flow

At 43 Folders, there is a great video of then-14-year-old pianist Jennifer Lin playing, who also gives "her thoughts on flow and creativity" with respect to composing music. An excerpt of her process follows:

What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas that you can just improvise here at the piano. I choose one of those to become the main theme, main melody. Once I choose my main theme, I have to decide out of all the styles of music, what style do I want. And this year I composed a romantic style. So for inspiration, I listened to Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and all the great romantic composers. Next I made the structure of the entire piece with my teachers. They helped me plan out the whole piece. The hard part is filling it in with musical ideas, because then you have to think. And then when the piece takes somewhat of a solidified form, you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition.

And another thing I enjoy doing is drawing. Drawing because I like to draw Japanese anime art. And once I realized it, there's a parallel between creating music and creating art, because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing. It's your character. You want to decide, who do you want to draw, or if you want to draw an original character. And then you want to decide how you're going to draw that character. Like am I going to use one page, am I going to draw it on the computer, am I going to use a two-page spread like in a comic book for more grandiose effect. And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character, which is like your structure of a piece, and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details you need. That's polishing the drawing.

Lin noticed a similar process for composing music and drawing anime art. It makes sense to me that the process is similar for many activities, including writing.

The need for scaffolding
Lin is a prodigy. She started studying music with Yamaha at the age of four. So, by the time of this video, she had been studying music intensively for 10 years, achieving the status of an expert (see The Expert Mind). Yet, notice that even at her level of experience, knowledge, and skill, her teachers helped her "structure" and "plan out the whole piece." That approach is somewhat at odds with the expressionist school of writing which wants students to find their own voice from the beginning, and composition theory that prefers to be non-directive. (In practice, many, probably most, composition instructors scaffold students by teaching about strategies, invention, and other processes.) Note that Lin found her musical "voice" by listening to great composers. Similarly, chess enthusiasts study the games of the grandmasters.

The need for extensive reading
Lin's approach, a typical one in music and chess, suggests that students need to read great authors to find their voice, and to do so over a lengthy period of time. One obstacle in teaching writing, however, is that few students read extensively, much less read great authors extensively. Another is that for ESL writers, finding a voice means finding one acceptable to native English speakers, not a voice true to them and to their culture. There is no way to bypass this need. Lin's ability to "polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition"--in writing, to revise the essay, edit the details, and then finetune the overall coherence of the composition--is directly related to her extensive background in music.

Bottleneck constraints on creativity and learning
Lin's approach also indicates that creativity stems from one's familiarity with one's discipline or content. One problem in teaching composition at the university level has been transfer. For a variety of reasons, what is learned in first-year composition doesn't seem to transfer well to later courses, especially in other disciplines. Part of that lack of transfer is due to a lack of discipline/content knowledge. In attempting to develop their writing, students face two hurdles, subject matter knowledge and writing knowledge, creating a bottleneck that constrains developing their writing. (On bottlenecks, see here and here and here.)

Suggestions in teaching writing
One consequence of a bottleneck perspective is that students learning to write should write on topics they know well. Of course, they should move beyond their personal knowledge and experience and research their topics. Even though Lin obviously knew the romantic composers, she immersed herself in their music again. Thus, students need to immerse themselves in the conversations, academic and popular, on their topic, so that the more they know the concepts and issues on a particular topic, the more they can focus on their writing.

Along these lines, students might write on (and continue to research) the same topic via a series of papers that will allow them to focus more on developing their writing. For instance, on any topic, papers might include:

  • a rhetorical analysis of posters, advertisements, or photos on the topic
  • a letter to the editor of a newspaper
  • a review of a book or film on the topic
  • a proposal to a concerned party to take action on the issue

Reading, analyzing, and writing in different genres can also help students to become more aware of rhetorical conventions as they see how the conventions vary across genre, audience, and context. And as with Lin's teachers, we need to "structure" how they fill in the details: introducing them to different strategies for developing their ideas and planning their composition, making academic conventions explicit (see They say / I say), and so on.

To sum up, developing one's writing, one's voice, one's creativity, is mostly a matter students of spending time on task, as Lin does. However, providing structure and reducing the bottleneck of subject matter knowledge can help students in this process.

Related posts
Engagement and FLow
Flow, Games, and Learning
Want to be creative? Slack off
Engagement, flow, and classroom activity
They Say / I Say
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing

Quite a few people are agush in enthusiasm about Twitter, a new social networking application that allows quick messages to others. Here's Tim Lauer's Twitter Updates for 2007-04-19:

  • Reading: “Get a First Life: A One Page Satire of Second Life” (http://tinyurl.com/2m9t8a) #
  • Good Morning from Portland… #
  • At Lewis… putting together a painting easel for our life skills classroom… #
  • Visiting another school this morning #
  • Back at school for a bit, than to another meeting…. #
  • In an admin meeting… #

I'm not sure why Tim puts this on his blog nor why anyone would be interested in it. But some obviously are. Liz Lawley writes her thoughts on twitter,

I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

Clarence Fisher (Twittervision) has "a mash - up of Google maps and Twitter allowing you to see all of the Twitterers (Twits?) posts in real time posted on a world map." Beth Kanter wonders about Twitter for Nonprofits: Waste of Time or Potentially Useful?. (She has quite a few links to others writing on Twitter.)

But as Kathy Sierra noted some time ago in her article The Twitter Curve, people need to be careful about frittering away their time multi-tasking on less than trivial pursuits. She wrote,

For those of you who don't know about Twitter, it has one purpose in life--to be (in its own words)--A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? And people answer it. And answer it. And answer it. Over and over and over again, every moment of every hour, people type in a word, fragment, or sentence about what they're doing right then. (Let's overlook the fact that there can be only one true answer to the question: "I'm typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now... which is typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now." Or something else that makes my head hurt.)

About a month ago, she noted being in a minority (Is Twitter TOO Good?). The worst thing is,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in her article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Update: Robin Good has posted an excellent introduction to Twitter.

From the previous posts on learning theory (here and here), two crucial points were:

  1. Acquiring expertise in any field, including language, requires extensive practice.
  2. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.

You have to be motivated to practice extensively. Videogamers are and do. They can spend 50-100 hours on a game. Imagine a student spending 50-100 hours writing an essay! In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine ... [is] its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. ... Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.

These principles of expertise and competence are also seen in two theories of motivation: self-determination theory and flow.

In self-determiantion theory, motivation is driven by three needs:

  1. autonomy,
  2. social relatedness, and
  3. competence, including informational (not evaluative) feedback on competence, that is, feedback that supports autonomy in learning as opposed to controlling it.

Flow is a state in which one is fully engaged in the task at hand (see this review of Csikszentmihaly's book Finding Flow). Another post noted that flow occurs under certain conditions, three of which are:

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. tasks that challenge (without unduly frustrating) one's skills

These needs and conditions are an integral part of video games. But have they been in providing error feedback?

Probably not as directly as in other arenas. Just look at the condition of "immediate feedback." In my own first-year composition classes, error feedback is given mostly on essay drafts, which I receive every 2-3 weeks and return in 2-7 days. Can you imagine a basketball coach giving feedback only every few weeks and then a few days after the practice in question?

Although it's not as easy to incorporate these motivation principles into error feedback, I have a few ideas I'll discuss in the next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Have you ever noticed that second thoughts are often better than first ones? In my previous post, my first thoughts were to tie engagment to autonomy and time on task. Two days later, on my desk staring at me was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". "Flow" fits the notion of engagement better. From the book, flow is

the state in whch people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Most of us have had that "involved" moment happen, when we concentrated our attention so intensely on solving a problem, reading a book, climbing a mountain, on some task, that we lost track of time and when we became aware of our surroundings, a few hours or more had passed by as if they were minutes. Such "flow", according to Csikszentmihalyi, is "optimal experience" that leads to happiness and creativity.

Flow occurs when certain conditions are met, four of which are

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows why flow should be taken into consideration when designing class tasks.

If a task is not challenging enough, boredom sets in, while too great a challenge results in anxiety, and both cases result in task, and thus learning, avoidance. As one's skills increase, then the challenge must also increase for one to remain in a state of flow. Because flow is an enjoyable experience, one continues to increase the challenge level (as from A1 to A4 and so on), and consequently continues to improve one's skills because doing so is necessary to stay in a flow state. Thus, we see the importance of "engaging" students in school. From the book,

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Of course, easier said than done, especially when one's students (mine, for example) often hold full-time jobs while being full-time plus students. Too much work and too little time constantly puts my students in states of frustration. Even when not, flow states are not a regular occurrence in life; according to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor),

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

So, it's unlikely that in formal learning contexts that states of flow will be become the norm every day all day. After all, not all tasks are enjoyable, but they might be necessary, just as grading is a necessary but tedious part of teaching. Still, it seems more and more that students are being turned off by classroom learning. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

They don't, because they don't see the relevance of school learning. The relevance of math, for example, remains hidden until it is needed in a real world context such as engineering. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, in former times, young children learned in real settings, whether it was hunting, farming, or some trade. They could see first hand the relevance of their activity. Similarly, students playing sports and music see the relevance of any associated instruction. More importantly, goals are clear and feedback is immediate, as in chess when a piece has been taken.

Now, I still agree with Artichoke that student satisfaction/enjoyment is not a reliable measure of learning and that much talk about "engagement" is more jumping on a not-too-well-thought-out, feel-good bandwagon than anything else, but I want to look at this one point:

And engagement, despite Prensky’s slickly marketable “engage me or enrage me” stuff, engagement is not a self report measure of wonderment and awe but rather a reflection of the determined and persistent focus that a learner needs to promote learning.

As Brabazon notes in her provocative book Digital Hemlock “To read remember, understand, synthesise and interpret knowledge is often drudgery. To learn with effectiveness requires repetition, practice and failure.”’ (p9)

Why should repetition, practice and failure be equated with drudgery? James Paul Gee (pdf) notes how in good video games,

mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.

Yet gamers play hours on end, repeating the same moves over and over. And this is true, too, of playing sports, music, and chess. Yet, one seldom hears of the repetition in these arenas as drudgery, perhaps hard, perhaps demanding, but not drudgery. In fact, flow can be achieved in something as apparently boring as working on an assembly line. In his book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts the example of Rico:

The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? Like the runner who trains for years to shave a few seconds off his best performance on the track, Rico has trained himself to better his time on the assembly line. With the painstaking care of a surgeon, he has worked out a private routine for how to use his tools, how to do his moves. After five years, his best average for a day has been twenty-eight seconds per unit. ... when he is working at top performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost painful for him to slow down. "It's better than anything else," Rico says. "It's a whole lot better than watching TV." Rico know that very soon he will reach the limit beyond which he will no longer be able to improve his performance at his job. So twice a week he takes evening courses in electronics. When he has his diploma he will seek a more complex job, one that presumably he will confront with the same enthusiasm he has shown so far. (pp. 39-40)

Apparently, it is not repetition or practice per se that is drudgery. Perhaps, in school learning, repetition is not accompanied by variation, and so becomes drudgery. Perhaps, school repetition too often lacks the clear goals and immediate feedback of video games, sports, music, and chess, and so becomes drudgery. We need to find ways of integrating repetition and practice into school learning without them becoming drudgerous.

In the comments section, Artichoke stated,

the problem does seem to lie in the many differing meanings we attribute to "engagement".

If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Definitely. But the everyday meaning of engagement seems congruent with the academic concept of flow. In fact, one of Csikszentmihalyi's books is titled "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life". Perhaps informing our understanding of engagement with the research on flow can help us move forward in "engaging" our students. Flow, again, requires clear goals, immediate feedback, challenging tasks, and variation in those tasks. If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Related posts and articles:

I've partially fixed my webdesign problem with Internet Explorer. The sidebar can be seen. However, on IE 6, a supposedly transparent spacer covers the title, and on IE 5.2, the sidebar has dropped down. I have no more time right now. Maybe in December?

Working on my own design instead of just using the templates provided wasn't easy, especially as my HTML knowledge is limited, while my CSS knowledge is even more limited. So, why did I go through frustration instead of just using the templates? Where'd the motivation come from? Both the notion of flow and self-determination theory can shed some light here.

From the perspective of flow, I had clear goals, immediate feedback, focused attention, a sense of control (at least when I was successful), and a merging of action and awareness (see Flow, Games, and Learning and Flow Theory): As I tinkered with the design, I could quickly see what worked and what didn't. And the time flew by as I focused on the task at hand.

In self-determination theory, three needs for intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. I'm not quite sure how social relatedness applies here, but it's obvious that I had some competence (or I couldn't have finished what I had begun) and that I was fully autonomous in choosing what I wanted to do, how I went about it, and what I accepted as the final (for now) product. Despite the frustration, solving the puzzle of creating my own design was fun and satisfying.

Now I wonder, How often do our students enjoy the puzzle of learning? Looking back at my own undergraduate days, I'm not sure I enjoyed learning as much then as I do now. First off, the amount of cramming required for a high GPA required for going to graduate school simply took the fun out of learning. Note the word "required," a staple of educational institutions, which precludes much of autonomy. Of course, there were other factors, such as lack of time: I had to work my way through school. Lack of time affects the ability to develop competence--as noted above by my problem with Internet Explorer.

So, how do we go about creating environments that promote flow and self-determination in our classes? More on that later.

A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?

The blog Creating Passionate Users is written by a trio who are

all passionate about the brain and metacognition, most especially--how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. Oh yeah, and how to recognize when someone else (including one of us) is applying brain-based techniques to get you to do something.

I enjoy reading their insights on learning, but I wonder about the emphasis on "passion." What does it mean to be a passionate learner? How would being passionate differ from being obsessive? How many people are truly passionate, or obsessive, about anything?

According to Dictionary.com, passion is defined as "A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger" and obsession is defined as "A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion." I'm not quite sure where "a powerful emotion" ends and "an unreasonable emotion" begins. Perhaps it's a matter of societal approval as it is for the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic.

I wonder about this distinction because I enjoy learning and a variety of activities, but I find it difficult to consider myself passionate about learning or these other pastimes. Of course, I could be a little strange, but I like to think that more people are like me than unlike me.

We might compare passion and enjoyment to attraction and attachment in Helen Fisher's, an anthropologist at Rutgers, research on love. In her work, attraction, or romantic love, is caused by high levels of dopamine and norephinephrine. It's a euphoric chemical high that cannot be maintained, but eventually wears off. In contrast, attachment, stimulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, is associated with feelings of comfort, peace, and stability, and unlike attraction can last longer than a year, even a lifetime. Extrapolating, if we consider an educational goal to be life-long learners, we need to move away from passion and toward an enjoyment of learning.

One theoretical construct that can be of use in this move is flow. Flow, a theory developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology formerly at the University of Chicago, refers to an experience of total involvement and deep concentration. Most people experience flow at one time or another, and some frequently. I can remember being so absorbed in a game of chess or that I was oblivious to my surroundings for an hour. The conditions of flow are clear goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, and matching one's skills to the challenge, none of which relate to emotion.

Flow is a type of intrinsic motivation, a doing of the activity for the sake of the activity rather than extrinsic pressures. Csikszentmihalyi notes that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed for people to want to learn, but that intrinsic motivation should be educators' focus "to make children aware of how much fun learning can be."

I imagine the phrase "creating passionate learners" is more hyperbole than anything else, but perhaps we should simply consider motivating students to have "fun" learning.

From the Quality of Life Research Center (via Jeremy Hiebett) is an article published in School Psychology Quarterly co-authored by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist long associated with flow, the experience of optimal engagement. Here's their abstract:

We present a conceptualization of student engagement based on the culmination of concentration, interest, and enjoyment (i.e., flow). Using a longitudinal sample of 526 high school students across the US, we investigated how adolescents spent their time in high school and the conditions under which they reported being engaged. Participants experienced increased engagement when the perceived challenge of the task and their own skills were high and in balance, the instruction was relevant, and the learning environment was under their control. Participants were also more engaged in individual and group work vs. listening to lectures, watching videos, or taking exams. Suggestions to increase engagement, such as providing focused on learning activities that support students’ autonomy and provide an appropriate level of challenge for students’ skills, conclude the paper.

For those interested in the sampling methods used by Csikszentmihalyi, "Happiness in Everyday Life: The Uses of Experience Sampling" will be of help.

Along with the germ cell concepts in the previous entry, we need to consider the flow of germ cell concepts in the classroom. Outside of the teacher, where are the key nodes in the network? Do they involve students? Bottlenecks could result from not including students in the network of knowledge flow in addition to not having appropriate germ cell concepts. So, the lever points somehow involve the interaction of students, ideas, and niches in the classroom. I'm not quite sure where to go with this. One point to consider is that in education today, there is a focus on the learner-centered classroom, as opposed to being teacher-centered. However, a better approach might be a network-structured, idea-focused classroom, or more simply, a learning-centered classroom. Along these lines, I recommend reading Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world by Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler.