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.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Flow, Classroom Noise and Strange Dichotomies

  1. It’s interesting isn’t it, how the amount of noise that we can tolerate when we are performing tasks differs from person to person? I guess when we are planning lessons, arranging our rooms or deciding on how to orchestrate our class discussions we should take this into consideration.
    Sometimes, when we have done online courses together as a staff in the computer lab, other teachers have been chatting and comparing answers as they go. I have to don the earphones, not only to concentrate on what is being said in the presentation, but to try to block out the noise so that I can concentrate.
    Other teachers prepare lessons in front of television or with music going. I am happy to shut out the household noises and close the door on the rest of my family in order to work.
    If we as teachers have our individual noise tolerance differences then so must the students. You are right, there is no one size fits all. To be noisy or not to be noisy … it all depends on what is needed at the time.

  2. Alycia says:

    Oooh yes. So very true. Noise and classroom arrangement are two very contentious topics aren’t they, with so many value judgements being generated by decisions teachers make.

  3. I know I can’t get a serious writing flow in a noisy room and, based on my experience, many students get into the writing zone better when they have silence our their own music that suits the world out for a bit.

    • I like the idea of having students bring in ipods and headphones to block out noise, although that could spark a range of other issues, I suppose. I know that sometimes I actually find silence distracting and focus better when I have some background music.

  4. It took my parents a long time to understand how I worked and studied best at home. I needed to work with noise around me. The noise of the everyday. At times it was the radio or a CD, other times it was me working on the couch in front of the TV, From all conventions and expectations, this didn’t look like a good arrangement. My results were always strong and I found intentionally allowing ‘distractions’ meant that I was less likely to have unintended distraction. Even as an adult doing Masters Study, I needed to work with music (for some reason a childhood predisposition to Billy Joel and The Beatles produces my best work).

    As a teacher, my classrooms always had moments of active and vocal energy along with periods of quiet. These were always governed by purpose. Even to this day, whenever I am in a classroom I set the ‘working volume’ (which we articulate to students as well) as “Is it purposeful noise?”

    Quite clearly, in my opinion, I wouldn’t judge a class/teacher/classroom on the basis of the noise level . Is it a positive and purposeful learning environment? Then lets focus on that.

    Great thoughtful post Corinne (pair of posts really).

  5. I have the book on Flow ready to go and only know some of the basics. I do talk to my students about it. It is something I would genuinely be interested in seeing more of in my class. I do wonder if Flow is achievable in conversation. Sometimes I can talk the night away with people and get very deep into topics. Time passes and we are of single focus so it seams that flow is accessible within group discussion, I am just not sure if I am stretching the concept too far? Great to hear flow being talked about in the classroom!

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