Sometimes things come to me. Sometimes these things are garbage. Sometimes they’re insights. I’m not sure which category this taxonomy fits into, but it represents a very abstract overview for the next section of my Ed.D. thesis… :-p
Is the word ‘literacy’ useful? Literacy is a state which has traditionally been ascribed (or not) to individuals. Is the state that writers on ‘New Literacies’ espouse simply a case of encoding and decoding texts? It would appear from the above, given the references to ‘identity’ and ‘community’ that perhaps we have moved beyond literacy. An idea to be explored in what follows is that a digital version of the concept of Flow may be a Pragmatically-useful concept to use in place of the seemingly never-ending ‘umbrella terms’ outlined earlier.
In his seminal book of the same name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow as being at the root of true happiness, successful learning experiences and what can loosely be termed ‘intrinsic motivation’. In a state of flow, individuals undergo what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as ‘the autotelic experience’:
The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward… Most things we do are neither purely autotelic nor purely exotelic (as we shall call activities done for external reasons only), but are a combination of the two. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2008:67)
Focusing on the term ‘literacy’ and attempting to shoehorn 21st-century behaviours, technologies and attitudes into the concept could lead to anachronism. Literacy, as we have seen, is predicated upon technologies used to encode and decode texts. The reason Traditional Literacy was such a stable concept with a definite meaning in the minds of most people was due to it built upon a technology that did not change significantly in hundreds of years. It is the pace of innovation in new technologies that has caused a problem for conceptions of literacy.
If instead of a ‘top-down’ approach to literacy (‘x, y and z consitute literate activities’) a ‘bottom-up’ approach was considered this could potentially side-step the difficulty caused by the pace of technological change. The reason that concepts such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘cyberliteracy’, ‘new literacies’ and the like have been proposed is to give a name to a socially useful state to which individuals can aspire. Given that most proponents of such terms would agree that their thinking is built upon Traditional Literacy, it would seem that using ‘literacy’ as an epithet for these extra skills, abilities and behaviours is unnecessary.
What may be more useful in a Pragmatic sense may be to assume Traditional Literacy and combine these skills with digital tools and sociocultural practices that lead to socially and educationally-useful outcomes. Instead of viewing a ‘digital’ version of literacy as a pinnacle to be achieved or surmounted, the focus would be on Flow. When dealing with digital ‘texts’ (loosely defined) this would result in Digital Flow depending upon literacy. Literacy becomes a staging-post on the journey instead of the destination itself:
Mass education – as developed in the 19th century – served to instil a minimum standard through drill-and-practice within the realm of Traditional Literacy. Some have likened this to a factory model with Taylorism as its guiding principles. This is slightly unfair, given the constraints, social problems and political landscape of the time, but does throw light upon how debates surrounding the purpose of education have shifted. It is no longer enough to ensure that young people leave school with the ‘3Rs’. Indeed, under initiatives such as Ofsted’s Every Child Matters (ECM), wider concerns such as children’s (mental) health, and their ability to achieve ‘economic wellbeing’ have necessarily been brought to the forefront of planning and curriculum design in UK schools.
Despite this, skills and abilities in almost every area of the curriculum are, somewhat indiscriminately, designated ‘literacies’. Courses are designed around concepts as ‘health literacy’, ‘financial literacy’ and ’emotional literacy’ as a shorthand to convey action relating to the ECM agenda. It may be more productive and instructive to replace this ‘scatter-gun’ approach to literacy with a more far-reaching commitment towards helping young people develop their ‘autotelic self’:
A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices… without much fuss and the minimum of panic… As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it… And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one’s actions – to monitor the feedback… One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pusuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2008:209)
Instead of having to continually widen and redefine literacy to cater for new technologies and methods of social interaction, a focus on Digital Flow would be consistent with the idea of ‘liquid modernity’. It would serve to end the idea of a ‘life-project’ being something external to the individual and encourage individuals to embrace short-term, pragmatic strategies when approaching digital technologies (Martin, 2008:153). Digital Flow is focused on the creative act, as opposed to never-ending definitions of literacy predicated on the consumption of media or physical goods. As a result, Digital Flow can be considered the ‘umbrella-term’ for which theorists have been grasping and over which they have been arguing. Moreover, it can be seen as a coherent target at which to aim educational experiences.
I remember fondly my first ‘proper’ watch: a digital Casio black-and-blue affair with a stopwatch. It was awesome. When I got older and a bit more style-conscious I requested a Seiko Kinetic for my 18th birthday. The Kinetic range had just come out and seduced me into thinking I’d never need to replace the battery in it. They were right, I didn’t. Instead, within two years the whole drive mechanism needed changing at a price not far away from the original purchase price of the whole watch. You never buy version one of anything, trust me. For my 21st birthday I received (at my request) another Seiko that looked very similar but used a good old battery. That’s the one I’ve still got but, as of January 1st, 2010, no longer wear.
I was at university when I got that watch, in my third and final year. During that year I had a lecturer for one of my Philosophy modules who would whip out his Sony Ericsson T68i every so often to look at the screen whilst he was lecturing. At the time I thought this was incredibly rude: how dare he be checking to see if he had any text messages whilst lecturing?! 😮
Later I became the proud owner of a T68i. It dawned on me that my lecturer didn’t wear a watch and, because the phone has the time in big, bold numbers as a screensaver, he had been merely checking what time it was so he didn’t run over. I forgave him post-hoc. 😉
I’m always a bit worried about getting RSI, and so began to take my watch off automatically upon sitting down at my Macbook Pro after I noticing that taking my watch off whilst using it made my right wrist ache less.* But then I started to think… When I’m using my Macbook the time is displayed at the top-right of the screen; when I’ve got my iPhone on me (pretty much always) it displays the time on the lockscreen. Why am I wearing a watch at all?
The nail in the coffin for my watch, now cutting a forlorn figure on the kitchen table, was an article in WIRED magazine (to which I now subscribe). It too laughed at watches as an anachronism. Why on earth, it asked, when the time is all around us – including on personal devices that we carry everywhere – do we insist on wearing something that can only single-task? That was it, I decided I’d be watch-less in 2010.
Since then, I’ve found how liberating not knowing exactly what time it is can be. Yes, it’s necessary sometimes (when teaching, for example) but when in and around the house it certainly leads to more Flow experiences. And that’s a good thing. 😀
How about you? What else do we do or wear that could be considered anachronistic in this day-and-age?
* Yes, I (used to) wear my watch on my right wrist. No, I’m not left-handed. And no, I don’t know why I (used to) do this. I just always have done. :-s
I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘Flow’ recently after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. As is often the case with books that are discussed a lot, on the front cover it has a quotation indirectly urging you to buy it. In this case it’s an accurate and brief exhortation from a New York Times review:
Important… Illuminates the way to happiness.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I thought. But after reading it, I can confirm that it’s a life-changing book. I’d add the qualifier “at least for me,” but it would seem that pretty much everyone who’s read it agrees. 😀
Being a teacher by both trade and vocation I have, of course, thought of the implications of the concept of ‘Flow’ for my classroom. How can I promote Flow states in my students? There’s certainly a lot of institutional things that militate against it in the average secondary school – not least the ringing of the school bell every 50 minutes! 😮
I was looking through Csikszentmihalyi’s book for a succinct definition of what ‘autotelic’ means, but he teases out the concept throughout his work. That’s not at all a criticism, as he does it well, but it does make it rather difficult to get across in the space of a blog post! Autotelic comes from two Greek words – auto (self) and telos (goal) and ‘refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.’ (p.67) I think the current Wikipedia definition of Autotelic explains the term a little better:
Autotelic is used to describe people who are internally driven, and as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity. This determination is an exclusive difference from being externally driven, where things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force.
These externally-driven motivating forces are known as exotelic, with Csikszentmihalyi keen to point out that most things we do involve combinations of autotelic and exotelic factors.
If this difference obtains in the real world – and I think that it does – then it is vitally important that we educate young people how to become more autotelic and therefore achieve Flow states. The idea of Flow is perhaps best summed up by this graph (many thanks to Wes Fryer for making it available under a Creative Commons license via Flickr and including it in his blog post from 2006)
I believe that any educator seeing the above graph for the first time will see something they recognise: the fine line between creating a learning activity and experience that is too easy, too hard, involves too much challenge or involves anxiety for the learner.
The state of Flow, Csikszentmihalyi states, is not good in and of itself, but ‘because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.’ There are good and bad forms of Flow: for example the Marquis de Sade ‘perfected the infliction of pain into a form of pleasure’, but then almost everything and anything can be either good or bad depending on context. In the classroom, allowing one student to achieve a Flow state should not be to the detriment of another.
Csikszentmihalyi sets out four ways in which those who have developed autotelic habits can transform ‘potentially entropic experience[s]’ into Flow states. These quotations are taken from pages 209 to 213.
1. Setting goals
A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices… without much fuss and the minimum of panic… As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it… And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one’s actions – to monitor the feedback… One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pusuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces.
2. Becoming immersed in the activity
After choosing a system of action, a person with an autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever he is doing… To do so successfully one must learn to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses… To achieve involvement with an action system, one must find a relatively close mesh between the demands of the environment and one’s capacity to act.
Involvement is greatly facilitated by the ability to concentrate. People who suffer from attentional disorders, who cannot keep their minds from wandering, always feel left out of the flow of life. They are at the mercy of whatever stray stimulus happens to flash by. To be distracted against one’s will is the surest sign that one is not in control.
3. Paying attention to what is happening
Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention.
Having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement. Self-consciousness, which is the most common source of distraction, is not a problem for such a person. Instead of worrying about how he is doing, how he looks from the outside, he is wholeheartedly committed to his goals.
4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience
The outcome of having an autotelic self… is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.
To achieve this control, however, requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life… [instead] one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than what one is.
How does one go about starting to seek Flow activities? As Csikszentmihalyi quite rightly points out, it does not really matter where one starts, as you will end up at the same place:
The elements of the autotelic personality are related to one another by links of mutual causation. It does not matter where one starts – whether one chooses goals first, develops skills, cultivates the ability to concentrate, or gets rid of self-consciousness. One can start anywhere, because once the flow experience is in motion the other elements will be much easier to attain.
This will be a relief to educators, like me, who have control only over what goes on in their classroom. We can help make a difference! How?
Build goal-setting and target-achieving into the work we do on a weekly basis. Make students feel the ‘buzz’ of having planned for, and achieved, something.
Develop concentration skills. Build up students’ ability to focus on details for greater periods of time gradually over a series of lessons.
Get students involved. Don’t let them just sit in the corner and be passive. Help them to play an active role in what goes on in your classroom. Involve them in their own learning!
Share instances with students of when you have had to overcome adversity to achieve something. At a time when people are feeling down, give them something to be cheerful about. Model autotelic behaviour. 🙂
I have to confess that, at first, I couldn’t see the point of Twitter. Since then, however, I’ve become somewhat of a convert, getting in touch with many people I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Lately, however, Ive had cause to re-evaluate my use of the service. I’ve been prompted to write this post by three things, the most recent of which was one of Doug Noon’s comments on my last post:
I’ve avoided Twitter because I don’t want to be *that* connected. I know that it might be “useful” on some level, but so would joining clubs, taking classes, reading great books, working for non-profit civic organizations, and spending time with family. Everyone should set their own priorities, and define some limits.
Nearly one million people use Twitter. That is almost negligible for a US website but guess how many people work in IT in California? Nearly a million. So how many “normal” people do you think use Twitter?
Erm, I don’t think they’re one and the same group of people. But anyway, they continue:
When was the last time anyone normal (i.e. not people who get paid to look at these things) did anything (that did not involved a dancing seal or laughing baby) as a result of Twitter or Digg or Second Life – or even to a slightly lesser extent Facebook or FriendFeed or MySpace?
They may have a point about preaching to the choir here. But I suppose this post is to do with business and the (monetary) value of getting involved social networking and Web 2.0 as a whole. Perhaps more damning is my all-time favourite blogger, Kathy Sierra (much missed after the debacle last year) who showed us the dangers of The Asymptotic Twitter Curve:
The idea behind Kathy’s worries about the use of Twitter stems from a book by the wonderfully unpronounceable Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi entitled Flow. It’s a book I’ve been threatening to read for around 5 years now! The state of ‘flow’ is, unsurprisingly, a highly productive state in which an individual is ‘in the zone’. Kathy argues that this is almost impossible when you’ve got constant interruptions and distractions. Twitter’s certainly one for putting you off the task in hand.
So what I’ve begun to do, following the example of someone I read recently (but have now forgotten where) is to have two modes of working. The first is best described as outwards-facing, the second inwards-facing. When I’m in the former mode, I’m available on Skype, Twitterific automatically refreshes my friends’ tweets every 3 minutes, and I’m available on Google Talk via GMail. I’m using all four of my virtual desktops via OSX Leopard’s ‘Spaces’ feature and I’m moving around flitting from this to that. Effectively, I’m in ‘networked’ mode.
On the other hand, when I’m in the latter, inwards-facing mode, I’m working minimalistically: I’m invisible on Skype, Google Talk is closed, Twitterific is closed down, and I’m working with – at most – 2/3 tabs in Firefox. Almost everything I do is created and stored online these days, so usually it will be Google Docs and a couple of other websites for reference. I find this, coupled with the right kind of music, to be much more conducive to a state of flow than the ‘networked’ method of working. 😀
What do you think? Is Twitter a bad thing? How do you use it?