Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”

It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.

It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow  the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.

These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.

Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.

A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:

    a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)

That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.

 

A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.

The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.

Matching the challenge to a student’s skill level increases the chances of achieving flow.

What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.

So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight.  Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.

We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’

 

A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing

Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.

We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.

This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.

That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?

For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.

This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.

Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.

This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.

“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”

Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.

We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.

Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.

 

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. 

Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.

 

And everyone packed up and left.

The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.

You’re having a narwhal moment. Don’t you want more of them?

A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.

There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.

Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.

Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.

There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)

Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.

You can conquer that by…   AND THEN A BELL RANG.