Friday, February 01, 2013

Teaching with Technology as a Flow Experience

I am fortunate to have never taken a course in psychology.  I only started to read in this area after I turned forty and my career took a fork in the road.  The reading was driven by my self-imposed needs to learn, not by any external mandate.  It means I was my own teacher.  Authors sometimes write - let the reader draw his own conclusions.  I did that.  In some sense this reading was more like reading On The Road as an undergraduate, a result of hanging out with other kids for whom that was an important book, than my Economics reading in graduate school, where much of that was prescribed in courses or happened by my adviser suggesting I read a particular paper.  The Econ stuff was also extraordinarily abstract.  I had the right preparation for it - undergraduate math - but otherwise I had little prior experience so the process was much like drawing a picture on a blank slate.  Even On the Road, much more grounded in its subject, was something of an alien creature. I was a middle class kid who lived in a pretty comfortable and non-threatening environment.  I had never been on the road.

It was different with the psychology reading.  (An incomplete list of these readings is here, constructed from memory and with no firm rule of what made it to the list and what was excluded.  Some of it clearly is not psychology but it is sufficiently tied to thinking and learning, while I excluded books about school and about teaching because they seem less connected.  I have read everything on that list except the book by Isabel Briggs Myers.  For a while I got quite into personality typing and my MBTI, which is INTP.  I read a lot of short essays about it online.  This particular entry is intended as a placeholder for something in the personality typing arena.)  Here I had my own prior college experience plus 15-30 years of life as a faculty member and teacher.

I found that in reading these works I would frequently feel a sense of deja vu.  I had thought similar if not identical thoughts myself and had done so in order to make sense of the situation.  The vexing question was that many of my undergraduate students didn't seem to be learning and I tried to get at why.  This was true in the upper level courses I taught a few times (Industrial Organization) but was most painfully evident in Intermediate Microeconomics.  For the kids who were blowing off the course, there was no real mystery.  But there were other kids who seemed quite diligent yet their efforts were largely ineffective in producing understanding.  That was the puzzle.  Either their mechanism for learning as a student worked well in their other classes, so why should they change just for my class, or the students were clinging to a flawed approach in spite of getting other feedback that the approach wasn't working well. All the reading I did was indirectly done to address this question and to be able to talk with others, instructors and learning technologists, about these issues with an informed basis.

By the late 1990s I had convinced myself that it was these earnest but not very effective students fooling themselves and then the system accommodating that which was the core issue.  At the time I thought that Higher Education would never be able to reform itself from within to get these kids to embrace a different approach without the public becoming aware of the issue and then urging change.  I asked myself why would a member of the public become so informed.  Parents read grades on a report card.  If there are A's they are happy.  Most seem willfully ignorant about what the grade actually signifies, perhaps because they are unable to make an independent determination of whether the kid has learned significantly.  (Even though I consider myself well educated, I couldn't make that determination in the biology class the kids took in high school, on the content, and perhaps not in classes other than math where the issue was not so much the content but where kids at that level should be approximately.)  The kids themselves get it beaten into their heads that grades are what matters.  That's the feedback which sustains them in clinging to a poor approach to their learning - to memorize content in a way disembodied from everything else they know rather than to find ways to integrate the new stuff with their current understanding of things or to revise that understanding because the various notions are not compatible with one another.

So it occurred to me at the time, implausible as it may seem in retrospect, to write a novel that would be gripping as a story in and of itself (my role model at the time was John Grisham and I tried to produce a page turner as he does) while talking about the issues and the cure.  I wrote about half of what I had planned originally before it occurred to me that you need to have a better understanding of character development than I did to keep the story interesting.  It looked too daunting to have to learn that so I stopped.  But readers of this post might find The Introduction interesting to read now.  It was originally written in May 2000.   Anyone who read my recent post, The Learning Technologist Becomes a Luddite, will see many of the same themes.  That introduction is a few years at least before I heard of George Kuh's piece in Change Magazine that discussed the "Disengagement Compact," which itself preceded the Declining By Degrees Documentary and the more recent Academically Adrift.   So it is indicative of my pattern.  I glom onto something via self-discovery.  Then perhaps years later read about it when somebody else has published on it, though in this particular case these other works are not about psychology but rather about undergraduate college education.

There is a bit in that Introduction about my own college experience which implicitly shows the tie-in to the psychology.

When I was an undergraduate, I had the luxury, or perhaps simply the frame of mind, to treat the entire experience as one of self-actualization. I took courses either where I had some obvious aptitude (math) or where I had some prior curiosity (philosophy, American political thought) without much regard either for my grade point average or for preparing myself for my future career. And indeed, I only did modestly well in both of these aspects. Like my kids, where I could get past the initial engagement process, I did quite well and the experience was a rich one for me (a topology course unaided by a text, where all the ideas were invented from primitives and where I’d spend entire Sundays thinking through the homework problems and frequently, after several hours of concentration, finding the needed arguments to solve those problems). In cases where the engagement didn’t occur the experience was superficial (a course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which was opaque to me and painful to read, and where I spent a good part of class time simply watching the philosophy students, in awe of how hip they were).

From where at the time I knew to use the term "self-actualization" in that paragraph I'm not sure.  And the truth of the matter, though I didn't have the courage to write it at the time, was that for the most part the courses I took were subsidiary to the learning I had in a social context with my friends who lived at 509 Wyckoff Road (in Ithaca NY), one of whom gave me the impetus to read On the Road.  That's where the self-actualization happened the most, where learning and play intermingled, serious argument (for example about Watergate) mixing with having a meal together, listening to music and camaraderie a big part of it all.  I most recently wrote about learning of this sort in a post called Did Groucho Meet Einstein?  It's my sense of what heaven on earth looks like. 

The term self-actualization is due to Maslow and I must say that Toward A Psychology Of Being is my favorite on that reading list I provided above.  It touched me so much because that time between late adolescence and early adulthood when one asks the meaning of life questions was so important to me.  Maslow provided the answer, one I had stumbled on myself much earlier but needed confirmation from others to validate.

For me blogging is one way I try to self-actualize now and sometimes my writing tries to capture the process of thinking, not just the results.  The process is where the fun/compulsion lies, though I know that sometimes the reader is not interested in my process and only wants the results.  I will indulge myself in the next paragraph and thereafter try to keep the reader's interests in mind.

In constructing this essay I knew I had to give some background on self-actualization and that immediately brought to mind Maslow.  But how I got involved reading Maslow was not immediate at all.  It occurred to me that I discussed self-actualization with Vince Patone some in the late 1990s.  Vince was the head tech guy in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and I believe previously was a Masters student there.  So while I had a professional need to have a relationship with him as part of my campus job with learning technology, he had his own interest in learning and was genuinely happy to hear my thoughts in this area.  Vince, if I recall correctly, was the first person to mention Maslow to me.  Vince hasn't been on campus for quite a while, and it took me some time to come up with that connection.  Armed with that thought I then searched my PC for messages from him.  I'm kind of surprised by what I find - a message where he says he hasn't read my book yet but was planning to do so in the near future.  With that additional cue I find the introduction.  This is the process.  One step leads to another.   There is anticipation of motion, but not of the particular next step to be taken.  And until some culmination is reached it is quite absorbing finding and then taking the next step.

Many of the other authors on the reading lists come up with different names for self-actualization, perhaps because their focus is a specific context.  Donald Schon calls it reflective practice, referring to the work of highly skilled professionals in fields like architecture or psychology.  Ellen J. Langer calls it Mindful Learning, concentrating on a school setting.  Anders Ericsson calls it deliberate practice, when referring to how experts become that way.  In this last case, there may also be some difference in meaning because the way Maslow discusses self-actualization via the hierarchy of needs, it compels itself when other needs have been satisfied.  In contrast, Ericsson argues that sometimes the learning is rather effortless and intrinsically motivated but at other times a plateau in the learning has been reached and an external push is needed from a coach or mentor to get motion to resume.   A child who likes piano lessons and enjoys practicing self-actualizes and continues to do so as her performance improves but the vast majority of such children give up the activity well before reaching near to the level of world class performer. 

I am currently reading Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.  I'm a bit more than halfway through it.  Based on what I've read so far, flow is deliberate practice, but without the outside coach.  It is characterized by prior competence that makes the current activity do-able, a sense of control, which is reduced or blocked entirely when their are outside interferences (in this sense like Maslow's hierarchy of needs), and demands feedback to witness the consequences from exercising the control and knowing the efforts have been put to good effect.  I chose the title of the post to emphasize those factors.

Nonetheless, my preferred term in reference to the behavior is futzing.  One reason for that is that ahead of time we can't predict a good outcome or not.

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
Thomas A. Edison

Flow is supposed to produce personal growth.  Sometimes we say we learn more from failure than from success but it is my opinion that is only true if the failure drives us to find the better way.  It is not true if we stop trying.   Since I'm an economist, let me assert here that the trying comes with an opportunity cost.  Other things are not being pursued simultaneously.   If we give up on the current activity to turn our attention elsewhere, it may be that as Edison says there has been some benefit in exploring what ultimately proves to be dead ends, but most would not call that personal growth.

Then there is that if you think a bit harder on the prior competence front, you will realize there is a rather large chicken and egg problem.  Most people who've considered this issue, I believe, would concur that enthusiasm plus sitzfleisch really matters more than prior competence and that is how the novice begins to get more proficient.  If you're engaged with an activity as a novice, then futzing may not be such an undignified term.  In many instances I can't tell ahead of time whether I'm proficient or a novice.  The approach for me is more or less the same either way, as long as the way to the solution is not immediate.

Another very important issue is the matter of getting stuck, not yet giving up but not knowing where the next step lies either and not having an action plan to find it.  After knocking your head against the wall for a while, it might occur to you to give yourself a break and relax.  Implicitly you're saying to yourself, if the conscious self can't find the way let the unconscious mind have a crack at it for a while.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Gertrude Stein

Then, finally, particularly when trying to initiate something new,  you might discover your state of mind to be dull rather than sharp.  For me, not sleeping well the night before is one explanation for the dullness that occurs with some regularity.   You might nonetheless try in earnest during this dull phase, but you likely won't be satisfied with the product thereafter.  In this sense futzing is an at-the-time descriptor while flow is an after-the-fact descriptor of what happened when the futzing happened to lead to a productive outcome.

Nevertheless, futzing used this way is idiosyncratic to me and when I've shown that Gertrude Stein quote to students they are surprised by it.  They instead will think of the more popular genius quote, also attributed to Edison, as being 99% perspiration and that futzing must therefore be unproductive.  So I used Flow in my title because it is in more general use and I do like Csikszentmihalyi's points in regard to control and feedback, which I concur are absolutely necessary.

Let me turn to the rest of the title and ask the obvious question: a flow experience for whom?  A very hopeful person might respond - for the students.  Were that the case we'd have found the Learning Technology's version of Shangri-La.  In my class last semester, where in general my students responded positively to the course, only one or maybe two out of the seventeen students gave evidence of flow in the work they produced.  The rest futzed a bit, that's all.  As an ideal getting the students to experience flow and then provide evidence of it is a very good thing.  As an expectation I think it's too much, for now.  A more modest goal, taken from Made To Stick, which discusses effective presentation, is for the students to actively build connections to the subject matter.

In this class students blogged weekly to a prompt that asked them to provide some of their own experiences relevant to the topic on hand.  I read their posts and commented on them in a way to give response situated in what they had said.  But I didn't grade the posts in that response till much later and then graded a bunch of posts by the student as a collection, not individually.  So the grading was remote while the feedback was more immediate. Then in the subsequent class session we'd discuss the topic generally and try to tie some of the experiences from the blog posts to that discussion, bring in the particular to match the general, go from what the students already know to what they've not yet internalized in their thinking.  The approach was new to them and they liked it.

The approach was not perfect by any means.  Only a handful of students took it upon themselves to write a response to my comments. Why?  I don't know.  My guess is that school as obligation is their expectation.  School as learning is still novel to them.  For this same reason it was very rare indeed for a student to comment on another student's post.  In prior versions of this approach I had required this sort of commenting to build community in the class. But it's not simple to track.  Students have a tendency to push past deadlines.  I told the students, and this was true, that if they were a little late with the posts but it was still before the time I planned to read them, then it was no big deal at all, but if they were late beyond that then they'd not receive comments on their posts.  If students are late with their comments on another student's post, then the post author may very well not get the feedback at all because the author has moved onto other things.  That's what's hard to monitor.  So I'm not sure a coerced solution is the answer but I definitely would like to have seen more student to student commenting.   There is also the issue of whether if the novelty were to wear off because the practice were more broadly embraced would the students push harder with the blogging because they've had positive reinforcement and become more proficient at it or would they take a step back with it because it became humdrum to them and they hadn't made strong connection with it in their prior uses of the approach.  I really don't know what the likely outcome would be.

The students had the right in the mechanism I designed to write something not on the prompt but on a topic of their own choosing as long as their post tied to the course in a way they could justify.  I didn't anticipate this when I first started teaching with blogs, but in my experience it is rare for a student to do this.  It requires some courage.  But it does provide some evidence that the student is taking control.  The one student I mentioned who I thought had experienced flow chose to write about a topic we had been discussing the previous week, because he thought it important and he hadn't processed it sufficiently yet to his own liking.  I thought he experienced some AHA at around that time.  And here's the thing.  If you evaluated that post on it's correctness, you'd probably not have given it high marks.  It said some things that were errant.  But thinking doesn't go to the good answer in the next step.  This post was him going to the next idea that occurred to him and it was quite interesting to see him push these thoughts the way he did. 

Let me also say here that the blogging was only half the student obligation.  They had to learn formal math modeling on the topics we covered and there needs to be a different approach to that.  It is my sense that students don't know how to internalize the math and that makes it a tough challenge for anyone teaching economics.  So there is still much for me to try to improve things in the course.  When I read Atul Gawande's book Better, it was an eye opener in that it should be the goal.  Our rhetoric may be about excellence and in that way is about best.  I think a more modest goal is sustaining and in so doing it is regular growth that's the aim not reaching the ideal in a short time. I also believe that most students who do not now induce flow in their own classroom learning never will unless they see it modeled in the instructor's behavior.  So the reason to want teaching with flow is not as an end in itself but rather because some of that will rub off on the students. 

Now let me generalize from my own experience.  I count myself as an early adopter with the technology.  I have found, especially in the last four years, that in my own experimentation with technology it is far easier to use technology that my campus does not support.  I have to visualize the student experience with the technology and only then can I feel comfortable deploying it.  The LMS, in particular, is asymmetric in how students and instructors confront it and that makes this visualization harder, even if the LMS allows the instructor to temporarily adopt a student role.  To give a specific example, I wanted the students to blog openly but under an alias that I assigned and with the blog description saying they were students.   There is now a campus blog service, but whether I could achieve what I wanted with it I don't know and I didn't know how to find that out.  There is further that the LMS provides restraint where an instructor like me wants control.  The LMS itself offers a blog, but it is not open, and I don't believe there are permalinks to enable one post making reference to another via linking. 

But this going outside is troublesome for two reasons.  One is that the instructor then has to rely on himself as tech support and when things arise that were not anticipated that can be a major bother.  In this particular case I had started the class using Google Docs as a way to distribute files, but many of my students couldn't access them.  I learned the hard way that even if the creator makes the Google Document publicly available, if the student is logged into Google Apps for their institution then they can't access the document without the creator actively sharing it with them.  Had I known this in advance I'd have opted for a different approach and avoided the headaches here.  Perhaps the more worrisome reason is that going outside may inhibit the diffusion of the the good things that happen with the approach.  In the ideal, instructors should learn from one another and embrace good ideas that are garnered this way.  It's harder to foster this sort of learning with instructors who are not themselves early adopters.  They likely have a strong preference to only use campus supported technology and are leery of other instructors who do not.

This brings me to the role of the learning technologist in the equation.  In my view, the learning technologist's core mission is to assist majority faculty in teaching with technology as a flow experience.  In so doing they themselves must have flow experiences.  It follows that a good chunk of their own learning is exploration with new technologies and applying those technologies in an instructional setting.  If they can do this they are then in a position to offer options to the majority instructor and then be able to work through the analysis of which options to choose, and why, as well as to assist the instructor in getting useful feedback from the students about the effectiveness of what is being tried and how the approach might be improved.   This view of the relationship between the instructor and the learning technologist is one of partnership based on comparative advantage.  It is an ideal to strive for.  In my experience things come up short for a variety of reasons.

One is the faculty time constraint and the instructor comfortable in the view of being the lord of the manor with everyone else who is not faculty as vassal.  Even if over a short time period that partnership is achieved, the faculty member who doesn't want to do the grunt work is prone to push that off on the learning technologist.  Understanding the incentive, my view has been that as long as the faculty member is learning about the approach some of this offloading may be okay, but when the instructor has plateaued in her understanding and implementation of the method, it only serves to make the relationship more vertical and hence no longer a partnership.

Another issue is the learning technologist looking for shortcuts and still wanting to be relevant, so pushing recently hot technologies without working through how embracing the technology will improve the instruction.  This becomes technology for technology's sake and is thus self-defeating. 

A third issue is like the first one, but it is the learning technologist who initiates.  An assumption is made that as the subject matter expert the instructor can figure out how to best deploy the technology, once the instructor understands how the technology works.  But effective use is not obtained via one big gestalt.  It requires exploration and tinkering.  An early adopter faculty member will do that on her own, so the learning technologist's assumption may be valid in this case.  But otherwise the assumption is incorrect and what will result is dull use only.  The majority faculty member needs help here, although many won't ask for it.  The learning technologist must be more assertive in recommending approaches to try that are based in the faculty member's experience in teaching.  This is undoubtedly time consuming.  But it is necessary.

A fourth issue is that the bilateral approach discussed above is too simple.  There are other players to consider:  someone from the center for teaching, a librarian, another faculty member in a similar field who serves as teaching mentor, and perhaps still others.  Flow in a team setting is possible.  But it is harder to arrive at.  If control comes first while coordination and identifying comparative advantage only later, the group will degenerate.  I call the issue, "everyone wants to drive the bus."  The group flow requires each participant to willingly blend with the group.  And, especially if each member's competence is not recognized ahead of time by the other members, the blending is very hard to get.  One must ask, if you can't have it all from the get go, what does half a loaf look like?  On my campus over the years different faculty have developed affinity with different supporters of teaching.  Is that a good outcome or can we do better?  I don't know the answer but it seems an important question to ask and try to address seriously.

Let me wrap up.  The challenge that drew my attention back in the 1990s, that too many of the students are not learning deeply is still with us.  Addressing it should occupy the attention of many people.  One fairly obvious step in doing that is to get the instructors to regard their teaching as an opportunity to learn deeply and then for them to take advantage of that opportunity.  Flow offers a good frame of reference for considering how and why that might work. 

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