I recall when I was starting out as a teacher and receiving a very clear message that classroom management was essential for me to survive my first year as a teacher. I found this strange since in my role as a football coach I had worked with young people aged 4-16 and behaviour management was not a skill that I had given much thought to. The young people that I coached were disciplined, engaged, well-mannered and retained a sense of humour. This was not a football team, it was a group of children who turned up every Sunday morning to enjoy themselves and there was no extrinsic motivation to be picked for a team. All of my own training as a coach focused upon skill development of the individual and increasing their knowledge of how to play in a team. Why was it that as I moved to working with young people in a different context that management of behaviour had become so important? I will return to this chain of thought later in this paper.
Worrying statistics reported in the Guardian newspaper on November 2010 highlighted that, “Nearly half of all newly qualified teachers (in England and Wales) leave the profession within five years”. The main reasons cited for teachers leaving the profession in England and Wales are poor discipline of students and high workload. The figures are consistent with those in the USA of teachers leaving the profession although the main reason cited is low salaries and poor working conditions. With a couple of searches it wasn’t too difficult for me to access data showing similar trends in countries such as Switzerland and South Africa. These trends are even more worrying when reading that the UNESCO institute of statistics has estimated that 10.3 million teachers should be recruited worldwide to meet targets set to improve primary education alone.
If we are seeing increased behaviour problems in schools and we are seeing high rates of teachers leaving the profession then there is clearly an issue. I am not going to attempt to provide a deep and detailed analysis of the complexities behind the statistics mentioned. Alternatively, I will offer some thoughts on ‘optimal experience’. I believe that when young people enjoy learning in schools then the culture that dominates is one of learning and respect rather than disrespect and disengagement.
Recently I finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. Csikszentmihalyi (2008) describes flow as an optimal experience where doing the activity is the reward. This can be a challenge in schools when so many students are motivated or unmotivated by extrinsic influences such as grades, certificates or even stickers. If a young person is driven by the extrinsic reward then they are less likely to enjoy the learning journey and be prepared to lead their own learning. Csikszentmihalyi (2008) has identified eight common elements when people experience flow.
1) The task poses appropriate challenge.
2) We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
3) The task has clear goals.
4) The task provides immediate feedback.
5) Deep but effortless involvement.
6) People feel a sense of control over their actions.
7) Concern for self disappears (although the sense of self increases afterwards).
8) The sense of duration of time is altered (hours feel as though they pass by in minutes)
When I was coaching football, some of the children I worked with had been suspended from school for poor behaviour. If you did not know these children and were simply observing from the side they could not be identified from the others because they were demonstrating engagement and concentration. Now that I have read Csikszentmihaly’s thoughts it is clear to me that the children were experiencing each of the elements that commonly appear in flow. The challenge that we have as educators is finding those opportunities for flow in school and working with young people so that they can manage their consciousness, find flow for themselves and enjoy their learning. If the natural state of the mind is chaos, then children require the awareness of what is happening in their minds to manage information. They need to learn how to process information in a way that does not lead to boredom or negativity but results in action that contributes to the knowledge or skill of the individual. At times we will all feel a sense of boredom, it is a craft to be able to use this in a productive manner by channeling the information in a different direction.
There isn’t a school leader that would not agree that deep thinking is part of existing or desired philosophy for their school. Additionally, I can think of no school leader that would disagree that periods of concentration are required for deep thought. In the past decade I have observed people becoming increasingly distracted. This comes as no surprise since there are an increasing number of distractions around us. As described by Nicholas Carr (2010) Google has not been designed to enable deep concentrated thought. Clearly Google as a search engine provides great opportunity but we should not pretend that sending students off to find information is a process that results in deep engagement.
Children are reading more information but we are seeing them spend less time experiencing deep thought. For example it is becoming less likely that a child will sit and read a book for enjoyment and more likely that they will spend time on surface level activities such as watching television and posting comments on social networking sites. These activities may occupy the conscious mind but will not develop self and a disciplined mind. Through our relatively new knowledge about the plasticity of the brain we know that the brain can, and will change and adjust based upon experiences. We also know that this continues through adulthood and therefore, there is hope for us all. In order for children to experience joy in learning and be able to make the most of their free time I believe we need to teach them how to manage the information entering their conscious minds. We should provide frequent opportunities for deep engagement so that this becomes the norm as a pose to covering a larger amount of content.
From my perspective Csikszentmihaly (2008) has set a challenge when he states:
Many people give up learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom.
Csikszentmihaly (2008) continues by stating:
Ideally, the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is no longer to make the grade, earn a diploma, and to find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what is happening around one, to develop a personally meaningful sense of what one’s experience is all about. From that will come the profound joy of the thinker.
Some of the tools already exist to facilitate students having the opportunity to experience flow. If you have not come across Visible Thinking Routines developed by Harvard Project Zero, then you may wish to explore and apply these. From my experience these routines provide a thinking tool that leads to deep thought. If my understanding of brain plasticity is accurate, eventually this becomes a habit since there is an increase in the number of synapses between neurons in the brain.
In my own school where we continue to develop an understanding of community and service amongst our student body we are seeing an increase in students intrinsically choosing to find out more about communities and taking action to provide appropriate help. This is a learning experience that is not graded or superficially created. It is learning that has resulted in happiness amongst the students who have chosen to take their own learning in this direction. Anthony Skillicorn’s book, Service Is A Journey paints a wonderful picture of service at UWCSEA alongside practical advice on how to implement a meaningful service programme.
Within our schools assessment is focused upon the achievement of the individual. It makes sense for this to be the case, however this does not always reflect real life where the success of organisations is often measured by the success of a particular team. Thoughtful community and service opportunities can provide the chance for young people to form their own teams, be surrounded with like-minded people and hopefully experience what I would call ‘group flow’. That is when a team has a shared goal, collaborates effectively, communicates with shared language and experiences a shared sense of flow. Through community and service we also see students develop and demonstrate perseverance, resilience, open-mindedness and curiosity. Developing these attributes will help young people to experience flow more frequently.
As for my response to teachers leaving schools, I can only assume that they have not found their flow in what I believe to be a noble, challenging and intrinsically rewarding profession.
Carroll, Charlie. “Why Are New Teachers Leaving in Droves? | Education | The Guardian.” Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/16/teaching-problem-schools>.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Print.
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