Are you adding Flow or ZPD to eLearning chemistry?

The concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) describes an optimal mental state where a person is complete occupied with a task that matches the person’s skills, being neither too hard (leading to anxiety) or easy (leading to boredom).

In many ways this is might appear similar to the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) educators might know this as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. Csikszentmihalyi sees flow in a more sophisticated way – from the domain of games.

Games are designed, or at least should be attempt to find that perfect balance that keeps us in flow. As technology improves, we can’t keep calling them video-games. They are haptic complex systems that you can stand and dance with, hold, wave, shake, press or hide in your pocket. Games are complicated learning-feedback systems and within them is the possibility of finding flow. Kids know this – they expect to find it and more often than not the commercial games industry delivers. Let’s just say that these things are learning management systems, they are just more sophisticated and enjoyable than most instructional design – especially the largely diabolical edu-games. Anyone that says learning should not be joyful should leave now.

In the classroom, a teacher has to try and know the ZPD balance. Let’s assume this isn’t a classroom where game-play and imagination is a common pedagogical method (there are classrooms where it is).  It’s hard enough to know where the ZPD balance is when you’re dealing with one child, let alone thirty or so. This is one reason I think parents are foolish to leave education to teachers – most of the time parents stand a better chance of designing for their kids ZPD than their teacher, but working with a teacher (not moaning about them) seems like a good idea. Not at all sure what social-barriers stop that, but they seem to [can’t be bothered to research that, but I bet there’s a gazillion papers].

Regardless of research, education is still made up of a series of objects that have been around for centuries (books, desks, teacher, rules, light, sound, text, other people). More recently computers and LIMITED parts of the Internet. Mobile Phones, Video-Game Systems are all way too new to even be contemplated as at the outset, we design around the teacher’s willingness and ability to do (anything) and then the student ability to respond appropriately within some fairly rigid boundaries of content and outcomes. The belief is that games and phones are not efficient or useful to teachers, so we ban, ignore or kick them into ‘endless discussion world’.

There are infinite variables in a classroom, therefore it’s unrealistic to say that you can gamify it. Those people are barking-mad, like their cousins who think more people on Twitter will create deeper knowledge or that a human teacher can zone in on individual kid ZDP reliably.

Teacher’s who set out to use technology, have a social, moral and professional responsibility to ensure they make these variables  controllable – as the quality of  control has a direct relationship to the quality of teaching (see point 5). When teachers remove things that make learning un-fun, as game designers remove un-fun things from games (tedious walking around or waiting for action to happen) – then you are in a position to start step 1 on Csikszentmihalyi’s list. If the teachers skills are limited to Microsoft Office, email and Googling then … blah.

In the list below, the first three things to me are essential skills of teachers. It should not all take place inside a computer, but to me if they use technology well they’ll get to step 4 most of the time. Compare that to teachers who endlessly fight for control – the classroom behavior management stuff. I think, in fact I know, that steps 1-3 largely determine the rest, so behavior is designed into the agenda, as a positive force for engagement. That doesn’t mean sitting up nicely, facing the front or raising your hand to be asked a question.

In summary, Flow has seven traits and I’ve sketch out how I see these things relating to eLearning design.

1. A challenging Activity That Requires Skills (requires teacher imagination)
2. The Merging of Action and Awareness (requires technology integration and innovation)
3. Clear Goals and Feedback (requires understanding of what quality feedback is and how to give it)
4. Concentration on the Task at Hand (requires kids to operate in virtual/physical space they feel secure in)
5. The Paradox of Control (requires teachers to become moderators/facilitators – play-makers)
6. The loss of Self-Consciousness (requires kids to trust teachers and visa versa)
7. The Transformation of Time (requires abandoning the 9-3 time-table, and allow kids to try 24/7)

So when your kid isn’t listening, transfixed on what they are doing – it’s because they are, theoretically and arguably in this flow. Of course there are those that say this is rubbish, games are a waste of time, will rot your brain or make you a violent anti-social loner.

Ask them then, how they could, given infinite resources that cannot be considered a ‘game’ , achieve these seven traits for 8 hours straight in one person. Then perhaps ask them how they can do it with half a million. If it’s rubbish, then games would not hold our attention as they do in my view – and this is important because when it comes to eLearning, the feedback is often so dismal, especially in Distance Education, that I seriously doubt the convener, teacher or tutor could pull of ZPD let alone flow.


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  1. Pingback: What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four | Teachers Outside the Box

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