Towards joyful ways of learning

Dr Lauren White, along with colleagues from the SMI, Library and SU are working on a project to consider how the process of creative learning can be a joyful & transformative educational experience. Read Lauren's reflective blog on joyful learning.

The word Joy spelt out in scrabble blocks

What is it about joy? What does it mean? Is it frivolous or juvenile to sit with joy, to seek it, to crave it, to feel it? What does it mean to ‘find’ it? Is joy merely a fleeting encounter and if so, why should we keep moving towards it? Do we give ourselves, and others, permission to find and feel joy?

Is joy merely a fleeting encounter and if so, why should we keep moving towards it? Do we give ourselves, and others, permission to find and feel joy? Is joy a personal, emotional, embodied and individual experience or is it an existential encounter and part of something much bigger than us? And crucially, why should we consider the presence and atmospherics of joy in higher education with these questions in mind?

These are questions that we’ve sat with as a team on the joyful learning project. We’ve anticipated institutional responses to ‘Why joy?’ when we have such structural barriers to negotiate, injustices to take on, targets to hit, that affect staff and students alike. Might it be seen as insensitive to choose the lighter, more playful option, to ignore the weight and the challenge, and the discomfort? Well actually, we’ve found, you simply can’t. To move towards joy, to choose it, as a feeling, as a pedagogy, as a process of collaboration, as a practice, we must also sit with the (un)safety and the (dis)comfort that prohibits us from finding and feeling it.

Our project, supported by the Faculty of Social Science Education Fund, wanted to bring joy to the forefront of our thinking. As a team, we had a sense that this drive to joy and its affirmative orientation is entangled with our own positions, our individual and collective ways in which we seek to disrupt ways of knowing, of being and of creating participatory, inclusive and creative ways of learning together. Drawing upon the work of Bell Hooks, we know that as educators (and as lifelong learners too) that we must channel our efforts to:

look, live find and create spaces of joy


2003: 169

And we think we must do this because that’s where the light comes in. That’s where we feel connected, where we as individuals and our unique selves feel part of something bigger and that our roles within that matter.

And how do we know this? Our student lead researchers led two creative and arts based workshops centred around joyful learning by asking and critically engaging with such questions. When asked to pick an image on what represents joy to them, students selected animals, the natural environment, community, connection - independencies. Quite simply, joy was found beyond our individualised selves. When asked about higher education and their university experience, little joy was to be found. Individualised, goal and achievement driven targets of grades, assessment and ‘what’s next’ stifled and squashed joy, with the exception of committed individuals and pockets of community and friendships that eased the load of educational experience(s).

Now, it is of course not our intention here to de-centre some of the material realities of why we come to university or what happens when we leave, but rather to think about the process of learning (including the safety and security to ‘fail’) and moving forwards a pedagogy of joy rather than one solely about achievement. Indeed, bringing attention to a pedagogy of joy may enhance student achievement - joy, learning and self-discovery as successes within themselves.

Our student participants and co-researchers also took time to sit, to chat and to create an artefact that may or may not have been related to joy. Stories and biographies were documented, political statements were captured and the weight of inaccessible and hierarchical systems were outlined to demonstrate the ways in which many of us don’t fit. As creative and participatory methodologists, we know that such ways of working through art-based tools facilitate a route into such strengths of feelings. I don’t know if we were quite ready for the emotional weight and existential questions that come when we ask a question such as the meaning and experience of joy. 

So where does this leave us? Our task now is to think about how we can create conditions that move us towards joy. We want to think about how we transfer ourselves towards a pedagogy of joy and the university as a site and space of creativity, inclusivity, and interconnectedness. First, this requires us to acknowledge and work on several things. As Braidotti (2020) notes,

We are in the world together but we are not one and the same.



We must acknowledge our collective endeavour whilst recognising that we as individuals require different resources, we learn in different ways and, we express ourselves and communicate our learning in a diversity of ways too. Returning to hooks (2003) we need to create spaces for joyful connections, within and beyond disciplines to enable connected learning. The Digital Commons in the University Library, where creativity and community is happening, is but one space for this to happen. We need to figure out whether we need to listen first and act second. We all bring with us our own background and a sense of belonging when we enter higher education, and we need to pay attention to this. We need to take up time and space and to be granted more of it.

As our one of our student co-researchers has beautifully articulated:

Joy can’t be constant. But, to support a sustainable, diverse and dynamic learning environment, just like in a healthy ecosystem, we require a meaningful, deep and interconnected investment in its foundations to enable moments of joy to flourish.

Student Co-researcher

Joyful Learning Project

And that’s the task for us, together, to work towards.

We’d like to thank the Faculty of Social Sciences Education Fund for supporting this project and to all the students who shared their experiences and creatively contributed to our collaborative workshops.

This project has been led by Alison Romaine, Shona Tulloch, Grace Cleary, Dr Lauren White (Sheffield Methods Institute), Dr Vicky Grant (The University Library) and Dr Will Mason (Sheffield Methods Institute).

To find out more about our project, please visit our website Or contact Dr Lauren White at

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