I asked myself a simple question. If I used the following phrases to describe how one might feel when deeply involved in the process of learning, would I agree or disagree with this set of characteristics?
The learner, or I, am feeling:
- Physically relaxed
- Mentally calm
- In control
- Feeling enjoyment
- Feeling effortless
- On "automatic"
- Focussed on the present moment
On the surface these are descriptors present a positive sense of the emotional state that any learning process might aspire to create, yet they do not reflect my own experiences of learning. Or at least they do not reflect my own understanding of want it should feel like to be learning, in other words my own internal conscious reflection on whether I am actively involved in the learning process. I showed this list to a colleague and our immediate reaction was to come up with an almost oppositional list of our subjective sense of what we feel when we think we are learning:
- Lacking in confidence
- Consciously exerting effort
- Taking risks
- Seeking distraction
... and so on. Enjoyment did not not figure in this new list.
The first list is in fact a description of an athlete's inner state when performing at their peak. It was built by Donald Christiansen, a sports psychology consultant at the University of Washington, and conveys the moment when an athlete is "in the zone". What does this rather crude juxtaposition uncover? Well, yes we may see performance in learning and performance sports differently but also it is something about the nature of each in that the discourse of the process of learning (and the inner emotional indicators) seems to be one of suffering. For me it also provided some insight into the qualitative difference between formal and informal education processes. If I were to ask the same questions of informal learning then I think the characteristics of being 'in the zone' are far more pertinent. Finally, it seems key to address these issues if we see such descriptions of 'states of learning' as desirable goals for educational practice when motivation to learn is recognised as a major factor in academic performance. The engagement with and deployment of emerging technologies such as social software is one way forward. These are tools that can be used to provide informal spaces within formal educational settings and perhaps bring back emotional commitment and a sense of enjoyment to our own personal understandings of the process of learning.
[Photo credits: Running Man, Stanley Park, Vancouver taken by 'Bo2country']
The affective state of being 'in the zone' finds resonance in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and in particular his seminal book 'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience'. Here he outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow which might be described as being completely immersed in the activity at hand.