Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Teaching Flow State

As I noted a month ago, we have research out there that shows a parallel between playing jazz and teaching a class, mostly related to the gazillion microdecisions that are made in the process. For the subset of teachers who both teach and play jazz, or basketball, or any number of similarly dense and intense activities, this was not exactly news-- we'd already sensed the connection.

We can particularly sense the connection when we are in the zone, what the grown-ups who study this kind of thing call "flow state." If you've been there, you know it--the Something just flows through you, and you are just a conduit functioning so well and so clearly that you feel pretty awesome all the way to your bones. You make those gazillion microdecisions instantly in what the science folks call "effortless attention to a task."

But how do we get there? What makes flow state happen? Which way to the zone?

There are a variety of theories. New research suggests there is a particular explanation of what is going on in the flowing brain, and for me that suggests a few things about learning and teaching.

One theory flow is a version of hyperfocus, that executive function portion of the brain get cranked up and organize everything around the task (I am not a brain scientist, and you probably aren't either, so I'm going to do some oversimplification here). If that were the accurate explanation, then we'd expect people to get good at stuff through concentration, focus, executive function type stuff. Think back to that teacher who taught by way of intense demands to focus attention on the task at hand.

But the other theory says that executive function actually steps back, and in a flow state operation is taken over by an entire other neural processing network that doesn't need the executive function network and basically tells it to go sit quietly while the flow gets going. This would fit with details such as the fact that it's harder to get in the zone when you're just learning the task, or that middle-ground area that you might describe as thinking too much and getting in your own way.

The study hooked up a bunch of jazz musicians (guitarists) of varied experience and had them do some soloing while scientists watched their brains. Interestingly, they also had some jazz experts judge the quality of the solos (all 192 of them). 

Things they concluded. More experience made higher flow scores. Self-rated quality ("Yeah, I nailed that") predicted flow for all players, but judged quality only predicted flow for low-experience players. In other words, if low-experience players had a good solo, it was probably flow, but for high-experience players, not necessarily. That makes sense to me; with enough experience, you can do a perfectly fine job on "autopilot," which is not at all like flow.

The paper also rules out the default mode network (the daydreamy, reflective part of the brain) as a player in flow.

The paper also includes a whole lot of information about pieces of the brain that light up and statistics stuff (the paper is here, and a plain English explanation is here). 

But the bottom line here seems to be that only through experience over time do you grow the capacity to flow, that mastering the task or task set is the business of building a new neural network in your brain to manage the task.

This would fit nicely with, for instance, the conventional wisdom that it takes a teacher five to seven years to really get good at the work. 

It would also suggest that the teaching model that says we just explain the content and make students focus on it real hard is not necessarily the best path, that a certain amount of repetition is useful, because we're not trying to get them to focus real hard and acquire a particular bit of knowledge, but we are trying to build a neural network through repeated experience. 

It's certainly not a radical new idea to suggest that practicing something a whole lot makes you better at it (though, before someone brings up the 10,000 hour rule, that thing is debunked). Still, "Build a neural network" is certainly a way to think about teaching and learning, perhaps most at odds with some of our traditional approached because it requires one major ingredient-- time. Think of how often we insist that students learn something, Right Now, because if they would just Apply Themselves and Focus, they could get it. As always, some balance might be good.

It also suggests that pressuring students to substitute intensely focused attention in place of time is perhaps not useful. In fact, it strikes me that repeated experiences of frustration, pressure and failure are also building a neural network that's not helpful, another version of the injunction for performers to avoid practicing something the wrong way.

Of course, not all learning needs to aspire to creating a flow state, and I'm sure there's more studying to be done. Always fun to think about building a brain, though. 

No comments:

Post a Comment