Skills, Flow, and Teaching

 “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
― Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


Flow. Chances are you can remember exactly what you were doing the last time you experienced it. You can probably also remember at least a semblance of how it felt. Maybe your breath becomes a little shallower or your heart beats a little faster at the memory. For me, flow has most often occurred when I am playing music or teaching. I started playing the violin in fourth grade and have played it on and off ever since. (I asked my parents for an accordion in third grade. They did not comply. Then I asked to play the bass. The violin was their compromise. Thanks, Mom and Dad!) Even with my inconsistent practice, I have spent a lot of time playing and, along with teaching physics—the other activity I have spent many hours practicing and improving–, it is the activity that has been the most challenging and rewarding in my life. I attribute my musical joy to Jim Lockwood, my middle and high school orchestra director. He chose challenging music that made us play in seventh position (really high notes), move our bows very slowly, and move our fingers very quickly. We practiced. We got better. We experienced joy.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we experience more desirable emotions (arousal, flow, and control) when we are engaged in activities which challenge us and for which we have at least moderate skill. When we engage in activities which are not challenging, we tend to be bored or apathetic, and when we take on challenges which outpace our skill level, we tend to feel anxious or worried—uncomfortable states. Developing a new skill always requires time spent in this uncomfortable region of the emotional spectrum, and the only way to experience flow is by going through this process of skill development. The path to flow requires us to endure anxiety and worry. Growth and discomfort are necessary bedfellows.

One of the dangers of the digital world is that it can be used to avoid the discomforts of learning and miss the growth that results. We would all probably agree that there is some set of basic information—facts and understanding–that must be acquired in order for us to communicate and think. We need some net of existing knowledge which we can use to sort, interpret, and arrange new information as we encounter it. We cannot look up everything we need to know. As teachers, we get to define that basic information for our classes. The challenge is to choose a set of information that both creates opportunities and leaves space for application. Learning this basic information requires practice. Sometimes it is possible to use the computer as a crutch instead of wrestling with the practice required to learn. Students who use online resources this way never develop the skills needed to attack challenging problems and never experience the joy of solving them.


As teachers, we can encourage and support our students as we lead them through the forest of confusion and discomfort that is a necessary part of learning. Students who fail to practice the hard tasks of learning—reading difficult articles, doing long division, memorizing basic math facts—will lose those skills. Fortunately, our brains can just as easily regain the skills through practice. As teachers, we can define a well-reasoned and insightful set of basic knowledge and provide both opportunities and reasons for the painful and necessary practice needed to master it. We can then create learning experiences in which students can map what they are learning to the ubiquitous expanding digital universe of information. This is where computers can become partners in learning. In this way, students become the “centaurs” that Thompson refers to in his book. In this way, we create a path that increases our students’ skill levels and provides the types of challenges that engender arousal, flow, control, and the addiction of curiosity and learning.

Student as Subject, Student as Object–Take 2*

Middle-class parents are insatiable in their appetite for confirmation that they are doing a good job. (This may be a phenomenon which crosses class boundaries, but because I have no experience outside my own middle-class life, I refrain from a wider claim.) The fuel in those helicopters is anxiety. Where do parents look for evidence to confirm their self- worth? To their children’s performance—in sports, in school, in the arts, in entrepreneurship. For this essay, I will concentrate on school performance because it relates to the nature of schooling and Paolo Friere’s pedagogy and, in my experience, is the most acceptable visible measure of success or failure in the middle-class parent community. I know that Friere writes about the moral obligation of education to educate the oppressed such that they will be empowered to work against oppression and injustice. I do not envision most middle-class children being greatly oppressed in my society. They inherit a certain level of power from their middle-class parents. However, I am a scientist and an educator, not a philosopher. I do not have the tools to dig into Friere at a deep level. Therefore, I will reflect on how his writings relate to the world I know.

As a teacher and a parent, I have participated in many discussions of parent worth and child success. What does it mean to be successful in school? For most parents, this means earning A’s. A-student = A-parent. (High test scores and prestigious college are also acceptable markers of success, but only if they are in addition to high grades.) There is little thought for the lasting meaning of education. For me, the lasting meaning of education is in the knowledge you take with you, the ways of thinking about the world that you develop from that knowledge, the understanding that there are multiple ways in which you can understand the world. True education enables you to don different models of understanding to solve different problems. For Friere, education which neglects to develop “epistemological curiosity”—a well-developed method for learning and communicating more about a topic through critical questioning, thinking and speaking– is no education at all. (This picture is from the blog Mom Stories** in which a parent is boasting about her daughter’s kindergarten report card. Yes,kindergarten!)

This parent/student/cultural focus on making A’s has contributed to a school subculture that fails to value critical thinking or curiosity—what I call a conservative education. In most classes, curiosity is not rewarded with good grades although in some it is rewarded with engagement. I have developed a vocabulary for this. I call students who make good grades “good students” and students who love to learn “curious”. One would hope that curiosity is a requisite skill for being a good student, but it is not. Being good at school may not require curiosity at all. Sadly, good students are not always curious and sometimes do not even recognize the value of curiosity. Yet, parents are happy and colleges are happy to accept and promote good students. Tragically, there are practicing educators for whom the same is true. These are the educators who answer curious questions with, ”That is not on our syllabus” or “We don’t have time for that.” They fail to recognize that teaching students how to learn and that learning is not dead are much more important than teaching them a list of facts or procedures. They are either not interested in or not able to open themselves to the possibility of their own evolution through teaching. They fail to recognize the situations in which their students know more than they do. They fail to ask what lasting effects their interactions have on their student’s lives. To be fair, most educators probably lapse into these traits occasionally, but do not display them habitually.

Having no recollection of reading Friere in the past, I was surprised to find how, at least in my superficial understanding, I agree with him. For Friere, education is a social interaction between teacher-student and students-teachers with trust as an integral piece. While this practice requires critical skepticism of one’s own understanding, it does not advocate for teachers to simply let students learn on their own. “Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” Educators (teacher-students) promote learner’s curiosity while teaching them how to learn—how to frame questions and communicate and support answers. Students-teachers (and teacher-students) construct and reconstruct ideas that are new to them. While teachers have authority due to their understanding of the dominant syntax of the subject, they are not authoritarian. They value their students’ experiences and voices through which they continually learn to recreate their own knowledge of the world.


How does this relate back to parents? I believe in educating communities about the value of a liberal education. This is the kind of education in which students and teachers practice thinking critically about knowledge, how that knowledge relates to their world, and how knowledge can empower them to recognize and (if they choose) work against injustice. It is through dialogue with parents, students, and colleagues that the possibility of a reversal of values in which learning is valued over grades can be realized.


*Last semester I wrote a blog post about college mission statements titled: “Student as Subject, Student as Object”.


Everybody’s Talking–But Who is Listening?

The article that most resonated with me this week was Arao and Clemens “From Safe Spaces to Brave Places”. I believe that the increasingly visible fragmentation along racial and religious lines that we see in the US and in some European countries can only be changed (not hidden) through dialogue across those lines. Dialogue involves both speaking bravely—perhaps through fear, pain, or shame– and listening bravely–with judgement suspended and open to the possibility that you will change. Without brave listening, brave speaking ends up as words dissipated into space. Neither activity is easy, but I think that it is the listening which is most often missing even in safe spaces. Too often, we are ready to listen to another person’s story without interruption and with affirming comments only as long as we are not placed in a position of needing to change the way we see ourselves. However, the most important part of listening when talking about social justice is the effort to acknowledge the ways the story may disrupt your sense of self. I believe that we can learn to do this with practice and that we can welcome our students to brave places where they can practice, too. But if we only do this in our classrooms, then we have already excluded the majority of our neighbors. What I wonder is how we can create these brave spaces in our communities and in the world. How can we incite civility and reason and invite change?

It May Not Win on American Idol, But It Works For Me

When it came to finding an “authentic teaching voice,” I was a slow learner. Although I entered the secondary classroom with a teaching certification (and, therefore, some education courses) under my belt, I had no idea how to set up a classroom or how to establish classroom routines. This led to a greater than desirable level of anarchy in the classroom to which I responded with a greater than desirable level of despotism. Needless to say, I was not having fun and neither were my students. In the same spirit that I declared I would never go through childbirth again after the birth of my first child, I took my GRE’s during the spring of my first year of teaching in preparation for graduate school. I ended up having two more children and teaching for 30 years.


When I first started teaching, I thought that teaching was about knowledge delivery. I would lecture, give students homework, go over homework, and do a few labs. Although I asked my students to tell me about their lives, I did not share much about my own life and did not think that this mattered. In my second year, I decided that teaching was about helping students structure and build knowledge. I began to create activities that allowed my students to explore the natural world and to answer questions with more questions. It was not until many years into my teaching practice, however, that I finally understood that teaching is also about relationships. One year I stood in front of my class and told my students how much they meant to me–that they were the reason that I looked forward to coming to school each day. (I got quite a few hugs that day.) I thought that they knew, but saying this made so much difference in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are, for me, a discourse between me and my students that involves trust, respect, and caring. I have learned to be explicit about both my classroom practices and how I feel about my students. Fortunately for me, I like people and tend to find the good in most of my fellow humans. When teaching physics, I explain to my students how physics will change the way that they see the world and give them a set of tools to understand the physical universe. I tell them that I love teaching physics and that I love working with students. All of this happens on the first day. At subsequent meetings I am always certain to greet as many students individually as I can as they enter the classroom and I try to learn student’s names as quickly as I can. I also explain that I will not give them busy work and that most people learn physics through practice and discourse. I make sure to give students opportunities to discuss ideas and to act as experts for each other when appropriate—in other words, when one student understands what another does not. I explain the purpose of each assignment and how each one relates to what we are studying. I tell them they are doing well when they are and help them figure out what they need to work on when they are not. I also continually help students relate new topics to old topics so that they can practice thinking like a physicist. Finally, I say, “I don’t know,” when I don’t.


In conclusion, my current “authentic teaching voice” is honest, audibly curious, and openly enthusiastic about teaching and interacting with my students. I try to use my voice to incite civility and reason. (Okay, I stole that from the Coffee Party. I really do try to promote civility and reason in building a classroom community, however.) My voice is explicit about the purpose of learning activities and invites questions and insights. I keep my voice quiet sometimes (I know that may be hard to believe!) so that I can hear my student’s voices as they work out their own answers and questions. I have found that when I allow myself to be all of these things, both my students and I enjoy coming to class and learning happens for all of us. We also have fun!


In Students I Trust

I believe that one of the most important issues surrounding the development and implementation of great teaching strategies is trust. As Robert Talbert stated in “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” there is a place for lecture  in the classroom. However, people learn by doing, not by watching and listening. When planning a teaching unit, I think that it is good to start with standards and objectives (statements of what your students should know and be able to do), then find and create activities which will help them attain the objectives. Lecture is used to explain and discuss how particular knowledge is structured and to model ways of thinking or processes. Freeing students to learn by doing projects such as those shown in the Digital Media video requires trust on the part of the teacher. The teacher must trust the students to learn knowledge and skills that are not explicitly presented to them. While the teacher can create a project that requires mastery of a given set of objectives to complete well, the teacher cannot guarantee that all students will see the material that she would have presented were she lecturing. Instead, the teacher must trust that the students will learn what is needed. This is difficult for most teachers to do. One solution is to combine student-centered learning with frequent and brief formative assessments which provide feedback about what students understand and misunderstand. The results of these assessments could be used to guide students when necessary.

Standards- and objectives-based projects that result in student learning are difficult to design and exhilarating to facilitate. Fortunately, there are many examples to be found online. For instance, one year I had my IB Physics students launch a space balloon (idea stolen from MIT). I proposed the project and my students (mostly aspiring engineers) loved it! I provided materials and got FAA approval. They did the rest. Even 6 years later, they talk about it on Facebook. I have also had students keep Galilean-inspired skywatch notebooks, lead star parties, create scale models of the solar system, and design and build egg launching devices. Given students that struggle on state-required tests makes this type of teaching more difficult and much scarier, but not impossible. If teachers trust their students to learn from small projects, then measure what they have learned and adjust instruction accordingly, they can build greater trust over time. Greater trust can lead to greater student autonomy (more room to fly or crash and recover!). Over time, teachers and students (and in the case of K-12, parents, and administrators) can build a system that is rewarding for both teachers and learners—a system with autonomy, creativity, and trust.

We have met the enemy and…

He is us. Not grades. Sorry, Mr. Kohn. Your essay conflates grades and measurement with a culture which focuses on grades and measurement. You come to three conclusions about grades after citing studies that compare students “who are led to focus on grades” to “those who aren’t.”  In other words, the problem is not necessarily that we measure and report what children do in school, but that we consider that measure to be the most salient indicator of school success. We live in a town where many well-meaning parents can tell you their children’s GPAs and test scores. Some can even tell you other children’s stats. It is no wonder that children sense that grades are more important than learning. I contend that the mere presence of grades does not need to be a deterrent to learning. There is something much deeper than the practice of grading student work that is responsible for the state of our students.

My beliefs have been heavily influenced by my teaching experience. When I retired from Salem High School a year and a half ago, the school-wide practice was to not grade homework (or any practice work) and to not penalize work for being late. Our principal spent many faculty meetings having us discuss the importance of grading for mastery. In other words, a grade should reflect what a student knows and can do at the time the grade is given. There is an implicit recognition that grades occur at artificial deadlines and an official policy that final grades need not be the average of two 9-weeks grades or two semester grades. Getting to this point as a school was not an easy journey and there are still teachers who do not follow the policy exactly at times. A positive effect is that students have learned the language of assessment for learning. They ask what they can do to show they have learned material instead of what they can do for extra credit. On the negative side, the underlying motivation when they ask is still grades because they and their parents often believe that only students with all or mostly A’s get into good universities and have happy lives. Change happens slowly.


Merely doing away with grades will not stop parents from comparing children and children from comparing themselves. If we don’t rank children with grades, then we will rank them in some other way. How else to decide who will be granted access to university programs or internship opportunities? Hampshire College has stopped using test scores for admission, and uses grades (not just GPA) instead. The important things to remember are that these numbers are only one piece of information and that they are snapshots of one point in time. The numbers are likely to change over time and with learning. While grades and test scores are not perfect measures, neither are recommendation letters or portfolios. I believe that using grades and test scores as time- and place-based measures of student learning is appropriate and useful. And I believe that the culture surrounding grades can change. In the hands of reflective instructors, grades can be one useful tool for learning.



Dinosaurs, Mindful Thinking, and Unicorns*

I just had an “Aha!” moment. Often, when I read about the problems of modern education, I find myself thinking that to solve some of them, we just need to allow students to learn about the nature of science. It turns out that science can be considered a form of mindful thinking. In “The Power of Mindful Learning” Langer compares the habit of mindful thinking to the habit of thinking like a scientist.

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Doing science requires this type of thinking. The body of human knowledge has been written collectively over time. While scientists build on existing knowledge, they understand that existing knowledge is not written in stone. It is always open to change. Generally, changes in ideas are small, but occasionally, there is a huge change in the way we model the universe. Scientists understand this and accept that there are no absolute truths in science. Indeed, the ability to change existing models as new data are created is one of the great strengths of science as a way of knowing.

Science is a process by which knowledge is developed. Sadly, this important point is often lost in science classes. It gets buried in seas of facts and procedures that establish themselves in student’s heads as sets of absolute truths and as science. One way for students to understand the nature of science is for them to engage in the process–to conduct real experiments, those for which no answer is known. However, this is difficult to manage well as a teacher and, as a result, rarely occurs. Another way to help students understand the nature of science is for them to spend time discussing (and perhaps arguing about) it in class and to see how this process 

Zhao Chuang; courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization

Yes. Some dinosaurs appear to have had feathers!


has operated to create historic paradigm shifts. I used the second technique in my first year high school physics classes. When I explained the nature of science to my students—no absolute truths, data-based model creation, science as one way to explain the universe—they reacted with resistance and disbelief. I was asking my students to recategorize science from what they believed to be a body of facts into a model that best fits the existing data and which is open to change. Doing this requires a high level of abstraction. Many students are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of knowledge. Some choose not to think this way. As the teacher, I made sure that I gave my students activities in which they returned to and interacted with the idea throughout the year.

I disagree with Wesch when he argues that:

“The best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.”

I think that the best learning occurs in classrooms and on computers and in large groups and alone and in loud conversations and silently. Just as only sitting in a lecture is unlikely to engage all students or to encourage them to think deeply, neither is simply setting all students free to pursue their passions. People are all different and students begin class with widely varying sets of beliefs and bodies of knowledge. Good teachers learn to meet their students where they are and figure out what activities their students can do to learn more. They help students fit what they are learning into the larger body of knowledge. They help students understand how to approach their questions. They often answer questions with questions, but not always. They occasionally become the sage on the stage, but not often. They help their students challenge their existing belief systems and, sometimes, to change them. They also expect to continue to have their own “aha” moments alongside their students. (Listen to this episode of “This American Life” for a reminder of how amusing your own moments can be. It refers to unicorns. And it is one of my favorites.)

As I stated earlier, humans have built systems of knowledge and ways of thinking about the world collectively over time. Science is one of these systems and it is incredibly powerful. It allows us to predict the future and to make informed decisions. Learning to think like a scientist takes practice which is helped by the guidance of a good teacher. Understanding that thinking like a scientist is just one way of understanding the world also requires practice—probably more than simply thinking like a scientist. Effective teachers create opportunities to practice these ways of thinking and provide feedback and corrections to students as they incorporate new knowledge into old. Students learn when they are doing, but to learn how to think like a scientist or a philosopher or a musician or a Stormtrooper that doing should be guided by a skilled teacher.

In conclusion, when you are teaching, don’t be a dinosaur (lecture only) and don’t be a unicorn (a mythical creature that provides no guidance). Just be a dinosaur with feathers. And be ready to shed them if necessary.


*The views in this post are those of a retired physics teacher and do not necessarily reflect those of the scientific community as a whole. Feel free to disagree!

Your Mission–If You Choose to Accept It

In his article “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” Gardner Campbell refers to the power of institutionalized “high impact, student-built, instructor-facilitated, digitally networked learning” to transform higher education at two levels: the institutional and the individual. This message resonates with me. As an institutional practice, digitally networked learning (DNL) can help institutions fulfill their mission to create alumni who are contributing members of society. Campbell argues that such learning should go beyond the mere use of apps and online learning systems. When our students lack deep digital literacy, the impact that they can make in the online world is bounded. Without some understanding of what underlies apps, creators of digital media are limited by the pre-scripted possibilities presented to them. Greater digital knowledge realizes greater digital creativity. For these reasons, we should embrace deep DNL in higher education. At the same time, the practice can help individual students to become creators and disseminators of knowledge—valuable 21st-century skills and tools for a satisfying existence. I agree that participation in a DLN can be powerful. Because of the potential power digital creators may wield, it is especially important that they understand the responsibilities that come with it. Power without a sense of responsibility is a danger to all of us. We, the teachers, must be conscious of the responsibility we carry as the creators of creators of digital media. If we facilitate learning in which students create knowledge through digital networks, we should ensure that they discuss the ethical implications of their creations.

I had an experience this afternoon that serves as an example of the potential power and pitfalls of digital media creation. Just before I sat down to write this blog post, I checked my inbox and found an email about AAC&U’s 2017 Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success. I had looked up the article High-Impact Practices: Applying the Learning Outcomes Literature to the Development of Successful Campus Programs earlier in the day. At first, I thought that the email’s presence in my inbox was the work of a digital demon—some piece of embedded code that monitors my web searches and sends me offers that match my interests and whose workings I do not understand. I quickly remembered, however, that I receive regular emails from AAC&U. No digital demon was needed. This incident provides a wonderful analogy for what I want to address in this post. Although AAC&U was not sending me emails based on my web searches, it probably could. Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook do this all of the time. (Watch the video What Makes You Click if you are interested in learning more.) If I honed my own digital creation skills, I might be able to create the demon I imagined. This would give me the power to capture and track information on visitors to my website and to send them information of my choosing. Would it be ethical for me to do this? If so, would any type of information I sent be ethical? Would it be ethical for me to send “alternative facts” to my audience? If we teach students to create digital media, we must also teach them to reflect on their creations.

For deep DNL to become institutionalized, it would need to be part of the institute’s mission. Many schools reference some type of digital literacy in their mission statements. For instance, Virginia Tech’s mission statement states that students and faculty will be part of an “academically energized, technologically creative and culturally inclusive learning community.” However, the definition of a “technologically creative” community most likely occurs at the level of student learning outcomes. It is at the school/department/program level that the term may be defined as deep DNL. Finally, it is at the classroom level that deep DNL occurs. Most high impact experiential learning practices are co-curricular. Because of this, most students do not have access to these practices.1 DNL is one of the few high impact practices that is naturally part of the curriculum. In order for this classroom practice to be realized, however, teachers must believe in the value of and be able to create and manipulate digital media themselves. One way that teachers master these skills is through courses such as this one. Another way is through peer-to-peer mentoring. This forms part one of our mission. When we emerge as GEDI “masters” will we seek disciples of our own? Will we promote the ideal of deep DLN with our colleagues through our own practice? Will we use our power productively?

With power, comes responsibility. This is the second part of our mission. As teachers, we need to model responsible use of our digital powers and engage our own students to consider the impacts of their digital creations. In a world where the importance, and even the existence of facts, is questioned by people in power, and in which the term “alternative facts” is used, it is obvious that we should help our students learn to distinguish fact from fiction. When we teach our students to create networked digital media, however, they must also decide how they will represent their own products. They must understand the impacts and ethics of representing facts as fiction and fiction as facts. It is up to us to teach them. Your mission (if you choose to accept it) as a future faculty member:

  • Teach students skills needed to create and manipulate DLNs.
  • Engage students in discussing and recognizing their responsibilities as creators.

Let’s facilitate a generation of smart, meaningful learning together.



  1. Jayne E. Brownell & Lynn E. Swanner, High-Impact Practices: Applying the Learning Outcomes Literature to the Development of Successful Campus Programs