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Burstiness & Flow in Middle School

Lately, if the last 7 years can be lately, I have been thinking about the social component of learning in middle school. I return to it, or it returns to me.

When I read for pleasure, I read nonfiction and mark places where people have learned through social experiences. More often, these social experiences are neither scripted nor lorded over by an expert. The learner makes the decisions--no matter how far off the path. It is their energy to foster and receive through others.

When the learner makes the decisions, energy is encouraged to mushroom. And I notice that these decision are often socially infused whether it incorporates a walk with another person, a small group ping-ponging of ideas around the room, or an individual reaching out--going out of their way--to observe or pick the brain of someone who can do something the learner wants to do.

In each case, learning is enjoyable.

In Worklife with Adam Grant, Grant uses the word burstiness to encapsulate the unharnessed creative processes of The Daily Show. In short, ideas blossom when people are allowed to be social while working. Writers gather in small teams without someone else's agenda driving their writing. They break off, talk together; break off, write alone; come back, talk together...and so on. In between, there is energy and laughter, challenge and control.

Joy circulates within the individual; joy radiates from the group--within the context of the work to be done.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researches a similar state called flow. At the risk of over simplifying and butchering psychology, people experience flow when a task offers intrigue and control. People are sparked by the specific challenge because it fits something they are curious about and people believe they can handle the challenge because it fits something they are good at, getting better at, or what to get better at: I will enjoy trying.

I see and hear similar things happening in classrooms when I step back and hand over control. Of course, it takes time to hand over hand over where the joy is supposed to come from. Many educators have written and shared strategies to get themselves and/or their students to this place: Nanci Atwell, Kara Pranikoff, Anne Haas Dyson, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Romano, and my favorite educator to read to date--Katherine Bomer. Many others engage with this work and share what has worked for them and the unique needs of the students in their classrooms.

Yet, no matter where we teach or who we teach, we might scaffold to varying degrees (out of necessity) until we hand over control, but I am learning that too much scaffolding and risk only building cages.

Learning may be noisier and learning may take longer as adolescents take many pit spots to laugh and enjoy the experience when we hand over control--socially infused learning (or burstiness or flow) isn't linear--but the learning that happens just may be deeper.

Maybe the ping-ponging of ideas, the ping-ponging of irrelevant comments, the ping-ponging of adolescent humor, the ping-ponging of mistakes, and the ping-ponging of energy is ok.

My needle has moved that to a point that is ok that they laugh while they work...that it is ok to have the classroom where adolescents actually enjoy the work in adolescent contexts for adolescent reasons.


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