Supporting learners and helping ourselves along the way…
by Dr Vicky Butterby (Practitioner Action Research PEN Lead) during lockdown
(started in February 2020 – finished in July 2020)
I have recently been involved in facilitating a series of ‘train the trainer’ sessions for colleagues working in the screen industry. It’s an industry that’s been hit particularly hard over recent months; many are freelancers who simply cannot bring their work online, leading to worry and anxiety not just in relation to paying the bills, but whether, when we emerge from the strange and challenging times that Covid-19 has brought us, they’ll still have their jobs to go to.
Despite the heavy weight of anxiety affecting so many of our creative arts colleagues, the sessions we have been running have been filled with hope, optimism and a ‘can do’ attitude that is truly humbling to me.
During a discussion about what great training feels like, one practitioner spoke about the importance of ‘experiential learning’ and of developing activities that ‘trainees can get lost in’. This made me think about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thought-provoking work on ‘flow’ and how, when we become lost in the moment because what we are doing is so engaging, time flies by and our niggling anxieties can ease.
Now, more than ever, it feels important to be supporting and encouraging our learners, colleagues and friends (not to mention ourselves) to discover those activities that put us into a state of flow. Of course, this won’t be the same for everyone – some will find flow in running, others in creative pursuits, video gaming, mathematical problem solving or noticing the everyday nature that surrounds them.
When Csikszentmihalyi conducted his interviews with professional dancers, athletes and master chess players in 1975, he asked them to describe to him what it felt like to be immersed in their chosen activities. A chess player described his unwavering concentration during championship tournaments as ‘the roof could fall in and if I wasn’t directly under it, I wouldn’t notice.’ A rock climber spoke about the ‘self-catalysing’ nature of flow, where ‘each move creates the next’. Csikszentmihalyi found similar explanations were given by surgeons, as they spoke of being aware of nothing else around them other than the job at hand.
It may seem as though this magical and liberating ‘flow state’ is only at the grasp of our most practised, most knowledgeable, most skilled individuals. There is an element of truth in that to find flow, you need to be engaged in a task where you are challenged enough not to become bored, yet not pushed so significantly out of your comfort zone that a state of panic or feelings of self-consciousness set in. Yet we are all uniquely talented, each and every one of us is capable of finding flow. My cat Harris is a master of flow; he spends hours on end fixated by a moth on the wall or hatching his next great ambush from behind his favourite cardboard box. When he’s tracking his wiggly snake toy and working out when to pounce, he is utterly consumed – there is nothing else on his mind other than his successful completion of the task at hand! For me, finding that magical state of flow, where I’m so immersed in what I’m doing that a firework display could be going on around me and I wouldn’t notice, comes from opportunities to engage my creative brain. Recently, my partner and I made birthday cards for our friends and family; hours passed as I worked on my allotted cards, surrounded by glue sticks, (eco-friendly) glitter and colouring pens. As I made my cards I noticed nothing other than what I was doing in that moment, I couldn’t believe (when emerging at the end of the process sticky fingered, grinning and covered in glitter) that two whole hours had gone by!
My card crafting session shows you don’t have to have mastery of a skill to be lost in it, creative genius I am not! As a kid, it was kick ups in the back garden – time would fly as I tried to get to the next significant figure or emulate that ever elusive ‘foot-foot-knee-knee-shoulder-shoulder-on your head’ manoeuvre. To this day if I see a ball being kicked or thrown about, something deep within me becomes desperate to get involved – perhaps because I know that it’s an activity that is able to completely absorb me.
In a recent FE Research Podcast, FE Lecturer and musician James Tarling described his experiences working with music students, and how, when a flow state is activated, they ‘become the music’. Working with learners, there are clear moments where, like James, I’ve also witnessed flow states in action. Most often these moments seem to come when we allow learners the time and space to explore and apply their learning through avenues they are passionate about. As a youth justice practitioner, I worked with a young person who was returning to formal education after two years out of school. He was a bright and articulate young man who was eager to do well. Nevertheless, he struggled to connect with the abstract nature of much of the catchup work he was being set and quickly became disengaged. We began to explore during our sessions together what motivated and inspired him, and it materialised that he had a deep, highly analytical appreciation of the television series, the Walking Dead. One day, we decided we were going to get through his pile of homework by approaching it through the lens of various characters from the show. We spent time exploring maths questions in relation to some of the challenges and problems characters from the TV series might encounter, and we worked on English writing by retelling key scenes from the series from different characters’ perspectives. Over time, a noticeable switch occurred in relation to how this young person approached and connected with learning, he was able practise important maths and English skills within a context that resonated and made sense to him. A turning point came for this young person when he stopped asking for the time every five minutes, because working out the perimeter of the fence needed to keep the zombies contained was a more critical consideration than how long it was until break.
Working with this young person and experiencing time with him in flow was a joy and a privilege, it taught me a lot about teaching, and about how we can generate conditions within our classrooms and workshops that not only help learning to stick, but provide the glue and the glitter too. It made me appreciate how special flow can be, and how it can be transformational for learners who may otherwise feel we are inviting them into a world that was never meant for them. During my time working with learners on Study Programmes, there were magical moments where the room came alive with animated chatter, as learners became immersed in collaborative work to solve a mathematical problem or prepare their pitch to the local Mayor about improving services for young people. When teaching Access to HE, there were moments during debate where learners became oblivious to breaktime; cups of tea went cold over fierce discussions as to whether a social model of disability could ever truly come to fruition in the UK, whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised or how a new generation of youth workers could take the profession forward.
As practitioners it seems sensible that we would jump on naturally occurring opportunities to encourage and nurture flow during learning. Afterall, if learners are losing track of time, it’s (hopefully) a positive indication that they are engaged in learning. But how do we create these opportunities for learners, and how do we support learners to reach a state of flow? Each of the experiences shared above suggest that if we want to learners to really connect with their learning, to achieve a state of flow, then our key challenge as educators is to create the conditions in our classes and workshops where learning becomes meaningful and relevant – where learners feel respected, valued, included and hopeful about their learning and where it might take them. In FE we often have a lot of reparative work to do to mitigate learners’ anxieties; could person-centred approaches that enable and encourage flow states help us achieve this aim? My work with learners suggests that although flow may be innate (e.g. a state we are all capable of finding), it often needs unlocking, especially for those who have experienced trauma, who live with stress or anxiety or whose previous experiences of education have been experiences of rejection and abandonment.
So what are the practical steps we might take to help and support learners to reach a state of flow? Below are some ideas that you might like to try with learners, some are directly suggested by Csikszentmihalyi himself, others are ideas specific to teaching and learning, built on the foundations of Csikszentmihalyi’s work and grown from time spent with learners and FE-based practitioners.
- Teach focus exercises and allow learners opportunity to practise. Role model what it is to be completely focused on one task at a time.
- Co-construct learning with learners – empower them to set their own learning goals and to work within a context that makes sense and has meaning to them. For flow states to occur, learners need to feel in control of their learning – they also need to feel invested in it.
- Differentiate learning and support learners find their sweet spot in the challenges you set. The sweet spot should encompass learning (or application of learning) that is new but not out of reach, the aim is to support learners to work just beyond their comfort zone.
- Set clear goals with learners and provide plenty of opportunities for feedback and feedforward (including, where appropriate, opportunities for self-reflection and peer feedback).
- creative experimentation as part of learning; embrace failure as a critical aspect of learning and provide opportunities for learners to practise and develop their problem-solving skills.
- Grow an atmosphere in your class or workshop where the learning journey is as important as the (summative) destination, where ‘the experience (of learning) becomes its own reward’.
- Remember, as my colleague Dr Andy Convery often says, that ‘content can be the enemy of understanding’. Wherever possible, encourage depth over breadth (think for instance about how many layers of meaning can be elicited from just one text, or the kaleidoscope of mathematical knowledge that can stem from just one or two problem-based scenarios).
- Finally, and this is an important one… take time to build relationships and develop trust. Flow states cannot be entered if learners are in a state of disconnection or hypervigilance.
In FE, we are continually exploring how to help and support learners, within the unique contexts of our own settings. Csikszentmihalyi described flow as ‘feeling completely at one with who you are and what you are doing, like being carried on by a current’, as an ‘automatic process where there is no anxiety’ and where you are able to trust your ability to solve problems. If we really want to enable flow, and in tandem, encourage progression, it seems pertinent that we shake off the sedimentary do’s and don’ts of a marketised education system and give ourselves permission to work collaboratively with learners to develop and shape rivers of learning that run a holistic, meaningful and dynamic course. With this in mind, we may perhaps become better able to support learners to move from a tentative toe dipped in the water, to full, free flowing immersion in learning.
 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow, the Psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books: New York.
 For more on this within an FE context, please see OTLA 6 (English) projects 4a-5b, which focused on resilience and mindset. Available at: https://www.excellencegateway.org.uk/content/etf3157
 Living in flow – the secret of happiness with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Happiness & Its Causes 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzPky5Xe1-s (2014)