Teaching & Learning

FLOW

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I had the opportunity to speak at and attend a conference at the Joint Special Operations University.  Truly informative and even inspirational at moments, the conference was full of military and education practitioners trying to come together to figure out what might be ‘next’ for both groups.

One of the speakers I particularly liked was Dr. Art Finch, the head Psychologist for the US Army Special Operations Command.  He gave a really fascinating talk on the personality of Special Forces operators, asked some piercing questions regarding how to educate and train some of these folks, and provided insights into everything from motivation to value.

eustressThe 90 minute talk flew by for me, which is extremely ironic based on what I want to write about today.  Dr. Finch (also an Army Ranger) spoke to some of the major theories of personality.  He helped jog a few memories of high school and early college Psychology classes along the way – things I had heard at some point before.  But then he talked about a theory I had not thought much about since Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk.  It regraded stress – a very high priority of study for the military right now.

He suggested that, based on the theory explored by Lazarus, Selye, and others, people need to optimize their stress level(s).  In other words, too much stress can shut someone down.  But just as important, not enough stress can do the same thing.   Perhaps they manifest differently, but both can lead to a lack of productivity, functionality, and satisfaction with life.  It essentially comes down to a healthy balance of eustress (perceived positive stress) and (di)stress (perceived negative stress).

While my degrees come out of social science, I had not connected these concepts previously.  I had heard Kelly McGonigal explain that we need to “befriend” our stress.  I knew that stress could be seen in the blood via cortisol – that brutal hormone that promotes obesity, depression, anger, and a lack of sleep, to name a few side effects.  (I know about it more from research on boredom pushing cortisol into the blood than stress, per se.)  But, in one of those pattern-finding moments that neuroscientist John Medina notes the importance of, I had an epiphany of sorts.

GameFlowWhat do gamification researchers tell us about how to make a game great?  (A lesson that applies DIRECTLY to education and should be noted by all learning architects, by the way.)   They tell us that the best games produce what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as, “Flow.”  In other words, a game that people want to play has enough challenge, but not too much.  A good game has enough failure, but not too much(Which is remarkable when you note that most games include failing 85% of the time, yet are still considered fun…)

Now, shift gears to the classroom.  Let’s talk about collaboration.  What does UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman share about socialness?  The man who has identified the “social brain” tells us that we are wired to be social at almost every waking moment of the day.  We desire socialness, we crave socialness, and we employ socialness whenever possible.  Yet for decades I have seen and heard first hand, not to mention the copious amounts of research and socialized posts about classroom teams and collaborative assignments….people hate working in groups!  Students especially hate them for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is how unfair the workload vs the credit ends up being.  Teachers hate them because of the evaluation experience – it’s really difficult to give individual grades based on group work.  Yet we know that humans work in teams far more than they do autonomously.  JustRightProjects and group experiences, even under the context of an E.R. team or a management team, are how we live.  So what should that tell us?  It suggests to me that we should have “Flow” with regard to socialness.  Just because nobody really seems to have gotten the formula right, doesn’t mean we should stop trying to figure out how to get enough socialness, but not too much into the learning equation, right?

I’m starting to see a series of continuum-based learning indicators in my mind.  Anyone else?  Remediation <– –> Acceleration.  Scaffolding based on prior knowledge <– –> new information.  Socialness <– –> Task.  Work <– –> Life.  Ties to career <– –> ties to non-career satisfaction.  Direct instruction <– –> Indirect instruction.  And now too much stress <– –>  too little stress as well!  Or what about a trilemma: Cognition <– –> Affection <– –> Conation?  And so on – these are now playing around in my head. 

Yes, I’ve seen these kinds of schema before.  I know others have created indices like this.  But I’m not sure I like any that I’ve seen.

JustRight2But I can tell you this.  This is exactly the kind of work we are trying to figure out at Saint Leo.  This isn’t an academic exercise for us.  It’s a pragmatic, action method kind of application for what we do.  As much as I love a good visualized theory coming out of an Education department, this is not just to put a line in the sand and foster debate.  We’re really trying to figure these things out and tie them to meaningful learning.

Will we?  Time will tell.  But I would bet on us…I guess when I moved to Florida, I did exactly that.  I would bet a visualization of this will be forthcoming, but again, it’s more than a picture.  I hope you stick around to see just how much more.  I think it’s going to be fantastic.  But I would also love it if you might share your own thoughts.  What else needs “flow” to work correctly?  How else should we balance learning?

Good luck and good learning.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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