journey, I’ve found people are very willing to offer helpful feedback and useful advice to help me get unstuck when my own Googling and troubleshooting aren’t resulting in working code. Acknowledging my beginner status allows me to celebrate the tiny victories when I get something working — or even make something slightly less broken — rather than expending energy worrying about whether my end-product is perfect while I’m still learning.

Make Something Ridiculous

One of my favorite ways to lower the perceived failure risk in learning is to make something fun, silly, or ridiculous. If the font or color scheme on an early version of a webpage is bad, who cares? It’s just a static web page celebrating one of my cats.

A human figure points at three radish-like creatures.
“Unexpected friends” courtesy of unDraw

It’s very easy to get caught up in trying to create “pixel perfect” work when what brings us to mastery is not perfection but practice — and lots of it. By making “breakable toys,” we give ourselves permission to focus on practicing concepts and building muscle memory first. This frees us to take a more playful, curious approach to learning, rather than an outcome-focused one. (“Breakable toys” is a term from Apprenticeship Patterns, but I learned the name for this concept from The Misanthropic Developer)

An additional appeal of the breakable toy is that I tend to think perfect is boring, while mastery borne of practice leads to all kinds of interesting new questions to explore.

Two figures look at a giant question mark.
“Questions” courtesy of unDraw

Celebrate (Useful) Failure

Most people don’t notice — or care — about my mistakes. Or at least, I’m not hearing about it.

It’s possible people are noticing my failures. If they are, they aren’t showing up at my house to mock me to my face or even sliding into my DMs to tell me how badly I’m doing. Instead, I’ve found that acknowledging my failures humanizes me to my students and peers and creates space for all of us to ask one another for help and, when spirits begin to flag, reassurance. When I can couple acknowledging difficulty with the steps I’ve taken to overcome or recover from failure, I demonstrate two important things to myself and my learning communities: it’s possible to recover from failure and failure can teach phenomenal lessons — if we get our egos out of the way. In contexts where I’m in my teacher role, sharing what I learned from failure has the added bonus of modeling how I reflect on my learning and how I view my successes and failures as part of an overall learning journey.

A human figure stands next to a giant sad-face emoji.
“Feeling blue” courtesy of unDraw

A recent useful failure was an attempt to create a more sophisticated version of a basic JavaScript assignment; the task as assigned required us to use JavaScript to toggle a class (class=“hidden”) when a user clicked anywhere on a webpage. I decided I wanted to tie that class-toggling behavior to emoji buttons and have each button show a different cat photo.

It didn’t work. It didn’t work because I didn’t really understand thatJavaScript if/else functions stop the first time the one of the conditions is true or the importance of being very specific with IDs and classes when using document.querySelector with multiple elements of the same type.

Don’t Forget to Play

I wouldn’t have learned those valuable lessons if I hadn’t attempted to build something ridiculous or taken the time to examine where things went wrong. The more we can embrace the idea that learning can be a form of play (or at least allow ourselves a more playful approach to learning), the easier it can be to find joy in learning. When the process of trying stuff out remains mostly-fun and we celebrate progress, motivation is easier to come by and progress continues.

A happy cat sits near leafy plants.
“Playful cat” courtesy of unDraw

It’s easy to forget to treat learning as a form of play, but the rewards of doing so are continued progress toward mastery — with a nice helping of joy as we go.

Let’s Connect!

I love connecting with other technologists, learners, and teachers on Twitter! Add me on LinkedIn here or join me on Twitter here. I’m currently learning JavaScript on Twitter, and I’m having a blast!

Bonus points if you share how you reclaim joy — whether in learning or other aspects of your life.

Correction

The original version of this article referred to using document.querySelectorAll; on reflection, the primary reason my project code was not working correctly was that I was not specific enough with my selectors, rather than whether I used document.querySelector vs. document.querySelectorAll.

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I nicknamed my cat “Potato,” address my students as Fellow Humans, and usually have a ridiculous number of tabs saved in OneTab.

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Cindy Black

Cindy Black

I nicknamed my cat “Potato,” address my students as Fellow Humans, and usually have a ridiculous number of tabs saved in OneTab.

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