Happiness and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot today about happiness because of a book that I got yesterday from the bookstore. The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who has spent years studying creativity. I had bought this book before but it hadn’t really done much for me so I sold it at the local used book store. Lately it has been on my mind, so when I saw it at the bookstore last night I bought this copy. This time it is really captivating my interest, especially since flow is such a powerful thing in my life. Flow is the term used to define the phenomenon of perfect focus – when you are so focused on an activity that time doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the activity that you are doing. I know from my own personal life that flow is an exhilarating experience, one that I look forward to with anticipation and remember fondly when it is over. It is the feeling that motivates me to keep going when I feel like giving up on a project that I have been working so hard on.

One of the things that I have been trying to do is figure out how to bring the phenomenon of flow into the classroom. Children would greatly benefit from flow, and I feel that they probably experience it more than we do as adults. When we are adults we are busy doing all of those things that are expected of us, and not necessarily those things that we want to do. Experiences that involve flow are experiences that are personally satisfying to us, those activities that we are loathe to stop doing in order to do something else. How many times have children told us that they don’t want to clean up, that they want to keep playing? Is that flow? Do they get so involved in their own activities that time seems to stand still and nothing else is important? Probably. Children may experience flow a lot, especially those that are given the opportunity to choose their own work rather than being told what to do all day.

Maria Montessori developed the Theory of Concentrated Attention when she was teaching because she noticed a similar phenomenon. She noticed that when children were involved in a task that was challenging – but not too challenging – it was almost as if they blocked out the world around them and they were completely consumed by the task that they were working on. Montessori judged all of the materials that she used by this phenomenon: if the material led children to this concentrated attention, then it was kept in the classroom. If it didn’t, then it didn’t stay. I have tried to use this same method to determine what types of materials should be present in the classroom. Creating an atmosphere that is conducive to concentrated attention and flow isn’t necessarily hard, but it means that there will be a lot more loose parts in the classroom and not so many manufactured toys. It means that children have more choice, as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Mihaly’s assertion that creating a life where flow is more present creates feelings of happiness and productivity. I haven’t read all of the book yet; this is simply his assertion in the first chapter. He says that in order for us to feel that our lives are meaningful, we need to feel that we are in control of our lives. But he isn’t talking about the material aspects of life. He is talking about the mental aspects of life – our mindset and how we view our place in the world.

So far it looks like it is going to be a great read, and I hope to share more of my insights as I continue reading the book.

Building Positive Relationships: The Role of a Teacher in Creative Classrooms

I really enjoyed the videos for Gever Tulley’s school. It was refreshing to see a teacher letting children create. But just as children need the time, tools, and tolerance from teachers in order to create, they also need to know that there is a right and a wrong way to do something. Seven-year-olds would not have been able to create a mini roller coaster without the knowledge of what it took to accomplish that task.

So what, then, becomes the role of the teacher? If we simply sit children down and talk to them about the mechanics of a roller coaster, we can’t really be sure that they understand what we are talking about enough to build one for themselves – we have taken learning out of the context of the real world (similarly to how I learned math). If we simply stand back and let them do their own thing, they are liable to hurt themselves for lack of information about the tools, materials, and mechanics involved in building a roller coaster.

What is the middle ground? How can we ensure that children have the freedom to be creative and the information they need to be safe and know what they are doing?

The key is to become a facilitator. A facilitator is someone who coordinates and leads the work of a group. If the group needs information, the facilitator finds means to get it the information it needs. As a leader, the facilitator is responsible for ensuring that the group understands what they are doing in order to be safe. From a teaching stand point this may mean modeling and explaining the use of tools and designing peripheral activities to experiment with mechanics and ideas related to the physics of a roller coaster. The point is that the teacher needs to be aware of any misunderstandings or misconceptions that the children may have, and do whatever they can to help clear up those misconceptions. And when children are working within the context of real life and the teachers are able to hear and see the children talking about their topic, it is much easier to spot misconceptions. When a teacher functions primarily as a lecturer, misconceptions are harder to spot because the children are not speaking about what they are thinking.

The role of facilitator is a much more general role than lecturer. It requires diligence to the ideas of the children. This is why I wrote this topic under “Building Positive Relationships”. When you become more focused on pinpointing misunderstandings that a child may hold, it requires you to hold the children’s ideas in a different light. The ideas of children hold more value, and you find yourself working with them in the context of their ideas. When you are simply a lecturer, you are working for them – and in some cases in spite of them – but not necessarily with them. This slight but dramatic change of focus also changes the level of interest of everyone involved. Everyone from student to teacher becomes dedicated to the task of figuring out how to safely and successfully complete a project. One of the most poignant moments of the roller coaster video for me was the end, when we hear Gever Tulley celebrating the accomplishments of his students with them. These kind of celebrations don’t happen in a classroom primarily composed of lecture. The accomplishments are smaller and less noticeable, and while the class usually comes together to celebrate, the celebration is about something less tangible, or even negligible, in an atmosphere where a teacher is a facilitator (such as behavior).

In education, we talk about fostering a love of learning in children and helping them become lifelong learners. Children won’t have a teacher in front of them lecturing their entire lives. They won’t be able to call one up and ask them to come down and give them a lecture any time they have a problem that needs to be solved. At it’s root, teaching is showing children how to live and how to think, how to work and how to grow.