With the U.S. unemployment rate reportedly around 9%, there is a general tone of conversation pertaining to work that centers around the idea that no matter the conditions of our job, we really should be happy that we have a job at all. I know those words have been spoken several times by my principal and fellow teachers as a response to increased frustrations and concerns voiced by myself or other teachers regarding growing adverse constraints and conditions of American public schools. However, I resent the sentiment that I should just be happy that I have a job. Its not that I am not grateful for my job; its quite the opposite really. Teaching and coaching have been the source of countless blessings for me, both as a person and a professional, and I do not take those blessings for granted. That being said, something is missing for me. Whilst enjoying my job very much, I have struggled to put my finger on what exactly was missing from my professional life. As best I could describe, I felt like I wasn’t teaching to my capability and that limits of my environment inhibited me from being the teacher I imagined myself being. Only recently have I discovered that the missing component was something called flow.
Flow is a psychology term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the mental state of a person who, while performing an activity, is fully immersed in an optimized feeling of connection, clarity, effortless focus, ultimately getting lost in the moment. The result is intrinsic happiness, and success in the activity at high levels. Flow can exist in any sort of activity, and has been described in various terms in many settings.
Athletes have talked about being ‘in the zone’ or in the ‘in a groove’ where their performance seems to peak with seemingly very little effort. I’ve heard them say that the game seems to slow down, allowing them to make all the right decisions. The hoop (basketball) or the cup (golf) seems to be so huge that everything goes in. Of course these things are not really happening, but it seems to be the only way they can describe it. I remember watching Michael Jordan make six 3-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals in a moment where he was experiencing flow on the basketball court. Considered the best player ever, Jordan was not known as a 3-point shooter, and upon making his 6th 3-pointer, he sheepishly looked towards the sideline and sheepishly shrugged, as if to say, “I can’t explain what’s going on here, but this feels amazing.” Below is a clip of that moment, and listen closely to the commentators (former coach Mike Fratello, and Magic Johnson) describe what they are watching.
Moments of flow have been well documented by people in all sorts of fields: artists, musicians, dancers, gamers, spiritualist, speakers, builders, and on and on. Typically they find it difficult to explain to people in terms other than ones of wonder, serene happiness, and satisfaction. I have experienced flow many times in my life in a variety of contexts (from playing sports, to writing a paper), and I want to experience it more regularly in my daily work. The realization I have been coming to is that public school (with increased influence of so-called educational standards, the testing and evaluation that follows, and the limits placed on teachers and students by governmental policy makers) has become a setting that, for me, more readily produces an opportunity to fight than an opportunity to flow. However, there is one last thing I want to make perfectly clear. I think my job dissatisfaction is linked less to a sense of my own flow, and more to the fact that public schools (or traditional schools in general) are not designed for students to have opportunities to flow.
Csikszentmihalyi extensively studied traditional school settings and Montessori school settings and concluded that the students in Montessori schools experienced flow on a regular basis, while those in the traditional setting did not. Some of today’s most successful and innovative people are the products of Montessori education, including the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia. Before I knew of this study, I was convinced that non-traditional, democratic schools (like the ones I am going to learn about at the AERO conference next week in Portland) would be ideal for producing authentic education and opportunities for flow. In the big picture, I would love to see more students (and parents and teachers) become part of this exciting change in education and find themselves in a regular state of optimized happiness and flow. Ideally, I see myself joining (or building) a school that does it at an amazing level, allowing me, and all involved, to flow together in pursuit of genuine learning in all sorts of ways. Certainly, I feel the pursuit is worthy.
I first learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment in my college psychology class, but I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about its far-reaching implications until I began teaching AP Psychology 6 years ago. It was then that I began to read articles written by Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo (the man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment back in 1971), and eventually his book The Lucifer Effect, that I began to explore the common theme of his writings. In brief, Zimbardo believes that the situation is a powerful determinant of human behavior. With this belief, Zimbardo challenges the long-held belief that the good people in this world do good things and the evil people in the world do evil thing. Instead, certain situations have the knack for bringing out the best or worst in people (of which we are all capable). Instead of looking to punish “bad apples” in society, Zimbardo suggested that maybe it was the “barrel” that was bad and not the “apples” themselves.
The more I thought about it, the more I started looking for its application in all areas of life. What if the bad (or even just the less socially beneficial) behaviors in the world could be changed simply by changing the situation? There was a series of VW commercials that tapped into this type of thinking (you have to watch these: http://www.thefuntheory.com/), where people starting behaving better when the situations were creatively modified. As teacher, my thoughts have often wandered to how this could be applied to schools, classrooms, or any learning environment for that matter. What I hate seeing is how many students enter high school with a deep resistance to learning and school in general by the time they are 14; it doesn’t get much better by the time they graduate. I can’t say I blame them.
There were many aspects of school that I hated. I hated reading things that I wasn’t interested in. I hated testing. I hated boring lectures. I hated the routine of the day or the sterility of the environment. I hated being paced. I hated meaningless homework and busy work. I hated having to become proficient in a subject I had no interest in. Even crazier is that I was pretty much a straight-A student all the way through school, so to most observers, school was an amazing experience for me and I was able to thrive there. This was not the case. What’s funny to me is that the same things I hated about the typical public school system as a student are the things I hate from a teacher’s perspective. There has to be a better way to learn. A system of learning that strips a people of their inherent desire to learn is a broken system. As much as it seems that it needs to be fixed, I am of the mindset that what it really needs is to be scrapped and redesigned altogether.
In August I am attending the AERO (Alternative Educational Resource Organization) Conference in Portland, Oregon with the hopes of building upon my ideas of an education revolution. However, one thing I believe is that education needs to become decentralized and non-standardized. Every year, millions of American students drop out of school, and millions more begrudgingly stay, even though they are bored, uninterested, failing, or all of the above. These kids are not “bad apples.” At one point, they were excited to go to school and learn. It is the “barrel” of the school system that has failed them. Our young students need opportunities to learn what interests and excites them from early on and throughout their education. As of now, we force kids to wait until they graduate to do this. We hold it as the carrot for enduring 13 years of factory-style education. By then, much of that love of learning has gone dormant or has been beaten down. They associate learning with all those negative experiences. The downside of this problem cannot be understated. We are severely inhibiting the human potential of our young people, which limits the capacity of our society to improve. Like Zimbardo knows though, if we want people to be better, we need to pay attention to the situations we put them in and work to make them as optimal as possible.