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Transformative Learning Starts with Engagement

I have a good friend, James, who’s a runner. The kind of guy that without really making a plan will run thirteen miles on a Saturday morning. He ran track and cross country through high school and then went on to run in college as well. While physically and athletically impressive, what gets me about James’s love of running is how he doesn't get absolutely and painstakingly bored. I can’t run a lick. Three, maybe four miles would be a major achievement. Sure, I could train more and build up the endurance and strength to run farther and faster, but if I’m honest with myself, running just isn’t really for me. I don’t enjoy it that much, and I have no real reason to spend time and energy trying to improve at it. More often than not, most students feel the same way about school.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist whose work focused on understanding happiness and creativity, would describe James’s experience while on a run as a state of “flow.”


A flow state can happen in almost any activity, and we’ve probably all experienced it at one time or another. Computer programmers will oftentimes talk about being “plugged-in” and dive deep into their work for ten or twelve hours at a time. Writers and painters might be at their craft for hours on end in a similar place of focus and productivity. In a flow state, people talk about losing a sense of time and are completely immersed in the experience of their task. It’s where you lose yourself and find yourself at the same time.


If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve been able to feel a state of “flow” while learning or in school. Totally engrossed by a new book or diving into a chemistry experiment. The irony of learning in a flow state is that we tend to learn most effectively when it doesn't feel like we're learning at all.


As educators at Denver Lab School, we actively think about what conditions are necessary for our students to discover this kind of flow state in their learning. In order to get there, students need to have an authentic and deep interest in the goal or the outcome of the learning challenge in front of them. They need to be able to get their hands dirty in the process. They need to have the space and support from peers and mentors to try, fail, reflect, and try again. On top of wanting to achieve the goal, students need to believe that eventually they can.


After all, James didn’t go out and run thirteen miles the first time he tried. He built up to it over time, with coaching and support from a team.


It is unfortunate that for many students, probably far too many students, school has not been a place that supported this kind of learning. At Denver Lab School, students will have the time and space to explore the world around them and time to learn more about themselves, what gets them excited and curious.


The transitional years of middle school are the most important time to focus on how students learn and what keeps them engaged in their learning. Based on a poll of middle and high school students, self-reported engagement in school drops from 67% of 6th grade students feeling engaged at school to 34% of 12 grade students. In the same poll, fewer than 20% of students felt they had the opportunity to “do what I do best every day.” These numbers need to be flipped on their head.


At Denver Lab School, we’re committed to doing that. If you have thoughts or ideas about how to make school a more engaging and transformative place to teach and learn, please send me an email (mhardiman@denverlabschool.org) or reach out and schedule a time to talk: https://calendly.com/mhardimandls/30min



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