Letting how we choose to learn inform our teaching

Think of a time when you were completely immersed in a learning challenge. A time when you became aware of the need to master a new skill or concept. A situation that took you outside of your comfort zone, when there were times that you became frustrated, when you thought of quitting, downed tools and walked away, but came back time and time again. Maybe it was a problem you had to solve. Maybe it was a challenge you wanted to overcome. Perhaps it came with a significant payoff but perhaps it was just one of those things you had to accomplish. 

This learning challenge may push you into a state of Flow as described by Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi, but at the time it is more likely that you are focussing on the growing feeling of frustration, the moments of elation when you sense a breakthrough and the subsequent despair when it doesn’t quite work. What aligns with Csiksentmihalyi’s description of ‘Flow’ is that time flies, the world fades into the back ground and that cup of coffee you had hoped might reenergise your thinking goes cold on the desk beside you. 

"Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz." (Csiksentmihalyi. 1997)

True learning is and should be a challenge. The moments when we are pushing our cognitive limits are the times when our brains grow. A cognitive challenge should have much in common with a physical challenge. If mountaineering is your thing you will choose the steep and winding path over the tourist cable car option every day. As you struggle your way towards the summit, your legs aching with each step you may long for the climb to be over, but you don’t want to be rescued and robbed of the achievement. 

Think of the actions you take along the path of your learning journey. Do you stop and stare into space as you wait for your mind to process a new idea? Do you frantically jot down ideas only to toss them in the bin moments later? Do you turn to the internet, a book, a video, an instruction manual for guidance? Maybe you ask a friend how they would approach the problem or maybe you plod along in splendid isolation knowing that the answer is somewhere inside. Do you stop and go for a walk, or wander through the house hoping to be struck by inspiration?

True learning is messy, non-linear, difficult to plan for, complicated, frustrating and intrinsically rewarding. As we seek to build an understanding of new ideas either through formal learning such as may occur in a classroom, or through informal learning that we self-direct, we take many twists and turns. The path that one person takes from incomprehension to understanding is not guaranteed to be the same as another even when the learning experiences along the way are the same. We build new understandings on top of those we already have, and this will powerfully influence how we learn and how we value what we learn.

Think also of the conditions which block your learning. Few of us choose to engage with challenging new concepts in an openly public environment where we are exposed to the scrutiny of our peers. Collaborative learning can be powerful but if we are the only one in the group struggling with a new idea and we do not feel safe, we are likely to invoke protective measures to insulate our egos. Without an emotionally safe environment in which we feel accepted and where risk-taking and mistake-making are accepted we are likely to stick with ideas that we have already mastered. 

Think of the physical environment that you choose to learn in. Are you able to adjust the temperature, the lighting, open a window? Can you get up and move around? Can you stop, do something else for a time and go back to your learning? Do you have access to refreshments whenever you feel the need? Do you have a choice of where you sit? Do you need to sit at a desk, in a comfy chair, on a lounge, or maybe you prefer to spread your things out on the floor? Can you take a toilet break when you need to? Are you able to block out distracting noises or do you like to have some background sounds? Are you able to switch off from external distractions or do you find task switching a useful way of overcoming the tedium of focussing on one thing?

The point is, learning is something we do in different ways and under different conditions. We are more likely to be fully engaged with learning that matters to us, that has a clear and meaningful purpose and that we have some control over. We learn best when we feel safe and when the conditions are right, we will persist with learning even when it is challenging; doing this is what makes us human and is what has allowed us to survive as a species. How we learn is also unique to us.

The value to us as teachers in taking time to stop and think about how we learn, is that it should encourage us to reflect upon the conditions which we create for our students to learn in? The potentially painful questions that need to be asked are “Could you learn something genuinely challenging in your classroom and would you want to?”, or “If you were confronted by a fiendish problem, would you choose to solve it in your class?”


By Nigel Coutts


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”, Basic Books