Reflections Inspired by #CELI15 – The Long Island Connected Educator Summit 2015
In his groundbreaking book Drive, Daniel Pink highlights the difference between what science knows and what most of the world does when it comes to business and how organizations work. Specifically, he writes about what motivates us and how the “carrot and stick” systems which drove the economy in the 1900’s now breed compliance as opposed to the creativity and innovation necessary for organizations to thrive in the 21st century. He shares that rewards and consequences are the operating system of the past and how Motivation 3.0 requires equal parts autonomy, mastery and purpose. In short, Pink believes that, “We are designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.” When autonomy, mastery and purpose are in place, Pink contends that conditions have been set to help us attain what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow,” or “those exhilarating moments when we feel in control, full of purpose and in the zone.” To paraphrase, “Flow” is when we become lost in a task – when we are working in a refined, nearly Zen-like state where we push just past our Zones of Proximal Development as we strive to accomplish something significant.
As an educator and the fortunate Lead Learner of an amazing school, I have been searching for “Flow” and where and how it exists for our students since I first learned the term from Dr. Bill Brennan a few months ago. Each day during my walk-throughs or when I scroll through our school’s Twitter feed, I cannot help but smile at traces of this Nirvana that I see when our students are truly “lost in a task.” What does this look like? What conditions need to be in place for us to even approach this yet alone attain it? Are we comfortable enough to step back and allow our students the time and the freedom to revel in these learning experiences? How can we replicate these conditions so “Flow” can occur more frequently?
Like most things in life, the things you are searching for often find you while you are out looking for them. On a cold Monday in March, a member of our amazing team called my office and said, “You are never going to believe what one of my students did over the weekend! Can I send her down to share her work?” Excitedly, I said yes and while I waited for the student to make her way, her teacher explained that she had shared the web tool Popplet with her class on Friday and that the students were creating Popplets to share their research on a part of the Solar System of their choosing. As I hung up the receiver, an out of breath and clearly beaming girl burst through the door holding a dense pile of papers. Averaging what seemed like 1,000 words a minute, she turned through each page of the presentation she prepared where not one, not two, but every single planet, the Earth’s moon and the sun were carefully researched. After congratulating her and celebrating her hard work, I asked her, “What made you want to work on this over the weekend? Was it something you needed to do? Was there any extra credit?” With big, proud and happy eyes she shook her head and said, “No, I LOVE learning about the Solar System and I love messing around on the computer!”
At that moment, the power of these words hit me as they are Daniel Pink’s ideas about Autonomy manifested in the words of an eleven year old explaining an instance of “Flow” that she achieved and sustained in a learning experience. What resonated about this student’s reflection was the idea of choice – choice in what she researched, choice in the technique or tool she used to share her learning and choice in when and where she decided to continue to learn about a topic she loved. Choice, the cornerstone of Google’s 20% Time, the defining principle of Genius Hour and a tenant of differentiated instruction, resulted in heightened motivation and an outstanding body of work! Way to go Gianna!
While this is important, perhaps what might even be more interesting is the later part of her sentence where she states, “and I love messing around on the computer.” Based on her work samples, Gianna was clearly not “messing around” on the computer. She was researching, vetting sources, close reading a myriad of high level texts, identifying and comparing salient details, searching for images and videos and then organizing her findings using a tool that she would use later to share her new knowledge with her classmates. If we look more deeply into the sincerity of her words, by “messing around,” is she is confirming that she was indeed lost in a self-directed task? Had she found “Flow” and was technology a significant part of that experience?
What strikes me about this is that Gianna, like most of our elementary school students, was “born digital.” She is a “digital native” as defined in Marc Prensky’s seminal article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” As Larry Rosen so eloquently put it in his article “Teaching the iGeneration,” “To them, the smartphone, the Internet, and everything technological are not “tools” at all – they simply are. Just as we don’t think about the existence of air, they don’t question the existence of technology and media. They expect technology to be there, and they expect it to do whatever they want it to do. The WWW doesn’t stand for World Wide Web, it stands for Whatever, Whenever, Wherever.” Upon reflection of these facts, a huge question loomed, “Are digital natives more likely to reach a state of “Flow” in school if the integration of technology is a condition for learning?” If so, this is “The Why” that has the power to change everything!
If this is true, how will this impact what we do in our classrooms? First, we must proceed with the understanding that the technology alone is not the answer. The right questions, the right tasks, and the right pedagogy should drive the decisions about what technology should be embedded in the experiences we offer our students. Second, we might begin searching for examples in our day-to-day experiences where students have achieved “Flow” in our classrooms or our buildings. To help identify these moments, you might consider asking yourself or your teachers a series of reflective questions Mark Barnes suggests in his book Teaching the iStudent. These questions include:
- How often is paper and pencil part of your classroom routine?
- What role does the internet play in your classroom?
- How often do your students use web tools, social media or mobile devices?
Barnes believes these questions help us make an internal audit of our practice and will help us measure if we understand and are meeting the iStudent’s need to be connected. Other things you might consider include working with your District’s Central Administration and IT team to ensure that restrictions on social media no longer stand in the way of teachers and students. Finally, step back, examine your own expectations of your students, and think about how we can bring these powerful opportunities to our students at as early an age as possible. Check out the balance in this Kindergarten classroom and see how technology and social media have amplified the hands on learning experiences we know five and six year old children need.
Just as we have to teach our students to be responsible with technology and social media, let us learn from them to be unafraid! Be fearless! The time to start is now!