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My two biggest insights from last year

Last year, the pandemic was more ‘annoying’ to me and my family than damaging to our health or finances. So, if there’s one thing that 2020 showed me, it was my privilege.

I turned 40 in December, which means I’m now inescapably middle-aged. I’m also a straight, white, male. Thankfully, somewhat unrelated to the pandemic, I also spent 2020 learning a bunch of things about myself and how I relate to others. This happened primarily through CBT, research and learning around the Black Lives Matter movement, and doing some work around Nonviolent Communication.

My two biggest takeaways from the above were:

  1. I don’t need to have an opinion about everything. As Marcus Aurelius said, “We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.”
  2. I should stick to only discussing my own experiences and context. I have no idea of the internal world of others, and how things which seem major/minor to me might be minor/major to them.

I guess this is a lo-fi version of Hume’s fork. In other words, there are statements that can be made about ideas (which are either true or false by definition) and statements that can be made about the world (which are true or false based on experience).

Over the last six months, I feel that there’s been a shift in my writing here since starting the #100DaysToOffload challenge. This has been incredibly useful in weaning me off assertions meant to provoke a response from others towards more introspection and self-documentation.


This post is Day 80 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

The cash value of truth

However we grow up, no matter what environment we develop in, there are certain mental models we develop about the way the world works.

Eventually, like fish not noticing the water in which they swim, we take these models as being objective truth. We don’t question them. But question them we must.

The only cure for what ails you is to start getting over your delusions and start adjusting your mental models to come up with a more accurate understanding of reality.

Street Life Solutions

For me, the road to some form of ‘enlightenment’ here involves holding simultaneously two contradictory thoughts:

  • There is no objective reality
  • There is no ‘view from nowhere’

The first of these is straightforward: whether we’re talking about perception, belief systems, or mental models, there is no single one objective reality.

The second is more nuanced. Simply put, we still have to make a choice: we can’t fail to have perception, a belief system, or employ mental models. (Even ‘not believing’ is a belief system.)

The best approach I’ve come across to reconcile these two positions comes from Pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes.

Wikipedia

William James, for example, talked about the “cash value” of truth which was a shorthand way of explaining that terms like real or true have no meaning outside of a specific environment.

One thing that makes me both roll my eyes and throw my hands up in despair is when I see people talking about their experience in a very narrow context, and try to use it as an appeal to some kind of transcendental ‘truth’.

What we all need to realise is that (i) our environment encourages us to see the world a particular way, (ii) we have to take a position in order to give us agency, but (iii) this does not give us any insight outside of our environment.

So perhaps Wittgenstein was right:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


This post is Day 72 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

The self-cannibalisation of ideas and experience

An etching of a wyvern (a dragon-like creature) eating its own tail, by 
Lucas Jennis  (1590–1630)

When something dies and is reborn, the usual symbol for this in Western literature is the phoenix. As a result, everything from football teams to companies are named after this mythical bird rising from the flames.

My favourite example of death and rebirth, though, is the Ouroboros:

The ouroboros… is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism and Hermeticism and most notably in alchemy…. The ouroboros is often interpreted as a symbol for eternal cyclic renewal or a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The skin-sloughing process of snakes symbolizes the transmigration of souls, the snake biting its own tail is a fertility symbol.

Wikipedia

What I like about using the ouroboros as a metaphor is that it explicitly recognises individual or organisational self-cannibalisation as a positive thing. Just as the snake needs to shed its skin to remain agile, so we need to renew ourselves, often through ‘digesting’ our ideas and experience and then taking them in new directions.


This post is Day 68 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Experience, skill, and user experience.

It’s amazing that, despite her stopping blogging over 3 years ago, I still use examples and graphs created by Kathy Sierra. She was that good.

I played golf for only the second time in my life today. I suck at golf. I suck at golf because I don’t particularly like it, but more importantly have no reason to invest time in it. I played today to spend time with my Dad who spends most of his time living in a far-off land. Looking at the above graph shows that the main problem I have with golf that there’s too much time between me taking it up and kicking ass.

The 10,000 hours thesis put forward by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers is that it takes around that amount of time to become ‘expert’ at something and achieve success. But there has to be a reason behind the commitment to put all that time in. In all probability it all boils down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Nick Dennis was explaining to me recently how Bill Gates showed tremendous dedication to put in his 10,000 hours whilst still a teenager. However, he was also given a massive chance in life by his school being one of only a handful to have a computer at a time when even some universities didn’t have them.

So one take-away from this post would be to stick with what you’re both good at and interested in. The other would be to identify what benefits you’ve been afforded by your circumstances, and start practising.

Initial thoughts on Digital Competence/Literacy/Flow

Experience / Use / Access

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

(icons courtesy of Jason Cho)

Flow and the Autotelic Classroom

PositiviteitI’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. 😀

flow_bookBeing 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)

Flow graph

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.

Conclusion

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. 🙂

If that’s whetted your appetite, I’d encourage you to invest in the book and watch this video of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in action at the TED Conference (2004)

What are your views on Flow? Are you au fait with Csikszentmihalyi’s work? Add your views in the comments. 🙂

(Image by JasperVisser @ Flickr)

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