Sunday, December 28, 2014

Taming teenage psychic entropy: Flow and school, part 3.

"Lifestyles built on pleasure survive only in symbiosis with complex cultures based on hard work and enjoyment. But when the culture is no longer able or willing to support unproductive hedonists, those addicted to pleasure, lacking skills and discipline and therefore unable to fend for themselves, find themselves lost and helpless." 

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

This is how the famous psychologist and originator of the flow concept wrapped up his section on the importance of being able to "tame solitude"--to use time alone constructively and enjoyably by filling it with flow-generating experiences.

This is not easy, but it is critical, and more so every day in our increasingly information-based society, where literacy and mastery if information are becoming absolutely essential. Which is why it's so critical we help young people to master this as early as possible. In Csikszentmihalyi's words:
"Learning to use time alone, instead of escaping from it, is especially important in out early years. Teenagers who can't bear solitude disqualify themselves from later carrying out adult tasks that require serious mental preparation. A typical scenario familiar to many parents involves a teenager who comes back from school, drops the books in his bedroom, and after taking a snack from the refrigerator immediately heads for the phone to get in touch with his friends (My update for 2014: takes his phone out of his pocket and opens Snapchat). If there is nothing going on there, he will turn on the stereo (My update: pop in his earbuds) or the TV (update: or PS4)."
Of course, this could just as easily be describing an adult, but let's continue..
"If by any chance he is tempted to open a book, the resolve is unlikely to last long. To study means to concentrate on difficult patterns of information (emphasis mine), and sooner or later even the most disciplined mind drifts away from the relentless templates on the page to pursue more pleasant thoughts. But it is difficult to summon up pleasant thoughts at will. Instead, ones mind typically is besieged by the usual visitors: the shadowy phantoms that intrude on the unstructured mind."
Again, teens are not alone in this struggle. That's what the #mindfulness movement is all about. The struggle is the same, though the content of worries may differ:
"The teenager begins to worry about his looks, his popularity, his chances in life (Me: Wait, did I say my worries were different? Hmm...). To repel these intrusions he must find something else to occupy his consciousness. Studying won't do, because it is too difficult. The adolescent is ready to do almost anything to take his mind off this situation--provided it does not take too much psychic energy. The usual solution is to turn back to the familiar routine of music (Mine was Pink Floyd), TV, or a friend with whom to while the time away."
Amazingly insightful passage, I think. Makes me think about how I can help my students learn the skills they need to focus and study independently. Right now I'm honing in on two key phrases of Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. "To study means to concentrate on difficult patterns of information," and
  2. "Studying won't do, because it is too difficult."
Can we scaffold this process of learning to concentrate and study by providing simple tasks at first for them to master independently, like rote memorization, and slowly working up to more difficult tasks, like reading for information, summarization, independent analysis, application, and evaluation?

In any case, as teachers and parents, we can't assume they already have these skills. heck, we can't assume we have them. And there's a lot at stake here.

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