Thoughts on Flow, Classroom Noise and Strange Dichotomies

I’ve been pondering the judgements we sometimes make as to what constitutes good teaching.

Years ago, a quiet classroom was seen as an indicator of effective teaching, good classroom management and student engagement. Now increasingly a quiet classroom is seen as an indicator of poor teaching, where the students are managed by fear, are compliant, not engaged and are learning to regurgitate facts rather than be critical, analytical and creative.

The reality is of course, quite different. In my previous post I wrote about how a beautiful meditative silence spread across my class as they became immersed in an art activity. This had nothing to do with compliance and wasn’t a requirement of my lesson. It had everything to do with engagement and flow.

What Kind of Teacher are You-

The concept of flow was developed by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and refers to a state of single minded immersion in a task, where time seems to stand still, and the awareness of anything outside of that task disappears. It’s a state of being worth aspiring to, and often in discussions about modern teaching we talk about creating educational experiences that will help students to find their flow.

My personal experiences of flow have related to music and art. In my younger years I was an enthusiastic painter and aspiring artist. One of my favourite pass times was to set up a canvas and paint  in my living room. I would quickly enter a state of flow, where the only thing I was aware of was the paint and the canvas. The constant chatter in my brain would fade away, as would my awareness of everything in my environment. I would forget to eat or drink. All that existed was me, my paintbrush, palette and canvas. Hours would pass in an instant, yet it felt as if time was standing still. When I’d attempt a challenging part of my painting and find the way to achieve the effect I wanted, I’d feel flooded with an incredible sense of elation.

I don’t believe I could have experienced that state of flow if I was engaged in dialogue with others.  My state of flow either produced or grew out of intense focus,  an internal and very personal psychological state.

And so I’m somewhat perplexed by the recent tendency to assume that a quiet classroom equals a compliant but disengaged classroom, and a classroom characterised by discussion and noise equals an engaged classroom. Sometimes the moments of deepest engagement are quiet moments.

I’d like us to look a little deeper. In my own teaching practice, quiet and noise are means to an end. Quiet sometimes emerges unexpectedly as children become immersed in activities. I’ve noticed its unbidden arrival in a range of activities including coding, where my students have  immersed in creating scripts (one of my chattiest students exclaimed , “Ms Campbell I’m so interested in this, I just can’t talk!”) , in art, in some mathematical tasks requiring great concentration and in writing.  At other times I will require students to work quietly because I know that they need that time of quiet reflection and concentration to process and think about their activity.

On many occasions, noise is a far more effective means to an end. In my coding classes, which as I mentioned are sometimes characterised by a quiet state of flow, I have to urge my students to pull themselves away from the screen and to work collaboratively with others. The tasks they are attempting are challenging, and there is not always a clear path to a solution. I’m not an expert and we are learning to code together, so I require my students to check in with each other, share their discoveries, build on them and work collaboratively to solve problems. Noise, discussion and collaboration are the most effective means for us to achieve success.

The quiet versus noisy classroom   is just one example of the misleading dichotomies we buy into in modern education. But looking at education through such a polarised lens can be a little superficial and unhelpful. Perhaps we use these as evidence of effective teaching because they are easily observed, but they deny the complexity of our work. Let’s resist the modern tendency to reduce education to what can be easily measured.

A Reflection on Teaching – Some keys to success.

I want to share a success story I’ve been having with a Year 5/6 class. This year, I’ve been teaching them art, but the reasons for success may well have implications for other curriculum areas as well. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

This term, I decided to focus on different techniques that artists use to create the illusion of depth, or perspective in their work.

My first lesson was on one point linear perspective. I showed the students a number of pictures, photographs and illustrations that clearly demonstrated the technique. The students were very responsive. They started to look more analytically and enjoyed finding the vanishing points and horizon lines in the various pictures. However, when asked to draw their own, many were resistant and uncooperative, declaring it too hard before they’d even attempted it. I insisted and we worked step by step. They each produced successful, simple one point perspectives with a high way disappearing into a vanishing point on the horizon line in the centre of the page.

For our second lesson, we watched this video:

We then worked step by step creating our own one point perspective rooms. I modelled the drawing on the board, while students followed each step at their desks. They found the ruler work quite challenging,  and again were quite resistant;  however, all came up with good results. But, in spite of their great results, the students were very self-critical, saying how bad their drawings were, that they were ‘dumb’ and ‘no good’ at art.

For our third lesson, I decided to introduce the idea of colour value. As things recede into the distance, the colours become fainter. Objects closer to the foreground have stronger and more vibrant colours.

I projected some of the images from this great website to demonstrate colour value to my students, and we observed the  value in  a number of photographs and paintings. Again the students were  fascinated by observing this. They weren’t used to deconstructing images and considering how the illusion of depth was created. As they started to observe the change in colour value they became quite excited.

I showed them this picture  from the fabulous Landscape and Figurative Art blog by artist Jim Shanahan,  and told them we were going to attempt to recreate it in paint.

aerial perspective3

The students were  very reluctant when I told them the task, and wanted to do something that they felt was easier and more achievable. This particular group are very reluctant to take risks with art.  I remained firm, and reassured them that we would do it together, step by step, and it wouldn’t be as hard as they initially thought.  They didn’t believe me but grudgingly cooperated, since they weren’t provided with a choice.

After modelling how to sketch in some basic working lines to show the placement of the mountain range in the background, the hills in the middle ground and the road, running from the fore to the midground, we started painting.

I showed them how to mix acrylic paint on the paper and to use sort of scumbling technique to create a cloudy sky, using the tips of the bristles, not the side of the brush. Within moments, the students found that not only could they use the technique successfully, it was enjoyable. A beautiful, sort of meditative silence fell across the room as the students became absorbed in their painting.

I then showed them how to mix some colours for the mountain range, and together we worked through recreating the image from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Each student image was slightly different and that was okay. I was clear that our intention was to use colour and line to create a landscape image, not to create an identical image. The end results were magnificent, and some of these very self critical students were actually proud of their work. I would post photographs, but I haven’t sought permission to publish their work on this blog.

Lesson 5 focused on using size to create a sense of depth. I was on sick leave, but I left this Falling Back in Space activity for the casual teacher who replaced me. The final results were great and the students were able to tell me how they used size and foreshortening to create the illusion of depth.

For lesson 6, we watched this video.

Following the video, we recreated each of the 6  images using pencil and paper, then stapled them into a booklet which has become our perspective manual. What we loved about this video was the fact it was so simple. Each image was based on nothing more than a circle, but using simple techniques such as placement, overlapping or size, we could easily create a sense of depth.

Interestingly, for this lesson, there was a noticable change of tone in the classroom. Each week I’d found that class quite challenging. Many of the students lack confidence in art and for some, clowning is a good way of covering up their anxiety. Instead of making a genuine attempt at art and feeling embarrassed by the end result, some preferred to undermine things, joke around and deliberately sabotage their own work, as a way of saving face. It’s okay to fail if you’re not really trying.

However right from the outset of this lesson, the class were enthusiastic. Only one student attempted to disrupt things and the rest told him to be quiet, as they wanted to learn. It was gratifying to see this change of attitude, and that I didn’t have to use more controlling management techniques to achieve a better tone in the room. Instead it came as a result of their increasing confidence in the subject matter. All their work from the previous lessons was displayed around the classroom and it looked fantastic. What had initially seemed like unreasonable and unachievable tasks, now seemed possible. The students had also discovered that they enjoyed art and were fascinated by the use of very learnable techniques to create illusions. And so they had become intrinsically motivated and were moderating their own behaviour and that of their peers as a result.

The students’ next step will be to choose one or more technique to create their own picture with the illusion of depth. I showed them the stunning student created artworks on this website for inspiration. Instead of the resistance I encountered in earlier lessons,  I’m now being confronted by wild enthusiasm.

So what have been the keys to success here?

  • That while encouraging student voice and choice is important, there are times when we need to assert ourselves as experts, and that’s okay. If I had listened to my students objections to our earlier lessons, they would never have discovered that the tasks I was setting for them were achievable. Instead, by ignoring their protestations and taking them out of their comfort zone, I was able to show the students that  they were capable of learning. This is what has led to their enthusiasm and confidence in the latter part of the term.
  • That intrinsic motivation trumps methods of control every time. I don’t like using reward/punish systems of management with students, but for a while there, I was tempted to start using more controlling techniques. I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, by persevering with the program, and providing the right scaffolding and support for students to ensure their success, the group have discovered the intrinsic joy of creating art. The class have become self-managing because they’ve discovered for themselves the intrinsic rewards of learning new things.
  • That the internet is a marvellous,  wondrous thing. I won’t tell you how many years its been since I taught a stage 3 class, but let’s just say the internet was not as present in classrooms and there were no data projectors or IWBs in my classroom. The amount of resources so generously shared by artists and educators has made preparing my lessons so easy,  and the availability of YouTube tutorials has added an extra dimension as well, by allowing us to observe professional artists at work. So,  a huge thank you to all the generous teachers out there.

Can we all please just agree to disagree?


Do you ever feel as if the teacher community on Twitter is just one big echo chamber? I’m not intending to be disrespectful to anyone here, its just I’ve noticed, after 4 years of tweeting, that those in my PLN seem to agree on almost everything.

I realise this is a result of following like minded people. I  follow people who are teachers like me, and with whom I’ve had some sort of positive engagement. We may have had an enjoyable exchange in a chat, or perhaps they retweeted one of my blog posts and made a positive comment. I follow people who tweet things that resonate with me, or who share things that I find interesting, or who write blogs that I enjoy reading.

So, its somewhat inevitable that my feed will become full of those who think like me.

But without dissenting voices, we leave ourselves open to some troubling habits and I write this post to urge some caution.

I fear at times, my network and I are developing a sort of group confirmation bias where ideas are accepted as true, because they appeal to our collective view of how we would like the world to be. We start to accept ideas without appropriate scrutiny.

A sort of group-think starts to emerge. There are so many expert voices and loud voices on Twitter advocating for the same ideas – 1:1 ipad programs, inquiry learning, flexible classroom spaces . I wonder if there are people out there who have some doubts about these ideas, but adopt them anyway because it seems as if everyone else is, and if all those expert, leading teachers say these are good, well they must be, right?

I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency for people to squash dissenting voices on the odd occasion where they emerge. If someone says something that challenges group norms, rather than engage in a productive dialogue, finding out how a person might have come to a particular, dissenting conclusion, and being open to discussion, people try to ‘correct’ their point of view. This may be done by telling them directly that they are ‘wrong’, or by rounding up other ‘right thinking individuals’ to help convince dissenters that they are wrong. An almost moral outrage seems to flare up from time to time if someone dares say that they like to use text books, or that they believe teacher centred methods are appropriate.

Some people take dissenting views very personally. Perhaps they feel so invested in an idea that a criticism of an it is perceived as a personal attack. I’ve been unfollowed by people I’ve engaged with positively, after they’ve discovered we have different views on particular issues, and I’ve seen whole groups of people unfollow those who express dissenting views too often.

I’ve started to become disenchanted with the echo chamber. I still love Twitter. I love the community, the friendships, the support and help that my network provides. However, I feel like I’m  learning less and less because I’m not being challenged as much.  We’re all just agreeing and reinforcing the same ideas.

Increasingly, I’m finding myself drawn to people who I don’t agree with. A few months ago, I tweeted something critical of direct instruction. It was retweeted a number of times and a person I’d never interacted with me before, started arguing with me, wanting me to justify my position. I didn’t have the energy to engage in a debate, with someone who was clearly a lunatic (after all, we all know that direct instruction is bad and inquiry is better, right?) and was tempted not to respond. Instead,  I chose to ask him how he came to his views. He linked me to his very reasoned blog, and while I still didn’t change my mind about the value of inquiry learning, I shifted on the issue of direct instruction. I could see that there is value in it, and I’ve softened my stance. I’ve been reminded that I’m not an expert and perhaps need to examine the evidence for and against my position more deeply.

The beauty of genuinely engaging with someone I don’t agree with, rather than trying to argue against them, is that it stretches me. It forces me to re-examine my beliefs and put them under scrutiny. I may emerge with an even stronger commitment to a particular stance, or I may find my self shifting on issues and adopting a new position. This is healthy, and it is to be encouraged. For me, encountering ideas that force me to re-think my own, is what keeps Twitter a vibrant place of professional dialogue and learning.

Dissent is not negative, its a sign of a vibrant and healthy community. In fact its just not normal to agree on everything all the time. Constant agreeing and echoing of views leads to a sort of smug, self satisfied stagnation that I don’t want to be a part of.

So here’s to those who are brave enough to express their dissenting views. I applaud you. Now can we all just agree to disagree please?