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Unschooling and the Flow of Self-Directed Learning
by Amy Spang

flowThere has been discussion in recent years about a psychological concept known as “Flow”. The concept was originally defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Professor C. for short here) at the University of Chicago. His research identifies conditions under which human resources and skills are totally utilized in the accomplishment of a task. During the course of certain activities, a state of intense concentration is achieved and sustained for a period of time...and this is known as the “flow experience.” If we examine the concept closely, it is evident that flow adheres to principles of nature that we encounter in daily life. Within its confines we find matching sets of conditions that govern the natural environment and human intellectual activity – especially in children.

Professor C. distinguishes the state of flow from a state of happiness in that it is not produced by outside influence, but by an intrinsically focused state. Here, the full range of a person’s abilities are met with a task slightly above the margin of their capacity – for example, the doctor performing a challenging surgical procedure. One of the factors Professor C. attributes to a state of flow can be found in his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life: “When a person likes what he does and is motivated to do it, focusing the mind becomes effortless even when the objective difficulties are great.”

Determining factors in the achievement of flow include voluntary activity, a consistent set of goals, the concentration of attention and immediate, relevant feedback. These combine to create the flow experience – “when a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind”.

What conditions negate the experience of flow according to Professor C.? Stagnation – defined as inactivity or a feeling of inertia – is one factor cited as being particularly harmful to the health of the psyche. Anxiety, stress, passive leisure activities (such as television watching), and environments of constraint at work and school also contribute to conditions which limit precipitation of flow.

Professor C. notes that some flow experiences occur at work for adults, but motivation to achieve them is stronger at home. Similarly, home is preferred by children as a motivational setting, while school is the location least apt to foster flow experiences. As he asserts of children in general, “They feel most constrained in school, in churches, and other places where their behavior must conform to others’ expectations." The Professor acknowledges that although self-motivation is ideal, most individuals have long since lost the ability to understand what stimulates them. Due to social pressure and the “inertia of habit”, the greater majority of us lose touch with experiences we found rewarding in youth. Rather than engage in activities which recapture flow, we turn to passive leisure activities that fail to promote an enduring sense of emotional well-being.

Professor C.’s points about the nature of this experience are original, and he has taken pains to conduct numerous studies which support his concepts. However, many home-based learners have long been aware of the power of flow without having identified it as such. Observant parents may note that there are certain conditions under which children immerse themselves in learning to a remarkable degree beyond every expectation regardless of age, place, or whether their intelligence is documented or not. To investigate this phenomenon, we might expand the concept of flow to include the variables that comprise it. What are the principles of flow, and how do we apply them to self-directed situations at home?

If we examine the concept closely, it is evident that flow adheres to principles of nature that we encounter in daily life. Within its confines we find matching sets of conditions that govern the natural environment and human intellectual activity – especially in children.

To begin with, nature operates on a seasonal basis. If the time is incorrect for any natural function, it simply won’t occur. Premature growth, development, or untimeliness of any kind in nature could lead to the distortion of its flow. This, in turn, risks damage to the entire system. According to Professor C., stress is a great inhibitor of flow, yet children are forced to read and write everywhere before readiness is indicated, often under conditions of extreme stress. In contrast, self-directed environments negate out-of-season development. They provide time for skill acquisition on an individual basis.

If we ignore the principle of seasonal development, children sublimate internal needs in order to satisfy adults. It is at this point that the source of flow begins to dry up. If children should demonstrate avoidance of a subject for reasons unexplained, we must respect their choice unequivocal. Inclinations such as these stem from the instinct to maintain wholeness, which is absolutely critical for children operating in a perpetual state of flow.

A second principal to consider when comparing the laws of nature and flow, is that organisms develop adaptations which benefit survival. In nature, unnecessary characteristics aren't retained, and waste is a non-existent entity. In imitation of this, children retain knowledge that is useful only in context of the groups they inhabit – knowledge which fosters their personal survival in those groups. If information in an environment is irrelevant and not related to the immediate world, it is promptly forgotten. Many of us recall being forced to memorize foreign material, only to banish it completely after the test. Unschooling works and preserves its sense of flow because the family group is a paramount essential based in a motivational location. Irrelevant skill instruction in passive leisure settings cannot result in permanent retention, but retention can and will occur when self-regulation exists at home.

If we want to encourage flow, we should not presume to determine what is relevant for anyone. Few have the ability to predict what is meaningful for any person – especially without possessing insight as to why the knowledge matters, or to what purpose its intent. The costs of determining relevancy for others are witnessed daily in the lives of those continually seeking what originally held meaning for them as children.

A final comparison of flow’s relationship to nature is this. Dormant periods occur at varying intervals in the lives of children and adults. Analogous to spring’s renewal of life after winter, the bursts of energy we experience often occur after modes of hibernation. Conversely, sustained periods of intense activity can be followed by days, weeks and months of no visible activity whatsoever. This is a critical period in which the brain rests in order to prepare itself for the next intellectual surge. These phases are vital to the conservation of energy and ensure absorption of material that is learned. Inactivity in this case serves as an incubative state.

Contrary to conditions which support creative flow, environments maintaining rigid schedules give no allowance for the principle of dormancy. With manipulation, the rhythm of learning gets corrupted, which effectively cuts off the ability of flow to maintain itself.

Do Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas support home-based learning? His research was not intended to promote or debase educational practice – only to observe its effect on the achievement of flow. Notwithstanding this, he seems to describe the ideal situation as one in which individuals direct their own interests. If his theory is correct, the unschooled child is the most promising recipient of happiness to come along in decades. Living in an environment replete with voluntary activity, self-determined goals, immediate feedback to relevant tasks, and concentrated attention, a self-directed child garners critical advantages in work and life.

Professor C.’s solution to a lack of flow in one’s life is to set goals that are challenging in nature. He spends a great deal of time suggesting methods to resurrect motivation and locate goals that were squelched by earlier experiences. Perhaps a determination of what caused the loss of these goals in the first place could foster investigation as to why we fail to achieve flow in our daily lives. Raising our children on a seasonal basis, with knowledge that is meaningful to survival allowing for periods of dormancy will significantly enhance the odds for a successful life in the future. In his words, “The flow experience acts as a magnet for learning – that is, for developing new levels of challenges and skills. In an ideal situation, a person would be constantly growing while enjoying whatever he or she did.”

Amy Spang and her husband Michael unschool their three sons in West Shokan, N.Y. She is a certified teacher who has worked in public schools and as a private tutor. She now lives and learns at home with her family, cats, dog, chickens, fiber rabbits and vegetable gardens. This essay has been included in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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