Monday, August 29, 2011

Balance (Flow), Reading and Conference

I write this post on the way to my last big conference of the year at the University of Exeter in England. It is the EARLI conference: European Association of Research on Learning and Instruction. They hold a conference only every other year. The conference coincides with the beginning of the academic year, which makes it impossible for me to attend usually. Now that I am sabbatical, I have the luxury of attending, plus I will be presenting two of my papers one in a formal paper session the other in a less formal, but, I think helpful round table format. My hubby is along, which will make for great companionship, plus he is the planner of all things fun.

One of my themes for my sabbatical year is balance. I struggle with maintaining balance in my life because I am one of those persons who is easily caught up in something that engages me. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t ask me to pronounce his last name!) describes this state as Flow in a book of the same name. Flow is a “state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity.”

One of my areas of research is trying to understand the perspectives of students as they learn in science and mathematics. I try to uncover what motivates them, what is easy, what is hard, what they are thinking about as they study or do science and math, why it matters to them, and a whole host of other perspectives that they have. Generally speaking I try to understand this learning from students who have rich and diverse backgrounds because I am trying to understand how we really develop equity in science and math and achieve this noble idea that is advocated by many: science and mathematics for all. So, the students I listen to maybe labeled in various ways by their schools because they are “gifted,” or do not learn in ways that are more typical, or have behavioral demonstrations, etc. When I completed my thesis study, I worked with a group of nine students in a 7th grade science classroom. Last spring I was able to reconnect with 5 of those students in one on one interviews. Each student allowed me to see what mattered to them and what did not as they moved through the prescribed sequence of courses in science and or math in their secondary schools. It was fascinating to talk with them and later to pour over their words and ideas as I read and reread the transcripts.

The transcripts of our conversation become the data for this research. I combed through over 200 pages of interview transcripts as I analyzed the data. There were several fascinating results that will be part of one of my talks at the EARLI conference, including:
  • the difficulty that they all had with vocabulary, especially in science, and the various metacognitive mechanisms that they all developed to “get through” the readings or text found in science especially; none of the students enjoyed reading, either.
  • the influence of the Hmong parents and culture to do well in school and to get a good education and the pressure that is shouldered by said students, too because of their familial expectations. In the case of one Hmong student, she felt the presence of her deceased grandmother (her scent to be exact) when she struggled with a math problem or something else that was difficult. Her grandmother’s “presence” reassured her that she could do it because she was smart.
  • the yearning of each and every student for teachers to connect what they teach to the world, the real life world, of the students, in other words help the students understand why it is important to learn what ever it is;
  • that teachers get to know the students they teach and finally, and especially in a student who struggles mightily to learn, yet wants to be successful, to slow down and stop saying “time to move on” when he was not ready.

There is more, but that is enough for here.

As I worked on this research and pulled it in to a paper I found that I lost myself in this analysis and writing, and easily. I do this often as a matter of fact. That is my flow: it is not effortless, but the task (in this case writing and analysis) requires a high degree of mental discipline, but I am rewarded by each and every section that I complete. A research paper follows the accepted scientific protocol for publication with clearly delineated sections: abstract, intro, theoretical framework, design and methods, analysis, results, discussion, implications, limitations and conclusion and finally references.

On one of the days when I was really into it, I stopped late in the afternoon after writing the results section. At the time I remember thinking: “Well, I will just come back to the next section, the discussion section, after I eat something and then work through the evening.” As I prepared dinner I realized what was happening. I struggle with balancing my engagement in an activity, in this case analyzing my research and writing it up, with other things that are important in my life. I block everything else out. This flow swirls within me in many things that I do.

In my sabbatical I am hoping to find balance: to strike a balance between my flowing engagement and concentration and redirecting that flow or even shutting it off for a while. Can I switch it on and off when I am in the throes of it like I was on that day? Yes! I can. After I made that decision to work on that section the next day, I made dinner, cleaned the kitchen up, and since I was at the cabin, went on a evening canoe ride with my hubby. The next day, I picked up where I left off and finished that paper within a few hours. Additionally, I felt recharged and re-energized and even noted that my thinking had greater clarity (of course I could not switch off my thoughts and was guilty of thinking about my paper while I did all the other evening activities). I will continue to work on balance and maybe reading more of that book will help.

I never really got into the Harry Potter books, but now my grandbabies are either reading them their selves (Nani) or having them read to them (Ellery). So, I started to read them, too. I am into book three now and am enjoying them. Clever and imaginative. I have always loved the Lord of the Ring books, so I knew I would probably like these once I really started and I do.

That is the balance today about balance and flow. Thanks for reading and till the next time, Michele