Flow theory

The film looks so 80’s now but the song is as fresh as ever!

“Engagement” is a buzz word currently in education, with companies and managers trying to convince us that measuring learner engagement using physical devices such as heart rate monitors can be used to prove learning is happening in formal education contexts. Thankfully this application of learning analytics is still being debated and hopefully academics will find this stance both unreliable and unethical. Teachers quickly develop expertise in recognising engagement if they pay attention to the behaviours and interests of their students and work in a collaborative way to ensure that they light the flame which burns in every lifelong learner. The rewards for a teacher are immense, the punishment if they fail to inspire is deep and personal. I have never needed a manager to tell me to get my class engaged, I can see that for myself. I am acutely aware of where my efforts fail and work hard to rectify them.

When we are immersed in an activity and so involved that time flies by,  we experience flow.  This powerful experience brings us back time and again to the activity, it shapes our behaviour through intrinsic motivation. This is what I look for in my groups, it involves empowering them to lead the agenda as far as possible, handing over control and standing on the sidelines at times like a coach, making explicit what is good about what they are doing. Being in a state of flow is a positive experience but needs to be balanced with opportunities to reflect and calm moments of considered and disciplined investigation, alone or with others. It is my considered opinion that great teaching allows all of these. Great learning too, which sometimes, thankfully,  happens despite teaching rather than as a result of it.

Capturing “measurements of engagement” seems to me to be the ed tech equivalent of a wild goose chase. Learning happens when the brain is good and ready, it cannot be forced to happen at the moment of teaching and it is not a good measure of the effectiveness of teaching  How often have you looked back with regret on your formal educational experiences? The best of those allowed you to grow autonomously and follow your own goals. They were personal and individual, inextricably linked to the relationships you had with those around you. Doubtless there are biological indicators: we could hook everyone up to brain scanners and see the neurons firing. Doesn’t sound like a very comfortable way of engaging in the social experience of learning from and with others! It also won’t get us any closer to understanding what exactly provoked those moments, we are not all neurotypical after all.

So it seems to me the very best we can do in supporting formal learning is to foster the human drive to learn and “let the river flow” not build damns which leave pools of stagnant water to build up for analysis.

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