Saturday, January 03, 2009

Disjunction and flow

Liz Thackray blogs on troublesome learning and flow. Flow as a description of the feeling of being absorbed in what one is doing (Chen et al), and troublesome learning, linked to stuckness and disjunction, a point at which knowledge becomes troublesome - in other words a perception emerges that what one knows now does not sit well with what one already knows. Savin-Baden suggests transitional learning spaces as a metaphor for the mental places where these transitional moments occur. (Only transitional, of course, if one actually transits through them. One might equally look at the scary world beyond and decide to backtrack.)

It occurred to me that this whole description of the issue of learning that becomes challenging maps neatly on to Vygotsky's idea of the zone of proximal development. The idea is that wherever you are in your learning, that is a ZPD which encompasses what you can realistically move on to next. My impression is that the idea is most useful for teachers in determining how to pace lessons and activities. The idea is also closely related to scaffolding, in which teachers allegedly make scaffolding on which students can take their next hesitant or not so hesitant steps. I say allegedly because I've never been completely convinced by scaffolding, although I'm not able to say why coherently. It's something to do with the fact that learning is different from teaching, and learners will always take their learning in a different direction to that which the teacher anticipated. So there is a need for some sort of mapping, but it seems to be there's not much point in scaffolding up Tower Bridge if the student chooses to scale Buckingham Palace. Perhaps my view of scaffolding as being restrictive is not the right idea. Anyway, that is a digression. Back to the ZPD. (I know that many people link the ZPD to the idea of scaffolding, and Vygotsky did himself by assuming that the ZPD was primarily activated in the presence of teachers or more able students, under whose influence the subject is able to stretch his or her knowledge. But I think that is too mechanistic a view of the learning process. The ZPD exists, and can be just as big when the student is physically isolated - because even when physically isolated, the student is not socially isolated. But I digress even further.)

My initial image was of disjunction and flow being opposed to each other, and my metaphorical overlay was of the point of disjunction being at or near the edge of the zone of proximal development. But another bout of thinking suggests to me that neither of these is the case. First of all, learning itself, I think, *is* a flow activity. When one is learning properly all of Chen's nine characteristics can come into play. And this includes the troublesome experiences. My primary evidence is anecdotal - at the age of 24 I was preparing to write an assignment about education. I spent day after day and night after night in my room (my housemates dubbed me "the hermit" after this experience) reading one Penguin paperback after another, and literally sweating day after day, night after night, because of the implications of what I was reading for me. It turned into one of the pivotal experiences of my life, wrecking my previously held assumptions about my schooling, my family and ultimately myself. It was quintessentially troublesome learning, and I was also in the flow - I lost self-consciousness much of the time, I lost a sense of time, the experience became autotelic, and there is no way I would have put those books down, despite all the arguments with my parents which they subsequently caused. The key point here is that the learning being troublesome in fact made it a flow experience. So my answer to Liz's question, "does disjunction which leads to understanding involve a flow process?" is an unequivocal yes.

For me this locates the experience of troublesome learning as part and parcel of learning, usually located well within the zone of proximal development. I wonder then how much the notion of troublesome learning as to do with its cognitive siting in a place where it conflicts with already acquired knowledge, and how much it is to do with whether or not that fact causes me problems.

To move to the focus of Liz's work, Second Life, this is something I haven't yet got into properly, though I want to. To me this is something much more like what I would call a troublesome learning situation, but not because it conflicts with anything that I know already. It is because it will take time and concentration that I don't currently have to spare, and simply because it will involve a lot of new stuff. This may be what Liz is referring to when she discusses "Being presented with the stress of being asked to create within Second Life" - this may be not an experience which causes contradictions, just a new environment, the learning of which is quite demanding - which is why I've avoided it so far.

Second Life would be very applicable for both the courses I currently teach for the OU - B201 Business organisations and their environments and AA100 The arts past and present. Must put it in my diary of things to do...

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