Long before we had powerful mobile computing devices in our pockets, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a research project that used pager devices and randomly buzzed participants to find out what they were doing and to assess their emotional state. Based on a massive data set, Csikszentmihalyi and his team were surprised to find out that many respondents reported being in a very positive state during routine tasks such as driving or eating a meal. In addition, they found that respondents were also often in a very positive state while doing very complex and challenging tasks. After processing the data, the resulting theory of “flow” was developed that illustrated a connection between the level of skill and the level of challenge. When those two dimensions were aligned, people reported that they were engaged and inspired.
In many ways, the “flow” model feels familiar to educators who design instruction based on theories such as the Zone of Proximal Development. We know from experience that when the task is too easy or too difficult, students often disengage from the task at hand. Many school administrators like me are also familiar with models such as Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership approach that suggests ways in which management strategies should vary depending on the employees level of expertise.
Even equipped with these frameworks, the range of variation that teachers are asked to manage in a classroom is very frequently so significant and the number of students assigned to a teacher makes the situation unmanageable. This same dynamic exists for school administrators and their employees – at one point while I was a principal I had almost one hundred direct reports between teachers, office staff, custodians, food service workers, and other essential functions. Given these conditions, expecting that a single teacher or school administrator can effectively design and modify experiences that are exactly at the right level of skill and challenge in real-time for many others is not likely to be effective.
As a result, it is therefore not surprising that disengagement among students was a key problem even before the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, the Gallup Student Poll, for example, showed significant declines in learner engagement as students matriculated up from elementary to middle to high school. Disengagement among adults is almost just as much of a challenge, with data showing that 21 percent of employees are “actively disengaged” in their work.
The solution here is not necessarily to equip teachers and administrators with more frameworks or more information. The solution is to empower each of us to better know ourselves and to improve in our ability to self-manage.
Central to this approach is use of self-assessments. While some of the ones that get a lot of attention on social media are entertaining, the self-assessments that are most likely to have the most profoundly positive effects are ones that are empirically validated and rooted in scientific research. Examples that have been beneficial for me include the StrengthsFinder, Strong Interest Inventory, the DISC conflict style inventory, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Tools like Thrively have options for students as well.
In addition to these structured tests, self-reflection is a timeless and research-based strategy to promote meaningful learning. This can take the form of journaling, use of rubrics, conversation with a critical friend, or use of guided protocols to promote deep analysis. Restorative circles and other forms of social learning are excellent strategies as well.
Knowing oneself is the key to self-awareness. Self-awareness is critical for self-management. In a fast-paced world, each of us will need to improve in our ability to drive our own learning so that we can successfully navigate rapid changes and dynamically adapt. In order to get into a flow state and to maximize our engagement, we need to have a sense of our skills and the ability to understand the challenges around us. The first step, as is so often true, is to look within ourselves.
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