Flow as an antidote to disengagement

As much as the “discovery” mode of learning in schools has been bashed by various education critics, I believe that the most powerful, memorable, impactful and longest lasting experiences in our lives arise from those periods in which we are completely immersed in a self-driven deep exploration of something or an equally self-driven need to create something.

The best characterization I have found for this phenomenon is from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He called it “flow” (see also flow in Wikipedia).  I think that designing educational environments that lead to flow is at the heart of what “discovery” learning is all about.  Incidentally, I know of very few educators who actually use the term “discovery learning” —it is an imprecise and ambiguous term. I don’t like it either for the same reasons.  I prefer to think of it, as Seymour Papert described it, as a constructionist activity.

One of the reasons for writing this blog post is to share a theory I have about student disengagement that occurs not only in school systems but also among children and adults in general.  Obviously, “engagement” and “flow” are highly synonymous but I want to emphasize the view that understanding the concept of flow, and designing environments that engender such experiences, might function quite well as an antidote to disengagement.  That is, understanding the conditions that would lead to flow, and actively taking steps to establish those conditions, might be an effective strategy to combat disengagement.

I also think that chronic disengagement can lead to depression and a negative self-image.  I believe that all people want to feel purposeful and driven but, for whatever reason, many school-aged children are distracted, or redirected, from naturally creative pursuits or from activities that genuinely support their quest to find answers to questions that matter to them.  With so many things pulling their attention away from self-regulated, self-selected activities, I think their emotional and intellectual selves get short-changed.  I am convinced that supporting children to engage in creative and exploratory activities can lead to flow and quality learning.

There is something about seeing a child rapt in an act of creation: painting, writing a song, building a sand-castle, making a video, weaving a Rainbow Loom bracelet, putting on a play, or making a cardboard arcade—creation brings a passionate focus to action, and this focus often leads to flow and deep learning.  There is also something about seeing a child spellbound in an act of inquiry: taking apart a machine, trying to put it back together, exploring a new place, asking big questions, researching online, doing experiments, or thinking ‘what if’—inquiry also generates a remarkable focus that often leads to flow and deep learning.

So, my question is, what are we doing as educators and parents to encourage and support our children to explore their creative impulses or find answers to the daily flow of questions that radiate from their minds every day? My guess is that we are doing quite a bit to support this kind of learning but I think we can do even better. I know I can do better. Sometimes I need to do things, one of them being writing this blog post, to remind me to do better and to remember, as Ken Robinson puts it, not to educate (or parent) the creativity or inquisitiveness out of our children.

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