Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Getting School to Flow

In the book Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work, Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider explore the types of learning experiences that increase student engagement and make students feel they're pursuing endeavors that are useful and relevant. Here are some passages from the book that show us how important inquiry-based and student-driven learning is in creating the most optimal learning experiences for students:

Schooling, we have found, is primarily a passive and independent activity. Students spend more class time listening to their teacher talk about a subject, taking notes, and doing individual work than doing anything else. There is a great deal of variation with respect to how challenging and important students find common classroom activities. In general, students concentrate harder and appear to learn more during activities that they find both challenging and important. 

Ferris Bueller let us all know how bored students really were in class
Unfortunately, some of the most common classroom activities are lacking both in challenge and in perceived importance to future goals. [Students show] a lack of active engagement in many of these dominant classroom activities. For example, students' concentration drops substantially while listening to a lecture or watching videos. In addition, students clearly indicate that activities like watching television are not relevant to their future goals. Students feel much more challenged when taking a test or quiz. But they do not particularly enjoy such experiences, nor do they feel good while they are involved in them.

Here's an illumination by Laurentius de Voltolina from the 1300's which shows
students sleeping and talking during a lecture at the University of Bologna, Italy.
Times haven't changed much, unfortunately, have they? *
Despite the seemingly dull nature of the activities that students are most commonly asked to do, they still feel more challenged in academic classes than in other classes. Even so, they do not appear to find most of their academic classes interesting or enjoyable. Academic classes are positively associated with challenge and importance to future goals, but they do not foster enjoyment, positive affect, or motivation. (162-163)

So what's the solution?

Get students into a state of flow through activities that allow
them to make their own choices . . . 
. . . and to be creative!

Also make sure students have opportunities to collaborate
Fostering greater engagement in schooling may be achieved not only through structuring activities but also through promoting their connection to students' future goals. This is not to say that all schoolwork should be explicitly linked to future careers, but that the process of developing particular skills and understanding necessary for future success must receive greater emphasis. Currently, school is a place where teenagers typically are assigned tasks rather than being allowed to choose them. Given that schooling is involuntary, a shared sense of purpose between adolescents and adults may be an integral part of fostering engagement in school.

To facilitate flow experiences, schools need to create environments in which students understand both the broader purpose of schooling and the specific purpose of individually assigned tasks. Adults can encourage engagement by becoming involved as mentors and advisers to students as they undertake work that challenges their skills. In school, as in other contexts, adults have the responsibility for assuring that the demands made of adolescents have a clearly defined purpose. In addition to providing support to students, adults also need to give them the freedom to direct their own efforts. (164)

* We found the manuscript through David Thornburg who, in this blog post, writes about it and the need for change in education.

Additional resources

We love this edutopia article on the way inquiry-based instruction deepens learning. 

Check out the book Flow, also by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.